Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.
As I’ve been conducting research for my book, I have come across some great resources for understanding and navigating the culture wars, ranging from books and academic research to web sites created by organizations working for change in the way we relate to each other.
Following are some books I’ve found especially thought-provoking. The authors include ministers and theologians, academic researchers, historians and journalists. They span the ideological spectrum from those who lean conservative to those who lean progressive to those earnestly trying to remain nonpartisan.
Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter. This is the book that introduced the phrase “culture wars” to our vocabulary when it was first published in 1991. Reading it now reminds us that the polarization tearing apart our society has actually been developing for decades. Hunter, a sociologist, uses the term to describe how conservative Christians (Protestant and Catholic) and Orthodox Jews joined forces in a battle against their progressive counterparts – secularist, reform Jews and liberal Catholics and Protestants – to gain control over the family, art, education, law and politics. The term not only captures a political struggle over cultural issues, but a conflict over “the meaning of America,” he says.
The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, by Deborah Tannen. This eye-opening book is, if anything, even more relevant today than when it was originally published in 1998. Tannen, a linguistics professor, describes “a pervasive warlike atmosphere” that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to settle disputes is litigation; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you’re really thinking is to criticize. The author demonstrates how our use of language reflects this mindset (the war on drugs, the war on cancer) and shows how our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides keeps us from recognizing and remaining open to other options.
Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein. Using insights from political scientists, media commentators, and cultural critics, this book aims to show how America’s political system is polarizing us — and how we are polarizing it — with disastrous results. In the past, says the journalist and political analyst, parties separated over their ideas for dealing with specific issues. But now the name of the game is “negative partisanship,” where we hate the other party more than we like our own. Klein describes the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that he believes are driving our system toward crisis, and shows how these feedback loops reinforce each other.
Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity, by Lilliana Mason. Political polarization has moved beyond disagreements about matters of policy, says Mason, a political scientist and professor. The author explains how the growing social gulf across racial, religious, and cultural lines has recently come to divide neatly between the two major political parties, then shows how our current “us versus them” conflicts are rooted in partisan “mega-identities” that tap into a powerful current of anger and resentment. She warns that, although the polarizing effects of social divisions have simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement, these divisions have not been a force that is, on balance, helpful for American democracy.
Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, by Arthur C. Brooks. Today in the U.S., there is an “outrage industrial complex” that prospers by setting American against American, says Brooks. This has created a “culture of contempt” – the habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect, but as worthless and defective. Brooks, a social scientist, uses a combination of behavioral research and his experience as head of a policy think tank to argue that our only choices are not to simply play along or be left behind. Instead, he offers suggestions for how to love and respect one another despite our differences.
Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics, by Eugene Cho. According to Cho, an evangelical pastor and president/CEO of the Christian advocacy organization Bread for the World, Christians should never profess blind loyalty to any political party, but should engage with politics because politics inform policies which impact people. Cho urges readers to stop vilifying those they disagree with – especially the vulnerable – and to remember that hope arrived not in a politician or system or great nation, but in the person of Jesus Christ. “When we stay in the Scriptures, pray for wisdom, and advocate for the vulnerable, our love for politics, ideology, philosophy, or even theology, stop superseding our love for God and neighbor,” he says.
God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis. This book focuses on what Wallis considers to be the role of religious hypocrisy in politics, and critiques both the “religious right” and the “secular left.” Clearly, God is not a Republican or a Democrat, says the theologian and founder of Sojourners magazine. He argues that America’s separation of church and state does not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square. But he also believes the best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or loyally partisan but to maintain the moral independence to critique both the Left and the Right.
Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility, by George Yancey. Christians have struggled with racial issues for centuries and often inadvertently contribute to the problem, Yancey says. He adds that the situation is made more complex by the fact that Christians of different races see the issues differently. A sociologist and consultant for a variety of churches on racial diversity, Yancey analyzes secular models of addressing race promoted by conservatives (colorblindness, Anglo-conformity) and progressives (multiculturalism, white responsibility) and explains what he sees as the advantages and limitations of each. He then offers a new model for moving forward, urging people of all races to walk together on a shared path – not as adversaries, but as partners.
Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People, by Charles Camosy. Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics, promotes a Consistent Life Ethic that goes beyond a narrow focus on abortion to include such issues as poverty, immigration, mass incarceration and treatment of the environment. He believes a new moral vision, especially one which embraces Pope Francis’ challenge to resist “throwaway culture,” has the capacity to help us find common ground and move beyond stale and lazy arguments which artificially pit progressives and conservatives against each other. He calls for a culture of encounter and hospitality to replace a consumer culture in which powerful people profit from ideological conflict and the most vulnerable get used and discarded like so much trash.
Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This epic saga may be more than 1,000 pages long, but it turns out to be a fascinating read. MacCulloch – an ecclesiastical historian – traces in stunning detail the origins of the Hebrew Bible, how Jesus’ message spread through the ancient world, how the New Testament was formed, and how the three main strands of the Christian faith (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) developed and spread through every continent. In his section about Christianity in the U.S., he charts the surprising beliefs of the founding fathers, the rise of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, and religion’s role in the present culture wars. In the process, he helps us discover Christianity’s essential role in shaping human history. We also gain an understanding of how Christianity came to have so many denominations, and an appreciation for the fact that our recent splits and schisms are certainly not a new phenomenon.
Question for readers: Have you read any good books on navigating the culture wars constructively? I’d love to hear your recommendations. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).