Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.

Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. – book reviews

D.G. Hart

One of the tacit assumptions in current discussions of multiculturalism is the idea that greater awareness of cultural differences leads to increased tolerance if not friendliness between diverse groups. History would seem to cast doubt on this hope. Hostile feelings based on racial, gender and ethnic differences seem to be escalating, and religion seems to fuel the antagonisms.

James Davison Hunter, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia, attempts to make sense of the escalating use of religious and moral discourse in public controversies and the polarization of political debate that has ensued. He argues that the issues that divide Americans–abortion, gay rights, public funding for art, the composition of the Supreme Court–reflect profound moral and religious differences. America, according to Hunter, is in the midst of a culture war that affects ordinary life as much as public policy The stakes in this conflict are high: the institutions that transmit culture to the next generation and the power to say whose authority will prevail in those institutions. “What seems to be a myriad of self-contained cultural disputes actually amounts to a fairly comprehensive and momentous struggle to define the meaning of America–of how and on what terms Americans will live together, of what comprises the good society.”

Hunter is careful not to claim that the current culture war is without precedent in American history. He is well aware of past conflicts that pitted white Protestants against Catholics, Jews and Mormons. What is new about the present controversy, he argues, is that its fault lines are running through rather than between America’s major religions. Hunter follows Robert Wuthnow’s The Restructuring of American Religion (1989) in arguing that differences within denominations have become more important than differences between them. Hunter also includes cogent observations about the effects of the media on public debate and on how the reduction of moral and religious positions to sound bites has polarized political discourse. Thus, while survey data reveal a greater tolerance of America’s religious diversity, social hostilities every bit as heated as older religious antagonisms have flourished. Conservative Protestants, Catholics and Jews make common cause against liberal Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Behind the cultural conflict Hunter sees two polarizing impulses, “progressive” and “orthodox.” “It is the commitment to different and opposing bases of moral authority and the world views that derive from them that creates the deep cleavages between antagonists in the contemporary culture war.” This polarization between the orthodox and progressives, Hunter believes, explains the alliances that are being formed across religious and denominational boundaries. “Progressively oriented Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and secularists share more in common with each other culturally and politically than they do with the orthodox members of their own faith tradition (and vice versa).” Members of the orthodox party are categorized by their commitment to an external, definable and transcendent authority. For Jews it is Torah, for Catholics it is church teaching, and for Protestants it is scripture that constitutes a “consistent, unchangeable measure of value, purpose, goodness, and identity.” Progressives, in contrast, define moral authority by reference to the spirit of the age and in so doing accommodate the teachings of historic religions to the assumptions and demands of contemporary life. Rather than looking to a transcendent moral authority as the orthodox do, progressives filter the teachings of Jewish law, papal pronouncements or the Bible through personal experience and scientific rationality.

A number of reviewers have complimented Hunter for his ability to describe this struggle without taking sides. But by depicting contemporary debates in the terms often used to describe the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s–literal versus figurative interpretations of scripture, transcendent versus immanent conceptions of divine power, static versus developmental notions of truth–Hunter reveals some bias. To say that progressive believers hold a similar view of moral authority as do secularists is to repeat the judgment of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants. After all, conservative Protestants have long said that many of America’s social woes stem from the ethical relativism that secularism and liberal Protestantism encouraged by undermining the authority of scripture. Liberal faith, from a conservative perspective, is merely secularism in a religious wrapper. Though Hunter qualifies his argument, he seems to share a conventional conservative Protestant viewpoint that lumps together secularists and religious progressives as enemies of absolute truth.

The alliances being formed would seem to justify Hunter’s hypothesis that this struggle concerns divergent worldviews. But when one turns to specific issues the religious dimension seems to diminish. One of the many virtues of this book is that it shows how specific controversies are not isolated incidents but part of a larger struggle. This the issue of gay rights carries tremendous emotional freight because, Hunter correctly notes, it is bound up with questions about the nature of the family and the integrity of society. Families not only teach children rules for sexual intimacy but bear a large measure of the burden of socializing children. Debates about the proper attitude toward homosexual relationships, therefore. reveal more basic views about the, function of families and their place in the larger society. Progressives perceive opposition to homosexuality as “part of a cultural offensive against liberal egalitarian social principles.” The orthodox, in turn, see gay rights activism as a “vicious attack on traditional family values” and “the fundamental unit of society.”

Yet, as much as these parties appear to be contending over different moral visions. the culture war Hunter describes has as much to do with the nature of American politics as with divergent worldviews. Contemporary cultural disputes have been politicized precisely because so much of ordinary life has come under government regulation and supervision.

