Imagine the history of America’s modern culture wars as a photomontage. In the first frame are two images: one of Billy Graham preaching to a spellbound crowd at Dodger Stadium, the other of the evangelist standing beside President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. In the second frame are two images of Jerry Falwell: preaching at his Lynchburg, Virginia, megachurch in the first, and campaigning for Ronald Reagan on behalf of the Moral Majority in the second. In the third diptych, the sons and heirs of Graham and Falwell, Franklin and Jerry Jr., are making separate appearances on Fox News to endorse Donald Trump. Final frame: a picture of Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, summoning angels from Africa to protect Trump, and another of radio host and pro-Trump pundit Eric Metaxas sucker-punching a left-wing protester on the streets of Washington, DC, after attending Trump’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House.
That is the evangelical part of the photomontage. There is a Catholic story, too. It could be told as a sort of twentieth-century Buddenbrooks, featuring a collage of three photos. The first shows that other “sage of Omaha,” Leo Brent Bozell, founder of the Bozell marketing agency. In the second, his Yale-educated son, L. Brent Jr., is posing with his wife, Patricia Buckley, and father-in-law, William F. Buckley. Bozell Jr. is holding up a copy of Triumph, the conservative Catholic magazine he founded. The last photo captures the great-grandson, Leo IV, inside the Senate chamber, which he helped storm on January 6, 2021.
The closing shot in our photomontage would juxtapose two images. On the left, the so-called Brooks Brothers riot, when conservatively clad Republican operatives under the leadership of James Baker III “stormed” the offices of the Miami-Dade election supervisors’ offices in late November 2000, bringing the tallying of ballots in the disputed state of Florida to a halt. On the right, the so-called Capitol riot of January 2021, and its media figurehead, the “QAnon Shaman,” horned helmet in hand, leading a Christian prayer from the Senate dais.
Taken together, these images illustrate a series of interlocking changes in religion, society, and politics in the United States over the last half century, a transition from culture wars to culture clashes, or, to continue the military metaphor, from regular to irregular forms of cultural and political combat. The changes in the rules of engagement go together with and are driven by changes in the profiles of the combatants.
How can we explain this remarkable evolution?