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James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1992)

Hunter is professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. In Culture Wars, Hunter attempts to explain the origins of the emerging cultural war in America, and suggest a manner in which this essential conflict between two fundamentally opposing groups can be managed so as to avoid a transformation of a war of ideas into a real civil war. To Prof. Hunter's credit, he seems to be quite aware that this conflict of values is so dramatic that it may not be resolvable peacefully.

The prologue of Culture Wars presents a series of vignettes of various forms of political activists, representing both the orthodox and progressive visions of this cultural divide: Chuck McIlhenny, the pastor of a Presbyterian church in San Francisco, whose decision to fire a homosexual organist led to lawsuits, firebombings of his church and home, and repeated death threats from homosexual activists; Richmond Young, a San Francisco homosexual activist, trying to get a domestic partners ordinance passed by the city; Yehuda Levin, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi involved in the pro-life movement; Bea Blair, a pro-choice activist; Mae Duggan, a Christian advocate against the government education monopoly; and Harriet Woods, Blair's opponent in the struggle over whether the schools will be public and secular, or diverse with a diverse set of belief systems taught in them.

Rather than seeing each of these as unconnected forms of political activism, Hunter shows how each of these activists and issues are manifestations of an underlying set of assumptions about whether moral values are transcendant (what Hunter calls the "orthodox" faction), or evolving (i.e., "progressives"). More importantly, Hunter shows us how the same words (e.g., "freedom") lead honest, well-meaning people to dramatically different policies, based on their underlying assumptions about the transcendancy or ephemerality of values.

As an example, advocates on both sides of the cultural divide esteem the Bill of Rights, but whether the guarantees and limitations contained within that document constitute a permanent statement about the appropriate relative position of government and individual, or merely a statement of general principles subject to more modern interpretation and revision, demonstrates the nature of the disagreement.

Similarly, nearly all of the orthodox faction holds the Bible to be in some manner a statement of transcendant moral values, while the progressive faction (with more exceptions) holds that where the Bible makes authoritative statements about behavior, these must be interpreted in light of an evolving understanding of human nature.

This isn't the first time this conflict has taken place in the West, of course, and Hunter provides some history of how 19th century America suffered similar struggles over whose vision of America would take precedence. At the same time, Hunter describes how, what in the 19th century was primarily a struggle between Protestants and Catholics, and both groups against Jews, is now realigning traditional opponents into common alliances, with Orthodox and some Conservative Jews working in combination with conservative Catholics and Protestants against progressives, consisting of liberal Catholics, main-line Protestants, Reform Judaism, and a variety of secular groups.

Of course, as Hunter observes, many Americans, while having some level of agreement with one of these two philosophies, are not entirely tied to one faction or another. But as the culture war heats up, people in the middle are increasingly finding themselves forced to choose sides, as I find myself having to do.

About halfway through Culture Wars, I found myself wondering, "Should I have waited for Reader's Digest to condense this?" (Obviously, that's not going to happen). Be prepared for a leisurely and detailed analysis of the struggles that are underway in America.

Throughout Culture Wars, Hunter maintains a careful objectivity concerning both the underlying philosophies, the individual issue expressions of those philosophies, and the activists themselves. I have no idea on which side of the divide Hunter himself stands -- and I rather prefer that approach.

Hunter believes that the progressive factions will win, largely because they largely control the mass media and the educational establishment.

Clayton's rating: This is a somewhat long-winded book (as I mentioned above), but a serious and intelligent examination of a serious problem that seems to be, if anything, worse than when this book was first published.  I bought a copy.