It’s not news that politics can be dreary and dysfunctional. For this reason, as we begin another long season of presidential election politics, many Christians are running for cover, eager to avoid politics as much as possible. The reasons for withdrawal have become predictable. Some suggest politics is too broken, too corrupt, for Christians get involved in without sacrificing faithfulness. Others claim politics is a distraction from more spiritual pursuits. These are both long-held, persistent ideas, each with their own merits, but they are ultimately incomplete.
A more persuasive justification for political disengagement is the notion that “culture is upstream from politics.” According to this perspective, political decisions are predetermined by the state of the culture. If you want to change politics, the logic goes, drop politics and change the culture, and the politics will follow.
Google the phrase “culture is upstream from politics” and you will find that it first appears in the 21st century in May 2006, in a blog post from The Washington Institute. It shows up again 18 months later in an editorial by Michael Gerson, who noted the phrase is “something many conservatives say,” and then went on to rebut it. By far, the most vocal advocate of this thinking was, perhaps surprisingly, conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart. Shortly after Breitbart’s death, columnist Byron York wrote that this lesson was Breitbart’s “greatest gift” to conservatives:
Breitbart knew instinctively, as people in Washington and most other places did not, that movies, television programs, and popular music send out deeply political messages every hour of every day. They shape the culture, and then the culture shapes politics. Influence those films and TV shows and songs, and you’ll eventually influence politics.
James Davison Hunter is also credited with inspiring a renewed focus on culture in his 2010 book, To Change the World. Hunter argued that American Christianity was overly focused on gaining political influence; he eschewed political involvement in favor of a “faithful presence” in cultural institutions.
The rise of this idea is inseparable from the decline of the Bush Administration. George W. Bush represented the political victory the Religious Right: they had finally elected “one of their own.” The inability of Bush’s presidency to significantly restrict or ban abortion, pass a federal marriage amendment, among other conservative initiatives, deflated those who thought they had “victory” in hand. The idea that culture is upstream from politics is an attempt to diagnose a failed political strategy. It argues that Christians fought and lost the political battle because they first lost “culture wars.” Rather than blame political tactics for their failure—for instance, hyperbolic rhetoric and unnecessarily prohibitive political stances—they point instead to Murphy Brown and Will & Grace.
But contrary to the metaphor, the relationship between politics and culture is not like a mountain stream, with the ideas of culture pulled down into political action. Instead, politics and culture are like two moons orbiting the planet of our public fears, desires, and aspirations, each moon with a gravitational pull that affects the other. Culture is not the creator of political and social change. Culture and politics work together; they influence one another. And we have many instances in which politics actually changed the culture: like the government ban on smoking in public places and the abolishing of Jim Crow. Politicians and government bureaucrats are culture-makers too.