Before the Shooting Begins:
Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War

By James Davison Hunter
Free Press. 310 pp. $22.95

It has become a commonplace that the state of our political culture leaves much to be desired. Complaints abound about the corruption and greed of the proverbial “interest groups,” the ominous collapse of individual morality and sense of responsibility, the personal failings of politicians, and more. Disillusioned with the possibilities of making any impact upon “the system,” an enormous number of Americans do not even bother to vote. And if we may credit James Davison Hunter, an increasing number of those who do vote have little substantive understanding of what they are voting about. The grasp of public issues has largely been reduced to a personal adherence to one or another of the political slogans that activists substitute for reasoned, responsible debate. By now, most people recognize that our public life seems dangerously and acrimoniously polarized, especially over cultural issues, but few seem to understand that our bitter “culture wars” may signal-whether as cause or consequence-the disintegration of our democracy.

In Before the Shooting Begins , Hunter returns to the same themes he so thoughtfully explored in his previous book, Culture Wars . Here, however, he is not primarily concerned with dissecting the specific issues that divide Americans, although he does take abortion, the most hotly contested, as a prism through which to view them. Rather, he focuses upon the reasons we hold the views we do; the relation between our views and our political practice; and the ways in which the culture wars betray the dangerous impoverishment of our political discourse and life. Contending that the discord of our public life now exceeds “mere political disagreement following the collapse of consensus over these matters,” he warns that we are now living through “a war to impose consensus by virtually any political and rhetorical means possible.” Tellingly, Hunter has slipped from the plural “wars” of his previous work to the ominous singular, “war,” thereby suggesting that Americans are aligned on two sides of an unbridgeable divide. But even as he deplores the savagery of the war, he insists upon the significance of the issues over which it is being fought.

Hunter has no doubt that those who would dismiss cultural issues as mere epiphenomena and the struggles over them as ultimately insignificant dangerously misjudge our situation, as do those who believe our democracy to be as robust as it has ever been. To the contrary, he insists, bitterly contested cultural issues will articulate and shape our political life for the foreseeable future: “Racial conflict, gays in the military (and the rest of society), multiculturalism, text-book controversy, condom distribution to school-age children, arts funding, fetal tissue research, the tense relationship between church and state, reproduction technology, and the like all will be flash points in the coming years for this deeper conflict.” The culture war embodies a bitter struggle over the “first principles of how we will order our lives together.” The culture war, in other words, is about something, and the only way beyond it is through it. The culture war challenges Americans to find a way to talk seriously about serious issues, for neither facile slogans nor imposed solutions will suffice. Nor should we vainly hope for compromise: our disagreement permits no middle ground, although with heroic effort we may yet clear a terrain for difficult, mutually respectful discussion about difficult issues, which offer little prospect of compromise.

The quest for, and obstacles to, the delineation of such common terrain lies at the heart of Hunter’s argument, although he explicitly discusses them primarily in the introductory and concluding sections. The main body of the book is devoted to a careful and largely convincing argument about the formidable obstacles to the establishment of the kind of robust and demanding democracy that he believes our situation requires. For as he cogently insists, our contemporary preoccupation with consensus is leading us seriously astray. Practically, consensus is unlikely to emerge from the clash of two irreconcilable moral positions. More important, consensus may fairly be viewed as the antithesis of a moral position. Moral positions, when seriously held, do not admit of compromise. Morality, by definition, requires discrimination and, indeed, authority. The prevailing American preoccupation with consensus betrays our growing tendency to rely upon procedural norms to substitute for common values and ideals.

Hunter opens Before the Shooting Starts with a defense of his conviction that what is at stake is nothing less than the future of American democracy, which is teetering on the verge of disintegration. In successive sections, he then explores the politics of distortion that is promoted by special interests, the politics of ambivalence that bedevils middle America, and the politics of failed purpose that characterizes the institutions of civil society. In conclusion, he returns to his central theme of the democratic imperative, insisting upon the futility of the quest for merely political solutions, and sketching his vision of what is required to move beyond the culture war.

