Christ & Culture: A Dilemma Reconsidered
A New Look at Culture, Christians & the State
by James Hitchcock
Culture, society, and state are commonly distinguished by social scientists, with the first the most difficult to define. The state—the apparatus of political organization—is obvious. Society is somewhat less so, but it involves visible, even measurable, realities—the family, economic institutions, social classes. Culture in a sense merely comprises everything else, although in a way it also includes the first two. It is the totality of a people’s communal life in all its manifestations.
The great historian Christopher Dawson devoted his entire career to studying the relationship of religion to culture, in works such as Progress and Religion (l929), Enquiries into Religion and Culture (l937), Religion and the Modern State (l940), Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (l960), and The Historical Reality of Christian Culture (l960).
Because of his acute sense of the importance of religion as the foundation of human culture, Dawson was perhaps the first modern critic to point out the ways in which the state is often antagonistic to culture. Among other things, religion teaches that there is a divine purpose to history, that man owes God collective as well as individual worship, and that the human race must be obedient to a law higher than that of the state, all of which make the relationship between religion and the state problematical and, to the degree that religion inspires the culture and is part of it, makes culture also a danger to the authority of the state. The Roman Empire persecuted Christianity not because Christians held different beliefs from the Romans but because the state could not control the Church.
The Marriage of Culture & State
Although seldom cast in these terms, in a sense one of the important “conservative” tasks in the modern West is the struggle to maintain not only the distinction between culture and politics but also the priority of culture over politics, the merging of the two being one of the principal characteristics of modern totalitarianism.
This merger is most easily seen in such things as the official art fostered by Communist and Fascist dictatorships, or by the official science that for a long time was the only kind tolerated in the Soviet Union. However, the claim of totalitarianism to extend its vigilance literally to every obscure corner of people’s lives necessarily destroys culture by sucking it into the constantly expanding political vacuum machine.
But the apparent defeat of totalitarianism in Europe does not mean the end of danger because, as Dawson once again pointed out, there has existed in the West for some time a kind of “soft” totalitarianism that ultimately has the same effect, although it is achieved more circuitously and slowly, and less painfully.
Again art offers the most obvious window. Beyond the controversy over the specific kinds of art supported by the National Endowment for the Arts is the larger question of whether a government agency should decide which kind of art is deserving of encouragement, a power that establishes certain styles, themes, and techniques as privileged, seeks to shape public taste by determining what is to be made available, and penalizes artists who do not conform to those expectations.
Cultural Elitism & Social Engineers
The politics and economics of art are hardly new. But, as with fascism and communism, the real totalitarianism lies in the assumption that government officials possess a wisdom lacking to ordinary citizens, and that they should use their power to force changes on people that the people would not otherwise accept—what is sometimes called social engineering.
The modern state aspires to fill the role historically filled in culture by the Church, that of offering to its people not only support and protection but also spiritual guidance through continually expanding public agencies armed with coercive power.
The word culture as used by biologists implies a more or less spontaneous growth under controlled circumstances, and anthropologists and others who use the term mean something similar. Culture is the totality of the life of a people, shaped and guided by their institutions but also to some extent a spontaneous development from the people themselves—their moral and religious beliefs, their social customs, their attitudes towards each other and towards the universe, their sports and games, their community mores, and many other things.
Except when immediately usable, culture in this sense is intolerable to the totalitarian mind because of the danger that it will produce ideas and movements inimical to the regime. In soft totalitarianism there is a similar, if less virulent, suspicion, since the social engineer assumes that, left to themselves, people will continue to resist the progressive movement of society.
One of the classic arguments against democracy is that the common people are fickle and unstable, easily swayed by demagogues, and that only an elite can preserve the values upon which a society rests. But as numerous observers have pointed out, in modern America the reverse is true—an attachment to traditional values is mainly found among the masses; it is certain elites that seek to transform traditional ways of thinking and acting.
Cultural Elitism & the New Class
The specific cases of this need no rehearsal. It is especially people in the “New Class,” whose professions have to do with words and ideas—educators, journalists, those recognized as intellectuals, many social workers, many lawyers, many clergy. Numerous opinion polls have demonstrated how far such people are at odds with common opinion on a range of questions, and it is a central irony that most of those who extol “diversity” as a moral imperative (on university campuses, for example) hold almost identical opinions, one with another.
