James Davison Hunter may be the smartest man in America.
A generation ago, he coined the phrase "culture war" to describe the contest over sex, family, abortion, religious liberty and other "social issues."
Today we live in the middle of an endless, tiresome and unattractive culture war, and Hunter quite sensibly wants to stand athwart this mess and yell "Stop!"
Both the Christian left and the Christian right are wrong, according to Hunter: Wrong in imagining that a Christian can engage in politics the way it is routinely practiced today: by demeaning opponents, caricaturing their views, instilling and fanning base fears, raising utopian hopes, and promising followers power and prominence. Christians in politics have become "functional Nietzscheans" he says. How can followers of a penniless and crucified master lust for power?
Worse, the Christian right's theory of culture is simply false. One cannot "engage the culture" by converting individual hearts and minds or accumulating majority votes. Culture simply does not work like that. Culture is the power to "name reality," and that power is in itself inevitably intertwined with high cultural status. Culture is a product of elites, not of moral majorities.
Cultural questions are questions about the nature of reality first and foremost: Do gay people exist? Two hundred years ago the answer would be no. Today it is yes. That is cultural power -- the power to name a socially shared reality.
Is that thing in a mother's womb a baby or merely a fetus? That question is still deeply contested.
Here's my problem with Hunter's conclusion: Politics does work. Abortion remains a live moral and cultural question in America in part because of politics.
Hunter's critique of politics cuts deeply with me. Three years ago I started a political organization, the National Organization for Marriage. On the whole, I am proud of how NOM has engaged in this fight. People fight over symbols because symbols are the stuff out of which reality is constructed.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.