Before the Shooting Begins:

Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War,

by James Davison Hunter (Toronto: Free Press, 1994).

Reviewed by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe

Associate Director, Research Policy and Development,

American Life League,

Stafford, VA.

Alas, not enough people are studying sociology at the University of Virginia, where Professor Hunter teaches sociology.  I doubt any writer in the 20th century uses the word “alas” as often as Hunter, but stylistic quirks are not the only problems in his pompous and superficial book, Before the Shooting Begins. Alas, a lack of tough thought makes this book one of the droners of the year.

Post-abortion neutrality

Before the Shooting Begins is rife with problems.  First, despite the title, which implies that serious violence has not yet begun, Hunter asserts that he is neutral, or at least that his own views are not relevant in the search for something grander than life and liberty.  The problem is that 1.5 billion babies have been killed (without anesthesia) in one generation by abortion; after that much killing, pro-lifers are of the opinion that serious violence has already started.  If you don’t se violence, you aren’t neutral.  It is legitimate to worry about when pro-lifers  may start shooting back, but Hunter is too busy claiming neutrality to thank pro-lifers for their forbearance, or even notice it.

He doesn’t know pro-lifers very well.  In Chapter 1, Hunter describes the abortion struggle as a conflict between people with “competing visions of good.”  Then he sums up the pro-life position: “For pro-life advocates…abortion symbolizes an affront to the high and holy calling of motherhood.”  Didn’t he have even one pro-life reader in the editing process?  Pro-lifers don’t talk about symbols, they talk about real bodies they have found in dumpsters.  And their primary concern is babies, although they are also deeply concerned about the deception and degradation of mothers.

The primacy of civility, mis-labelled democracy

Second, the abortion struggle, as Hunter understands it (wrongly, but we’ll come back to that) is a fight between life and liberty.  So where is he in this fight?  Will he fight for life?  No.  Will he fight for liberty?  No again.  Then what does he stand for?  Hunter holds up civility, which he calls democracy, as a higher value.  He’s a university professor, of course, and civil discourse is what he sells.  I like the chatty fellow, but find him shallow, and find his priorities indefensible.

Further, it is ignorant to urge democratic values un this struggle without at least mentioning in passing that American pro-lifers have always insisted that Roe v. Wade was a destructive decision mostly because it kills babies and degrades women, but also because it dismissed the democratic decision-making of 50 States.  The argument about democracy was not central in the midst of the bloodshed, but it was stated over and over: the abortionists had fled to the least democratic part of government, the courts, in order to over-ride the decisions of the State legislatures.

But Hunter’s democracy isn’t about voting.  He’s heard of it before, and reports (p. 182) that Evangelicals pray and vote.  Hunter’s democracy is about civil discourse, like a college bull session or perhaps like one of his classes in the august shadow of Monticello.  But living I the penumbra of Monticello, professor Hunter should recall that democracy is often defined by reference to voting.

Ignoring eugenics

Third, Hunter is dead wrong about the shape of the struggle.  It’s eugenicists versus the unwanted; the feminists who talk about liberty are pawns.  There is no serious political voice for choice; the people who claim to defend choice do not oppose coercive abortion in China.  There are many sincere individuals who fight for abortion as a way to protect the rights of women, who are sincere about liberty and privacy and all that.  But population controllers never have any serious opposition from them when they promote or defend their coercive measures.  Although Hunter talked with and quotes population controllers (for example, see pp. 145-6, “Worry about overpopulation”), he didn’t adjust his perception of the struggle.

If Hunter had distinguished between “pro-choice” and eugenic voices, he might have noted that eugenics is anti-democratic in its essence.

Nonviolence overlooked

Fourth and fifth, Hunter overlooks the lessons of history and the power or nonviolence.  Hunter teaches sociology.  One of the greatest tragedies of current education is the eclipse of history, replaced by sociology.  Students come out of high schools and even colleges ready to discuss the social structure of rural villages in central Africa, but ignorant of the Magna Carta, the storming of the Bastille, and the American Declaration of Independence.

Hunter is well educated and knows some history, but doesn’t have the rigor of a historian.  Specifically, having proposed an outrageous idea, he doesn’t even try to list all the times that it has worked in the past.  He asserts that the abortion controversy can e resolved by civil discourse and a renewal of democratic values.  This is a very attractive idea – but has it ever happened before?  If not (and it hasn’t) then why not?  Is Hunter’s proposal feasible, or is it just sweet fiction, pompous Pollyanna?  If Hunter could give a single example in the history of the globe of a massive entrenched social evil (like slavery or abortion) ended by rational discourse, his book would be more serious.  But he doesn’t give any precedent; in fact, he doesn’t even try.

If Hunter had looked beyond the sociology department, he may have noted that in the real world social evils are ended by only two methods: warfare and campaigns of non-violence.  History, bound by the tight confines of reality, doesn’t provide a third option.  But Hunter doesn’t use the word “nonviolence” (although he quotes Operation Rescue leaders occasionally, and respectfully).


The long-term solution, Hunter states (p.224) “can only be found in an enlarged and deepened debate – a debate that is pre-political.”  What we need is “substantive democracy” with “substantive reflection”

Unfortunately, Hunter’s substance doesn’t include reading history, opposition to eugenics, support for nonviolence, the courage to make decisions and to vote, or a devotion to life and liberty.  Hunter is a pleasant, chatty fellow.  But asked to get down to real work, he transcribes nonsense, and footnotes his chats.

He Is on the side of the abortionists.  And in the end, pro-abortionists don’t care what pro-lifers say, as long as we keep talking while they keep killing.  The status quo isn’t challenged by words, chats, classes, words, studies, books, and more words.  While they act and we talk, who wins – and who dies?

John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe is the Associate Director of Research Policy and Development for the American Life League, Stafford, VA.