Politics by other means

Culture | Christians should rediscover the doctrine of vocation and fashion a culture-transforming agenda

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

President Clinton gets caught in a sex scandal, whereupon Newt Gingrich loses his job. Voters buy into the president's construction of truth and his deconstruction of ordinary language, and vote out Republicans and social conservatives.

Today, the demoralized GOP is vowing to play down the kinds of moral issues favored by Christian activists. They are resolving to be "pragmatic," which is to say, looking for practical solutions to the problems of getting themselves elected. The clout of Christians in politics seems to be diminishing, as Republican power brokers seek ways of downplaying divisive social issues in order to press popular economic themes. The general public and leaders of both parties seem to be embracing the new hybrid of economic conservatism and social liberalism.

Although politicians will distance themselves from the so-called Christian right, grassroots Christian activists continue to hold considerable power. Few other Americans care all that much, so that zeal and the willingness to work hard for a cause have become scarce, and are therefore precious political commodities. But the recent Republican debacle illustrates why conservative Christians need to develop not merely a political but also a cultural agenda.

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In Ronald Reagan, America had a fine president, but having a good man in the White House did little to prevent the moral decline of the 1980s. Today, a culture that accepts the notion of killing unwanted children in the womb-or even partially outside of the womb-is unlikely to vote in lawmakers who will legislate against abortion. A culture that believes that truth and morality are relative is unlikely to be bothered by presidential lies and corruption.

Christians who want to change the evils in society should by all means remain involved in politics-but it is even more important to become involved in the culture.

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci challenged orthodox Marxists who taught that socialism would come through a political revolution. Instead, Mr. Gramsci argued that socialism would be ushered in by means of a cultural revolution. It would be the artists, the writers, the professors, and other culture-makers who would eventually change the way the public thinks. Political rabble-rousers may have their value, but they can never be successful until such obstacles as Christianity and traditional morality fade from the cultural consciousness-and that must be achieved by "cultural workers."

Today, political and economic communists are hard to find (with the major exception of the Chinese), but the cultural elite is still overwhelmingly left-wing, still subversive after all these years. They still talk about "challenging traditional values" and "undermining the status quo" and "working for progressive social change."

Some of the same famous authors who are signing petitions in support of the president write novels celebrating the destruction of the family. Some of the same Hollywood moguls who subsidize the president's campaigns and legal defense funds are making films that glorify promiscuity and perversity. To be sure, they may be economically conservative, as rich people usually are, but they are socially liberal, and that is far more important.

To change the hearts and minds that make up the culture, we need Christians in the sciences, the media, the arts, and the halls of learning. We would do well to rediscover the doctrine of vocation, the notion that every station in life, every job, every profession, is a calling from God, who gives unique talents and opportunities to each of his children and places them into an arena for Christian service. Each Christian has multiple vocations-as a family member, as a citizen, as a worker-and in each of them God himself is at work.

Christians can learn from Antonio Gramsci the necessity of a "long march" through the culture-cultural transformation takes time. But there are a few hopeful signs already.

Those who no longer believe in truth, standards, or discipline can hardly be expected to do a good job in the field of education. Today, Christian schools-and homeschoolers-are widely acknowledged to be doing a better job than their secularist counterparts (to the point that, for better or worse, many states are formulating "choice programs"). Those who manage to become well-educated are the ones who shape the culture. That may mean Christians, if only by default.

Today, our cultural artifacts are determined less by ideas than by the quest to make money. Commercial cultures like our own can be influenced by the power of the pocketbook. Television has become more crass, vulgar, and debased than ever before-but viewership is down. (Perhaps the most scurrilous new show, The Secret Life of Desmond Pfeiffer, depicting Abraham Lincoln as a Clintonesque philanderer with homosexual tendencies, shot to the ratings cellar and was canceled after only four episodes.) Although the conventional wisdom is to dismiss the Disney boycott, disaffected Christian viewers are being actively courted in some sectors of Hollywood.


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