A Matter of Faith


Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter, New York: Basic Books, 416 pages, $25.00

America is in the middle of a religious war, a political struggle for this nation's soul. In Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, sociologist James Davison Hunter examines the forces driving this battle.

On issues such as abortion, free speech, and education, Americans are becoming increasingly polarized. But where many observers see isolated struggles, Hunter sees the country dividing into two sides in a culture war. Simply put, those who tend to support a woman's right to an abortion also tend to support multiculturalism in schools and broad free speech rights. Those who are antiabortion are usually antipornography and often support school-choice plans.

These issues are part of the realm of what Hunter calls public culture. Public culture encompasses the entire range of procedural norms and legal codes that define the acceptable limits of personal behavior and collective action and specify the nature and extent of public responsibility.

Public culture also embodies the symbols of national identity, which express the meaning of citizenship and patriotism. "More important, public culture consists of the shared notions of civic virtue and the common ideals of the public good—what is best for the general happiness of the people and the welfare of the republic." Public culture encompasses those shared standards by which individuals and communities and events and actions are evaluated and judged as right or wrong.

Finally, a nation's public culture embraces the collective myths surrounding its history and future promise. These myths elaborate the moral significance of the nation's founding; they guide the selection of its heroes and villains; and they interpret the content of its founding documents. "By providing an interpretation of the past in this way, these myths also articulate the precedents and ideals for the nation's future."

Using polling data, Hunter demonstrates that a person's positions on cultural issues are rooted in more general religious views. Put simply, those who are religiously orthodox are also culturally conservative; those who are religiously progressive or humanist are usually culturally progressive as well.

Take the results of the 1987 Religion and Power Survey conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation. "The overwhelming majority of the orthodox in Protestant (78 percent), Catholic (73 percent), and Jewish (92 percent) leadership circles said, for example, that the United States was, in general, 'a force for good in the world.'" By contrast the majority of the progressivists said that the United States was either "neutral" or "a force for ill."

"At the heart of the new cultural realignment are the pragmatic alliances being formed across faith traditions. Because of common points of vision and concern, the orthodox wings of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism are forming associations with each other, as are the progressive wings of each faith community—and each set of alliances takes form in opposition to the influence the other seeks to exert in public culture."

If the two sides in this clash often seem to be speaking different languages, that's because they are. The culture war, says Hunter, "emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on."

These disagreements were sharply defined in the debate over federal funding for the arts. Since very few people on either side wanted to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, the battle was over what type of art should be funded. Thus, it quickly became a debate over the nature and purpose of art.

For progressivists, art is an end in itself, and the artist is, in Vladimir Nabokov's words, "responsible to no one but himself." Art is an individual's attempt to interpret the world and his place in it. And those who have a unique vision deserve funding.

For the orthodox, art should reflect the sublime. For neoconservative critic Hilton Kramer art must reflect "the highest achievements of our civilization"; for columnist George Will, art should "elevate the public mind by bringing it into contact with beauty.…" Art that serves this high public purpose is worthy of government support.

Most Americans probably don't give a damn about the definition of art. Indeed, on any given cultural issue most Americans probably are neither very orthodox nor very progressive. For example, polls generally show that Americans generally favor some restrictions on abortion, but most would not ban it completely.

But Hunter sees forces that polarize cultural politics compelling those in the middle to choose sides or abandon the issue. Television—the main forum for political debate now—prefers 9.8-second sound bites to long speeches and fiery arguments to engaged debates. And special-interest groups on both sides of the culture war raise more money and gain more influence by demonizing their opponents and creating an atmosphere of crisis than by trying to forge a consensus. The results: "a drift toward bigotry" and "the eclipse of the middle."

But by focusing on social issues, Hunter draws an oversimplified portrait of the American political landscape. Polls show, for example, that the so-called Reagan youth were more liberal on social issues than Ronald Reagan himself. And many of the Catholics and Jews active in the anti-abortion movement were also part of the nuclear freeze campaign in the early and mid-1980s. To truly understand today's cultural conflict we need to know how voters, individually and collectively, rank different issues when deciding to vote for particular candidates or donate to different causes.