In part this situation is the natural result of such people’s defined social roles. Their claim to authority is the ultimate realization of the Enlightenment dream of meritocracy—power accorded to those who deserve it by their talent, such talent having now been defined largely in terms of education and intelligence. This being the case, such people must by definition always be “ahead” of the masses; otherwise they would have no claim to authority. The basis of their self-esteem is the belief that they understand the needs of the world more authentically and more deeply than most other people and that they deserve to be listened to.
The temptation to resort to the power of government to implement one’s vision of the good society is therefore almost overwhelming—people can be forced by laws, by regulations issued by government agencies that circumvent the electoral process, and above all by courts, to alter their behavior and even their beliefs, an effort that has been going on for at least six decades. Since the time of Constantine, Christians usually have not had to take seriously the biblical warning that the mighty of the earth are the enemies of the faith, but in this neo-pagan era that warning is once again becoming relevant.
It is the unstated and perhaps sometimes unconscious assumption of the New Class that culture as independent of, and prior to, politics cannot be permitted, since it fosters ideas and actions detrimental to the best future of society. (Christopher Dawson offered the homey example of the Boy Scouts as an instance of culture independent of the state, and it is well to recall that efforts have been made in the courts, so far unsuccessfully, to force the Boy Scouts to abandon their explicitly theistic creed.)
The mass media play a crucial and paradoxical role here. They are fiercely resistant to any kind of outside control, especially any that might come from the government. But at the same time the media seek to mold a uniform mass consciousness. Rather than dictatorship it is this uniform consciousness, Dawson pointed out, that is the real essence of modern totalitarianism. For most of those who speak through the media, the Modernist agenda is merely self-evident and those who resist it are strange or perverse.
The Hunt by Modern Iconoclasts
Beyond the fact that such an outlook is inherent in the role of the modern social engineer is the reality of Modernism itself, Modernism being distinguishable from Modernity by the fact that the latter is merely the reality of modern life as it is, while the former is a powerful ideology that has unfolded over three centuries or more. It is no longer necessary to trace particular radical ideas to particular historical sources, to ask why a certain venerable institution, or a certain accepted belief, has suddenly been subject to attack. The essence of Modernism is, in the words of the Freudian sociologist Philip Rieff, the “systematic hunting down of all settled convictions.” Only the person who joins in such assaults can think of himself as truly enlightened, and traditions are attacked for the same reason that mountains are climbed—because they are there. Occasionally the iconoclasts go too far and provoke a reaction even among progressive minded people, as presently in the matter of pederasty. But even as the practice is wisely condemned, its devotees continue to propagandize for it, confident that, the next time around, they will prevail.
For the enlightened class, therefore, the only culture worth the name is not at all spontaneous, much less traditional, but consciously constructed by governing elites according to a rational and comprehensive plan. For example, it is the obvious goal of the educational bureaucracy, already realized to a great extent, to ensure that public education everywhere in the United States is absolutely homogenized and nowhere reflects local peculiarities. Thus the schools are being rapidly turned into agencies for disseminating the “good news” of the sexual revolution to younger and younger children, while the introduction of various kinds of therapeutic services into education gives practitioners of those techniques unlimited opportunity to become involved in the personal lives of students.
If this understanding of Modernism is correct, there will simply be no rest, nor can there be a viable compromise that finally brings cultural iconoclasm to an end and lays the foundation for a new stability. Modernism in its fullness celebrates precisely the extreme and marginal figures of the culture, the wholly alienated men, as a way of undermining the culture’s traditional certainties but also as prelude to a new enforced conformity in which there will be no toleration of alienation.
The sociologist Peter Berger has summed up the most important dimension of this in his well-known quip that, if India is the most religious nation in the world and Sweden the most secular, America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.
The Authenticity of the “Christian Right”
No one who pays attention to the media can fail to be struck by the hysterical abuse heaped on the Christian Right, an abuse far out of proportion to whatever faults that movement may have, and certainly out of proportion to its demonstrated political importance. In most newspapers, for example, hardly a week passes without letters by citizens, and essays by professional journalists, condemning the Christian Right as intolerant, fascist, deranged, sinister, and many other things. Something about the phenomenon arouses a fury and fear that exceed any rational cause.
The root of this reaction is the fact that the Christian Right contradicts the official “enlightened” history of the modern world whereby, as human discoveries advance, religion necessarily recedes, becoming less and less credible, more and more marginal, until it is merely the refuge of a few elderly people who will soon pass from the scene. It is the fact that the Christian Right is correctly perceived as a resurgence, that it attracts many young people to its ranks, and that it has growing strength, that arouses such antagonism.
