This article employs an in-depth examination of 1950s confessional Lutherans and Congregationalists in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to argue that the roots of the late-twentieth-century “culture wars” can be found at the local level in Americans’ response to the international and domestic challenges that arose during and after World War II rather than in the 1970s rise of a politically active Religious Right. The fight against Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, along with the postwar struggle for racial equality, forced Americans to redefine the moral principles for which their nation stood. The result was the development of broad-based, intradenominational divisions between those who argued that individuals should accommodate themselves to prevailing religious, political, and socioeconomic structures and those who urged the accommodation of these structures to the needs of diverse individuals. This new religious alignment turned less on denominationally specific tribal, liturgical, and theological differences than on polarized understandings of the sacred and the secular.
This realignment operated on two planes. On the right, the Missouri Synod joined other denominations, such as the founders of the National Association of Evangelicals, in attempting to overcome sectarian strife among orthodox believers and to inject their religious faith into the public discourse. On the left, as Congregational proponents of faith-based social action and ecumenism helped to lay a foundation for liberal religion's leading role in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and 1970s, they alienated more traditionalist members who viewed these activities as inappropriate for a religious institution.