Understanding Right and Left, Part 1: The Wuthnow Thesis after a Quarter Century

Bill Evans head shot

After five years of an Obama administration marked by considerable success in implementing a progressive domestic agenda, American conservatives are doing some soul searching.  As New York Times columnist David Brooks rightly notes, ideological harangues and banging the drum of smaller government for the sake of smaller government have produced neither a compelling agenda for governing nor electoral success.

This self-examination process on the right involves renewed reflection on the nature of the issues at stake and on the fundamental character of the deep split between right and left in America, as well as on the prehistory of the current debates.    Look for a review of an important interpretive piece along these lines here shortly.  But first let’s look at a seminal interpretation of the right/left dichotomy from the late 1980s as it was proposed by Princeton University sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow.

Using the tools of sociology and cultural anthropology, Wuthnow argued that Will Herberg’s well-known tripartite schematizing of America into Protestants, Catholics, and Jews has been replaced by a twofold division between cultural liberals and cultural conservatives, and that this shift has resulted in a dramatic “restructuring of American religion.”  Though he presented the thesis in more popular form in his The Struggle for America’s Soul: Evangelicals, Liberals, and Secularism (Eerdmans, 1989), the most extended and detailed articulation is found in his The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith and Since World War II (Princeton, 1988), which we will examine here.

Though it is now a quarter-century old and has been subjected to some criticism, the Wuthnow thesis continues to provide a useful lens through which to view current cultural and political conflict.  His influence is especially evident in the work of scholars such as James Davison Hunter, whose 1992 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America fleshed out Wuthnow’s proposal in a more popular and compelling way.   The material below was first written when I was a research associate at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tennessee in the early 1990s, and is presented in slightly revised form here.

Wuthnow seeks to explain the vast changes that have occurred in American religion since World War II, and particularly since the 1960’s. In short compass, he argues that American religion has undergone a “restructuring” in which divisions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have been replaced by profound divisions between cultural liberals and cultural conservatives.

Like Robert Bellah, Peter Berger and others, Wuthnow views religion as providing a rich resource of symbolic language by which Americans have interpreted their history and legitimized their institutions. Also like Bellah and Berger, Wuthnow is suspicious of simple “secularization-theory” explanations of the contemporary situation. Building on the work of cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, Wuthnow finds that the shape of a culture is often best determined by discerning the “symbolic boundaries” which give structure and definition to cultural life. Wuthnow writes: “the very nature of our thinking and our behavior takes place in terms of symbolic boundaries.  Otherwise, we would be unable to make sense of our worlds, not to ourselves or anyone else. . . . And rather than consisting merely of the nuts and bolts of social interaction, they include symbolism, ritual acts, gestures, discourse, moral obligations, commitments—all the things we usually think of as important when we speak of religion” (p. 10).

Wuthnow integrates a vast amount of sociological data and interpretive themes, only some of which can be touched on here. One important theme is the relative decline of denominationalism as a cultural force. Factors such as decreasing differences in educational and economic attainment between denominations, geographic migration which has made the country more religiously homogeneous, significant increases in denomination-switching and intermarriage, have greatly reduced barriers and tensions. Thus, denominational identity has ceased to be the symbolic boundary it once was. As the relative importance of denominations has declined, the importance of religious “special purpose groups” has increased. He argues that the biggest factor in the growth of large-scale special purpose groups is the increased role of the state. Such groups have arisen to combat, restrain, or promote government action. Denominations, therefore, have not ceased to exist, but have tended to become diverse federations of special purpose groups.

The major portion of the book constitutes a detailed and subtle explanation of how a predominating set of symbolic boundaries separating Protestant, Catholic, and Jew was replaced by a set of boundaries separating religious conservatives and liberals. Wuthnow argues that the current tensions should not be seen as a continuation of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1920s and 30s. Rather, the mainline church consensus of the late 1940s and 1950s contained ambiguities, and was unable to deal with the challenges of the 1960s and 1970s. One of these difficulties concerned the relationship of values to behavior. In the 40s and 50s, it was assumed that behavior would reflect values and that the best way to influence society was to inform the individual conscience. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, and Watergate revealed, however, that behavior might not reflect values very closely. This realization stimulated political activism, particularly on the left. Those who continued to believe that the role of religion was to influence the individual stressed personal salvation, piety, and morality–thus generating a split between those stressing evangelism and those stressing social action.

The nature of “freedom” and the relationship of freedom and constraint were also ambiguous. Is the character of freedom defined by what is chosen (i.e., one should be free to do good) or is freedom defined more formally as “freedom of choice”?  Similarly, does constraint consist of evil forces keeping people from doing what is good and proper, or is it a matter of social relationships inhibiting free individuals.

Most crucial to the split between liberal and conservative in American religion was the vast increase in levels of higher education. Government action in the form of the G.I. Bill produced an enormous increase in college attendance, and the values of those attending college were shaped and changed. Beginning in the 1970s, sociologists began to speak of a “new class” with distinct class interests and ideological commitments. These included “egalitarian values with respect to civil liberties and rights of minority groups, liberal attitudes toward government welfare spending, permissive views on sex and morality, and a generalized interest in knowledge and education” (p. 157).

The current split between liberals and conservatives was further shaped by the move from aloofness to activism by religious conservatives. Coming to an activist stance later than their liberal counterparts, conservatives activity was fueled by changes in the symbolic boundaries which occurred during the 1960s and 70s. Particularly important was the new focus on morality. In the wake of Watergate and Carter’s election, private morality and public life were increasingly seen as related, and this new interest in morals generated new issues such as the relationship between morality and politics, the relationship of religion and morality, and the definition of morality itself. In response, conservatives (e.g., the Moral Majority) increasingly distinguished religion and morality, while liberal groups (e.g., People for the American Way) attempted to connect religion and morality. Also, differing definitions of morality became evident with liberals construing the moral question along private/individual/ culturally-relative lines while conservatives spoke in corporate/absolute terms.

Thus, Wuthnow argues that a set of symbolic boundaries separating religious liberals and conservatives has arisen. Furthermore, he finds that ill-feeling between the two groups is reinforced by contact and increased educational level. In other words, the more contact there is between liberals and conservatives and the better educated they are, the less liberals and conservatives tend to like each other. Contact between the two groups is extensive because liberals and conservatives worship together (the major denominations are themselves split between cultural liberals and cultural conservatives).

A subtheme of the book concerns the role of American civil religion. The religious and cultural split between liberal and conservative has, in turn, affected the way religion functions in the larger society. Wuthnow argues that American civil religion is also deeply affected by the split and is no longer able to function as a basis for societal unity. Thus, trends toward secular legitimization myths, such as material prosperity and/or freedom, are apparent. Wuthnow argues that the myths of freedom and material prosperity are too limited (in that they are undermined by America’s international decline), and that technology, with its apparent objectivity (in contrast to religion, which is viewed as a matter of taste and opinion) and teleology (the myth of inevitable scientific progress) has become a value and object of faith which in turn legitimates those institutions, beliefs, and policies that support it.