James Davison Hunter, please call your service

It’s hard not to think of Dr. James Davison Hunter when reading the Los Angeles Times Magazine’s lengthy piece on Catholic traditionalists. Hunter is the sociologist who wrote “Culture Wars,” an influential book a decade or so ago that claimed to have found the dividing line in America’s moral and religious battles over sex and salvation and lots of other things.

Instead of old-fashioned divisions between various denominations, Hunter claimed to have found one fault line running vertically through American pews — between the “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience and doctrines that evolve over time to fit the times.

So listen to the opening of this Los Angeles Times visit to a “traditionalist” parish, the kind favored by Mel Gibson:

It’s hard to be an absolutist in the modern world–our society simply isn’t set up for it. Boundless, diverse and brimming with energy, it’s better at fostering a culture where anything goes than one obsessed with strict definitions of right and wrong. It’s better at building a spiritual world where people customize their beliefs rather than demanding they adhere to rigid dogma. There is no black and white anymore. Most of us prefer our world in muddier-but-subtler, ever-evolving shades of gray.

Most of “us,” of course, being people who write for elite publications on the blue coasts. The priest in this tiny parish in the Santa Clarita Valley is candid and even a bit compelling. But the Times finds his words “unforgiving.”

There would be no need to translate the next few sentences for those who know Hunter’s work:

“Just because we’re in different times,” he says, “it doesn’t mean that right and wrong–true and false–change. Today nothing is sacred. Everything is open to reinterpretation. But if something is handed down by Christ, it shouldn’t change.”

You might assume your host is a Protestant fundamentalist, cousin to those evangelicals who preach salvation on the cable channels that pop up between MTV and HBO. If you took out the reference to Christ, he could even be an orthodox rabbi, admonishing his followers to keep the Sabbath and to follow the many commandments of the Torah to the letter.

Those fundamentalist priests, rabbis and evangelists are out there. Be on the lookout.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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