Wall Street Journal offers think-piece-level 'Culture Wars' chat with James Davison Hunter

When you hear someone start talking about America and our torrid "Culture Wars," what do you think?

You probably think of headlines like this one: "Disney doesn’t want to offend anyone. But it’s getting caught in the culture wars."

Or here is another one from a current search in Google News: "Constitutional fluke gives rural states extra clout in the culture wars."

OK, here's one more captures the legal side of so much of this coverage: "How Due Process Became a New Front in the Culture Wars."

So "Culture Wars" equals political battles over, well, cultural issues, things like abortion, gay rights, textbooks in Texas, sitcoms that mention Donald Trump, "liberals" shutting down free-speech forums and so forth and so on.

The problem is that very few of these "Culture Wars" stories have anything to do with the actual ideas in the classic 1991 book "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America" by sociologist James Davison Hunter. To be specific, new journalists ever get around to explaining Hunter's definition of this term.

So before we get to this weekend's "think piece" -- a Wall Street Journal (beware, high paywall) piece entitled, "The Man Who Discovered ‘Culture Wars’ " -- let's flash back to my 1998 "On Religion" salute to Hunter's book. The key is that Hunter declared that:

... America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

I noted that this has become a fault line that "runs through virtually every set of pews in contemporary religious life." There is way more to this than political conflict:

Ask any big question and this issue looms in the background. Is the Bible an infallible source of truth? Is papal authority unique? Do women and men have God-given roles in the home and the church? Can centuries of Jewish traditions survive in the modern world? Can marriage be redefined? Is abortion wrong? Can traditionalists proclaim that sex outside of marriage is sin? Are heaven and hell real? Do all religious roads lead to the same end? Is there one God, or many? What is his or her name or names?
Many in the orthodox camp disagree on some of the answers, but they are united in their belief that public life must include room for those who insist eternal answers exist. Meanwhile, progressives are finding it harder to tolerate the views of people they consider offensive and intolerant. This is not a clash between religious people and secular people, stressed Hunter. This is a battle between two fundamentally different approaches to faith.

One might add that "two fundamentally different approaches to faith" often equals two fundamentally different approaches to life.

Here is the overture to this opinion-page piece by Jason Willick:

An evangelical minister, a Catholic priest and an Orthodox rabbi get arrested in Manhattan. “It sounds like the beginning of a great joke,” says James Davison Hunter. But it was a real event, and it inspired a political theory -- “culture wars” -- that today resonates far beyond the academy.
Mr. Hunter was a young sociology professor in the late 1980s when he saw the story in a New York newspaper: Police had broken up a large antiabortion protest that included Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy. “Given the long legacies of anti-Catholicism, and the long legacies of anti-Semitism in America,” he says, “the fact that you have leaders in these traditions standing arm and arm, in protests, was a pretty remarkable thing in my mind.”
For much of American history, the most salient cultural fault lines were between religious groups. Hostility between Protestants and Catholics prompted bitter battles over school curricula in the mid-19th century, and the fight over Prohibition pitted mostly Protestant “drys” against mostly Catholic “wets.” But by the 1960s cross-denominational conflicts had begun to fade. As America became more culturally diverse, the Protestant consensus gave way to a Christian consensus, and later a “Judeo-Christian” one.
Yet social peace did not arrive. Quite the opposite.

Now, perhaps it would help to point readers toward a little bit of background, in terms of where this term came from -- before Hunter used it to frame sweeping changes in American faith, culture, life and politics.

Mr. Hunter got his title from Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, the late-19th-century effort to absorb Germany’s Roman Catholic south into its Protestant north. The two sides, he explains, had “fundamentally different understandings of national identity.” The word Kulturkampf translates more literally into “cultural struggle,” but Mr. Hunter feels his tweak was justified. “As I was interviewing people back in the ’80s and then into the ’90s,” he says, “the activists who were involved in it all said -- left and right -- this feels like war.”
As well it might. “The state is the institution that holds the reins of legitimate violence,” Mr. Hunter says, “and this is one of the reasons why our disputes tend to be litigated more than they are actually debated.” When your cultural adversaries are in power, it can feel as if you are under hostile occupation. “The state becomes the patron of a certain vision of the world,” he adds.

You need to read all of this one, but I'll give you a major hint where Hunt's work has taken him in the past third of a century.

The bottom line: You need to read another book. That would be Hunter's "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World."

As the battle escalated, the two cultural sides took different approaches. The traditionalists “chose to fight the culture wars politically,” Mr. Hunter says. “They are going after the Supreme Court; they are going after the White House.” ... 
But outside government, progressives have a clear cultural advantage in major institutions, from universities to movie studios to publishing houses to advertising agencies. Such institutions matter because “culture is not only a system of meaning” but also an “economy,” Mr. Hunter says. “Where are these cultures actually produced? The culture of conservatives is overwhelmingly produced in the middle-rank, low-prestige institutions.” He points out that Focus on the Family “is located in Colorado Springs; it’s not in New York City; it’s not in L.A.” Conservative colleges, like Wheaton and Hillsdale, are few and widely scattered.
Meanwhile, the “cultural economy of progressivism,” Mr. Hunter says, “is produced out of elite institutions overwhelmingly,” so that progressive values become “normalized in the larger culture industry.”

That reminds me of another book, one that Hunter didn't write: "After The Ball."

That's another "Culture Wars" classic, perhaps one to discuss another day.

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