Throughout, his discussion abounds with illuminating insights and refreshing good sense, not to mention rare balance and judiciousness. He has, he tells us, done his best to write from a nonpartisan position, which is to say without revealing his own preferences on specific issues. And he is remarkably successful in living up to his own standard. Some readers will admire and others rail at his ability to discuss “irreconcilable differences” with even a measure of impartiality. Many others will simply appreciate the sanity and clarity that this perspective brings to the discussion. Problems nonetheless exist, if only because Hunter’s proposed solutions do not ultimately answer the fierce irreconcilability that in his view characterizes our current condition. And they do not do so in part because he falters in his diagnosis of the nature of the moral crisis through which we are living.

In discussing the politics of distortion, Hunter gives free rein to his impatience with the ways in which the most sensitive issues are trivialized and misrepresented by activists on both sides. His goal is not to charge the contending parties with deliberate lying, not least because it demonstrably does not pay in the long run. Rather, he is concerned with the kind of deliberate and deceptive overstatement-the rhetorical hyperbole-that aims to provoke an unreflective emotional response on the part of readers, listeners, or viewers. It is as if the world of reasoned argument had been reduced to the pat formulas appropriate to sound bites and bumper stickers.

Take the case of second- and third-trimester abortions. Pro-choice organizations all like to emphasize that 91 percent of all abortions take place during the first trimester, thus suggesting that the incidence of second- and third-trimester abortions is derisory. The pro-life forces, in contrast, insist that on average 160,000 second- and third-trimester abortions occur each year, which translates into more than four hundred each day of which roughly 18,000 are “unborn children at the point of viability”-that is, roughly fifty abortions of potentially viable children occur each day.

Both sides in this instance are working with the same figures, but the way in which they present them radically changes their impact. As with the numbers, so with the slogans that regularly bombard us. Obviously both sides see such distortions as mere tactics in making the best possible case for their cause. But, as Hunter points out, the conflict is not merely one of passionately held and opposing convictions. It is also one of opposing interests. At the most basic, but too frequently ignored, level the activism of both sides now provides jobs for a significant number of people. And those jobs, not to mention the public presence of an organization like Planned Parenthood, now depend upon the perpetuation of the conflict. At another level, as activists on both sides would acknowledge, virtually all American women have a direct or indirect interest in the conflict. What the activists less readily acknowledge is that men on both sides of the conflict have a direct interest as well. For many pro-choice men, the interest is their own sexual freedom. And should you doubt that they recognize the connection, ponder Hustler’s substantial contributions to the pro-choice cause. For pro-life men, as Hunter with welcome candor admits, the interest concerns their ability to keep women at home and, accordingly, dependent upon men.

The distortions that result from the efforts of activists, aided and abetted by the press, dramatize and simplify the issues with the clear purpose of persuading Americans to embrace one or another unambiguous position-to declare themselves for or against “choice,” for or against “life.” Most Americans, however, even when they do embrace one of the starkly defined alternatives, do not view the issues as unambiguous. In a chapter cowritten with Carl Bowman, Hunter draws upon his and his research assistants’ extensive analysis of polls to delineate the full range of Americans’ “ambivalence” about abortion. (Hunter first presented his evidence in “What Americans Really Think About Abortion,” FT, June/July 1992.) Their most important conclusions are familiar to those who follow the literature about the abortion debate closely, namely, that although a majority of Americans support Roe , most do not know enough about the provisions of the decision to know what they are supporting and probably would not support it if they did. Most of those who support the availability of abortion only want it available during the first trimester and erroneously believe that that is what Roe permits. Most Americans do consider abortion a serious ethical issue, and more than 70 percent believe that, in some way, it results in the taking of life.

The most compelling complexities in Americans’ views of abortion can be best appreciated if one groups them according to what Hunter and his associates call “clusters of moral opinion.” Drawing upon information from a group of responses to polling questions, they grouped the respondents into the following clusters: consistently pro-choice (16 percent), personally opposed pro-choice (8 percent), reticent pro-choice (7 percent), conveniently pro-life (14 percent), privately pro-life (19 percent), and consistently pro-life (33 percent). A quick glance shows that only half of Americans are firm and unconflicted in their views on abortion and, of those, twice as many are pro-life as pro-choice.

