To Sow or to Reap: Four Theses on Social Conservatism (#1)

At the recent Values Voter Summit, I was fortunate to join a few friends on a panel discussing the gap between social conservatism’s current incarnation and the generation of young people who have grown up at its edges and are increasingly dissatisfied by it.*

I won’t rehash what I said there.  But I do want to add a few theses that social conservatives might consider, ideas that are doubtlessly controversial and which I am not working through in my own mind and so not necessarily committed to.  I’m inquiring here, not asserting.   Which means this week, I’m going to write four posts about all this and leave Friday for (more) discussion.

Strap in:  this could get interesting.

——

Values Voter Summit

Values Voter Summit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a time to sow and a time to reap.  My first thesis is that social conservatives are entering a time for sowing new cultural seeds rather than reaping their cultural fruits.  As folks have recently pointed out, you can’t fight a culture war if you haven’t got a culture.  And by and large, social conservatives haven’t got much in that department to pass along to the children.  What they do have has been cobbled together by imitating mainstream America and borrowing from Nashville.  The net effect is that social conservatives are trying, desperately, to reap legal fruit despite neglecting the difficult work of sowing and nurturing cultural seeds.

Now, it is possible that this sort of dichotomy is a false one.  A cultural movement need not necessarily choose between sowing and reaping, between the work of engendering a culture and working for the laws that the culture produces.  And as a dear friend suggested, having children can radically reorient us toward short-term bandaids, if only because parents are by disposition intensely protective.

However, if there is such a thing as cultural flourishing and decline, then we need to carefully discriminate where we are in those seasons and allocate our time and resources accordingly.  To do otherwise would be rather imprudent, no?  That means redirecting attention, efforts, and (yes) funding away from the particularly urgent political concerns toward seemingly frivolous long term cultural efforts.  By way of hypothesis, I suspect it is easy for Christians to raise money for either political causes at home or missions and social-justice causes overseas.  But a library, conservatory, or an art studio—institutions that will form the backbone of any permanent culture?

At its worst, social conservatism’s fundraising rhetoric depends upon deeply unconservative premises:  “Unless we act right now because this election is the most important of our lifetime, then we’ll all end up ruined.”  It is true that in history there are decisive moments, moments where inaction means ruin.  Shouting appeasement on the eve of World War 2, rather than building up the arsenal, turns out to be an almost completely destructive miscalculation of the moment.  But by and large, the short-term urgency to motivate action has more in common with the hastiness of a revolutionary atmosphere than the glacial plodding of those committed to seeing the first things take root in their society.

But therein lies an important question, doesn’t it?  Who is to say which cultural season we are in, whether it is springtime in America or whether we have entered into winter?  And here I must confess, along with everyone else, that like all matters of discernment the matter is less certain than we might like.  My intuition is that we are somewhere in the winter and need to be preparing the fields for springtime.  But I do know that by opening that question and deliberating about it, seriously and honestly, social conservatives might even find new and better approaches to their own political activity.

It may be the case that some people read this and think that I am suggesting something like “withdrawal” from the culture wars, that I am advocating a position of defeat and appeasement for those who are hostile to Christianity.  Not in the least.  If anyone wishes to question my commitment to, say, Christian moral teaching on abortion and homosexuality, feel free.  I’m always in need of a good laugh.

But we ought to seriously consider the terms in which the critique is offered and think hard about whether we really want to endorse them.  Yes, warfare goes both directions.  But it goes. both. directions.  Which means that a war is over when one side quits fighting.  The side that quits fighting only “loses” if they, you know, actually lose.  For someone to pick up their ball and go home when they are ahead is unheard of, but whose to say that hostilities should end only when one side triumphs?  What if one side made “victory” problematic for themselves and focused on other activities?  The war (if it is one) would keep going unilaterally and the cost might be high. The other side would doubtlessly declare it a “win,” but then again,  within our current media environment, even if social conservatives were to “win” they would still end up losing.  And the only way to win a game where the rules are such that you necessarily lose is to play a different game. 

