The Meaning of Culture War

Approximate Read Time: ~7 minutes

“Banned Books” image by Joel Bullock from Wikimedia

We owe you an apology. We’ve been blathering on about the worldview conflict in the U.S. that is infiltrating the lives of many people and the cultures of organizations and communities. However, we haven’t actually defined what we mean by “culture war.” We want to take a couple of minutes to do that here today.

A Bit of History

The first known reference to the concept of culture war was in the 1870s in Germany when the term “kulturkampf” was used to describe the conflict between the German imperial government and the Roman Catholic church over control of education and church appointments. James Davison Hunter revived the term, translated to English, in his 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. He defined a “cultural conflict” as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” (p. 42). The ends of such conflicts (culture wars), he argued, is “the domination of one cultural and moral ethos over all others.” (p. 42).

Hunter’s definition has been debated over the past 32 years. Some have questioned whether it was even a “real thing,” preferring the idea that a “culture war” is merely a political tool to gain electoral advantage. Others have suggested that Hunter’s concept of “culture war” did not accurately describe the behaviors and opinions of most Americans. Some have argued that people on the political “Right” have used cultural conflict to their advantage and some that people on the political “Left” have decried the concept as a distraction from the “real fight” of class and economic issues. Researchers have shown that personal opinions on cultural conflict issues tend to cause people to change their political and religious orientations. (For a brief but more complete summary of this debate, see Wikipedia’s entry titled “Culture War.”)

How Do We Understand Culture War?

We stand with James Davison Hunter’s definition of culture war being a cultural conflict that is rooted in different systems of moral understanding (what we have called “worldviews.”) Like Hunter, we do see the culture war in the U.S. to be a “real thing,” though we prefer the more common, simple language of’s definition: “a conflict or struggle for dominance between groups within a society or between societies, arising from their differing beliefs, practices, etc.”

The term “culture war” is an imperfect term. We get that. It can be used as a political tool or weapon, and it may not describe most Americans. (In fact, we like to believe it doesn’t describe most people living in the U.S.) Of course, some people may try to use it to leverage political advantage while others may feel it detracts from other more important issues. It can create suspicion, mistrust, animosity, and, as we have seen too many times this year already, it can fuel and ignite violence.

Sadly, it can damage the beautiful, elegant, and durable fabric that has held our country together for many years.

We take culture war seriously and we choose to believe there is a way to reduce the risk of the worst outcome of cultural conflict. What is that worst outcome? The domination of one worldview (moral understanding) over all others.

The strength of our United States of America has always been in the word “united.” In all the ways we are diverse– race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, status, politics, etc. – we have continuously strived to achieve inclusion and a sense of belonging for all. No, we have not always strived hard enough or well enough, but the arc of change has been toward greater inclusion than exclusion. In a culture war, inclusion, equity, and belonging take a hit because there is little room for diversity when a singular worldview reigns. Hence, the worst thing that could happen is for one worldview to dominate all others. For this reason, we’ve been blathering on about the current culture war in our country. We believe in a better way to live than in a state of culture war.

How can we help you deal with the culture war as it is appearing in your community or organization?  

Please follow this link (or click on the button below) to complete a brief Google form where you can tell us.

  • What controversies are emerging that you might be able to head off?
  • What controversies are you actually facing at this time?
  • Can you share a situation with us that we can turn into an anonymous “case study” and explore in an upcoming blog?
  • What specific questions do you have about preparing for controversy or managing controversy?

Remember, you can also access our video Preparing for Controversy inthe Fog of (Culture) War on our website and we also offer a day-long training event on managing controversy – on-site or online.

The Difference in One Minute: Resilience

At Tenacious Change we are all about helping nonprofit organizations become more resilient. What do we mean by “resilient?” When an organization is resilient it does three things with care and intention:

  1. It glances back through assessment and evaluation to learn how it can do better.
  2. It stays present and mindful of the current conditions and circumstances in which it exists so it can nimbly adapt in the face of disruption.
  3. It looks ahead to forecast, to the best of its ability, what it needs to do to continue to thrive.

Put this way, “resilience” sounds like what we do when we are driving a vehicle, right? Or, as the Academy Award winning movie title says, it is the ability to see and respond to everything everywhere all at once. That’s a resilient organization – whether nonprofit, for profit, or social enterprise.

Now Available!

Preparing for Controversy in the Fog of (Culture) War does not hold all the answers but it has some that will be helpful. It will help you understand:

  • the difference between a controversy and a conflict
  • the stages of conflict
  • the cycle of intractable conflict
  • the value and importance of Strategic Controversy Management
  • when to intervene so that a controversy does not become a conflict
  • how to slow or stop a controversy, even a conflict, when it occurs

Ninety-one percent (91%) of people completing the evaluation after the April 2023 seminar told us they felt more confident in their ability to manage controversy as a result of participating in the seminar. Specifically, here’s what they told us how they benefited most from it:

  • Five big steps in controversy management.
  • The rules of civil conversation.
  • Understanding how controversy and conflict are different now from the 90’s and understanding where and how conflict can be deterred.
  • Learning about when more people are likely to “get on-board” with your issue. This helped me think about where my energy and efforts can be used more effectively.
  • Tom’s historical observations about the Culture War and how things have changed…or not changed.
  • The cycle of intractable conflict.

In addition to the video, there are downloadable PDF resources. All are available at no cost, though you will be asked to sign a guest book before accessing the video and downloads.

Click on the link below to see a brief trailer video and then access the full video and all resources.

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