The Christian Right is a genuine emanation of American culture in that it enjoys no support from those who strive to shape the future of American society, fits no familiar theory of Modernity, replenishes itself from reservoirs filled centuries ago yet still flowing, and at the same time shows a sometimes baffling capacity for innovation and surprise. It is the ultimate uncontrolled cultural emanation that above all threatens the hegemony of the New Class and the social engineers. (For years the Supreme Court has routinely spoken of religion as a dangerous substance, rooted in mere emotion, likely to break forth at any time in murderous strife.)
While shaped by centuries of institutional history, much of American religion at present is also a genuinely spontaneous emanation from culture, precisely because it goes so much against the worldview taken for granted among the dominant classes of society. Evangelical Protestantism is like petroleum deep in the cultural soil, often declared to be used up, then erupting in unexpected places and with surprising strength. The non-denominational character of so much of contemporary religious life also reflects this—spontaneous religious upsurges often only thinly connected to any tradition or established institution.
For the same reason the most common kind of conversion story over the past thirty years has been in the evangelical mode, in contrast to sacramental-doctrinal mode, because the latter has had the social and cultural supports yanked out from under it, while the evangelical mode flourishes in an atmosphere of individualism, of preoccupation with one’s subjective spiritual state, of being at odds with the larger culture.
In terms of H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous typology of Christ and Culture (l95l), in one sense the Christian Right must be said to believe in the union of Christ and culture. Thus it speaks about a “Christian America” and justifies its program as representing authentic America against those who would undermine it. There are of course varying degrees of sophistication on this point, and an accurate historical assessment must be complex—in certain ways the Christian Right legitimately claims that it is merely defending things that have been traditional in American life, while it also misses important indications to the contrary, this ambiguity embodied in the thought of the Founding Fathers themselves.
The Right’s Embrace of Technology
Besides its general acceptance of democracy and capitalism, the Christian Right, as has often been noted, has embraced technology, if anything even more enthusiastically than have liberal Christians. The Right’s effective use of the electronic media is the most dramatic example, and there is an impression that people in technologically advanced fields, such as engineers and computer experts, are disproportionately represented in its ranks. Almost the last category of people one would expect to find are those in traditional humanistic disciplines often regarded as in rivalry with the technological world view, such as poets and artists.
This uncritical embrace of technology is in some ways mysterious, but its roots may go back several centuries. On one level the Puritan critique of Catholicism and Anglicanism was that these faiths did not go far enough in the process of the “disenchantment of the world,” still believing that there was spiritual meaning in material things. Catholics even had what seemed like a quasi-magical view of the world, while Puritanism held that divine reality was only accessible in purely spiritual modes, without tangible symbol or support. Thus, if the material world is devoid of sacramental meaning, it may be the object of technological control without scruple.
Thus once again the attitudes of both the Christian Right and the Christian Left towards culture are ambivalent. Not all of the Christian Left inclines towards radical ecologism, but much of it does. Meanwhile the Christian Right, while condemning many features of contemporary culture, especially its morals, has no serious quarrel with the force that has to so great an extent shaped that culture.
Surprisingly, the spiritual effects of technology have not been systematically explored in religious circles, perhaps because in their very act of discussing them Christians can hardly avoid making use of airplanes, computers, fax machines, and many other things, and because of the illogicality of drawing the line of technological limit at some arbitrary historical point, as the Amish seem to do.
But the Christian Right’s failure to identify technology as the source of many of the features of Modernity that it condemns may not be illogical, once it is recognized that Modernity has been shaped by many factors, and overtly intellectual and spiritual causes should not be slighted. The conscious philosophical and moral outlook of Modernism has been shaped by intellectuals, many of whom have themselves been indifferent to technology, some even quite hostile. Although it may be a mistaken assumption by the Christian Right, it is at least a defensible one that technology is not responsible for the decay of culture so much as the intellectual movement of cultural Modernism is.
The Divide Between Left & Right
Self-proclaimed secularists are relatively rare in America, and the most potent opposition to the Christian Right comes from the Christian Left, really a continuation, on the stage of the larger society, of internal religious quarrels dating back a century. Both kinds of Christians (here divided more along theological than political lines, in terms of the weight given to the idea of a fully authoritative divine relation) see the other as inauthentic, which, given each side’s theological assumptions, is a logical conclusion.
