From culture wars to cultural nihilism: An interview with James Davison Hunter

The University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter is best known for his 1991 book, Culture Wars. He argued that American society was increasingly divided between “orthodox” and “progressives” on central questions of morality. Hunter calls his new book, Democracy and Solidarity: The Cultural Roots of America’s Political Crisis (Yale University Press, $40), a “bookend” to his earlier work, this time going deeper into the history of the country’s cultural conflicts and its contemporary outgrowths and implications. RW interviewed Hunter by email in late May.

RW: In your new book you focus on how the U.S. has, until fairly recently, been held together by a “hybrid-Enlightenment.” Could you briefly explain this?

Hunter: All healthy societies are bound together, not by the power of a state and its military, but by the power of a culture. Through most of history, cultures were religious in character. Both belief and practice were shared widely, even among those who dissented, for they dissented against what they recognized as a dominant culture.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual and cultural revolution that sought to undermine the authority of traditional religious belief, practices, and institutions in favor of an alternative rooted in the authority of reason. But in America, the Enlightenment was not as aggressively and violently secular as it was in France. It was not reacting against a powerful Catholic hierarchy that supported a sclerotic monarchy. It was moderate, drawing upon a variety of cultural sources, among them, classical republicanism, Lockean individualism, and, prominently, the reformed traditions of Protestant Christianity. It was a hybrid, with these sources blending together in ways that were distinctly American. This hybrid-Enlightenment was the source of political solidarity at the time of the founding.

James Davison Hunter is a historical and cultural sociologist concerned with the problems of moral order in the midst of political and cultural change in American life. (Photo by Dan Addison, University of Virginia

RW: In your earlier work on the culture wars in 1991, you wrote that there were still enough common cultural resources to keep “orthodox” and “progressive” opponents on the same page and speaking the same language. What has changed with the new culture wars we are seeing now?

Hunter: The hybrid-Enlightenment was possible and culturally powerful in large measure because it was opaque. People could read their own tradition and communities into it. References to God or the Creator, for example, were vague enough that they could be embraced by deists, Calvinists, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Jews alike. Ideals like freedom could be embraced by many different communities, even though they meant something different within them. This “useful misunderstanding” could be sustained over the generations in large measure because the practical morality of these communities remained much the same—a similar, even if vague understanding of family life, gender roles, work, civic decency, public responsibility, and the relative importance of faith and the practices that went along with it.

This remained true for most of the 20th century. In the early decades of the culture war, however, the general moral consensus began to dissolve. Drawing upon and in some respects radicalizing different strands of the hybrid-Enlightenment, moral differences over abortion, gender roles, sexuality, the authority of religion and the like were no longer marginal, but rather mainstream causes of public and political contention. Opponents were still recognizable to each other, but their moral differences became increasingly incommensurable. Each side could speak of freedom, equality, and toleration, but impute fundamentally different meaning to these words.

RW: In this revision of your work on the culture wars, you view these conflicts as becoming more secular. Why is that?

Hunter: Because competing sides of the culture war no longer believe that they can persuade the other side, they have stopped trying. Moreover, they have largely stopped trying to legitimate their positions through an appeal to common American traditions of political philosophy. The culture war, then, has devolved into a contest over competing hegemonic projects where the only thing that matters to each is defeating their opponents. Power is the main thing that matters.

RW: In the place of reasoned arguments or even secular and religious beliefs and worldviews clashing, you write that a kind of “cultural nihilism” based on grievances and even revenge is becoming prominent among both parties in this intensified culture war. Could you explain this?

Hunter: Power may be the main thing that matters in the contemporary culture war, but it still needs to be justified. It still needs to be seen as legitimate if only to those who seek it. Absent any shared sources of cultural or political authority, a new language and a new cultural logic have emerged to rationalize and validate their claims to power. This is what I call the cultural logic of ressentiment, a narrative of injury that identifies an “antagonist” as the source of that injury and negates that enemy through an ethics of revenge. What this means is that neither side of the culture war can see their adversary as a loyal opposition but only as an enemy, and enemies should be destroyed. One often hears voices on the Left and Right say that the country would be better off if the other side didn’t exist at all. The shared cultural nihilism is fundamentally oriented toward dehumanizing the opposition; it is fundamentally about a symbolic and cultural annihilation. This is the fundamental nature and purpose of “cancellation,” and both sides practice it. So far as I can tell, this is every bit as true on the Christian Right as it is on the Christian Left.

