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

Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture War. New York: Free Press, 1994, 310 pp.
By James Hunter

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 scular 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, 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.