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.

Editor’s Note: This is a cross-post from Tim Keller’s blog at Redeemer City to City.

  • Brian

    Tim, I love you, and I get your point, but why didn’t you write this in 2008 before the election? Now that conservatives are gaining momentum, many (liberal/moderate) Christian leaders are taking this “politics aren’t important” stance.

    The timing is telling.

    • Nate

      Actually Brian, Keller has been saying this for years.

      • http://awildernesslife.blogspot.com Laura

        … and years! :) Thank God.

  • Dean P

    Ironically some would argue that James Davison Hunter himself is one of the one who takes this position of political withdraw.

  • kateg

    38 years ago, I spent the whole (?) summer with my dad watching the watergate hearings on TV… Maybe politics weren’t important in the world, but they were sure important to folks in Massachusetts 30, 40 years ago, from where I sat anyway.

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  • M.P. Orrison

    At the end of the day; the reality is that Keller is just one more voice among many others, speaking to the issues of the day. Whether or not one agrees; is really of no concern.

    I’m surprised that no one is speaking to the obvious use of Hegel’s Dialectic: Thesis +/- Antithesis = Synthesis: resulting in a final solution.

    What interests me is the use of misguided philosophers like Marx and Nietzsche; neither of which had any understanding of Christian ethos; nor of early church writings concerning our Christian heritage.

    The reality is that Christian morality is rooted deeply in the text of scripture; but fully realized in the person and work of Christ. It is by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that “Christians” are able to gain a moral standing. Having said that, Christians are to nurture, feed and strengthen their moral standing; by deepening their reliance on Christ, and feeding upon Him. Christianity is not a worldly political scheme, but is a body politic: A people who are governed by almighty God. Neither Marx nor Nietzsche understood this.

    Due to their lack of having spiritual eyes to see with; what they perceived to be a Christian political power play was and continues to be, eisegetical pondering on their part. Whenever one confuses worldling’s pleasure(In this case Politics as usual), for Christian fidelity and ethos; one misses kingdom principles.

    Should Christians be involved in Politics? Certainly! To retreat to a sectarian, separatist, or cloistered Christianity is to deny the very command of Christ to “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” This means that Christians must enter the arena of evangelism and apologetics: Be it politics or pastorate. The Kingdom ethos, principles, and message are still the same; The issues are still the same.

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