Space precludes my providing a full explanation of the specific beliefs of the other clusters (although the labels provide some indication), but the most striking lesson they teach is that although more people than not regard abortion as the taking of life and have serious doubts about the moral grounds for permitting it, more people support the pro-choice than the pro-life position even though the pro-life position would seem to be the most consistent with their deepest beliefs. The reasons for the inconsistencies are many, including the all-too-human willingness to countenance an abortion for a specific person (oneself, a daughter) even though one opposes abortion on principle. But Hunter insists, presumably in an attempt to educate the leaders of the pro-life movement, that the most important reason lies in the broad resonance of the terms “rights” and “choice” among the American public. In other words, many people who unambiguously consider abortion immoral refuse to take a stand against other people’s rights and choice.

To deepen the picture of American opinion provided by the polling data, Hunter and his research assistants then conducted a series of extensive interviews with “ordinary” citizens. The interviews revealed, if anything, more ambivalence about abortion than the polls and, yet more arrestingly, revealed the extent of Americans’ ambivalence about their own reasons for their views about abortion. As the polling data suggested, the interviewers consistently found that people’s private views did not perfectly mesh with their public positions. Many of those with whom they spoke were simply unwilling to impose their views upon others, for, as one woman put it, “I would say my views are true for me, but I can’t put that on someone else. I just can’t force my truths on other people.” And another woman admitted that she might be “wimping out,” but she could not bring herself to tell another woman that the fetus she was carrying was a person, “because she’s the one that ultimately makes that decision.” Other people acknowledged inconsistency in their views, but fell back on, “That’s just how I feel.” And some people even admitted that concerns about overpopulation by “poor” and “minority” children tempered their willingness to defend a pro-life policy.

The reasons for inconsistency and ambivalence are virtually as numerous as there are individuals, which, as Hunter firmly insists, is the point. Acknowledging abortion as a moral or ethical issue, people nonetheless tend to relativize and personalize it. What matters to most people is “how I feel about it.” What worries most people is the unfairness of judging others when you do not know their personal history. If you do not know how life “feels” to other people, how can you possibly tell them what to do? The older moral traditions that still nourish and inform what Hunter calls the “languages of conviction” persist in American culture, but only in the realm of personal meaning. Americans invoke them, but refuse to regard them as publicly binding. The devastating result of this personalization of morality is the radical dissociation of people’s categories of moral understanding from “any formal or theoretical schemes of moral reflection.” In the absence of knowledge of the law, substantive traditions of moral understanding, or cohesive moral communities, we are left with only our emotions as a guide to morality. “Public debate among citizens becomes an exercise in emoting toward one another.”

The institutions of civil society do nothing to redress this trend toward the personalization and relativization of morality. To the contrary, most of them in one way or another aid and abet it. Hunter singles out the media, the polling establishment, the professional associations, and the institutions of faith for special consideration in this regard, although he insists that they but serve as examples of a much broader trend. Most of us need little reminding that the media may fairly be charged with both bias and superficiality, although some of Hunter’s specific examples are especially chilling. But the professional associations are another matter, since the media normally treat them gently and the larger public is still likely to hold them in considerable esteem, if only on the assumption that professionalism still bears some relation to objectivity, considered judgment, and impartial consideration of the available evidence. Hunter’s discussion of the behavior of the American Bar Association and a large group of historians in relation to the abortion controversy should dispel any such illusion. Given the ABA’s great prestige, not to mention its quasi-official role in validating judicial appointments, the story of the way it abandoned its longstanding policy of neutrality on controversial political issues in order to pass a pro-choice resolution in 1992 will strike many readers as deeply disquieting. But in some ways Hunter’s account of the way in which a group of historians drafted and rounded up support for an amicus brief at the time of the Webster decision is more disquieting yet. In the case of the historians, Hunter argues, the brief rested upon dubious, if not dishonest, use of recognized historical evidence. [See “In the Case of Martha Nussbaum” elsewhere in this issue-ed.]

