(I'm now writing an opinion column for the "Charlottesville Observer". Here is the next entry.)
Journalists are using the phrase “culture wars” as an all-purpose descriptor for the bitter controversies inflaming local and national media. Talk show hosts quickly make use of incidents such as Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl or Bush’s latest press conference as ammunition for their side of the “war”. Bill O’Reilly includes it as a topic on his television show. Al Franken, and others, have launched Air America, a liberal response to conservative talk radio, as another front in this war.
A look at the origin and history of the phrase will help explain much of the bitterness that characterizes the current Presidential campaign.
In 1990 UVA Professor James Davison Hunter published an article, soon to be part of his book, Culture Wars: the Struggle to Define America. Evangelical Protestants, traditionalist Catholics and Orthodox Jews seemed to be lining up on one side of the political spectrum against their co-religionists on the other side. Issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the pledge of allegiance now divide members of the same congregation. Hunter quotes evangelical activist Franky Schaeffer who had called for Christians in different denominations to band together in “an ecumenism of orthodoxy” to counter a liberal ecumenism … bound together by unbelief”.
A recent example of this is shown by the way evangelical Protestants strongly supported Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Gibson, an ultra conservative Catholic is working from an artistic tradition of elaborate icons that had been rejected in earlier generations of evangelical Protestantism. On the other side, Gibson is finding many mainstream Catholics objecting to his film on the basis that it is not true to the gospels. The emphasis on Christ’s suffering, they add, is a relatively new (19th century) development in Christian art.
Hunter traces the source of disagreement to the issue of moral authority. He finds two polarizing impulses: orthodoxy and progressivism. Those on the orthodox side are characterized by a commitment to an external, definable and transcendent authority. Progressives are more likely to recast historic truths in terms of contemporary life.
He was concerned about the increasingly bitter controversy between orthodox and progressives. His fears were soon to be confirmed: In 1992 Pat Buchanan told the Republican National Convention that, on abortion, “The conflicting positions can no more be reconciled that those of John Brown and John Calhoun.”
In his next book, Before the Shooting Starts, Hunter searches for paths for compromise in a democratic society. He cites comparative law Professor Mary Ann Glendon’s conclusion that the problem in America is unique. In Europe, where the voters had direct influence on the outcome, abortion is permitted but restricted in various ways. In the United States, Roe v. Wade restricts the voters to fighting over which candidate will chose the Supreme Court justices who will interpret the constitution and decide the outcome. Reaching compromise through the ballot box is unlikely.
Hunter searching for a solution, recommends the Williamsburg Charter, written as part of the bicentennial of the Constitution. The charter recommends four guidelines for political discourse:
• Those who claim the right to dissent should assume the responsibility for debate
• Those who claim the right to criticize should assume the responsibility to comprehend
• Those who claim the right to influence should accept the responsibility not to inflame
• Those who claim the right to participate should accept the responsibility to persuade
My own reaction to this is that it is like the convention of mice that concluded that the solution to the feline threat is to tie a bell around the cat’s neck. Good solution, but who can do it?
There is not much that we in Charlottesville can do about the fat cats in the national media and political arenas. At the local level we can take a hint from Bob Hodous’ Observer column calling for civility in local political discourse – and in Mitchell Van Yahres’ letter in response. We can at least make it clear that, at the local level, we will insist that politicians and media figures treat one another with respect and search for solutions rather than attempt to defeat one another in an all out war in which no compromise is possible.