Religion & Culture Forum

The Struggle Is Real: Understanding the American “Culture War” | by Russell Johnson


The July issue of the Forum features Russell Johnson’s (University of Chicago) essay, “The Struggle Is Real: Understanding the American ‘Culture War.’ ” Three recent books all claim the culture war is over, though they come to different conclusions about why. Their different points, this essay argues, illustrate not why the culture war is over, but rather why it is so endlessly fascinating. In response to these books, this essay clarifies what exactly the culture war is, and how to understand in what sense it is still a part of American life. The culture war brings together a diverse array of political, religious, and cultural ideas into a neat dichotomy that has managed to persist through decades of social change.

Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Johnson's essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section on the Forum site.


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Russell Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His research focuses on conflict and antagonism, particularly the ways these contribute to misunderstanding and dehumanization. In his dissertation, he develops an ethics of communication inspired by the nonviolent direct action of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. His blog can be found at



Andrew Hartman is Professor of History at Illinois State University.  He is the author of two books: Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and A War for the Soul Of America:  A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Hartman is currently at work on a third monograph, Karl Marx in America, which will also be published with the University of Chicago Press. Hartman was the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark for the 2013-14 academic year, and was the founding president of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH).



Seth Dowland is Associate Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University, where he teaches courses on Christianity, Islam, gender, and politics in U.S. religious history. His first book, Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), examines the historical development of a “family values” agenda among conservative evangelicals in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. He has published several articles on the history of Christianity in the United States. He is currently working on his second book, Purity and Power: A History of White Christian Masculinity in America.


L. Benjamin Rolsky is a recent graduate from Drew University’s Ph.D. program in American Religious Studies. His work has appeared in a variety of popular and academic venues including Method and Theory in the Study of Religion and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion as well as The Christian CenturyThe Norman Lear Center, and The Marginalia Review of Books. His research and teaching interests include religion and politics, the study of popular culture, and critical theory. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a manuscript entitled, “Norman Lear and the Spiritual Politics of Religious Liberalism.” Once complete, he plans to begin research on a second book project that examines the history of the Christian Right across the 20th century entitled, “Inventing the Christian Right: A Religious History of the Public Square.” This Fall, Rolsky will begin serving as Adjunct Professor in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University in Long Branch, NJ.


About the Forum

The Martin Marty Center's Religion & Culture Forum is an online forum for thought-provoking discussion on the relationship of scholarship in religion to culture and public life. Each month the Marty Center, the research arm of the University of Chicago Divinity School, invites a scholar of religion to comment on his or her own research in a way that "opens out" to themes, problems, and events in world cultures and contemporary life. Scholars from diverse fields of study are invited to offer responses to these commentaries.

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The Religion & Culture Forum is edited by Joel A. Brown, Divinity School PhD student in Religions in America. Emily D. Crews, Divinity School PhD candidate in the History of Religions, was the previous editor.