The real point is that professional associations betray their institutional identity and mission when they take partisan stands on behalf of their members or betray accepted professional standards in the service of a partisan political cause. In this respect such associations, and, sadly, churches as well, are increasingly behaving like political lobbies rather than civil institutions. Or, to put it differently, their actions are fundamentally undermining their most important identity and function. For once the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or any other church, starts behaving like Standard Oil or Dow Chemical, it loses its claim to be anything but another interest group. One can easily imagine the justifications that activists would advance on behalf of the partisanship of professional and religious institutions: the issue (in this instance abortion) transcends the realm of mere partisanship. To defend a woman’s “right” to choose is not to defend a political position but a fundamental right, and so, conversely, is the defense of a fetus’ “right” to life. In this respect, notwithstanding implacable differences, both sides insist that abortion raises issues of justice and morality that transcend partisanship. Yet both sides defend their “transcendent” views with all of the weapons of partisanship.

The prevalence of such views ominously underscores the problem Hunter is engaging. For we do live in a world in which moral battles have become intensely partisan, but then they always have been. There is nothing new in American history about the conflict of moral values per se. Slavery, prohibition, women’s suffrage, desegregation, to cite only a few, have all divided the American people along moral fault lines. But now, more readily than before, we find a conflict of moral values grounded not in theology but ideology, not in cohesive community traditions but in personal preferences.

In a final section on American attempts to deal with ethnic and cultural diversity, Hunter convincingly argues that the current wave of multicultural education is simultaneously reinforcing and diluting differences among groups, with the ultimate effect of reinforcing a mindless individualism or personalism. By an extraordinary sleight of hand, multiculturalism, he argues, has replaced the political idea that all persons and groups should be treated equally under the law with the idea that all cultures are equal. “No moral differences are allowed, for to suggest that one culture is better, more virtuous, and more excellent, and others are worse-why, this would be ‘undemocratic.’ “

Ours has become a world in which virtually all moral issues are contested. As a result there is an accelerating tendency to claim more and more partisan issues as issues of fundamental rights or morality and, conversely, to treat more and more moral issues as the object of partisan struggle. Thus while an increasing number of Americans are coming to regard morality as a private matter that should not be imposed upon others, increasing numbers are also determined that their personal moral vision should prevail. Ponder the relation between these two observations: morality has become largely if not exclusively a matter of personal feeling; moral issues must be fought and lobbied for like any other political spoil. One is left to conclude that although there is a general feeling that no common morality is possible or even desirable, each group or faction will attempt to impose its morality on all.

In conclusion Hunter argues that we need a revitalization of our democracy both through the practice of mutual tolerance in the service of finite goals (as when pro-choice and pro-life women work together to ease the situation of poor women who confront unintended pregnancies) and through the cultivation of continuing, substantive, and informed discussion of the issues that divide us within the context of a reinvigorated local political practice. The conclusion, understandably, is brief, perhaps because Hunter is much too intelligent not to know that it offers little more than a utopian leap of faith. Few readers, I suspect, will find it an adequate response to the problems that the book so chillingly sets forth. But the very weaknesses of the conclusion instructively invite us to reconsider the analysis of the book as a whole.

The single greatest strength of Before the Shooting Starts may well lie in Hunter’s penetrating discussion of the ways in which morality has devolved from a public to a private matter. Thus one could read the entire book as a delineation of the triumph of a radical individualism in American culture and politics. Having argued something similar in Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism , I am predictably sympathetic to Hunter’s argument. Yet I remain disturbed by his apparent reluctance to push his insights to their logical conclusion and by his puzzling silence on the specific nature of the culture war that troubles him. Part of the difficulty may derive from an excess of caution. Here and there, Hunter suggests that our most hotly contested moral questions were previously understood as fundamentally religious questions. Here and there, he forcefully reminds us that such moral questions can never be settled by the creation of consensus-that those who take morality seriously do not view moral questions as relative. Even today, there are few Americans on either side of the culture war who would argue that the practice of raping young girls (or boys) or selling them into white slavery should be treated as a matter of local preference. But Hunter’s determination not to align himself with one or another side in the culture war threatens to undermine his argument, not least because it smacks of a concern with the very consensus that he so cogently dismisses as illusory.