The Reagan youth apparently ranked economic issues above cultural ones, deciding to vote for Republicans because they seemed better able to handle the economy. But as it appears more likely that Roe v Wade will be overturned and as attempts at censorship grow stronger, will their valuations change, causing them to switch their political allegiance? Or will George Bush's mishandling of the economy drive cultural conservatives to vote for a liberal who seems more able to end the recession?

Further, is it really accurate to blame the heat of today's cultural battles primarily on special-interest groups and televised news? As Hunter acknowledges, this battle is not primarily an intellectual one but a political one. That is, it isn't really about trying to convince others that one's view of life is correct and should be followed. Rather, it is an effort to use the machinery of the state to force others to live life the way one thinks it should be lived. Either homosexuality will be prohibited, or those who think it is immoral will be forced to hire, rent to, and associate with people they think are sinners. Either sexually explicit art will be banned, or it will be funded through the NEA.

The efforts of individuals to work out privately their own compromises with one another are forbidden by both sides of this war. Neither side will allow anyone to remain neutral in the culture war. That is why the middle is disappearing. And that is why the culture war is so heated and why compromise is impossible.

Take the case of Chuck McIlhenny, a San Francisco minister who is one of California's best-known opponents of gay rights. McIlhenny wasn't always politically active, Hunter tells us. About 11 years ago, soon after the young McIlhenny took over his church, he hired a new organist. Three months later, he learned the man was gay. Church teaching forbids anyone deliberately and openly living in sin to be part of the church's communion, and the organist had no intention of changing his lifestyle. McIlhenny had to let the man go.

Charging discrimination, the organist sued the church. Two years and tens of thousands of dollars later, the church won the suit. But in the meantime, McIlhenny, his family, and his parishioners received numerous death threats. His church and home were firebombed. And an antihomosexual activist was born.

As someone who probably would be classified as a progressivist, I was saddened by Culture Wars because it documents the decline of progressivist political thinking. During the 18th and 19th centuries, religious progressivism and humanism were usually linked to political liberalism. Deists, agnostics, and atheists such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Voltaire may have regarded religion—or at least orthodox religion—as mere superstition, but they didn't want to use the power of the state to crush orthodoxy. Rather, they wanted to remove the power of the state to support orthodoxy, to take matters of conscience and culture into the private realm. This is the essence of liberal tolerance.

But today's progressivists have a different idea of tolerance. Abandoning liberalism for statism, they want to force people to live according to progressive ideals. It isn't merely enough that gays, blacks, women, etc. be freed from the laws that discriminate against them. Private expressions of "homophobia," "sexism," and "racism" must be extinguished. Hunter says that progressivists are becoming increasingly intolerant of orthodox views. To turn Herbert Marcuse's famous critique of bourgeois liberalism on its head, today's progressivists practice repressive tolerance.

Indeed, since progressivists have abandoned any meaningful distinction between the public and private realm, they have come to regard any challenge to their own orthodoxy as censorship. Hunter notes that boycotts called by religious groups to protests films and television shows they regard as anti-Christian or too sexually explicit are invariably met by charges of censorship by progressivist groups such as the People for the American Way.

In fairness to progressivists, there is little doubt that the people who usually organize these boycotts—Donald Wildmon, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell—would censor "anti-Christian" programs if they had the power. But progressivists seem unable to make that distinction. Indeed, Playboy and Penthouse once filed federal racketeering suits against the Florida branch of the American Family Association for threatening to boycott book stores that sold the magazines. The good progressivists at Playboy and Penthouse failed to see the irony in their attempts to protect free speech.

Indeed, progressivists sometimes come full circle, advocating the very ideas espoused by their most hated enemies. Feminists and fundamentalist Christians may be speaking different moral languages, but they have communicated well enough to mount an impressive campaign to censor sexually explicit books and movies.

Hunter ends his book with a few suggestions that he believes can cool down the culture war. They mostly amount to a call for both sides to be more moderate and more tolerant. But if the culture war is truly to end, progressivists must once again become political liberals. Instead of fighting for federal funding of avant garde artists, for example, progressivists should fight to end government subsidies to art. By removing these questions from the realm of politics, progressivists will be forced to actually reason with and talk to their orthodox opponents. If that happened, both sides might find they had something to learn from one another.

Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.