Clash Of The Cultures
Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,by James Davison Hunter (Basic Books, 400 pp.; $24.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Robert W. Patterson, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America, who is associate to the executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals.
In 1955 the noted Jewish philosopher Will Herberg wrote his classic Protestant, Catholic, Jew, claiming that a new cultural consensus had been achieved in the United States as three historically antagonistic groups had learned to accommodate themselves to each other. While tensions still existed between these faiths, Herberg found that their shared ethical idealism and belief in social progress rooted in a common biblical theism gave American society in the midtwentieth century a powerful sense of identity and purpose.
The thesis made a lot of sense a generation ago, but if he were living now, Herberg would find that his neat structure of American pluralism has collapsed. According to a young sociologist at the University of Virginia, James Davison Hunter, we have not peacefully progressed from the consensus of Protestant, Catholic, Jew, but reverted to heated religious conflict that many had thought was confined to America’s past. Hunter forcefully articulates and vividly illustrates the contemporary crisis in Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.
The book examines the various contemporary strands of public disagreement, highlighting the heightened social tensions: between prolifers and those defending abortion rights, between defenders of the traditional family and those calling for tolerance of “alternative” lifestyles, between critics of school textbooks and television programming and those who cry “censorship.”
Far more is at stake than what meets the eye, claims the professor: “What seems to be a myriad of self-contained cultural disputes actually amounts to a fairly comprehensive and momentous struggle to define the meaning of America—of how and on what terms will Americans live together, of what comprises a good society.”
The stakes are high. In Hunter’s view, the war being waged involves nothing less than the struggle for power, for control over important culture-defining institutions, including the family, church, academy, the media, and the state. Perhaps not since the Civil War has the country faced such a crisis of identity and purpose.
Redrawing The Battle Lines
What makes the conflict today more precarious than religious tensions of the past is its very structure, as fighting has erupted in new and unfamiliar territory. Rather than stemming from hostilities between faith groups, Hunter says the new crisis has emerged within faith groups, as “orthodox” elements in Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities have joined forces against their “progressive” counterparts.
Here the author borrows insights from his Princeton mentor, Robert Wuthnow, who contended in The Restructuring of American Religion that differences within denominations are becoming more significant than differences between them. Hunter expands the Wuthnow thesis, suggesting that the formation of pragmatic interfaith alliances between the orthodox and progressive parties signals the new defining cleavage in American society.
Hunter recognizes that the battles engage not just religious folk, but Americans who claim no religion as well. Still, Hunter insists that the battle, while not strictly theological or ecclesiastical, is essentially a religious one: “The cultural war emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on.”
In sizing up the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides, Hunter makes no predictions as to who has the upper hand or who will ultimately win. Nor does the author reveal his own sympathies, although as an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination aligned with the orthodox forces, he most likely leans to the Right.
Not playing his hand may disappoint some readers, but his effort to maintain professional detachment is probably the book’s greatest asset. This is because, as Hunter correctly concludes, what is needed today is not greater escalation of the conflict, but an effort on the part of both sides to improve both the quality and structure of public discussion. The struggle for cultural hegemony will never be resolved, Hunter believes, if the “reciprocal bellicosity” that characterizes much of contemporary public discussion continues. Granted, the crisis has not degenerated into physical violence, but no society, warns Hunter, can long endure an ongoing clash of competing moral visions.
What hinders greater public civility is what Hunter terms the “technology of public discourse.” The very communicative media through which the war is being waged—radio talk shows, “sound bites” on network news, newspaper editorials, and direct mail—work against the more labored, reasoned, and reflective dialogue needed to bring about resolution. By catering to popular tastes and to a market that thrives on superficial and sensational rhetoric, communication technologies foster greater polarization, highlighting extreme voices while muffling those in the middle. Hunter calls direct mail, a vehicle used by virtually all special-purpose groups, a “medium of passion” that only kindles partisan emotions.
Compared to the media technology Hunter finds wanting, Culture Wars succeeds in creating the kind of civilized exchange for which the author pleads. Rather than casting the war in abstract terms between extremists debating ideology from the trenches, Hunter skillfully brings the crisis down to a very human and personal level. His prologue features “up front and personal” vignettes of six middle-class men and women, all grassroots activists involved in their communities. On the orthodox team are a Presbyterian minister fighting a homosexual-partners ordinance in San Francisco, a Jewish rabbi involved in Operation Rescue in New York, and a Catholic woman lobbying for education vouchers. On the progressive team, the reader meets a homosexual Catholic supporting the San Francisco ordinance, an Episcopal clergywoman defending abortion rights, and a secular, nonreligious ex-politician from Missouri. By weaving references to these real-life characters throughout the entire book, Hunter goes a long way in raising the level of understanding regarding the nature of the conflict and the parties involved.
The New Face Of Evangelicalism
American evangelicals, who have struggled for greater self-understanding during the last two decades, should find Culture Wars particularly meaningful. If Hunter’s analysis is correct, evangelicalism today carries a far different public face than a generation ago. When modern evangelicalism emerged on the public scene in the 1950s, it was primarily a party within Protestantism with a positive agenda of evangelism (Billy Graham), cooperation (NAE), and theological articulation (Fuller Theological Seminary and this magazine). But today the movement, at least culturally, finds its identity as one party within the broader alliance of orthodox Jews and conservative Catholics at war with liberal culture.
While this observation breaks new ground in evangelical historiography, how it dovetails with Hunter’s earlier work Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, which claimed a new generation of evangelicals is accommodating itself to secular culture, is not clear. Hunter does mention that both sides of the cultural divide are vulnerable to moderation, accommodation, and redirection. But if evangelicals have indeed accommodated themselves to the larger culture to the extent Hunter claims in his earlier book, one wonders why evangelicals would be the most visible and vocal element of the orthodox camp today. Is Hunter talking about two different kinds of evangelicalism? If so, the evangelicalism of the 1950s has receded from public view, only to be replaced with a new variety three decades later.