The antagonism between these two branches of Christianity, which, as many people have pointed out, crosses most denominational lines, is itself one of the most revealing illustrations of the reality of the “culture wars.” The Christian Right defends what it regards as the authentic America rapidly slipping away, while the Christian Left casts its lot with an ideal future America already partly realized through political action. The conflicts are not illusory.
Much of the hysteria provoked by the Christian Right comes from the fact that not only is it based on a theology that was supposed to be dying, it has also managed to use the political process for its own purposes, the process which Modernist reformers long assumed rightly belonged to themselves. Thus words like “insurgent” are often used to describe successful movements of the Christian Right. The Modernist agenda seemingly triumphed permanently with the election of John F. Kennedy in l960, and for many Modernists the political history of the nation since l968 seems like a nightmarish and almost inexplicable detour in the march of history.
The Embrace of Politics & Democracy
The entry into politics by the Christian Right is open to criticism on a number of scores, including theological ones, and such criticisms are familiar enough not to require summation here. In terms of Niebuhr’s categories, this entry into politics by Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in part reveals the belief that Christ and American culture are united, or at least used to be, but also shades into the mode of Christ against culture, since the Right’s agenda rests on perceptions of a corrupt culture in need of redemption.
The Christian Right is often accused of advocating the-ocracy, and probably in its broad folds there are some who do hope for such a thing. (However, what is a theocracy? Historians have never agreed, for example, whether the term should be applied to Calvin’s Geneva or Puritan New England, to say nothing of less obvious candidates.) To the degree that Christians do harbor such dreams it is fair to say that they have fated themselves to suffer bitter disappointment, perhaps most of all should they ever attain their goals.
The Christian Right is quite obviously a product of culture by the fact that it is, as it claims to be, a genuine manifestation of the modern democratic principle according to which, if a particular social group feels itself aggrieved, the solution is to organize itself politically and take its case to the public. This has been the whole point of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, although it would have been incomprehensible to religious leaders prior to the modern era. Far from being a threat to democracy, the Christian Right with touching faith reaffirms its belief that democratic action is the best way to correct social wrongs.
Withdrawal & a New Dark Age?
Religious critics of the Religious Right are correct in warning that political action can be, and often has been, corrupting of religious purity, and it would be a naive enthusiast indeed to suppose that somehow such activity can substitute for formal worship, private prayer, personal acts of charity, and everything else that comprises a truly Christian way of life.
But the call for conservative Christians to withdraw from politics must be recognized for the radical demand that it is, perhaps the ultimate case of Christ versus culture as Niebuhr defined it. For such a withdrawal would mean a withdrawal from the democratic process itself, essentially from modern society itself, the rejection of one of the important dimensions of Modernity that even most orthodox Christians have found acceptable. The Christian Coalition is playing according to the rules of a democratic society and, were they to dissolve themselves, would be negating those rules.
The only possible alternative is some kind of monasticism, including the kind of monasticism lived by groups like the Amish. In every age some are called to live the monastic life, which the Catholic Church has always taught is the Christian life in its fullness and purity. But the corollary is that in every age most Christians are not called to live such a life and, even if they were, would not do so. But in modern democratic societies there are no viable alternatives between monasticism and democratic participation. (It should be noted that in the Catholic Church even monks usually vote in civil elections.)
If a new Dark Age is indeed coming over Western society, then of necessity the monastic path will probably be the only one open to Christians, and they will once again find themselves, willy nilly, the saviors of culture as well as of faith, just as the monks of a thousand years ago. However, this is a path that will be imposed by Divine Providence acting through historical events, and it would be presumptuous and irresponsible merely to assume it at present.
If there is a new Dark Age it will differ in one important respect from the previous one, in that the Dark Ages of the period c. A. D. 500–l000 came about largely because of the collapse of the Roman Empire, which plunged most of Europe into chaos. There is no sign today that powerful governments are going to wither away, as Karl Marx foretold, or be destroyed by force. Thus a cultural and spiritual Dark Age would occur within the confines of an all-powerful state quite capable of maintaining its laws by force.
Looking to Protect & Defend
The abortion issue illustrates the dilemma of democratic participation by Christians. Many people accuse prolifers of wanting to “impose” their own moral views on the rest of the society, even of wanting to establish a theocracy. Prolifers respond that they only wish to regain for the unborn the protection that the law offers all human beings and that they fight for a principle that was not even questioned in American life until barely thirty years ago. In Catholic terms the struggle is not to impose religious dogma but to force society to recognize moral principles accessible to reason itself. (There is an occasional atheist who sees the evil of abortion.)
