TEN years ago in these pages I attempted to explain “Why I am a Conscientious Objector in the Culture Wars.” At that time, the dust had only recently settled on the public controversies over National Endowment for the Arts funding of works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. In addition to the debate over public funding of the arts, the central culture war issues had emerged: abortion, euthanasia, welfare, homosexual rights, and church/state relations. James Davison Hunter had followed up his groundbreaking book Culture Wars with the even more ominously titled Before the Shooting Starts.
It was clear then that we were entering a new era in American political life when “genuine debate and reflection on the issues [had] been replaced by the clash of factions fighting for absolutist, ideologically pure visions.” What disturbed me was not merely the erosion of civility but the rapid politicization of nearly every corner of civic life. I argued:
The urgent need at the moment is to recognize that we cannot reduce culture and its various modes of discourse to nothing more than a political battleground. The political institutions of a society grow up out of a rich cultural life, and not the other way around. As its etymology indicates, the word culture is a metaphor for organic growth. Reducing culture to politics is like constantly spraying insecticide and never watering or fertilizing the soil.
The twin sources of culture, I concluded, are art and religious faith. From these two springs come the fundamental symbols and emotional attachments of a social order. Because ideological politics tends to reduce these symbols to slogans and channel emotions into tribalistic anger and resentment, we must engage in a vigorous effort to renew our cultural life by purifying the sources.
A decade later, I stand by those words. The culture wars have gone from bad to worse. They have shifted from grand tableaux of political theater to the constant clamor of talking heads on cable television. They rage in bestselling hardcover books filled with barbaric yawps. They fester in film documentaries that have long since abandoned the canons of journalistic and historical objectivity for sneering propaganda. In addition to Left and Right we now have Blue and Red.
In a recent Los Angeles Times editorial, the media critic Tim Rutten pointed out that the ancient idea of political rhetoric as an act of persuasion, in which both parties remain open to altered perceptions and compromise, has given way to each side preaching to their respective choirs. He likens the utopian absolutism of the culture warriors to religious fanaticism where ranting bestsellers are the equivalent of “secular apologetics.” Rutten asks: “Just how far do we want to go toward a faith-based politics?”
It’s not difficult to sympathize with the question, but Rutten’s language manifests one of the deeper confusions that surround the culture wars. Take the notion of apologetics, which refers to the systematic, rational exposition and defense of religious doctrines. In the hands of a great thinker like Athanasius or Augustine, apologetics is an extension of theology, because great thinkers know how to balance logical extrapolation with a vivid awareness of mystery. But in less skilled hands apologetics runs dangerously close to rationalistic shorthand. Just as politics works with the stuff of culture, so apologetics works with the stuff of faith. To mistake something that is secondary for the primary—the map for the experience of the journey—is to lose the spirit in the letter. So it should be no surprise that in the era of the culture wars, apologetics has come to dominate large sectors of the Christian discourse.
Rutten’s intuition about apologetics runs aground when he uses the word faith pejoratively. Faith is openness to divine mystery, an openness that requires humility and a vivid awareness of the fragility and contingency of our human formulations. What critics like Rutten glibly characterize as faith is really ideology. When I was in college I studied the works of several great political philosophers who used the term ideology to explain the abstract systems of ideas that formed the underpinnings of communism and fascism. In the words of the Austrian novelist Robert Musil, an ideology is a “second reality” imposed upon the world.
Several of the scholars I studied used the analogy of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism to illuminate their discussion of ideology. The Gnostics believed that our world was fundamentally evil, created by an evil god. The good god was utterly outside this world; only the gnostic elect had the divine spark—the knowledge (gnosis)—that enabled them to strike through the mask of evil and attain salvation in the realm beyond the world.
It’s taken me the better part of two decades since I graduated from college to realize that Gnostic ideology is not confined to totalitarian regimes across the oceans but is an ever-present temptation. Once I imagined myself a foot soldier fighting in a just war. What could be more urgent, fulfilling, noble? But eventually it dawned on me that a soldier waging war for utopia can never win.
