Even though it was written nearly 20 years ago, "Before the Shooting Begins" by James Davison Hunter is an important book for today. Focusing on the abortion debate as a microcosm of the way in which issues divide Americans into separate camps, Hunter attempts to get at the root of why it is that those on both sides of the divide seemingly "talk past" each other. Hunter's main thesis is well summed up in a statement found on page 148: "Without a base of knowledge about the law, without traditions of moral understanding to draw upon, and without cohesive moral communities within whose values, norms, and ideals our lives are patterned, all we have left are our emotions. Public debate among citizens becomes an exercise in emoting toward one another."
What Hunter says rings true. Whether we are talking about abortion, or, to take more recent examples, immigration and healthcare, we are a nation that no longer shares a common worldview. Thus, the conclusions we reach on a variety of issues are going to be derived from a set of presuppositions that are self-evident to us but are not shared by those with whom we are dialoguing. As a result, our arguments will have little impact on them and theirs will seem implausible to us. We will continue to simply talk past each other. In a situation such as this, the easiest thing to do is to vilify and impugn the motives of our opponents. One need but listen to the many opinion shows on television to see that such vilification and misrepresentation has taken the place of serious debate.
In light of the fact that the situation has not gotten better since Hunter wrote this book but has only gotten worse, Hunter's book is certainly worthy of consideration today.