A couple of disconcerting long-form articles on the news websites this weekend. They’re very different. One is an interview with the scholar who coined the term “culture war” and the other is a news-feature story on this month’s shambolic election “audit” in Arizona. But they both show how desperate our times are getting (imho), and at least one of them may give me a peg for my research into Swedish immigrants in the 1850s.

Not that either of them mentions Swedes. Instead, they leave me thinking how much like the 1850s our times are. Considering what came next was the Civil War, it’s not a cheerful thought.

Ever since the Trump supporters’ Jan. 6 insurrection, I’ve had a feeling there are parallels. The Swedish pastors I’ve been studying came to America enthusiastic about the separation of church and state, and the American system of voluntary associations. But they got into conflict with the prevailing Protestant (read Calvinist, or post-Calvinist?) orthodoxy of the day and formed their own creolized (blended) synod, which in turn was influential in creating the culture of Svensk-Amerika. I argue their experience, in tandem with that of other ethnic religious groups, led to today’s religious pluralism. Which was a good thing.

But there was an all-or-nothing vibe to the Swedes’ conflicts with Methodists, Baptists and other Lutherans that reminds of today’s culture wars. The Swedes weren’t hated, like Irish Catholics were, and they enthusiastically supported the Union when war came. But there was a strident and vitriolic vibe to their interactions with “English” Americans — even allies like the Congregationalist home missions society that supported them financially — and I think there are instructive parallels today with the 1850s.

One, I believe, is that our political factions tend to see each other now as an existential threat to their survival.

In the 1850s, slaveholders saw the emerging Republican Party as an existential threat. They were right about that, of course. And northerners repaid them in like kind, seeing the possible extension of slavery as an existential threat. Today James Davison Hunter, author of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991), says right-wing culture warriors have moved on from fighting about abortion and gay rights to an existential fear for their identity as conservative, “family values” Christians.

“The earlier culture war really was about secularization, and positions were tied to theologies and justified on the basis of theologies,” says Hunter in an interview with Politico. “That’s no longer the case. You rarely see people on the right rooting their positions within a biblical theology or ecclesiastical tradition. [Nowadays,] it is a position that is mainly rooted in fear of extinction.”

Citing another book of his, Hunter comes out and flatly says one of the parallels is the civil war that followed the culture wars of the 1850s:

The book that I followed “Culture Wars” with was called “Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War.” And the argument I made was that culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence. And I think that’s where we are. […]

Hunter draws the parallels with the 1850s at some length. I’ve copied excerpts below.

The other article, by Dan Zak of the Washington Post, could almost be a case study for some of Hunter’s observations. Well, somewhere between a case study and a footnote. It’s a granular, reporter-on-the-scene account of the so-called “forensic audit” of last year’s presidential balloting in Maricopa County, Arizona. But I think it shows how the religious right is morphing into a more dangerous kind of zealotry. Zak says, quoting a local official:

Between the obscure tedium inside the coliseum and the carnival lunacy outside, it’s possible to miss what’s really going on in Maricopa: not an insurrection, but a kind of nonviolent adminsurrection — a haphazard, unprecedented corruption of both the democratic process and public trust, according to a bipartisan array of officials in Arizona and around the country who are worried it will spread to other states.

Says [Maricopa County] supervisor Bill Gates: “We’ve gone into the rabbit hole.”

Some denizens of the rabbit hole have the language of religious zealotry down pat. Zak cited remarks at Rudy Giuliani’s unofficial Nov. 30 “hearing” on alleged election fraud, by Arizona state Rep. Mark Fincheman, who later took part in the Jan. 6 demonstration at the US Capitol.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is a skirmish,” said Finchem on Nov. 30, laying out a vision for the coming months. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Because when Satan wants to extinguish a light, he will stop at nothing. So be on your guard, put on the full armor of God, and be prepared to fight.”

Verbatim excerpts from the two articles follow.

James Davidson Hunter, interview with Politico

[…] Democracy, in my view, is an agreement that we will not kill each other over our differences, but instead we’ll talk through those differences. And part of what’s troubling is that I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence on both sides. Obviously, on January 6, we not only saw an act of violence—I mean, talk about a transgression—but one that the people who were involved were capable of justifying. That’s an extraordinary thing.

[pullquote omitted]

If I could draw a parallel, it’s not unlike the Civil War. There was a culture war for 30 years prior to the Civil War. The Civil War was—without question—about slavery and the status of Black men and women, and, yes, the good guys won [the Civil War]—at the cost of 4 out of 10 Southern males dying and 1 out of 10 Northern males dying. But think about what happened: Dred Scott was an attempt to impose a consensus by law; it took the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to overturn Dred Scott. And yet that was also an imposition of solidarity by law and by force. The failures of Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow and “Black Codes” and all of that was proof that politics couldn’t solve culture; it couldn’t solve the cultural tensions, and so what you end up with is a struggle for civil rights.

My view is that the reason why we’re continuing to see this press toward racial reckoning is because it’s never been addressed culturally.

In other words, racial justice failed by succeeding. The international slave trade ended in 1808. And it created this sense of complacency: “Oh, we’ve dealt with that.” Yet the slave trade and number of slaves grew astronomically over the next 50 years. Then the Civil War was fought and won: “Oh, we’ve dealt with that. Now we can move on.” It created complacency. I think that’s what happened after the civil rights movement and [the Rev. Martin Luther] King’s martyrdom: It was a tremendous success at one level, but created complacency, especially among whites—“We’ve dealt with that. We don’t need to deal with this anymore”—when, in fact, ongoing discrimination is still happening. It represents, again, the attempt to generate a kind of cultural consensus through political means. And that doesn’t seem to work.