In his epilogue, Hunter, recognizing that neither side will ever be able to claim total victory, expresses hope that a new democratic consensus might form to enable Americans to maintain civility in spite of their moral differences. He does not lay out a plan to facilitate that, but it would seem that Christians in general and Protestants in particular could play a role.
What would happen if representatives from both orthodox and progressive Protestant camps initiated a series of sustained and reasoned talks geared to developing mutual understanding of the differences that divide? This could take place at a number of levels, whether through respective commissions of the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches; or through respective committees of divided denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America; or between local evangelical ministeriums and their mainline counterparts. Such deliberations, without requiring compromises of principle from each side, would go a long way in lessening the rhetorical excesses that strain the American community. Given the prospects of unresolved and continued cultural strife, Hunter’s call for a new common rationality is one that must be taken seriously.
Welcoming The Sojourner
Chapter and Verse: A Skeptic Revisits Christianity,by Mike Bryan (Random House, 325 pp.; $22.00, hardcover). Reviewed by Doug LeBlanc, a journalist based in Colorado Springs.
In Chapter and Verse, Mike Bryan’s achievement is rare. An almost lifelong agnostic has written a well-informed, sympathetic book about unabashed fundamentalists at Criswell College in Dallas. Bryan is welcomed to Criswell by Paige Patterson, the feisty conservative so disdained by less conservative Southern Baptists. “Hey, if our ideas can’t stand up to your questions and ideas, then we as believers have a problem, don’t we?” Patterson says to Bryan. “We can learn from you. Our feet are clay, too.”
Walker Percy’S Doppelgänger
Signsposts in a Strange Land,by Walker Percy, edited by Patrick Samway (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 428 pp.; $25.00, hardcover). Reviewed by John Wilson, an editor and writer for a publisher of reference books in Pasadena, California.
In this posthumously published miscellany, edited with fussy reverence by a Jesuit scholar, several of Walker Percy’s multiple selves are generously represented. Percy the Southern writer (a bit too much of that, except for those whose appetite for the mystique of the South is insatiable) shares time with Percy the Catholic (whose vision of American Christendom may bemuse CT readers: in Percy’s reckoning. Catholics, mainline Protestants, and fundamentalists all figure prominently while evangelicals remain almost invisible).
The sage of Covington is here, too, the genial public persona—equally conversant with Kierkegaard and Phil Donahue—whose Louisiana home became a mecca for readers searching for enlightenment. Also well represented is Percy the physician-turned-novelist, who in essays as well as in fiction brought the curiosity of the ideal scientist to bear on matters outside science’s province—that is, “What it is like to be an individual, to be born, live, and die in the twentieth century.” Finally, there is Percy the student of language and semiotics, whose Jefferson Lecture, “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind,” shows how reductionism renders the sciences of man incoherent.
So what’s wrong with this picture? There is something missing: rage, alienation, the howl that wells up within us at the state of things—in short, all that fueled Percy’s apocalyptic, some would say prophetic, satires.
It is good to have these pieces in book form to set on the shelf next to The Moviegoer, The Second Coming, Lancelot, and The Thanatos Syndrome. The nice man who looks at us from the dust jacket of Signposts, however, should not be confused with the devious fellow who wrote those other books, the brooding doppelgänger pictured in the painting that hangs behind him. That Walker Percy is best described in the 1977 self-interview that concludes this volume: “an ex-suicide, a cipher, naught, zero—which is as it should be, because being a naught is the very condition of making anything.”
Bryan is surprised by the diversity of dress styles at Criswell: “Dress was casual, very casual: women in pants; women in designer jeans; one kid with a semipunk haircut, white turtleneck, and sharp black sweater.… My conclusion from this initial and cursory appraisal of the student body was a relief: whatever I was in for at Criswell College, it would not be the revenge of the nerds.”
Bryan was in for a term of disciplined study of Scripture under professors well versed in higher criticism, heartfelt proselytism by fellow students and professors, and mournful warnings of hell if he did not accept Christ.
Bryan is impressed, rather than annoyed, at such concern about his soul. He defends evangelism as legitimate: “If you resent the Bible-toting proselytizers who go door-to-door, you don’t like the Christianity of the Bible.”
He gives higher marks to the self-confident conservatism at Criswell than to the vague spirituality of the Left: “Not only can we on the religious left not raise Lazarus from the dead, we have no beliefs at all, no authority to tell us who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, or why. Our shrines are either stuffed full of patently false idols, shuffled at random, or they are kept empty on purpose.”
Bryan’s parents left Methodism when their favorite pastor moved away. Bryan’s father now divides his time between the golf course and his Unitarian church, depending on the weather. “It’s today, not tomorrow” is how Bryan’s mother describes her faith.
When Bryan looks up his parents’ beloved minister, Don Pevey, we see why their faith is so fuzzy. “Most Methodists believe in the physical resurrection,” Pevey says. “A lot believe in the so-called spiritual resurrection. But all say that on the third day something happened that caused the frightened disciples to become courageous disciples. What was it exactly? You don’t want to get too tied down with flesh and blood walking through doors.”
Bryan comes close to taking a step of faith—once after seeing Pope John Paul II in New York City, and once during a moving funeral for a Criswell professor’s teenage son. Bryan never makes it clear what keeps him from taking that step, except that Christianity has not been relevant to him since before he was a teenager.
For now, he has contributed greatly toward good will between Christians and secularists. If people on both sides read Chapter and Verse, we will hear less loose talk about fundamentalists bent on world domination or about scornful agnostics out to persecute the faithful.
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