Freedom of religion – protected in America for two hundred years by the Bill of Rights – has become more a source of divisiveness than the binding force it used to be in American life. Abortion, school prayer, creation science, and secular humanism are a few examples of the conflict between religious liberty and public justice that arise today.
At the very center of cultural conflict today are a host of public issues–abortion, sexual harassment, homosexuality–issues so contentious they have recently provoked violence. Finding chilling parallels between today’s culture war and the period just before America’s civil war, Professor James Davison Hunter in Before the Shooting Begins poses the central political question of our time–how might we find a working agreement on the common good in a culture as fractured and contentious as ours? Hunter persuasively demonstrates that the only way beyond the contemporary culture war is through the hard, often tedious task of arguing substantively over our deepest differences: however, enormous obstacles stand in the face of such a path.
Focusing primarily on the abortion dispute, Hunter explores the world of civil institutions, of special interests, and ordinary citizens, and finds that power politics, not substantive democracy, has come to dominate the manner in which the cultural struggles of our day are addressed. Institutions that could or should mediate the debate such as the university and media operate themselves now as special interest groups. Also, in his large-scale national study of American’s views on abortion, the author finds a disturbing inability of ordinary citizens to argue a consistent, well-reasoned position. Transitory sentiment now dominates discussion, and as Hunter warns, ephemeral feelings can hardly serve as a basis for meaningful debate on divisive issues. He also persuasively argues that the multicultural movement must bear some responsibility for the intractability of these conflicts, for instead of acknowledging the very deed divisions in our society, the movement emphasizes a comforting but fictional belief in the fundamental sameness of people. In the end, Hunter finds an unnerving tendency in American public culture toward what he calls “shallow democracy” –where the dynamics of power politics prevail over substantive reflection and debate.
“Few contemporary thinkers can match James Davison Hunter’s ability to join moral urgency with democratic civility. If we are to prevent the culture wars from turning into civil war, people across the political and cultural divides need to understand his analysis and respond to his appeal.”
- Father Richard John Neuhaus
“Tragically the shooting has already begun in some communities. Hunter offers a voice of reason and an urget plea for democratic dialogue. Whether we are on the far left, the far right or – more likely – in the ambivalent middle, we need to learn from this book.”
- Robert Wuthnow, author of After the Baby Boomers
“A straight-shooting, sober volume about what divides us and how those divisions are made manifest in a way that precludes open, authentic debate. Hunter suggests that many of the most vocal adversaries in our culture wars have a stake in preventing serious dialogue by contrast to hurling invectives. Is there a way through the impasse? Yes, he argues, but it won’t be easy.”
- Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of Sovereignty: God, State, and Self
“With reasoned cadence and eschewing all rhetoric, the author presents the breakdown of dialogue ad civic discourse as at the heart of our current cultural crises and does it in the most convincing of manners. His chapter on ‘The Education of Citizens’ and remarks on multiculturalism should be read by everyone, most particularly students and faculty in our university system.”
- Adam B. Seligman, author of The Idea of Civil Society