Lesson 6: Culture or Politics

Culture WarsAs I was trying to understand what happened to cause our deeply divided society, I came across a Politico interview with James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia Advanced Studies in Culture. It was regarded as an update on the book, Culture Wars, that he wrote in 1991.

Hunter attributes our experience of violent language and actions to a dangerous change in the role politics and culture play. Although he works with pretty selective definitions of the two, he still offers us some helpful insights. At least as I read him, he sees cultures as lifestyles based on belief systems. Because they deal with sacred stories and ultimate truths, they by nature tend to “universalize and colonize.” He understands politics in the USA to be the way people from these different cultures talk through their differences and as Hunter says “live together without killing one another.” Compromise is a function of politics, not culture. The dangerous change he finds is cultures now use politics to get their way in a winner takes all conflict that justifies violence. Compromise is regarded now as betrayal in politics as well as cultures.

Hunter’s group sees a development since 1991 that increases the danger. When he wrote the book, the clash was primarily religious and focused on abortion. Now it is about class struggle and it focuses on race. What began as worry that you could not practice your beliefs has become fear that you and your group are threatened with extinction.

Again, I think he oversimplifies while still giving us some guidance in resolving the problem. There certainly is a need for redefining the limitations of politics and culture. I see this in terms of politics and religion.

When I entered the ministry in 1962, the guidance was to keep religion out of politics. That did not mean you had to avoid social issues but that you did it without endorsing candidates or parties. You could advocate for certain needs or needy persons, but it would be outrageous to lay hands on any politician as God’s instrument. It was also understood that this restriction applied to the private lives of pastors. They might appear in clerical garb as a church official to offer prayer at a political gathering but it would be indecent to attend in clerical garb no matter how much you insisted you were acting as a private citizen.

These guidelines broke down when Evangelicals felt there was a secular society denying their right to practice their beliefs, rather than a political system trying to ensure the rights of every group. The breakdown was exacerbated when these evangelicals were joined by conservative Roman Catholics who also felt, as Hunter observes, there is a secular society out to close down the churches.

Hunter offers a few suggestions for resolving the problem without resorting to violence. I think the most potent is finding ways to engage in conversation on a political level so we can regain a sense of reality. That will necessitate establishing new guidelines for public discourse that I believe will resemble those we observed in my early years of ministry.

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. John Myers says:

    First I am drawn to the image and observe that each message could be argued as correct – but, this is really not the issue. The issue is what end does the message bearer seek? What remedy?

    Regarding Hunter’s observation, I would argue it the other way. I believe the politics follow the culture, but only that those who control political discourse first use politics to initially drive the culture and then use the culture as the engine to further drive the politics in a never ending and ever expanding circle. I believe good people are unwittingly used as pawns in this process. The true danger enters when speech is impeded that would normally check the process. This is further impeded by control of speech by fewer and larger sources. These same sources encourage less critical thought and reinforce echo chambers, exacerbating the division that serves their purpose – to the detriment of us all. Unless we recognize it for what it is, we are lost.

    I believe there is another element. We tend to believe politics will fix our messy lives. This is a symptom of placing hope in our lives in something other than God. I believe there are masses out there today seeking hope, but they do not understand they cannot find it in politics, or men. This, of course, convicts us as Christians to act – but, we cannot if our speech is impeded.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      Interesting, John. I am still getting a number of personal emails in this series. Almost all responded to this article indicating that they found it “extremely depressing” and wanted to discuss it further. I thought it was significant that many used those very words. I think you were the only one who critiqued it.

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