*Yes, the Religious Right is getting older.  No, the “millennial Christians” haven’t demonstrated much interest in following them.  Yes, this is all overly familiar territory to us around Mere-O.

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  • Andrew Walker

    Well said, Mr. Anderson.

    The seedbed for us has a long aging soil.

    Here’s what I mean: It takes A LONG TIME for social conservatism to be adjudicated. No-fault divorce was sold as a harmless product when it was originated, but now we have a generation that has reaped the consequences of easy divorce and few seem to like it. Abortion is more stigmatized today than it ever has been in the past. Fatherlessness is now common parlance in public policy.

    We will probably lose in the short-term on same-sex marriage. In the long-run, I’m more optimistic. It’ll take a generation of increased family instability to show, sociologically, that there are real benefits of privileging the mother-father union. Save the Lord tarrying, traditional marriage may take 40-70 years (if not longer!) to be adjudicated as the social ideal.

  • Keith Miller

    I love these categories for examining our cultural engagement, Matt. One of the travesties of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture typology is that cultural transformers and cultural “withdraw-ers” are set over and against each other. The cliched narrative sees the Scopes Trial leading to a period of cultural abdication by those “sumbitch fundamentalists” that was only later remedied by the Neoevangelicals of the 1950s. Perhaps if we apply your insight to the historical record, we will be able to see the way in which Depression-era fundamentalist/evangelical institution building led to a great harvest in the form of the Evangelical resurgence of the second half of the century.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    This is definitely a helpful way of thinking about these issues. It’s not withdrawal or acquiescence, but a thoughtful appraisal of the situation. In terms of the church, there needs to be a greater focus on the preaching of the Word, building up the community, making the church indispensable within communities in terms of social support and structure until the time when the world is ready to start taking it’s word seriously again. Social conservatism in general needs to do more than just churn out voter guides and pundits, or even pseudo-scholarship to back its points. It needs culture both high and low, that is healthy, confident, and growing.

    Thanks for the piece.

  • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology Chris Krycho

    Hunter’s critique of world-changing seems appropriate to reference here (though perhaps that’s just because I have in on the brain, having finished it this month). Culture is fundamentally institutional; culture-changing is therefore a fundamentally institutional project, and institutional change (or creation) is, by definition, not much like “causes” in the way it happens or the demands it makes of us.

    Libraries are not, ordinarily speaking, “causes” for most folks. (My librarian friends would be the singular exception, with perhaps a nod toward homeschoolers along the way.) Art museums and coffee houses and indie rock venues don’t inspire political passion—nor should they. Yet if we’re going to have long-term success in making a difference, we need to invest in all those sorts of institutions. Yes, all of those. The indie rock venue is distinctly a “center” of culture at this point, though it is not high-brow. One major stumbling block I see as likely for even folks following Hunter’s model is the failure to recognize the actual centers of our current culture. High art is great, and it’s what I prefer, but lots of culturally central work is being done outside the institutions that used to be central; new centers are taking shape and we need to be cognizant of that as we go forward.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Chris, I know we’re supposed to believe that Silicon Valley is the new Hollywood is the new Madison Avenue. But I’m not entirely convinced that the cultural centers have shifted as much as people claim. At least not when we throw on the overlay of elites/pop culture. In terms of popular culture, absolutely. But then, part of Hunter’s point is that pop-culture is the caboose–it’s elite culture where things start. And by and large, they are still dominated by art, etc. etc.

      matt

  • Joseph Rhea

    This is a really interesting way to think about cultural “engagement” (which has a militaristic nuance). It does seem that conservative Christian public voices are growing increasingly apocalyptic, though that may always be the case, and that our efforts are undone by the way we have tended to build and promote our own narrative in the world.

