All Commentary
Monday, June 1, 1992

Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America

Environmentalists align with homosexuals, flag burners with gun control advocates. Evangelicals align with Catholics and orthodox Jews, pro-life advocates do the same with capital punishment backers. Welcome to just part of the new, if confusing, alliance paradigm in the ongoing struggle to make sense of the American enterprise—how we define right from wrong, what is socially acceptable, and what should not be tolerated.

It’s a messy undertaking if only because so many cultural issues have turned into political ones, argues Professor Hunter, who teaches sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia. But beneath all the hysterics and showmanship—burning flags on the Supreme Court steps, defying Federal marshals during abortion clinic demonstrations—there is something worth noting. No longer is American culture being defined through denominational struggles, Hunter maintains. Now, instead of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews fighting each other, we have them opposing secularists, who have a “progressive” agenda of compulsory tolerance for whatever fad or lifestyle gains their favor.

At stake is the mythical meaning of America. Progressives consider it to be framed in terms of equality. Traditionalists, whom Hunter terms the orthodox—both Jew and gentile—see a different definition, one based on freedom. But one wonders why they don’t just say so instead of painting caricatures of each other: Elmer Gantry representing traditionalists, amoral libertines representing secularists. “With the realignment of pluralism, the boundaries separating groups have shifted,” writes Hunter. “As the lines dividing Protestant, Catholic and Jew have become more indistinct, tolerance has increased among the denominations. But as the lines dividing orthodox from progressivists or conservatives from liberals have become clearer and sharper, new bigotries have begun to take shape.”

Both sides claim the moral high ground and have appropriated and redefined the nation’s original egalitarian and libertarian ideals. It’s little surprise then that they might as well be speaking foreign languages to each other when they try to debate: “The fundamental reason why each side characterizes their rivals as extremists outside the mainstream is because each ardently believes that the other embodies and expresses an aggressive program of social, political, and religious intolerance,” writes Hunter. “Given all of this it is entirely predictable that each side would portray the other as an exceedingly dangerous force in American public life.”

This is obvious to anyone who follows special interest politics. For example, just how many rights has the American Civil Liberties Union told us we’ve lost during the “Reagan-Bush” years? Many, in their eyes at least. Why else the smearing of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas by secularist-oriented special interests? Just remember how both jurists’ political baggage, their written records of traditionalist opinions, were manipulated to make them seem as if they alone would launch the assault on the implied rights that progressives have labored for the past half century to argue are inherent in our Constitution.

Of course, traditionalists also fall prey to the same shrillness. Looking back on it, was it so necessary to agonize over the flag-burning issue? Surely it’s a distasteful spectacle when it happens, but does the conduct of a handful of publicity-seeking misfits merit so much attention? Shouldn’t we just let them prove themselves to be the hateful, alienated brats they are than have Congress tie itself into knots over such an occasional incident?

One would think the traditionalists and secularists would know better than to resort to the politics of fear and resentment. After all, these are smart, articulate, charismatic, and connected people who head up, for example, the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Why then does each side exhibit a “proclivity to indulge the temptation of social bigotry,” as Hunter claims?

Perhaps because they assume the common man and woman to be ignorant of the central role of symbols within our culture, which is probably somewhat true as one can hardly expect most people to have handy the type of detailed history of religious movements, popular politics, and cultural mythology Hunter puts forth in this book. And given the pace of modern life, one can also hardly expect most people to follow the evolving relationships between traditionalists and progressivists.

No, your “average Joe” is just as likely to tune out Jerry Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour as he is to chuck the hyperbolic, fund-raising junk mail of, say, People for the American Way, Common Cause, or anything with Molly Yard’s picture on it.

The real opinion swayer may just come in the form of the standard paycheck, which secularists, being good progressives, still want to diminish through redistribution via the government to such worthy endeavors as the National Endowment for the Arts, and then to obscene artists such as Andres Serrano. Who then can blame the American Family Association for asking, “Is this how you want your tax dollars spent?” []

Jim Christie is a San Francisco-based journalist.

As history remembers Hayek it will be told that his great quest was to ask why liberty is so slippery to our grasp. While other current social scientists have devoted their research to discovering programs to replace free and spontaneous human interactions by imposed “scientific” solutions, Hayek has prowled about to find why classical liberalism, which has given Western Man so ver much, is being cashed in for a statism which promises neither peace nor freedom. Nor, most obviously, prosperity. In fact, socialist, real-world experience has been so bitterly painful that those contemporary reformers who clamor for increased state intervention have given up the pretense that such controls can give us more than free markets and free men. . . .

[F]or those who would rather look to a future which offers liberty for the oppressed and progress for the poor, there can be no better resource guide than the writings of F. A. Hayek. His fine and sensitive touch with the subtlest workings of human (and humane) civilization will sprinkle us with understanding for millennia to come.


—Thomas W. Hazlett, “F. A. Hayek: Classical Liberal”

(The Freeman, September 1979)