Maggie Gallagher is one of the best columnists out there on religion and politics, and this week she wrote one of the most important columns that has ever been written on the subject:
Hunter is right: Religious conservatives who make “reclaiming the culture” their political goal are doomed to fail; more modesty and a tighter mission focus are essential. For politics to be an effective tool, values must be transformed into a political objective, i.e., something a politician can vote for or against (partial-birth abortion, conscience protection in health care legislation, waiting periods for abortions, parental notification).
You go to culture war with the army you have — and then you figure out what you really need, or you lose.
She, via James Davison Hunter, comes at this argument a little differently than I would – but then, it is essentially the same argument. There are a couple of salient points that bear emphasis. The first from from Hunter:
One cannot “engage the culture” by converting individual hearts and minds or accumulating majority votes. Culture simply does not work like that. Culture is the power to “name reality,” and that power is in itself inevitably intertwined with high cultural status. Culture is a product of elites, not of moral majorities.
The second point, which Gallagher makes:
You go to culture war with the army you have. The reason people with traditional religious and sexual moralities gravitated into politics is that structures of the political elites are among the most open and easy to penetrate. To put it another way, politics is one field of culture-making that secular elites do not control. Political power thus operates in a partial and limited fashion as a break on elites’ cultural power, since it raises the potential costs of attempting to de-legitimize those who disagree with them in the public square. The risk of backlash tempers Harvard’s dreams for America.
Politics is only one tool of cultural power, and not the best. But it is a potentially useful tool.
My own complaint about the religious right is not that it is too much in politics, but that it is not enough. In too many cases, religious conservatives talk like they are in politics, make demands like they are in politics, issue threats like they are in politics — but they do not create the institutions that are at the heart of politics: organizations that raise money and spend it electing politicians who will vote for their cause.
Now, I look at this and conclude that there are two essential lessons for religious people. Firstly, we do not do politics very well. That is Gallagher’s conclusion about organizations, etc. I would add to her list of complaints in this department theological based bias when political action is the goal. Winning the culture war does not mean winning converts.
Note Hunter’s comment about “naming reality.” In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis called this “pre-evangelism.” The book C.S. Lewis in a Time of War by Justin Phillips, cites some correspondence Lewis wrote while preparing the radio lectures that became “Mere Christianity:”
At this time, he had begun to correspond regularly with an Anglican nun called Sister Penelope. She was a prolific writer herself and was preparing some talks. C.S. Lewis explained to here what he hoped to achieve in his broadcast work for the BBC. The purpose was pre-evangelistic rather than direct appeal. Writing to her on 15 May 1941, Lewis was keen to discuss his scripts with her.
Mine are praeparatio evangelica rather than evangelium, an attempt to convince people that there is a moral law, that we disobey it, and that the existence of a Lawgiver is at least very probable and also (unless you add the Christian doctrine of the Atonement) imparts despair rather than comfort.
In Lewis’ view, and implied in Gallagher’s argument here, there is something a society must agree to before evangelism to a specific religion can occur. In our battles in the culture war, it is these things we seek to establish. We seek, through cultural influence to prepare the battlefield for the religious battles – which are fought with different tools and different armies, which leads us to the second point I draw from this.
Gallagher’s point that politics is not the best tool of cultural power is extremely important. Religious people generally, and Evangelicals especially have chosen to withdraw virtually completely from the other tools of cultural engagement. We form our own universities rather than teach in the existing ones. Such segregation places us in a ghetto, outside of culture rather than in a position to influence and change it. Christian media is largely distinct from other media – again ghettoized.
Many Evangelicals think this withdrawal is necessary to maintain some sort of “Christian purity,” but it is also a form of monasticism. Monks indeed live very “pure” Christian lives, but how much do they affect culture? During his lifetime, St. Francis of Assisi fought very hard to prevent his movement from becoming an order – it was in his vision to be simply a community. His reasoning was because in monasticism the impulse to “Spread the Word.” in generally lost.
I would argue one further point to Gallagher’s that politics is not the best tool in the culture war, and that is that politics alone cannot win it. In a republican democracy such as ours, politics resides in a strange space between leading and following. It tends to follow the cultural mores rather than define them, generally at best it codifies that which is already culturally established. That is why it is so vitally important for religious people of every stripe to engage culture not only politically, but in all the other areas where the “elite” define it.
It also seems reasonable that making politics our sole tool of cultural engagement leads to the sort of inter-religious battles that we have seen in conservative politics. We seem to think politics is the war when it is but a single battle.