_Culture Wars_
James Davison Hunter

Review Written By Ken Hincker

James Hunter's America--that tangled skein of religio-ethical warfare--is rooted in one thing. The concept of moral authority that arises from any number of religious faiths determines the battle lines for our culture wars. Out of the morass of contemporary culture discussions, moral authority alone will provide the means to order the lives of Americans. Cultural conflict, as defined by Hunter, is "political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding." 1 Broadening even this general statement, Hunter imagines that all political disagreement may be traced back to matters of moral authority.

The short definition of moral authority is the set of "fundamental assumptions that guide our perceptions of the world" (p.119). The long definition can be found between the covers of _Culture Wars_. The fact of the matter stands--moral authority, including the ways in which it has changed over time, and with its users can not be pinned down neatly for dissemination. In an effort to flesh out his conception of the competing moral authorities that drive all cultural conflict, Hunter delves into the religious history of the American public.

Since there have been religions, there have existed academic disagreements over ecclesiastical structures and theoretical arguments over doctrinal truth. The later 19th century and early 20th century saw discord kindled by two competing tendencies. First, ethnic cultures brought with them to America a plurality of religious denominations. Once established on firm economic ground, these minorities attempted to carve out their own social space in American life. Contrast this with the firmly entrenched Protestant majority and the overwhelmingly Protestant-based populism that wanted to defend their advantage in defining the habits and meanings of American culture. Over the course of the first 50 years of the 20th century a gradual change took place and divisions between faiths no longer revolved around specific doctrinal questions or issues of religious style and organization, but around the deeply held convictions about how we, as Americans, ordered our lives. Hunter cites the "central factor in stimulating this change [as] the transformation of our economy from an industry-oriented to an information-oriented system after the Second World War" (p.62).

And the outcome of this transformation? A deep cleft between the two competing moral authorities that still drive the culture wars of today--the orthodox and the progressive schools of thought. The formation of these schools was greatly aided by the waning of denominational loyalty in the period between 1900 and 1950, the proliferation of para-church organizations (e.g., YMCA, Salvation Army, B'nai B'rith), and the organizations that institutionalize and funded said divisions.

By way of explanation, orthodox communities see moral authority as the extension of a common commitment to transcendence, which implies a common method of interpreting world and personal experience. This method can be communicated through such texts as the Bible, Torah, Book of Mormon, the Pope, or the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Meanwhile, progressives base moral authority in the re-symbolization of historic faiths and philosophical traditions. Moral and spiritual truths represent a dynamic structure and should be developed over time and re-cast as the need arises. A religious progressive may say s/he is more concerned with present, tangible reality than a "natural law," religious prerogative, or the traditional community authority of the orthodox. These differing philosophies of moral authority unite the orthodox and progressives across traditions, while dividing them within traditions (p.120). That is, an orthodox Jew and a progressive Jew may be bitterly divided, while the orthodox will ally himself with an orthodox Catholic, just as a progressive will do the same with a progressive Catholic.

What one comes to observe then is a new ecumenism developing out of the old denominational battle lines, characterized by alliance building among progressives of different faiths and the orthodox of different faiths. Hunter goes so far as to say, "the new ecumenism, then, represents the key institutional expression of the realignment of American public culture and, in turn, it provides the institutional battle lines for the contemporary culture war" (p.98).

All this serves as introduction to the terms and distinctions of the culture wars. After ordering his lines of battle, Hunter must provide a motive for conflict and define the parameters of the battlefield. Motive may be outlined by two questions: Why do progressives and orthodox fight so hard to get their hands on public culture and why does faith make such a difference in public culture? Public culture, to a larger extent than any other facet of life in this republic, is the place where Americans settle symbolically what it means to be an American, where the limits of personal behavior and collective action are set, where notions of civic duty and public good are fixed. It represents, finally, a repository for collective myths surrounding our history and our hopes for the future. Therefore, control of public culture in America stands as the ultimate legitimization of a group's beliefs.

Hunter outlines five areas in American life where the culture wars rage with particular ferocity: the family, education, media and the arts, law, and electoral politics. These topics cover everything from abortion and birth control to discussions of sexuality, to free speech, to Creationism.

There stand a variety of ways in which the two sides wage war against each other. They can be loosely grouped under the titlespositivism and negativism. Positivism represents a constructive moral reasoning that presents the "way things ought to be." This particular method is strikingly ineffective, says Hunter. So much so that most parties on both sides of the conflict opt for the negativist methods. These include systematic attempts to discredit the opposition in which each side portrays the other as extremist. Thus, the orthodox paint progressives as anti-church while the progressives descry the orthodox's love of theocracy. Hyperbole seems to rule public discourse. There is good news, though. Public discussion of issues is, by far, more polarized than the public itself. Unfortunately, what happens in this realm of extremism is the "eclipse of the middle." (p.160) Hunter depicts the public discourse as "elitist, sensational, ambivalent, suspicious of new voices, and intensified and further polarized by the very media by which such discourse takes place." (ibid.)

Boiling down _Culture Wars_'s essential argument: "The culture war is rooted in an ongoing realignment of American public culture and has become institutionalized chiefly through special-purpose organizations, denominations, political parties, and the branches of government. In the end, however, the opposing moral visions become...a reality sui generis: a reality much larger than, and indeed autonomous from, the sum total of individuals and organizations that give expression to the conflict" (pp. 290-291). This last observation begs the question, what are we to do? Are there ways left for opposing viewpoints to carry on a dialogue of enlightenment and intelligence? Or has this thing just gotten too big to handle? Only the American public can find a collective answer.


Hunter, James Davison. _Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America_. (New York: HarperCollins Publisher, Inc., 1991). p. 42

N.B.: Succeeding references to this work will appear parenthetically in the text Return to text


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