Many historical developments, notably the emergence of our global economy, have combined to produce our current travail. But most of the issues that immediately concern Hunter have a more direct origin, notably in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. For even if one plausibly contends that the sexual revolution itself resulted from massive economic change, it remains no less true that it has had an almost incalculable discrete effect on American society and values. By freeing “nice” young women to have sex before marriage without ruining their reputations or prospects-and that seems to have been all that most people initially wanted-the sexual revolution unleashed a process that with accelerating rapidity resulted in an unprecedented divorce of sex from morality. Simply put, most people came to agree that a young woman’s premarital virginity was not a moral issue. But once that much had been accepted, many people lost the conviction that it was possible or desirable to condemn other forms of sexual behavior as immoral-as inadvisable, dangerous, irresponsible, perhaps, but not immoral. From these attitudes sprang the view that sexuality of all forms and, increasingly, at all ages, was a merely private matter.

Hunter claims that abortion constitutes a useful prism through which to view an entire spectrum of contested issues, but, for one who seems genuinely concerned with the future of public morality in American society, he seems less than candid-or less analytically sharp than he usually appears. For abortion is not one issue among many: it is the issue. Gay rights, single motherhood, distribution of condoms in the schools, and related issues have important claim s upon our moral consciences and public policies, but alone among all of these abortion explicitly conflates the issue of sexuality with the issue of life. The pro-choice activists have been remarkably successful in defining abortion as a matter of personal and sexual privacy or freedom, thereby obscuring the question of life. Pro-life activists have defined abortion as a question of life, thereby sidestepping the question of sexual freedom. In this respect, the pro-life activists have, in some measure, resisted the conflation of the claims of life with the denial of sexual freedom, but many of them, as Hunter acknowledges, retain a strong preference for traditional female roles, including men’s control of women’s sexuality. Unless I am sorely mistaken, nothing will turn that clock back, not least because so many men are cutting women adrift. These days the control of female sexuality seems almost as likely to take the form of rape or abuse as to take the form of a faithful husband who supports a woman and their children throughout her life. So long as pro-life activists even appear to fall into that confusion, they will not merely sacrifice the high ground, they will inadvertently contribute to our continuing inability to defend questions of morality as public questions.

Impartiality notwithstanding, there seems little doubt that Hunter is himself committed to the notion of a public morality, which makes all the more puzzling his failure to engage morality’s religious foundations. He acknowledges in passing that public morality has traditionally rested upon religious foundations, but he does not explore the state of those foundations in our own time. No doubt the growth of secularism, ecumenicism, and multiculturalism have played a role, but external forces alone do not account for what has been happening within the churches, notably the Protestant denominations, which are wrestling with the same tensions as the secular world. The churches’ move toward the status of political lobbies is but one part of the story. The other part concerns their internal conflicts about the nature of religious authority in an age in which biblical inerrancy exhibits decreasing plausibility and commands decreasing adherence. But in retreating from biblical inerrancy, the churches have also retreated from adherence to the Bible as the Word of God. They have thereby undermined the very basis for an objective and authoritative morality. Like the larger world, they have steadily been giving ground to the claims of individual conscience.

The recognition of a theological and spiritual crisis of religious authority should underscore the importance of differentiating the central moral questions from peripheral, if related, concerns. There are clear links, notably with respect to family authority, between sex education in the schools and abortion, but the existence of links does not dictate that one treat the two issues as of comparable moral import. To rest the defense of an authoritative public morality on an issue like sex education means to risk reinforcing the view that abortion itself is merely a matter of public policy or private sexual freedom. The culture wars in the plural do tend to cluster into recognizable patterns, but by no stretch of the imagination do they fall into the neat pattern that would permit one to speak of a single war with clearly opposing antagonists. The culture war in the singular is another matter entirely, and it is a war that those who cling to some notion of public morality are losing precisely because of the tendency to claim too much. At this point, all that we may safely say is that any public morality must include some explicit pronouncement about the nature of human life-when it begins, when it ends, and the conditions under which one human may take the life of another, whether at the beginning or the end. For as Hunter knows, to leave these questions to the determination of private consciences, much less personal feeling, is to sacrifice the very concept of morality as necessarily public, difficult, discriminating, and authoritative.

Until very recently, American democracy has always assumed a moral base line. That that base line and the vigorous practice of democracy, which Hunter seeks, apparently disintegrated together should be food for thought. It is difficult to imagine how we may hope to restore the one without the other.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese teaches at Emory University and is the author of Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism.