Why the Religious Right (and Left) Can’t Succeed

Note: I owe a lot of this thinking to a recent book I picked up which I found helpful in distilling issues of Christianity and culture: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.

With a title like that, I’m sure you’re all expecting me to say something inflammatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, as I interact with Christians’ attempts to influence and shape culture (the true aim of both the religious poles – politics is merely an outworking of this), I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings of culture which result in misguided attempts to change it.

Both Christian liberals and conservatives buy into what we might call the “democracy myth” of culture. This myth supposes that culture is just an amalgamation of the beliefs most people share in common – as if everyone votes their worldview, and the one with the most ballots in the box ends up setting the agenda. Thus, engaging in a “culture war” primarily consist of convincing people to think correct things and then live out what they believe.

While I’m all for right thinking and right living, the democracy myth is patently false when it comes to approaching culture. It is much more complicated, in three ways. First, culture is not monolithic. Rather, it is a set of overlapping circles, some closer to the center and some to the fringe. The areas in which they overlap form shared beliefs, values and influences, but no two circles in America share everything in common. Thus, while certain cultural forces are represented in a variety of cultures (i.e. the New York Times, some genres of music), each of these cultural circles also have unique forces at work. Because this is the case, simply being a voice in a part of culture in no way guarantees that your voice will be heard in culture as a whole.

Second, cultures do less to instill specific beliefs than they do to erect plausibility structures – frameworks of thought in which certain beliefs are easier or harder to hold. There is a remarkable diversity of specific convictions within any given culture. Every human being is rife with contradictions. It is not that they live in the culture and wake up one day to discover that they’ve become convinced to change one of those beliefs. Rather, within this diversity, not all beliefs seem created equal. Some make sense to people, and some seem more and more unbelievable. It is this “sensibleness” which culture creates.

Third, culture is shaped by the interaction of cultural conservatism and cultural antagonism. When a voice seeks to speak into or challenge culture, one of two things can happen which could end up keeping the voice from being heard. On the one hand, if the voice is too similar to the dominant culture, the conservative nature of the culture will work to co-opt that voice; to use what it says to reaffirm the values of the culture it is speaking into, even if the voice would vehemently disagree with some of those values. On the other hand, if the voice is too different, it will fail to get a hearing in the culture at all. It will so violate its plausibility structure that it will be rejected out of hand. However, this antagonism doesn’t simply result in the voice being ignored. Rather, since values are defined in part by the other – by what they oppose or what they are not – such extreme voices will actually serve to drive the culture in the opposite direction. Thus, trying to change culture often results in it becoming even more deeply established, either by being used to prop up its views or to serve as the other to those views.

When defined in this way, I think it becomes clear why most Christian attempts to affect culture fail. We might categorize the normal modes of Christian interaction into two groups: opposition from without and relevance from within. Many groups end up using a combination of these two strategies, but they are clearly present – and neither of them can affect how culture actually functions.

The problems with the  “opposition from without” model manifest in all three of the spheres I mentioned above. First, it tends to view culture as something monolithic (and which it is outside). Thus, it often goes after a part of culture as if it was the whole thing, failing to see the complexity and gear its critique toward areas of overlap. Second, and more importantly, it tries to change beliefs without recognizing the plausibility structure in which they function. It doesn’t matter how many arguments you make or laws you change. If cultural forces do not work to make these arguments and laws believable to the people interacting with them, they are doomed to fail. The result of this failure is not just being ineffective, either. Rather, since those opposing culture from without tend to be the voices which culture is antagonistic to, they often become bogeymen used to scare people into going in the opposite direction – to affirm more strongly the very things that Christians want them to change.

However, this is in no way an argument for the “relevance from within” model. It fails on all three counts as well. It tends to be incredibly naive about cultural diversity, and so seeks to speak to “culture” by anchoring itself in one tiny circle, often speaking primarily in the unique areas of that circle rather than in those that overlap. What’s more, it tends to be incredibly naive about how plausibility structures work. It often leaps into such structures thinking that they can be adopted wholesale while still holding the right beliefs, only to discover ten or twenty years later that nobody holds those beliefs anymore because they seem, well, unbelievable. As a result, the relevance paradigm ends up being co-opted and used to make culture even more established, rather than moving it in the direction its proponents desire.

So with all that gloom and doom, we might be wondering, what should we do? I’m going to save that discussion for a post next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is this an adequate view of culture? Is there another paradigm of engagement you can see which addresses these problems?


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