FIGHTING WORDS

Since Julian and I probably don’t see eye to eye about . . . well, a lot of things, Matt Yglesias asks us for more brutal, no-holds-barred debating on the great issues of the day. Unfortunately, my co-blogger hasn’t said anything I radically disagree with (I’m agnostic on the great wiretapping debate), so I’m reduced to nitpicking. But I’ll take a stab at it. Here’s something Julian wrote, on Monday:

Let me suggest as a final point, though, that there may be a connection between “the real de-Christianization of Christmas” via “the frenetic pace of modern life, and the crassifying tendencies of commerce,” which bothers Ross, and an insistence on a faith-saturated public sphere. It is utterly mysterious to me when people of faith exult that some sectarian symbolx97a Ten Commandments momument or an invocation of “one nation under God” in a schoolchild’s morning fealty oathx97survives judicial scrutiny as mere “ceremonial deism.” Isn’t that precisely an acknowledgement that, by a kind of inverted transubstantiation, those symbols have been stripped of their meaning? The problem with pushing to embed your favored symbols in the mass culture is that you cede control of them to the mass culturex97which I rather doubt is what the activists would want, on reflection.

I think the thing to recognize here is that serious Christians who worry about the naked public square don’t rejoice when a Ten Commandments display or the Pledge passes muster as “ceremonial deism.” Ceremonial deism is the last refuge of the lukewarm – the theory that lets Supreme Court Justices square their “wall of separation” notions with the pervasiveness of religious language and symbolism in American history, public architecture and public rhetoric. It’s what Stephen Breyer will sign on to, not what Antonin Scalia wants.

More generally, Julian’s certainly right that when Christians cede control of their symbols to the mass culture, it’s only a short jog to ceding control of Christianity itself to what you might call the American heresy – the gospel of success that’s made Joel Osteen the country’s bestselling “Christian” theologian, and threatens to make religious devotion just another cog in the commercial machine. This could be an argument for withdrawal and quietism – for Christians to abandon the public square entirely, and focus on cultivating an orthodox subculture in a more materialist sea. But that’s the counsel of despair. If the mass culture is really so bad for Christianity, maybe Christians ought to be doing more to change it, instead of letting it change them – which is what that whole “salt of the earth” thing was supposed to be about, I think.

Changing the culture is hard to do, of course – a lot harder than winning Pledge of Allegiance battles, or even elections. But people (right or left, but the left has understood this better for some time) who think that culture wars are mainly about politics are kidding themselves. I’ve argued this before, and Mark Helprin – one of the rare, rare American artists who leans right – made a similar point in NR’s fiftieth anniversary issue:

Conservatives have yet to approach culture as William F. Buckley approached political philosophy half a century ago. The theses of our culture are almost universally propounded by the Left x97 in education at all levels; publishing of all types; film and television; what used to be the fine arts; music; and in the libraries and museums, where history can be altered with an unnoticed deaccession or the flick of a caption. Looking upon all this as if silent upon a peak in Darien, Connecticut, are armies of conservatives who mainly react. There below them, stretching to the horizon, is the Pacific, and because they hesitate to swim in it, they are reduced to criticizing it. What will prevail in manx92s life or imagination, the ocean or those who x97 even if rightly x97 take exception to it?

That the antitheses are usually just is irrelevant to the outcome, for here as almost everywhere the initiative rules. Consider the relative impacts of film and of film criticism; music and music criticism; education and criticism of educational fashion. Cultural abominations thrive not because they are insufficiently criticized but for lack of adequately supported competition.

Although not a few conservatives with a self-sacrificial bent are at work in the belles lettres and beaux arts, the conservative masses (what a delightful phrase) have largely ceded these fields or have been frozen in or out of them in the reactive position from which conservatives must be freed if their enterprise is to succeed and their principles are to thrive.

Conservatives and Christians are by no means perfectly overlapping categories, but Helprin’s point applies equally well to both. Julian’s right that religious believers risk a great deal when they take on the mass culture – but they risk even more when they don’t.

– posted by Ross

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