RW: In evangelical circles, one hears much about how conservative Christians are now living in a “negative world,” where older forms of tolerance and neutrality toward Christianity have been replaced by hostility. Do you see this taking place as the culture wars have intensified?

Hunter: There is no question that American public life has become less congenial to American evangelicals, and in a way this is new. Hostility toward religion as expressed, say, in French anti-clericalism was never a prominent feature of American intellectual life or elite culture. But it has become so in the last several decades. The consequence of this has been a marginalization of Christianity in America—full stop. This is especially seen in the stigmatization of Christianity and of Christians themselves within the leading institutions of cultural formation—intellectual life, higher education, the arts, journalism and the news media, popular entertainment, advertising, and so on.

But if we’re honest, evangelicals were a prominent source of the reigning culture of negation. Christians sought to resist what they have seen as the decline of American society—which was really a transformation from modern to late modern culture—by going negative on “secular humanism,” feminism, gay rights, and so on. In other words, the cultural ground beneath their feet had shifted. America had become post-Christian on its way to becoming post-liberal. Christians reacted by trying to keep America “Christian” and using political means to do so. In short, they were, and still are, trying to use the coercive power of the state to achieve cultural ends. It not only generated a new and deeper hostility among their opponents, but it is a strategy that is guaranteed to fail. Politics can never do the work of culture.

RW: You have written how, based on history, culture wars can become shooting wars. What is the potential for violence or even a civil war in these current conflicts?

Hunter: Culture wars don’t inevitably become shooting wars, but you never have a shooting war without a prior culture war. The reason is that culture provides the justifications for violence. In practice, we dehumanize what we want to destroy. To portray someone or some group as less than human allows us to think that they “deserve what’s coming to them,” that they are not owed love or safety or protection. Symbolic cancellation is a prelude to economic, political, and bodily cancellation.
There is no question in my mind that our political culture is moving rapidly toward that point. Competing sides of the culture war have been dehumanizing each other for quite some time. Thus, the data on violence and threats of violence toward political competitors has increased substantially. This does not mean it will ultimately lead to a civil war, at least in any traditional sense. In the late modern world, asymmetrical warfare tends to manifest itself episodically rather than systematically—in political violence, terrorism, and the like.

RW: In your 2010 book, To Change the World, you advise Christians to de-emphasize activism and embrace a model of “faithful presence,” where a quieter and more long-term religious influence could engage society. But in your new book you see an “absence of a thoughtful Christian cosmology as its political vision.” So what do you see has gone wrong in Christian communities?

Hunter: I was discouraging political activism, activism that is explicitly partisan oriented toward influencing the coercive power of the state. Why did I discourage political activism? As I argued in that earlier book, political activism, in effect, can be a way of saying that the problems of the world should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirm parent, and to go to a rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.

It is also a very narrow way of construing activism. How, after all, is adopting a child, caring for the infirm, or befriending and helping a person of another race any less a form of activism? One could argue that these actions are more powerful forms of activism, all the more so because they require long-term commitments to tangible change borne from the motive of love.

Don’t get me wrong here. Political activism is an entirely legitimate expression of one’s calling as a Christian. The problem is that it is limited in what it can accomplish, and it almost always carries unintended negative consequences. The thrust of my argument was that Christians need to think more expansively about what constitutes activism and do so in ways that are more consonant with the identity of Christ who was and is love incarnate.

My observation in the new book about the “absence of a thoughtful Christian cosmology as its political vision” is mainly a recognition that Christian political actors (both politicians and their parties) are no longer even trying to justify political action theologically. Attempts to justify the political identity and agenda of Donald Trump with references to King Cyrus don’t count. Though I strongly disagree with the uses of millennialism in 19th-century Christianity, it did provide a theologically coherent justification for nation-building.

RW: You conclude that while there is much organizational activity and bridge-building to help mend these conflicts on the local level, such efforts of reconciliation and dialogue don’t have much influence on the national level. But is there anything that gives you some hope that these conflicts can be de-escalated, particularly on the religious front?

Hunter: The potential for de-escalation is always present and one should always remain hopeful that such efforts, where they exist, can be scaled up into greater influence. The problem is that on the religious left and right, many people have conflated their activism with their faith, effectively seeing these things as synonymous.