James Davison Hunter

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

Remember James Davison Hunter and 'Culture Wars'? Pete Buttigieg fits right into that picture

A long, long time ago — the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion column” — I wrote a tribute to the trailblazing work of sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. How long ago was that? Well, today is the 31st anniversary of my first syndicated column hitting the wires.

Hunter is best known as the author of “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” This book, more than any other, has influenced my work as a religion-beat columnist.

The words “culture wars” are used all the time by people who clearly have never read Hunter’s book. His thesis is that the old doctrinal, horizontal, denomination divisions in American life have been replaced by a vertical fault line that is much more basic, cutting into almost all religious pews and pulpits.

Hang in there with me. I am working my way to the rapid emergence of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a White House candidate, in part because of his ability to unite Democrats on the religious and non-religious left. I wrote about that the other day (“Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg“) and “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I returned to that topic in this week’s podcast. (Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes and sign up.)

But back to Hunter and the religious schism in modern America’s foundation:

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

So, what was the big quote from Buttigieg that sent a Barack-Obama-style thrill up the legs of legions of journalists and inspired waves of news coverage?

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'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

Yes, it's time (trigger warning) to take another trip into the past with a rapidly aging religion-beat scribe. That would be me.

I hope this anecdote will help readers understand my point of view on some of the coverage, so far, of how "religious leaders" are reacting to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Click here for GetReligionista Julia Duin's initial post on this topic.

Let me stress that, in this case, I certainly think that it's appropriate to seek out the views of religious leaders who are in public life. In recent years, big rulings on church-state cases -- most linked to the First Amendment -- have rocked American politics and culture. There's no doubt about it: This is a religion-beat story.

But how do reporters decide which "usual suspects" to round up, when flipping through their files trying to decide who to quote?

So here is my flashback to the mid-1980s, while I was working at the late Rocky Mountain News. The setting is yet another press conference in which leaders of the Colorado Council of Churches gathered to address a hot-button news topic. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with immigration.

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then -- with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). Today, the CCC includes an independent body called the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which I have never heard of before. Needless to say, this is not the Catholic archdiocese.

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if -- other than the Catholic archdiocese -- any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

One or two of the clergy laughed. The rest stared at me like I was a rebellious child.

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Thinking politics, and pop culture, on July 4th in this today's tense and wired America

Thinking politics, and pop culture, on July 4th in this today's tense and wired America

Stop and think about the following question: During the upcoming apocalyptic war over the empty U.S. Supreme Court seat, which group of public intellectuals (and I use that term very loosely) will play the larger role shaping public opinion among ordinary Americans?

(a) Scribes who write New York Times editorials.

(b) Law professors at America's Top 10 law schools.

(c) The writers and hosts of late-night comedy/news talks shows.

(d) The latest blasts from America's Tweeter In Chief, who is a former reality TV show star.

Now, if you've been around for a half century or so, you know that politicians have always paid close attention to the satirical offerings of Saturday Night Live and the late Johnny Carson always had way more political influence than he let on. Who was more skilled when visiting a late-night television show during pre-campaign work, former B-movie actor Ronald Reagan or whoever tried to knock him out of the headlines?

The power of pop culture in politics is nothing new -- but it's on the rise.

With that in mind, let's look at a special 4th of July think piece written by DC Beltway think-tank scribe Mark Rodgers, a former high-ranking GOP staffer in the U.S. Senate. He is probably one of the few people I know with U2's Bono in his smartphone favorites list.

The headline, featuring a popular active verb:

Has (Pop)Culture Trumped Politics?

You need a thesis statement? Here it is the overture:

It’s been a long time coming.

Almost 20 years ago, while working on the Hill and hosting a conversation with UVA sociologist James Davison Hunter over lunch, I recall waking up to the growing impact of the popular culture, and its inevitable trajectory to surpass education, family, faith and journalism as the dominant worldview shaping force in 21st century America, and possibly the world.

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Wall Street Journal offers think-piece-level 'Culture Wars' chat with James Davison Hunter

Wall Street Journal offers think-piece-level 'Culture Wars' chat with James Davison Hunter

When you hear someone start talking about America and our torrid "Culture Wars," what do you think?

