America’s ‘Age of Fracture’

Amy Thornton

Winter 2016

In Daniel T. Rodgers book, “Age of Fracture,” he examines the ways in which American intellectual and social thought changed over the years due to a highly polarized set of moral values existing within the country.  Many have referred to this social phenomenon as a cultural war between Americans subscribing to either progressive or traditional schools of thought and is so ingrained in our culture that the modern history of the United States is now being defined as an age of fracture.  This notion could not be more true when considering the current Presidential election of 2016, where the nation could not seem more divided.  Many have begged to ask how this could have happened, where the divide originates, and why it has become so highly contentious of an issue.  According to Rodgers and many of his counterparts, the cultural war began the moment individuals who were once marginalized demanded their inclusion into mainstream society and civil life, essentially undermining the Anglo-American patriarchal social and political structure that had dominated American life since its inception.  However, the seeds of such progressive thought has origins dating back to the turn of the twentieth century, when Protestantism in America experienced its own fracture that created two types of moral lenses for Americans to gaze through: one highly supportive of traditional values and systems based off of literal interpretations both in political and religious doctrine, and the other interpreting the past in light of the future and making necessary changes according to modern standards to benefit the greater good of society.  It is, according to Rodgers, “a battle over the very foundations of morality: between those who thought of ethics as adaptive, progressive, and socially constructed and those who thought of morals as fixed, timeless, and non-negotiable.” (Rodgers, 145)  It is through one of two of these lenses that Americans have viewed themselves, their neighbors, and their relationship to the state, which is ultimately expressed through strong and highly polarized political affiliations.   

  One of the most important times to consider when speaking of fracture within the United States is the fight for women’s rights throughout the twentieth century.  Beginning with the suffrage movement, women in the twentieth century fought like never before for their natural rights to be respected and honored and demanded their voice be heard in a political structure that had for decades dissolved their personhood into their husbands.  Fighting against a well established patriarchal society, “Feminists fought to make space for women’s authentic voice, to release it from its external and internalized censors.  They shattered a raft of gendered social barriers in the economy, politics, and culture.  They added important dimension to the analysis  of domination and power.” (Rodgers, 146)   In doing so, women not only liberated themselves from the confines of the home but expanded the nations notions on who was able to participate in mainstream society.  When thinking of society as a circle where mainstream society is in the center and the marginalized groups are on the outside: when women forced their way into the inner circle, they allowed for an “Edwin Markham effect” where people “who [had] been excluded end up helping to redraw the circles the enclose.”  (Hollinger, 336-337)  This allowed for the women’s movement to act as a catalyst for more inclusions to occur and paved the way for other marginalized groups to demand their access to the benefits of mainstream society and the civl rights associated with it. 

However as progressive women and other marginalized groups fought for political recognition, conservative traditionalists sought to minimize their successes.  For the conservatives, any upset in traditional roles or values meant the country was edging towards moral ruin and catastrophe.  When women began to fight for and exercise their rights as autonomous beings, conservatives felt traditional values and roles were being attacked and undermined, for “Men’s ‘headship’ of their families and women’s ‘submission’ to their leadership were Biblically fixed.  Upset the vertical chain that rose, link above link, from the family upward to God, and everything else was thrown into chaos.”  (Rodgers, 172)  Linking Christian values to the overall health of the nation was not a new concept, but one that began at the turn of the twentieth century when the Protestant sects within the country split into two groups, the pre and postmillennials.  Pre-millennials “claimed to practice a literal and direct meaning of the holy text. In doing so, they sought to differentiate themselves from theological liberals [postmillennials] who strove to interpret the text in the light of contemporary thinking.”  (Sutton, 15)  Beyond literal interpretations of the Bible, pre-millennials stressed Apocalyptic theology (the “Seven Signs of Apocalypse”) which has colored the Evangelical world-view and political activity since.  The pre-millennial fundamentalist “invested substantial energy in defending what they understood as traditional, God-given gender and racial roles.  They believed that challenges to those roles symbolized the last-days decline of Western culture and the social chaos that had provoked God’s Old testament wrath.”  (Sutton, 123)  To the pre-millennial God had already instructed humans on the correct way to structure society (in the Bible) and any deviation from the preordained patriarchal hierarchy was an attack on God’s plan and would bring about the end times; again, theirs was a literal interpretation of scripture. 

Conservatives (stemming from pre-millennial roots) approached the Constitution of the United States with the same rigorous outlook and insisted upon keeping in line with what the forefathers of America had intended through their written word.  Progressives (stemming from post-millennial roots) however, approached politics and policies with the same interpretative manner as they did the Bible, pushing for appropriate and necessary adjustments in the light of contemporary thinking.  The difference in interpretation styles became utterly evident during the Brown vs. Board of Education case.  Conservatives were attempting to use the incorporation decisions regarding the Fourteenth Amendment  as a way in which to keep the federal government out of state legislature, sparking a national debate on “original intention.”  Were the courts meant to “apply the Constitution as the adopters intended it to be applied…or treat the Constitution as a living document…which changes to suit the needs of the times and whims of interpreters.”  (Rodgers, 236)  When the court decision was released in support of desegregation conservatives were outraged, including William Bell who “publicly alluded to ‘those barriers of race which have been established by God’ and declared his sympathy for individuals whom he described as among the finest Christians in the world who believed that it is “unchristian” to force these barriers away.” (Hollinger, 35)  While conservatives considered the decision of Brown vs. Board of Education to be blasphemous (against God as well as the original intent of the forefathers of America), progressives saw the battle as a win for human decency and equality.

With conservatives using original intent of written word as the basis for their political, social and religious movements and the progressives wishing to interpret text in light of modern times, it becomes clear how a fracture within American society developed.  And according to Rodgers, “across the last quarter of the twentieth century, the emergent talk of fluidity and choice grew in tandem with contrary desires for centers and certainties, each drawing on the other’s energy.” (Rodgers, 145) To the conservative the United States is a Christian nation and its policies should reflect and promote Patriarchal Christian structures and values.  However, the progressive believe in bringing as many people into the fold of the mainstream as possible regardless of faith, gender, or race in direct defiance of patriarchal structures.  Who is right?  Perhaps both sides need to consider that, “it is in citizenship that the personal and political come together, because citizenship is about how individuals make and remake the state, and it is through this making and remaking that we will sustain the great ideals of the democratic revolutions, the rights that Bushrod Washington thought were the commonsense of the matter nearly two centuries ago: the right to life and liberty, the right to pursue and obtain happiness and safety, the right to travel freely, and the right confidently to expect that justice will be done.” (Kerber, 854)




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