Dissolving Liberal Democracy’s Substrata

The sociologist and cultural critic, James Davison Hunter, is well known for his discussion in the 1990s of the concept of “culture war.” Hunter is an astute and insightful diagnostician of the present political and social discontents. On a personal note, his work has influenced my own thinking and writing on many of the matters we often take up at the Forum.

I’m a little early to notice this new book (no cover quite yet), which comes out in February of next year, but here Hunter is with a new volume in the same vein, but which seems to make the point that liberal democracies depend for their survival on other, non-liberal premises and commitments, and these (so he argues) have now been dissolved so completely as to make the political project deeply unstable. The book is Democracy and Solidarity: On the Cultural Roots of America’s Political Crisis (Yale University Press). One to pre-order and to anticipate.

Liberal democracy in America has always contained contradictions—most notably, a noble but abstract commitment to freedom, justice, and equality that, tragically, has seldom been realized in practice. While these contradictions have caused dissent and even violence, there has always been an underlying and evolving solidarity drawn from the cultural resources of America’s “hybrid Enlightenment.”
James Davison Hunter, who introduced the concept of “culture wars” thirty years ago, tells us in this new book that the historic sources of national solidarity have largely dissolved. While a deepening political polarization is the most obvious sign of this, the true problem is not polarization per se but the absence of cultural resources to work through what divides us. All political regimes require some level of consensus. If it cannot be generated organically, it will be imposed coercively.
Can America’s political crisis be fixed? Can an Enlightenment-era institution—liberal democracy—survive and thrive in a post-Enlightenment world? If, for some, salvaging the older sources of national solidarity is neither possible sociologically, nor desirable politically or ethically, what cultural resources will fund liberal democracy going forward?

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

  • A petition for certiorari was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Reilly v. City of Harrisburg. Plaintiffs contend that a city ordinance restricting pro-life volunteers from offering one-on-one counseling near a Planned Parenthood facility violates the First Amendment by allowing certain speech within the buffer zone while banning pro-life speech.
  • In Brox v. Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority, the 1st Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part a trial court’s decision regarding religious vaccine exemptions due to the concern that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate policy would treat religious exemptions differently from medical exemptions.
  • The Department of Justice announced that a grand jury indicted an Indiana man for making death threats against the Anti-Defamation League because of the members’ religion. If convicted on all counts, the defendant could face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
  • A settlement has been reached between the federal government and Native American tribes in Oregon over the destruction of a sacred site near Mount Hood. The settlement includes measures to protect the site with a tree or plant barrier, provide access to a quarry for ceremonial and cultural purposes, and allow the plaintiffs to rebuild a stone altar at the location.
  • The Kansas Attorney General wrote a letter to the 10th Circuit requesting an end to the practice of using preferred pronouns for counsel, parties, and witnesses. He argues that the practice infringes on First Amendment rights, may conflict with religious beliefs, and may reveal bias on gender identity issues in ongoing legal matters.
  • California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 403, which aimed to ban caste-based discrimination, citing existing laws that already prohibit discrimination based on factors such as race, color, religion, ancestry, and national origin. Critics of the bill argued that it broadly paints the Hindu and South Asian communities as discriminatory.