Americans have long had difficulty reconciling individual liberty with the need to build a strong republic. A central idea in American political philosophy has been that of limited government. The American Revolution rejected remote, arbitrary and centralized power and affirmed the liberty of local communities and citizens. Yet the good that a centralized government could do has always been apparent to American politicians. National accomplishments in the Civil War, World Wars I and II and the New Deal made the lure of a strong federal state all the more compelling, especially when justified by an appeal to noble causes. Thus, throughout the history of the United States two ideas of liberty have vied with each other. One perspective pursues the establishment of a “free” and productive society through a strong federal government that sponsors and conducts national reforms. The other perpetuates older revolutionary fears of arbitrary power and centralized government and seeks to preserve the autonomy of local government and individual citizens.

The tension between a strong nation and the rights of individuals and communities is an important factor that Hunter overlooks in his description of the culture war. Private and moral matters have escalated into a “struggle to define America” because many of these matters–reproduction, primary education and the family–have in one way or another come under the purview of federal regulation. To work out these issues at the local level is not an option. any more. When it suits them, both sides invoke selectively the tradition of limited government–progressives in debates about abortion and censorship, the orthodox in disputes about public schools and government support for the arts.

Yet neither party is long on tolerance for the genuine diversity of opinions and cultures that such a perspective entails. On the issues that matter to them, progressives are just as self-righteous and judgmental as the orthodox. In fact, the moral indignation that both groups display makes it hard to believe Hunter’s contention that the anthagonists approach moral truth differently, one through static and the other through developmental categories. Each side is committed to an absolute, and in some sense transcendent, norm. In today’s situation, in which the major outlets for adjudicating these differences are the federal courts, media and national politics, it is natural that these differences have polarized the larger society.

Hunter argues that the contemporary culture war is the first time in which conservatives from different faiths have joined together for political purposes. It is a striking development if, as Hunter argues, what unites conservative Catholics, Protestants and Jews is a common belief in a transcendent moral authority. For these are precisely the believers one would expect to be the most intolerant of those outside their faith and the least willing to compromise religious principles for political gain. The more one thinks about an orthodox alliance built upon a shared commitment to absolute moral truth, the more implausible that coalition seems. What is more likely is that conservatives have formed loose political affiliations not because of shared moral and religious ideals but because of a common desire to protect traditional beliefs and local customs from being swallowed up in the national culture fostered by the state.

One of the truly glaring oversights in Hunter’s thoughtful book is the role of African-Americans and the problem of race. Part of the reason may be that blacks would muddle Hunter’s neat categories. On a variety of national political battles they obviously line up with progressives. But on many issues of personal morality, African-Americans side with the orthodox.

The plight of blacks and efforts to remedy it have also been important ingredients in the current culture war. The ideas and language of the civil rights movement have permeated national politics for the past 35 years. Even though progressives and orthodox may both oppose racism, they divide over the means to eliminate it. Republican control of the White House over the last quarter century has depended upon a diverse coalition–remarkably similar to Hunter’s orthodox camp–of northern Republicans and disaffected Democrats (southern evangelicals and northern ethnic Catholics) who believe that the principal institutions of American life have succumbed to left-liberal ideology. In fact, the leadership of orthodox Protestant forces comes largely from the South, the last region in the U.S. to be absorbed into the larger national culture, both through industrialization and through the expanded power of the federal government. This suggests that disputes between the orthodox and progressives stem from deeper political and socioeconomic antagonisms.

It is not that Hunter ignores social realities and their political consequences. In fact, he concedes that the culture war mirrors class divisions. Nor should these remarks be interpreted to mean that religion is unimportant to the issues that divide the American public. Rather, the problem that Hunter misses a golden opportunity to sketch in greater detail the connections between religious beliefs and political habits. For decades social scientists and historians have noted the significant links between religion and American politics. But the question vet to be answered is whether, as Gerhard Lenski put it in 1961, religion is “cause or correlate” of political preference. More attention by Hunter to socioeconomic data might have yielded fresh insights into this conundrum.

A more serious objection, however, is that Hunter’s stress upon the religious and moral nature of the culture war, no matter how accurate, obscures the political dimensions of the battle as well as the possibility of political compromise. Hunter suggests in his conditioning remarks that the culture clash might be resolved through “principled pluralism” and “principled toleration.” Yet if both sides have fundamentally different views about the good life and if they are intent on defining America according to those views, greater sympathy and respect will be hard to come by. Hunter may have unwittingly added to hostilities by spelling out each side’s ideology, thereby confirming each group’s worst fears. What may be more helpful is a plan to allow greater autonomy for both sides to implement their vision of the good society at the local level. This approach is by no means free of difficulty. State’s rights, after all, were part of the rationale behind slavery and Jim Crow. Still, an arrangement that better protected and recognized religious and cultural diversity at the local level might draw divergent groups together into a common political system that protects their liberties. But as long as the culture war is waged in a political structure where the winner takes all, compromise seems unlikely.

COPYRIGHT 1993 The Christian Century Foundation

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