The best argument for Christian participation in politics is the simple one that Jerry Falwell offered when he founded the Moral Majority—although Fundamentalists wanted to stay out of politics, they found that politics would not let them alone. Political action has become a defensive activity.
Thus not only is abortion legal, it is argued that taxpayers must fund it and that its “benefits” must be made available to girls without their parents’ knowledge or consent. The public schools at all levels are centers of bureaucratic experiments in social engineering, especially in changing children’s moral perceptions, even as government regulation and the taxing power can be used to drive private schools out of existence.
The definition of child abuse can be expanded to include parents accused of “imposing rigid values” on their children. The work of evangelization is systematically thwarted by the fact that the media often do not treat Christianity with even minimal fairness and can choke the message of the gospel before it can even be proclaimed. (Fundamentalists have, once again, successfully gotten around this barrier through their creation of an alternative media, another example of generating new things spontaneously from the culture without regard for the dominant institutions of the society.)
The Christian Right has above all claimed for itself the title “pro-family,” a claim which enrages critics who insist that they are no less so. But one of the major fronts in the culture war is of course precisely the drive to redefine the family as virtually any community of persons with more than ephemeral ties to one another.
The redefinition of the family is essential to Modernism both because such a redefinition is the essence of social engineering and because the family as traditionally understood is the final and most deep-seated institution of a culture independent of the state. If “it takes a village” to raise children properly, then the authority of the parents will be steadily diminished by that of the village elders, in this case primarily government bureaucrats.
There is a long history of Modernism’s assault on the family, because it recognized almost from the beginning that the family is indeed the center of the most stubborn resistance to social engineering. Thus even those Christians who are tempted to eschew politics in favor of turning inward, into their families and their religious communities, will eventually hear the knock on the door. (The Supreme Court once considered the question whether Amish parents have a right not to send their children to school after a certain age. A divided Court ruled that they do, but it is not at all certain that the issue will not arise again, and be decided in a different way.)
The Christian Right is often accused of being reactionary, which in a literal sense it is. But one of its strengths, and one of the guarantees of its authenticity, is the fact that it does not attempt to forge its own proactive agenda for American society but contents itself with reacting against perceived assaults by others, a democratic way of acting and one that undercuts any temptation to theocracy. In effect the Christian Right promises to be a force in politics only so long as it senses the need to defend its members in their way of life. That is likely to be a long time.
And Where Is Christ Acknowledged?
Plastic statues on the dashboards of pious Catholic drivers, or homey religious slogans on the wall plaques of Protestant kitchens, may elicit superior smiles or shudders of distaste from the sophisticated, including sophisticated believers. But in assessing the relationship between Christ and culture it is important to recognize a simple but startling fact—although Christ is everywhere, his presence is explicitly acknowledged mainly in the lives of ordinary people, in ways it is never acknowledged in gatherings of the sophisticated. It may seem gauche, and more than a little theologically perplexing, for a high school football team to huddle in prayer before taking the field, but it is an important fact about the culture that no one would even dream of suggesting such a thing in, for example, the board rooms of Microsoft, Inc. or the editorial offices of the New York Times.
Salvation will not come through politics, and in a sense the renewal of the society must come from the renewal of culture, a task in which few Christians seem to be consciously engaged and for which perhaps few are suited. However, before Christians can even think about transforming culture, they must first act to protect culture from the voracious appetite of the Modernist state, must tenaciously affirm the autonomy of culture, which at the deepest level means affirming and securing the autonomy of religion.
Modernity has now exhausted itself and has no more powers of revitalization. The Modernist trail, whatever good it has led to over the past almost five centuries, has at last petered out in compulsory skepticism and the substitution of raw power for free human action. The salvation of culture does not lie in a return to the past, which is always impossible, nor can it be achieved even by a renewed attention to the wellsprings of the culture, such as Greek philosophy. Bold and radical actions alone will serve, inspired by that mysterious power that always holds out the promise of throwing off the old man, of making all things new.
This article was originally given as a paper at Touchstone’s conference,“In the World: The Gospel of the Resurrection in a Culture of Death,” held in Chicago in 1996.
James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Christ & Culture: A Dilemma Reconsidered” first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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