March 3

From Culture War to . . . ?

The writings of James Davison Hunter seem even more timely now than when he first wrote more than twenty years ago. Indeed, there is almost a prophetic quality to them not only as a prescient glimpse of decades still future when he wrote – a “foretelling” of what was to come – but also as a “forthtelling” of truths we too often forget or neglect. InĀ Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War, he writes,

We Americans would like to imagine ourselves to be somehow above and beyond the possibility of serious civil strife. The very idea of the civil unrest that has torn apart nations like Yugoslavia, Ireland, and Lebanon happening here jolts the mind. Total nonsense, we are inclined to say; we are much too civilized for that sort of thing.

Perhaps so, and perhaps we think this with good reason . . . But then the idea burrows into the mind, suggesting some uncomfortable parallels. Here, as there, nonnegotiable claims about the ordering of public life are in conflict. Here, as there, the claims made (even if thought of as secular) are religious in character, if not in substance . . . Here, as there, the conflicting claims trace quickly back to competing ideals of community and national identity. Finally, here, as there, a culture war with deep historical roots has festered just barely beneath of surface of public life . . .

He warns, as a Christian sociologist:

[S]urely we are unwise to minimize the significance of the challenges our culture war presents to American democratic life and institutions. The challenge is not just the potential volatility of particular controversies. The challenge is internal as well, in the ways the normative ideals that democracy itself depends upon have been weakened . . . The ‘center’ can no longer hold; the older faiths – Judeo-Christian and Classical – that once amidst great diversity provided a set of common, if not always coherent, assumptions for the ordering of public life (seen most visibly in Western law, literature, arts, and the like) no longer play . . .

The central premise of this essay is that in a democratic society the [core beliefs] cannot be imposed from the top down but must be generated from the bottom up, in the dialectical process of generating new working agreements out of a serious confrontation with our deepest differences.

If there is a national character, millenarianism is certainly one of its defining characteristics. Democrats, independents, and Republicans; conservatives, libertarian, and liberals; religionists and secularists – we all want America to be a ‘city upon a hill’ . . .

What is even more problematic about this underlying utopianism is that it operates upon what Max Weber called an ‘ethics of ultimate ends.’ In this ethic, the ends always justify the means. What are the means of which he speaks? Weber, dogged realist that he was, said the ‘the decisive means for politics is violence.’ The ends, in other words, always justify forms of coercion . . .

Clearly there is a need to temper the expectations built into this tenacious exceptionalism . . .

The call, then is for modesty about our political objectives. For one, this means a recognition that America will never really be a city upon a hill and, if it is, it will be by necessity a city whose walls are crumbling and always in need of repair; America will never be a beacon, except one that is not so bright and this is periodically prone to go out. Modesty, then, means a recognition that America will always be flawed. For Christians and many Jews, this is not compromise but a frank recognition that the world will always be marred by sin, and that the believer’s true citizenship is in heaven . . . Such modesty does not require the abandonment of one’s ideals, however utopian, narrowly defined and/or partisan they may be, but rather their interaction with what Weber called an ‘ethics of responsibility’ . . . Once again, without abandoning one’s ideals, the credo changes. No longer is it ‘today, we will remake the world’; rather, it is ‘today we will try to make the world just a little bit better.’