Politics and Culture

We recently had an election season in the U.S. Every year, it seems, the amount of attention paid to the mechanics and outcomes of partisan politics grows. Thirty years ago there was nothing like this amount of attention given to politics. Many point out rightly that the 24-hour news cycle and the internet creates an appetite for political analysis. But I think there is more going on. It's not just that the political is given more air time, but that it's now seen as far more important to human life. The politically fragmented media, with outlets ranging from very liberal to very conservative, only seem to agree on one thing, namely, that nothing matters more than which American political party wins the most seats.

R.R. Reno recently wrote a blog post at the First Things: On the Square website that "Culture Matters More than Politics". He points out that, in Marxist theory, economics and political power are the fundamentals, while culture is "epiphenomenal." Literature, poetry, music and the arts are merely the supportive apparatus for power interests. Therefore, politics – who controls state power – is the factor that most sets the course of human life. On the contrary, Reno states, the deeper sources of public life are what we believe about human nature, human destiny, and the meaning of life. These beliefs are carried out into life by religion and philosophy, by high culture and popular cultural domains, by a huge variety of human institutions, the vast majority of which are not part of the government. These shared beliefs shape a people's vision of a good human community and a good life, and politics largely follows on from that.

James D. Hunter has been making the same point for years, though he invokes Nietzsche, rather than Marx. In On the Geneology of Morals, Nietzsche argued that Christian moral claims – of the primacy of love, generosity, and altruism – were really just ways for the early Christians to grab power from the people who had it. Christian morality developed out of the "ressentiment" by the weak of the strong and as an effort to wrest their position from them. This view will also lead to the conclusion that politics is what life is really about.

Hunter argues that ressentiment – "a narrative of injury" – has now come to define American political discourse. Both conservatives and liberals make their sense of injury central to their identity, and therefore in each election cycle it is only the group out of power, who therefore feels the most injured and angry, who can get enough voters out to win the election. Politics is no longer about issues but about power, injury, and anger. How Nietzschean! Hunter goes farther and argues that the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and even the neo-Anabaptist (think Dobson, Wallis, Hauerwas) are "functional Nietzscheans" in the public square, either because they see politics as too all-important, or (as in the case of the neo-Anabaptists) they think wielding political power is inherently non-Christian. In each case, Hunter says, Christians are being too shaped by Nietzsche's view that politics and power is fundamental.

We should not conclude that, really, politics is unimportant to culture. Hunter makes the case that culture is formed and passed on more by institutions than by individuals, and he calls Christians to maintain "faithful presence within" the cultural institutions of our society, counseling them to be neither triumphalistic nor withdrawn.

Reno and Hunter warn that culture matters more than politics, and I agree with them. We must reject the growing belief that power politics is what really matters. Nevertheless, Christians must not over-react. The government is one of the key institutions among others that reflect and shape the underlying beliefs that are the deepest source of public life. I recently wrote an introduction to a book, The City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era by Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner. The authors plead with Christian readers to not under-value the role of politics in culture-making, even as they acknowledge the danger of over-valuing it. It's an important plea. James Hunter makes the intriguing case that those Christians who counsel withdrawal from politics may have as nihilistic a view of power as Nietzsche.

Christians should be as involved in politics and government as they are in all other realms of life.