Who is fighting the culture wars? Sociologists George Yancey and David A. Williamson have attempted to answer an important, but perhaps overlooked part of that question in What Motivates Cultural Progressives? Understanding Opposition to the Political and Christian Right (Baylor University Press). The book explores the characteristics, attitudes, and motivations of those people on the liberal side of the culture wars, whom they term "cultural progressives"—a group they say has received relatively little study. Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, spoke with George Yancey about what the authors found and why it matters.
What was your reason for writing this book?
I've read a lot about the cultural wars—both in the mainstream press and in scholarly research—but most of it focuses on only one side of the debate, usually the Christian Right. But I was curious: Who are the Christian Right fighting and why don't we understand their opponents better? The study reported in this book gives a more complete understanding of the culture war by highlighting cultural progressives.
How did you do your study?
We contacted several culturally progressive organizations who had it in their mission statements that they oppose the Christian Right. We contacted them and asked for permission to survey their members, which they kindly granted. We gave each organization a survey to distribute to their members and when all was said and done, we collected short-answer data from about 2,500 cultural progressives.
It was important for us to let these people speak for themselves, so we read through what they wrote several times, and we chose a number of quotations that illustrate the themes that emerged from the data. These quotations, which we present in the book, give a good sense for how cultural progressives think and act when it comes to the culture wars. By focusing on the words that they said, and not just numerical analysis of survey data, we hope that our book is accessible to a wide audience.
Who are the cultural progressives?
Most of the respondents in our study were not religious, most were political progressives, and all were cultural progressives. Also, by virtue of their involvement in the organizations that we selected, they were activists as well. To be clear, not all cultural progressives are also activists, but we chose those that are for our study.
This group has been studied so little that there isn't a readily identifiable name for them, such as there is for the Christian Right, so we settled on "cultural progressives." Generally speaking, we define cultural progressives as people with a modern or postmodern understanding of morality that minimizes the importance of traditional religious explanations.
By and large, the cultural progressives that we studied were a rather homogenous, privileged group. They were overwhelmingly white—about 95 percent white—highly educated males. In fact, I attended a meeting of one of the organizations, and of the 25 or so people in it, I was one of only two non-whites there. The other non-white person was a trainer who was brought in from out of town. All of the local members of the group at that meeting were white. There is some irony here, for cultural progressives decry the Christian Right as racist, but they themselves are overwhelmingly white.
How would you describe the cultural progressive movement?
Their main values are rationality, progressive politics, and a fear of religion having too much influence in both politics and society in general. These values both define them and unite them. While I say that rationality is a central value for them, that doesn't mean that they are more rational than other people. Rather, this is a way in which they justify their activities and their purpose in society.