As far as I know, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter coined the term “culture wars” in his 1991 book The Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America.
In the heat of battle, religious conservatives too have found themselves defending behavior that contradicts their stated moral values. On the relationship between the religious right and the president, he says: If “there is a hope that the state can secure the world, even by someone as imperfect as Trump, ” then “religious people, are willing to make all sorts of accommodations”—willing “to justify pretty much anything.”
Sometimes the culture wars have escalated into real violence, as when white supremacists and antifa extremists clashed in Charlottesville last August a mile down the street from Mr. Hunter’s office. Could there be a risk to the political system itself? Mr. Hunter has written before about the parallels between the American culture wars and religious and moral conflicts that have led to state breakdown abroad. In his 1994 book, “Before the Shooting Begins,” he wondered if America’s mostly peaceful culture wars amount to “our postmodern Bosnia.”
One source of optimism is that the U.S. has a remarkable history of accommodating cultural diversity. “It’s not perfect and certainly not linear, and certainly race has been one of those elements of our past and our present that resists that kind of absorption,” he says. “But you look at the Irish, you look at Catholics, Jews, Mormons.” Perhaps that past can be re-created: “My hope is that we can continue to absorb diversity. But it’s certainly being tested right now.”
The aspiration of the Enlightenment, and of liberal democracy, was always “a political order in which you can have a fair amount of diversity,” Mr. Hunter says. Because of the “epic failure of religion to provide a unifying foundation for society”—as demonstrated by the religious wars in 17th-century Europe—Enlightenment thinkers attempted to “retain Jewish and Christian values, understandings of the world, but without any of the creedal foundations.” This is one way of thinking about the project of today’s culture-war progressives: expanding universal equality and dignity, but without a foundational source of authority outside reason and science.
As to the future of the culture wars, Mr. Hunter is ambivalent. He notes that some progressives have already declared victory and quotes a colleague who said all that remains is “a mopping-up campaign.” Mr. Hunter doesn’t go that far, but he does believe that because “politics is an artifact of culture,” progressives’ disproportionate power in elite institutions “will cash out, politically, in the long term.”
Yet he doubts that reason and science are any better suited than fundamentalist religion to provide a stable basis for morality, even if the West continues to secularize. One challenge of the Enlightenment he says, is that “reason gave us the power to doubt and to question everything, including reason itself.” That “throws us back upon our own subjectivity. . . . You have your truth, I have mine.”
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