Here’s something else I’ve concluded: the assumption that the culture wars are between Blue “progressivists” and Red “orthodox” (Hunter’s terms) doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the cultural and political landscape. It obscures rather than reveals. Many of those who oppose abortion are wedded to a political philosophy that embraces a strain of liberalism (running through Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill and beyond) that celebrates individual rights and the glories of “freedom of choice.” Espousing a tradition that extols freedom and individualism above virtue and community ultimately makes for the sort of consumerist society in which abortion is an inevitable “right.” Perplexities like this abound.
Once upon a time, the culture wars were exclusively about domestic, social issues, but in our brave new world they extend to foreign policy. America is either the world’s salvation or the cause of all its problems. What of those who support America’s justification for occasionally taking action beyond our borders without global consensus but who believe we are now doing so with a foolish lack of historical or cultural sensitivity? They will be stoned by Reds and Blues alike.
As more than one wag has said, there are two types of people in this world: those who divide the world up into two kinds of people and those who don’t.
My editorial of ten years ago, along with texts by half a dozen other writers, was the subject of extensive criticism by Reformed scholar John Bolt in his book A Free Church, a Holy Nation. Those who had publicly dissented from the culture wars were espousing, he wrote, “cultural pacifism” that played directly into the hands of the enemy. Despite his affection for words like “cobelligerency” and “jihad” (his book was published just before 9/11), Professor Bolt is a serious thinker as well as a culture warrior. To the extent that he believes the culture wars have an ultimate, apocalyptic significance, I disagree with him. On the other hand, if he is arguing that no one can set themselves above politics, I am with him. Being an intelligent participant in political life is a responsibility everyone should embrace.
But in his passion for total war, Professor Bolt doesn’t seem to believe that there should be any civilians tending to other matters back home: everyone should be armed and dangerous. The brilliant poet, philosopher, and political thinker Charles Péguy, who wrote in the heat of France’s culture wars of the early twentieth century, understood the all-consuming demands of modern ideological politics. Péguy’s analysis carries weight precisely because he was an utterly political animal. But he also understood the role of culture in maintaining a healthy polity. So he could write with some authority about political activists who scorn those who look after a society’s mystique, the religious and imaginative symbols and narratives that give a culture its identity:
For the politically minded always recover their balance, and think they can save themselves, by saying that they at least are practical, and that we are not. That is precisely where they are mistaken. Where they mislead. We do not even grant them that. It is the mystic who is practical, and the politically minded who are not. It is we who are practical, who do something, and it is they who are not, who do nothing. It is we who accumulate and they who squander. It is we who build, lay foundations, and it is they who demolish. It is we who nourish, and they who are the parasites.
A socialist turned Catholic, Péguy became convinced that in the modern era “Everything begins as a mystique and ends as a politique…. the mystique should not be devoured by the politique to which it gave birth.” As Alexander Dru writes in the introduction of Temporal and Eternal, the book from which these quotes are taken, Péguy believed in the need for “Christianity always to return to its source, its mystique, and to refound its institutions by allowing the mystique the freedom to create tradition afresh.”
Here’s the irony: the one force at the heart of the West’s mystique that has the resources to serve as a source of social and cultural renewal—the Judeo-Christian tradition—has become to millions of people a sign of division and ideological fanaticism. The blame for this lies not simply at the hands of that tradition’s avowed enemies, but among the faithful, too. Péguy reserved his greatest fury for the Catholic clergy, whom he felt had given in to politicization and forgotten to tend to the mystique.
The choice is not between engaging in political life and nurturing culture. Both are essential activities. But given the huge disproportion between the energies and resources being devoted to these endeavors, the real question is how many of those addicted to the culture wars will be willing to step back, refound institutions, and create tradition afresh.
There are signs that a movement in this direction has already begun. The efforts are small—insignificant, even, at least to some eyes. But then a number of world-changing movements have begun in just that way. A group called Brewing Culture meets at a pub in the shadow of the nation’s capitol for the purpose of “creating, commissioning, and celebrating transcendent works of art and media.” On the web publication called the New Pantagruel, a growing number of young, renegade conservatives buck the dominant trends on the Right with Rabelaisian wit and gusto. Another online magazine, Godspy, moves Catholic discourse away from mere apologetics into probing reflections, including moving personal narratives grounded in experience.
As huge armies march past, these small groups accumulate, build, nourish. Together, they form what Péguy called a “system of courage.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.