JELL-O WRESTLING WITH ROSS

Well, far be it from me to dissapoint Matt Yglesias if he’s looking for a catfight. I suggested that pushing for a more Christianized public sphere was a risky proposition, likely to dilute and secularize the shared symbols Christians prize. That, Ross ripostes, is a “counsel of despair,” and ultimately just evidence of the need to Christianize even harder. And that makes sense insofar as it goes—the risk of dilution presupposes that there’s a broader commercial and secular mass culture to do the diluting. If you could change mass culture wholesale, you’d avoid that problem. I don’t think that strategy is likely to succeed—and, from my perspective, so much the better—but it’s worth considering why.

The kind of deep change Ross is contemplating fairly requires the deployment of semiotically “thicker” stuff than a few creches or an “In God We Trust.” Their suitability for that sort of transformative work is limited by people’s ability to interpret them in a wide variety of ways. But if thin symbols are too blunt for the task at hand, thicker ones are likely to bump up against as much dissent from other Christians as from the secularist boogeymen. Consider Abington v. Schempp, one of the seminal Supreme Court cases on religion in school. Respondent Ed Schempp (who won on an 8-1 decision) wasn’t a wild-eyed atheist, but a Unitarian who objected to morning Bible readings in public schools on the grounds that he wanted his son exposed to scripture in the context of his own interpretations of it. As your buddies at Americans United like to point out, even with relatively “thin” symbols like the Decalogue, you’ve got multiple competing versions of the Big Ten to contend with. If the Narnian Final Battle with the secularists were won—or before it came to the forefront—how many of your evangelical allies would show the level of enthusiasm they did for Mel Gibson’s distinctly Catholic vision of the Passion?

That points, I think, to a more general problem: There’s increasingly not all that much of a “mass culture” to capture anyway. There was a New York Times op-ed about a year back (on another topic) noting that “Plain-vanilla Top 40, once the chief vehicle for hit songs, is now the format for only 5 percent of the nation’s 10,000-plus stations.” So if Christian families’ cultural consumption increasingly consists of Christian radio stations and Veggie Tales videos ordered online, it’s not because they’re retreating into quietism out of despair; it’s because the rain of cultural fragmentation falls on the just and unjust alike.

—posted by Julian

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