You probably think of headlines like this one: "Disney doesn’t want to offend anyone. But it’s getting caught in the culture wars."

Or here is another one from a current search in Google News: "Constitutional fluke gives rural states extra clout in the culture wars."

OK, here's one more captures the legal side of so much of this coverage: "How Due Process Became a New Front in the Culture Wars."

So "Culture Wars" equals political battles over, well, cultural issues, things like abortion, gay rights, textbooks in Texas, sitcoms that mention Donald Trump, "liberals" shutting down free-speech forums and so forth and so on.

The problem is that very few of these "Culture Wars" stories have anything to do with the actual ideas in the classic 1991 book "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America" by sociologist James Davison Hunter. To be specific, new journalists ever get around to explaining Hunter's definition of this term.

So before we get to this weekend's "think piece" -- a Wall Street Journal (beware, high paywall) piece entitled, "The Man Who Discovered ‘Culture Wars’ " -- let's flash back to my 1998 "On Religion" salute to Hunter's book. The key is that Hunter declared that:

... America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

I noted that this has become a fault line that "runs through virtually every set of pews in contemporary religious life." There is way more to this than political conflict:


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God, man, Trump, gender, YouTube, males, the Bible and the omnipresent Jordan Peterson

God, man, Trump, gender, YouTube, males, the Bible and the omnipresent Jordan Peterson

So who is that Jordan Peterson guy and why is he so popular with some people and so controversial for others?

Yes, after weeks of getting emails from people asking when I was going to write something about Peterson, the other day I took a look at a very God-haunted Washington Post Style piece that ran with this headline: "Jordan Peterson is on a crusade to toughen up young men. It’s landed him on our cultural divide." Now, readers can click here and check out the "Crossroads" podcast that digs into some of this.

The cultural divide is easy to spot and to explore. On one side you have people -- millions of them -- who follow Peterson's every move in the digital marketplace of ideas. Some see him as the next C.S. Lewis (or a perfect example of trends that Lewis opposed). Some see him as the new William F. Buckley.

Some like his calm, blunt take on political correctness -- including issues related to free speech, gender wars, etc. It' this old logic: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

On the other side there are those who use similar logic, only they assume that when someone endorses one thing or the other that Peterson has said, that then links the University of Toronto clinical psychologist to that cause, whatever that may be. For example, see this take at The Forward:

Jordan Peterson is a public intellectual adored by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer called Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor-turned-self-help-guru, “The Savior of Western Civilization.” Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent conspiracy theorist for Infowars, has tweeted, “Jordan Peterson for Canadian Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, many who admire Peterson see him as a kind of anti-Donald Trump, a person who is making a case for a culturally conservative approach to life using logic, education and discipline as opposed to, well, America's Tweeter In Chief.

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How to cover Jordan Peterson, while avoiding truth-shaped holes in his 'secular' gospel

How to cover Jordan Peterson, while avoiding truth-shaped holes in his 'secular' gospel

At least once a week, I receive an email from a reader asking me -- as a columnist -- when I am going to write about Jordan Peterson.

You see, there are lots of folks who believe Peterson is, well, the next C.S. Lewis.

Then there are others who worry that Peterson's unique worldview -- secular philosophy, with no confessed ties to a religious tradition -- are exactly the kind of thing that Lewis warned about in our modern and now postmodern world. Lewis knew a lot about the lines between deism, theism and Christian faith.

Then there are those who, after careful parsing of several thousand Peterson remarks on YouTube about the Bible and truth, are convinced that there is a faith tradition in there somewhere, one that the bestselling author ("12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos") doesn't -- for some reason -- want to state openly.

However, if you study the Peterson phenomenon you are going to run into religion and, in particular, debates about whether truth is relative and evolving or transcendent and absolute. Yes, we are James Davison Hunter territory once again. What a surprise.

Anyway, the Washington Post recently published an oh-so-predictable feature about Peterson, with this headline: "Jordan Peterson is on a crusade to toughen up young men. It’s landed him on our cultural divide."

I have some good news and some bad news, for GetReligion readers who are interested in this topic.

The good news: There's a ton of material to read in this feature linked to the religion ghosts in his worldview and the issues that have made him so controversial.