Q. What would it look like to actually reckon with that issue, culturally?

Well, I’m going to sound really old-fashioned here, but I think that this work takes a long time and it’s hard. I think you talk through the conflicts. Don’t ignore them; don’t pretend that they don’t exist. And whatever you do, don’t just simply impose your view on anyone else. You have to talk them through. It’s the long, hard work of education.

The whole point of civil society, at a sociological level, is to provide mediating institutions to stand between the individual and the state, or the individual and the economy. They’re at their best when they are doing just that: They are mediating, they are educating. I know that argument is part of the “old” liberal consensus view, the “old” rules of public discourse. But the alternatives are violence. And I think we are getting to that point.

Dan Zak, ‘The Mess in Maricopa’

That same day, at a Hyatt in downtown Phoenix, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was leading a rogue hearing hosted by Republicans from the state legislature — Republicans who believed Arizona was a red state, no matter what the numbers indicated.

Trump called into the event and said, “I know that we won Arizona.” He assured the legislators that their fight was becoming “legend.”

Giuliani told them: “I’m counting on you to find me a whole bunch of others in the legislature like you, or turn them into you.”

“I think it would be poetic justice if President Trump won by 2,020 votes” after a review of the ballots, said state Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R). He was followed by state Rep. Mark Finchem (R), who five weeks later would be in the area of the U.S. Capitol, as the insurrection unfolded, though he would deny immediate awareness of it.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is a skirmish,” said Finchem on Nov. 30, laying out a vision for the coming months. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Because when Satan wants to extinguish a light, he will stop at nothing. So be on your guard, put on the full armor of God, and be prepared to fight.”


Democrat Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, received a security detail after a deluge of threats, but she has remained in the fray. As the state’s top election official, she has excoriated the “fraudit” all over the mainstream media, partly because she fears it will become the norm.

“Look, this is comical to watch,” Hobbs says of the Maricopa mess. “We’ve all laughed at it, watching it unfold,” but “it is very serious. This is precedent-setting. They are writing the playbook here.”

Republican county committees around the country are making requests to do forensic audits, according to multiple state secretaries of state, and local officials nationwide are fielding bizarre offers from unqualified “auditors.” Byrne, the former Overstock CEO, is now backing an audit push in Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, hundreds of people showed up at a town meeting in Windham, N.H., to demand an audit; they turned their backs on the board of selectmen and chanted, “Stop the Steal.” An accountant from Nashua, N.H., has apparently raised $74,000 through a Christian crowdfunding site in an effort to hire Jovan Pulitzer to conduct a “people’s audit” in New Hampshire (Pulitzer says he is not an auditor, and did not initiate contact with New Hampshire or its citizens).

None of this is visible from the floor of the Arizona arena. But on Twitch, Telegram and YouTube, you can see how the rabbit hole that has opened in Arizona is part of a larger warren; a series of tunnels that allow Internet ravings to worm their way into the rhetoric of officials. Recently a claim from one of Lindell’s online documentaries — about a “systemic algorithm” used to elect Biden — ping-ponged around Twitter and into the timeline of an Arizona state senator. A critical post from Ron Watkins on voting software made its way to state Rep. Finchem’s Gab account via a tweet from an OAN reporter.


State Rep. Finchem, the Republican who at Giuliani’s hearing spoke of battling Satan, is campaigning to replace [Democrat Katie] Hobbs as secretary of state in 2022. In a recent interview with the podcast “Red Pill News” — a source for news about QAnon and “President Trump’s war on the Deep State,” per a description on iTunes — he suggested that, if fraud is found in Maricopa, the legislature could “reclaim” the state’s presidential electors.

“At this point, that’s the best I’m hoping for,” said Finchem.

Finchem, who did not respond to requests for comment, seems to really believe in what he’s doing. Sincerity underpins “participatory disinformation,” which is the interplay between concerned citizens, who rile each other up with these claims, and the actors who conscript them into real-world battle, explains researcher Kate Starbird, who studies online rumors and social media usage during crises. This is how you get rallies to “Stop the Steal,” affidavits that cry foul at polling places, and 7 in 10 Republicans believing that Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to win the presidency, according to a recent CNN poll.


Participatory disinformation motivated the Jan. 6 insurrection, says Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington. Before and after Nov. 3, elites spread a message of a rigged election. Audiences engaged with this message, either tactically or sincerely, by generating false or misleading stories of voter fraud that sometimes caught the attention of elites, who then amplified those stories and created an echo chamber of collective grievance that became increasingly violent in tone. Starbird mapped a “retweet network” of the “Stop the Steal” movement, and Arizona was well represented in the run-up to Jan. 6: Finchem, Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward and Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) were major nodes of disinformation that encircled Trump’s and spoked outward to countless ordinary Americans, some of whom were ready to take action.

“So many people are doing it with good intentions,” Starbird says. “They’re sincere believers trying to find evidence” to support their theories — which may lead them to misinterpret events. “They’re searching for a greater truth,” and “getting all this positive feedback” on social media. “Your celebrity influencers are actually validating you and telling you that you mean something. It’s such a powerful kind of political participation.”


James Davison Hunter, “How the ‘Culture War’ Could Break Democracy,” interview by Zach Stanton, Politico,  May 20, 2021

Dan Zak, “The Mess in Maricopa,” Washington Post, May 21, 2021

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s