Historian Julia Rabig writes in to decode one of journalism’s most abused catchphrases, “culture war”:

Just two examples: Lyle Denniston of The Boston Globe informs us that the “Supreme Court plunges back into the nation’s culture wars” this week as arguments unfold in Newdow vs. U.S. Congress. And Charles Lane reports in The Washington Post that amateur lawyer and atheist activist Michael Newdow’s impressive performance before the justices “demonstrated that, even for a court confident of its ability to mediate the nation’s culture wars, there may be no simple answer to the question of whether the Constitution permits public schools to sponsor daily recitations of the pledge as currently written.”

Denniston’s and Lane’s elevation of the pledge case to the level of a metaphorical “war” strikes me as hyperbolic (if unsurprising) and provides a good opportunity to take journalists to task for this overused piece of shorthand.

Everyone from Pat Buchanan (credited with coining the phrase) to Todd Gitlin has relied on the term “culture wars” to describe conflicts over everything from the Vietnam War toJanet Jackson’s breast. The very ubiquity of the phrase has wrung it of its metaphorical power, allowing journalists to use it as a sort of “factual” description of any number of unlike situations. What political, ideological, and theological questions get overlooked when an actual war, a court case, and a nipple all get reduced to illustrations of one empty metaphor?

It helps to remember that commentators throughout the twentieth century have had to come up with new metaphors to describe the conflicts between the modern and the traditional, elite and ordinary, old and new, liberal and conservative, Itchy and ScratchyRon Dorfman tells us via Texas PBS affiliate KLRU that before these conflicts became known as culture wars, they were part of what some called “The Great Conversation” — a debate over education and citizenship… individual freedom and social order.”

Robert M. Hutchins, the headstrong mid-century U. of Chicago president, used “the great conversation” metaphor to justify his revision of the college’s curriculum in the early 1950s and its exclusive focus on the “great books” of Western thought. Around the same time that “under god” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, conservative critics denounced the Socratic teaching methods and heated philosophical debate endorsed by Hutchins as nothing more than communist subversion. Ironically, Hutchins’ cause would be picked up by conservative intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s to protect the Western canon from advocates of multiculturalism.

Journalists rely on terms like “the culture wars” to comply with limited space and tight deadlines. But such shorthand is self-defeating when it sucks the political texture and historical context out of cultural conflict. Not only do opposing sides often share a common heritage, soldiers who are supposedly fighting on the same side of the “culture wars” often use the term to describe pressing conflicts among their own allies. For instance, The Cato Institute’s Gene Healy takes fellow conservatives to task in his essay on the socialist origins of the Pledge. Rick Ritchie presents an even more internally conflicted picture of culture war in the evangelical magazine Modern Reformation.

If journalists don’t have the time or space for this sort of context, they should retire the phrase. When articles about Newdow vs. U.S. Congress appear alongside reports of the latest Iraqi casualties, some distinctions might be in order. Not every cultural conflict is a war.