The bad news: This long feature was not produced by the religion-desk team at the Post. It shows.

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Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

This week was an important one for me, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the start of my weekly national "On Religion" column. That very first column on April 11, 1988, focused on Pat Robertson -- but the real topic was American evangelicals trying to figure out White House Politics (imagine that).

Now, if you do some #DUH math, that would mean that 20 years ago I wrote a 10th anniversary column. In that column I focused on what I thought was the "Big Idea," the central theme, I had spotted in American religion-beat news over that time.

I described a scene that I kept seeing in my work as a journalist, one most easily seen at rallies linked to "culture wars" topics in American public life. Thus, I wrote this in 1998:

A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a "moderate" Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today's social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about "strange bedfellows," it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

That led me back to the work of the scholar whose work had influenced me the most in that era. You see, all kinds of people use the term "culture wars" these days, but it's important to remember how that term was defined by the man who wrote the book.

Yes, this is precisely where "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I started this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, back to the 1998 column. This is long, but essential:

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New Pew study: Are Americans feeling warm and fuzzy when they think about religious believers?

New Pew study: Are Americans feeling warm and fuzzy when they think about religious believers?

When you stop and think about religion, politics and the tone of American public life over the past year or two, are the words "warm" and "fuzzy" the first things that come to mind?

Probably not.

Let's make that question more specific, which is what host Todd Wilken and I did in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in). When you think about the tone of American debates about issues linked to religious faith -- think LGBTQ rights and religious liberty clashes, or the refugee crisis and terrorism threats linked to the Islamic State -- do you have warm, fuzzy, cheerful feelings about what has been going on and the future?

Probably not. 

Well, in that context you can understand why a blast of new numbers from the Pew Research Center made a few headlines this past week. Click here to see the previous GetReligion post on this topic, including links to the study and some of the coverage.

Once again, the content of that study was summarized in this rather warm and fuzzy double-decker headline at the Pew website:

Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups
Jews, Catholics continue to receive warmest ratings, atheists and Muslims move from cool to neutral

The lede at The New York Times took that basic idea and, of course, framed it -- logically enough -- in the context of the bitter 2016 race for the White House.

After an election year that stirred up animosity across racial and religious lines, a new survey has found that Americans are actually feeling warmer toward people in nearly every religious group -- including Muslims -- than they did three years ago.

Now think about this one more time. Go back to the questions at the top of this post. Isn't it logical to ask WHY Americans are feeling warmer and fuzzier feelings about various religious groups right now, when most of the evidence in public discourse -- certainly at the level of headlines and social media -- is suggesting the opposite?

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So are most journalists truly secular? No, many seem to practice their own one true religion

So are most journalists truly secular? No, many seem to practice their own one true religion

It happens almost every time I write a GetReligion post about former New York Times editor Bill Keller and how the great Gray Lady -- the world's most influential newspaper -- handles coverage of controversial events and trends tied to religion, culture and morality.

Someone, either in email, online comments or even in face-to-face chatter, will say that Times people struggle with these topics because (a) elite journalists know that religious people are stupid and deserve to have their beliefs mangled or because (b) the Times newsroom is full of people who, truth be told, hate religion.

Obviously, belief (a) tends to show up among liberal readers (and critics of this here weblog) and belief (b) is popular on the cultural and religious right. Truth be told, both of these beliefs are wrong and fail to explain the patterns seen day after day in the hallowed pages of the Times.

I bring this up because of the recent post that ran with the headline, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends: 'Why Readers See The Times As Liberal'." That post was also the hook for this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

During my chat with host Todd Wilken, I mentioned a famous article that is highly relevant to this topic, a PressThink essay by journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University entitled "Journalism Is Itself a Religion."

Wilken asked me to take a shot at explaining what that headline means. Actually, it's easier to let Rosen do that.

So let's look at two parts of his essay. First, there is a discussion of "The Journalist's Creed," which references an oath written by Walter Williams, dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism from 1908-1935. Basically, Rosen argues, we are dealing with a very idealistic form of secular faith. This first statement is, he noted, rather "tame" and points toward some brand of civil religion.

Let us attend.

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