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 ...1