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Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.

This is a sociological work which ought to be of considerable interest to historians of modern America. Although Hunter's focus is very clearly on the present, he provides nonetheless a framework within which much of the conflict in American public life since the late nineteenth century can be placed. Gratifyingly he shows a reasonable awareness of the historical roots of the current situation.

In brief, Hunter argues that the central division in contemporary American society is not over race, or income, or gender, nor is it even the political split of "left" and "right" in the conventional sense of those terms. Rather political conflict is itself a manifestation of a deeper cultural conflict: whatever the issue -- abortion, pornography, homosexuality, foreign policy, and so on -- Hunter asserts that the best predictor of attitudes is not income or race, but fundamental cultural orientation. While this does correlate in some measure with class position, "it would be a mistake to reduce the conflict to artifacts of 'warring material interests' between the lower middle and upper middle classes" (pp. 63-64). Those he labels "cultural conservatives" or "moral traditionalists" on the one hand and the "liberals" or "cultural progressives" on the other are at root divided by differing religious visions. "... politics is, in large part, an expression of culture .... At the heart of culture, though, is religion or systems of faith. And at the heart of religion are its claims to truth about the world" (p. 57). For the "cultural conservatives" "moral authority arises from a ... commitment to transcendance," that is, to a belief that there is a reality prior to and independent of human experience which can act as an authoritative guide to conduct (p. 120). For "cultural progressives" "moral and spiritual truth can only be conditional and relative" (p. 123).

There are a number of cases where individuals do not have the predicted values -- some secularists with no religious beliefs are firmly opposed to abortion, for example -- and most Americans are uncomfortable being located on either side of the "war." Nonetheless, while most Americans seek a middle position, public debate is dominated by the extremes -- "public discourse is more polarized than the public itself" (p. 159). Indeed the two sides do not talk to each other and cannot find a common frame of reference within which to dialogue. Instead they engage in unrestrained abuse in an attempt to destroy their opponent's legitimacy in the eyes of the public. In large measure this is the product of the various organizations enlisted in the fight over cultural issues and of the media which they use -- such as direct mail campaigns -- to reach their publics. These tend to polarize debate by their heavy reliance on scare tactics and dramatic calls to arms.

Hunter explores the conflict as it is manifested in debates over family policy, education, the media and the arts, the law and electoral politics. He ends the book with an exploration of various possibilities for resolving the conflict. This is, not very surprisingly, a less than satisfactory section of the work.

In his account of the historical roots of the "culture war" the author goes back to the second half of the nineteenth century when Darwinism and the higher criticism of the Bible began to create serious rifts within the churches. Hunter places more emphasis, however, on the transformation of American society after World War II. The growth of an information based economy, the concomitant rise of universities to a central role in society and the economic and political empowerment of women have all "contributed to the undermining of previous agreements about how Americans should order their lives together" (p. 63). While the roots of the culture war are of long standing, a striking recent development is the way in which old divisions have given way to new coalitions as, for example, evangelical Protestants, orthodox Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Jews have learned to work together on such issues as abortion.

Hunter is not a brilliant and original theorist but he is a shrewd and diligent observer of the current American scene who has a good if not flawless sense of its historical origins. Widely published in the area of religious sociology he brings a wealth of knowledge to bear on his topic. Certainly the American presidential election of 1992 seemed to bear witness to the reality and saliency of cultural conflict in American politics. What Hunter helps us to realize is that these conflicts have been long in the making and represent deep and not superficial divisions in American life. Thus from this perspective the 1920s seem not an aberration but rather an earlier chapter in the conflict. Explanations for it which focus solely on class, place of residence or ethnicity are clearly inadequate and Hunter's contention that what is at stake are fundamentally divergent conceptions of the nature of truth and reality must be seriously entertained.
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Author:Cassidy, Keith
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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