Since I mentioned this book in last week’s Wednesday book review, I thought it was appropriate this week to review Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America, published in 1992. James Davison Hunter, then a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia, appeared prescient in this 1992 book about the emergence of a religious conservatism in the United States that could dominate the political agenda through its emphasis on certain traditional values.
Hunter framed this as a “culture war” over the meaning of America and its place in the world. Now more than twenty years old, Hunter found that the many battles over the arts, women’s rights, gay rights, history, science, and a range of other issues were the canaries in the coal mine shaft signaling a realignment in American culture that emphasized moral and religious concerns. Of course, Hunter wrote this book long before the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and the resultant dominance of these issues on the national stage.
Hunter concluded that the debate in this culture war revolves around—rather than stances on Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, or John Calvin—on how one reacts to the ideas of Rousseau, Locke, or Voltaire (including their philosophical heirs, especially Nietzsche and Rorty). “The politically relevant world-historical event, in other words,” Hunter writes, “is now the secular Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and its philosophical aftermath. This is what inspires the divisions of public culture in the United States today” (p. 132).
He also noted that “what is ultimately at stake is the ability to define the rules by which moral conflict of this kind is to be resolved” (p. 271). Hunter believed that “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 branches of government….In the end, however, the opposing visions become, as one would say in the tide though ponderous jargon of social science, 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. These competing moral visions, and the rhetoric that sustains them, become the defining forces of public life” (pp. 290-91).
He did not see this culture war as something that would eventually reach a balance; a rational negotiated settlement of the conflict did not seem possible from his perspective. Instead, Hunter believed that one side or the other would gain the upper hand and dominate the culture. “The principal reason,” he contended, “is that the most vocal advocates at either end of the cultural axis are not inclined toward working for a genuinely pluralistic resolution” (p. 298).
In terms of who has the edge toward victory in this culture war, Hunter believed that “the moral vision of the orthodox alliance, particularly as championed by the Evangelical Protestant community, is in a strong position to actually dominate American public discourse in the near future” (p. 299). This was because they brought a passion and organization to the fight not present on the other side. Despite the resources and power of modernity and secularism, they were far from monolithic and their organization has not been nearly as effective.
Hunter hoped to see the emergence of a creative tension between the forces on both sides of the culture wars to create a balanced compromise position. That may yet take place, but at this point in the twenty-first century in the U.S. it appears that the forces of orthodoxy and traditional values are relentlessly pursuing an agenda aimed at establishing a conservative, almost Puritan version of Americanism. The dialogue in this debate continues. Hunter has offered an excellent early analysis of what was just emerging in the early 1990s as THE cultural divide in the United States.