Today's conflicts over gay marriage and abortion bear striking parallels to the social turmoil of the 1920s, when fierce debates centered on Prohibition and teaching evolution in schools, says Baylor University history professor Barry Hankins. Religious groups take a central role in the culture wars of both eras, which Hankins details in his new book Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today's Culture Wars. As in the Jazz Age, a minority on each side is fighting today's culture wars, he explains, while the majority watches from the sidelines, at times leaning one way or the other. Hankins recently spoke with U.S. News about religion's role in politics today and how that compares to the culture wars and religious scandals of the 1920s. Excerpts:
How would you define culture war?
It is a battle over what is supposed to be the moral foundation of our culture. The list of typical issues fought in our culture wars have to do with, most recently, abortion, gay marriage, gay rights. But also things that seem a little less important, even at times trivial, like prayer in schools.
What were the culture wars of the 1920s?
Within Protestantism, the liberals and fundamentalists fought with each other over theology. But those sorts of culture wars spilled out into the wider public. One of the major events of the 1920s was the Scopes trial over whether a state could have a law that made it illegal to teach evolution in schools.
Why did the culture wars take a break between the 1930s and 1980s?
Part of the answer is that the fundamentalist side of the culture wars, up until about 1924, probably had the upper hand. But after 1924, the tide began to turn and, at the same time, there were highly covered scandals taking place within fundamentalism.
What is the most interesting scandal you write about?
Aimee Semple McPherson was a religious star who had a highly publicized scandal after she disappeared for six weeks. She reappeared with an implausible story that she had been kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico. It came to light that her radio engineer had gone missing at about the same time, and so eventually there were grand jury investigations as to whether she had committed perjury by telling the authorities that she had been kidnapped when, in fact, it looked like she had run off and had an adulterous affair with her radio engineer.
How did the 1920s act as a prologue to today?
I think the 1920s was really the first time the country started to have a major ongoing dispute about the place of individual rights versus communitarian values. In one sense, this has always been an issue in America. But it began to become a culture war in the 1920s because for the first time you had a major organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, defend individual rights. And we're still fighting that battle today, except today individual rights seem to have the upper hand.
What brought back the culture wars?
For several decades, evangelicals could say, "OK, if we don't like the public schools, we can have private schools. If we don't like the teaching of evolution, we can have our own schools where we don't teach it." But you had the prayer-in-schools decision, the abortion decision, and you started to see evangelicals think something had to be done about this.
What was the reaction to this re-entry?
In the period of 1930 to 1980, you often heard people say you shouldn't bring religion into politics; religion was considered a private matter. Starting in the 1980s, groups that we now call the Christian right were bringing religion back into politics in a way that really hadn't been seen since the 1920s. There was this sense that they were violating what I would call the public decorum, or the religious decorum, that had developed.
What can we learn from the Roaring Twenties?
I think that the natural state of American life is for religion to be part of the mix. When religion started to re-enter politics in the 1980s, this seemed like a new thing. I think it was a return to sort of a natural American state. America is a pretty religious country, much more so than almost any other industrialized country. That can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. A lot of the time, religious advocacy in the public sphere, on balance, does much more good than harm because you have people fighting for justice, fighting against forces that hold people in poverty, fighting for racial justice, and now for the environment. I think it's healthy for a republic to have a robust debate about morality and about individual rights versus communitarian values—though it can get pretty ugly.