The Other Side of the Culture War
The Other Side of the Culture War
What Motivates Cultural Progressives?: Understanding Opposition to the Political and Christian Right
Yancey, George and Williamson, David A.
Baylor University Press
August 1, 2012
280 pp., $27.72
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.
They are a very privileged group, and defining themselves as "rational" is a justification for them maintaining their high place in society. In that sense, it's very useful for them.
What are their attitudes toward religion and, especially, Christians?
Many of our respondents expressed fear that conservative Protestants are trying to take over the country and establish a theocracy. Cultural progressives aren't necessarily against religion, though many of them view it as foolishness; rather, they just want Christians to keep it in their churches and homes. It's as if they are saying that people with religious beliefs should let "rational adults" rule the world. It's not religion, per se, that they organize against, but rather any social influence of religion.
Cultural progressives have a favored place in society, and their social power helps keep them there. In contrast, the Christian Right finds justification in their religious beliefs, but in the eyes of cultural progressives, this robs them of legitimacy.
What did you find that was most surprising to you?
I was very surprised by the intense animosity that many of the respondents expressed. Here are people who are highly educated, which most people assume would make them more enlightened, but many of their statements were flat-out hateful. They spoke against prejudice, but they themselves expressed deep levels of religious prejudice. To give one example, one of the respondents found out that his friend had a born-again experience, and he ended the friendship solely for that reason.
I was also surprised by how many of the respondents were male—about two-thirds of the respondents were men. We know in sociology that women are more likely to respond to surveys, so the actual percentage of cultural progressive activists who are men might be even higher.
In what ways are cultural progressives similar to their counterparts on the conservative side?
Both sides stereotype and demonize each other. They probably don't have friends on the other side, and so it's easy to stereotype them.
Both groups have strong visions for society, and they deeply fear that their vision won't be realized.
A key difference between the groups is the mechanism for change. Cultural progressives focus on macro-level ways of changing society, such as politics, education, and structural reforms. While the Christian Right adherents also use politics, they also emphasize interpersonal relationships as a way to bring about change.
What do you see happening in the future with the culture war?
At this point I see that the two sides are fairly evenly matched. Cultural progressives don't have many decentralized institutions, such as churches, which is a disadvantage, but they do have a lot of social power based on their education and wealth as well as being white males.
Neither side is strong enough to vanquish the other, and they continue to have two very different visions for society, so we will have a battle between them for the foreseeable future.
If more Americans become religiously unaffiliated, as has happened over the past 20 years—but has slowed down now—that would of course favor cultural progressives.
Bradley Wright wrote Christianity Today's August 2011 cover story, "They Like You."