    “Positive” liberal narratives (that establish rather than attack or critique) abound in both highbrow and lowbrow public media; Chris notes well that the cultural “center” has shifted in regards to music, and I’d argue it has shifted equally in regards to stage/screen and even big screen/small screen. “Modern Family” and “The New Normal” are positive narratives that generate/affirm a set of principles, among them the goodness of homosexuality.

    I’d say conservatives have generally made two mistakes in regards to this: 1) generating mainly “negative” narratives attacking the narratives of others (if they are narratives at all), and 2) retreating from primary spheres of conversation to create our own — Christian TV channels, Christian radio, etc. Both of these have reinforced the idea that we don’t “belong” in the wide conversational spheres of the world, and both have led to our being increasingly ostracized from the world of conversation. It is good that this is beginning to change and it must continue to do so.

    We can perhaps learn from how Christianity was received by the Roman Empire before Constantine: it never really gained much hearing in the wider world of its time via public debate, theatre, etc., but by the lives of Christians. Our situations aren’t exactly analogous, but I think that any culture-making we attempt to do must start at the ground level of personal relationships with non-believers. Our friendship is the most powerful positive narrative we can offer a non-believer.

    We do need our Justin Martyrs, who can provide outsiders with a positive Christian narratives, even as we do continue to need our Amoses preaching against the great fallen cultures of the world and our Davids making culture within Christian circles.

    But maybe we need to do a little less Amosing.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Really interesting points about the differences between culture making and witnessing by our lives. In a sense, contributing to culture depends upon not being a persecuted minority. You can’t make stuff when you’re staked up on the pyre.

      But, except, you can in a more limited and narrow way. You paint your church walls. You make an icon. You decorate your Bible. These have more narrow audiences–they are for handing down just within the church. But they seem to be the seedbeds from which later cultural flourishing arises.

  • http://honeyandlocusts.wordpress.com John Gardner

    I’m reminded of Nancy Pearcey’s book Saving Leonardo, where she pointed out the fact that during the cultural revolution of the 60’s, liberals focused their attention on literature and the arts, content for the time to allow conservatives to expend their efforts on politics. She quotes Todd Gitlin, who said that the Left “marched on the English department, while the Right took the White House.” Pearcey then says, “Today we must ask: Which was the more effective strategy? The English department is now in the White House.”

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. Thanks for writing!

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

    I really like Chris’ comment above about art & culture happening outside of the former cultural powerhouses. One of the intriguing things about the YouTube generation is that you can create something really good and have people consume it outside of the regular channels. (I think of, for example, The Civil Wars as a terrific recent example of something good that pretty much got to be popular because people liked it and told their friends.) In general, I would also say that we need to think about whether or not what we are consuming is worthwhile– now that people count pageviews and track how you spend your money, living Coram Deo becomes a cultural statement in more ways than one.

    That being said, I think we have to really careful not to idolize cultural power as we have idolized political power. There is power to be wielded for good, but just as it is foolhardy to bank too hard on “getting our man in the White House,” it is also dangerous to lust over “getting our man on the cover of Rolling Stone.” I would be especially wary of making it sound like a tradeoff between missions/social justice and libraries/art studios, which Matt’s statement in paragraph #3 dances with.

    I know that Hunter would groan to hear it said, but I still persistently believe (echoing Joseph Rhea above) that the best witness of Christ will be in the time, money, energy, and gifts that His followers sacrifice on behalf of their neighbors. While we spend a lot of time talking to them and listening to them.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      “That being said, I think we have to really careful not to idolize cultural power as we have idolized political power. There is power to be wielded for good, but just as it is foolhardy to bank too hard on “getting our man in the White House,” it is also dangerous to lust over “getting our man on the cover of Rolling Stone.” I would be especially wary of making it sound like a tradeoff between missions/social justice and libraries/art studios, which Matt’s statement in paragraph #3 dances with.”

      All good points here. My New Evangelical Scandal piece warns against thinking the move from politics to culture will be easy.

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