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.
Whatever the influence of culture on politics—and, to be clear, I think it is profound—culture never provides a consensus. Cultural goods can express values and ideas, but politics codifies them. We cannot simply put out into the world a vision of the good life; we must work to make that vision a realistic possibility for our neighbors to take up for themselves.
Many of us are tempted to overemphasize culture at the expense of political engagement because of our fears of repeating the mistakes of the past generation. We understand that the type of politics employed by the Religious Right contributed to the antipathy toward Christianity that we see today.
Yet, at a time of rising secularization, when society increasingly judges that Christian truths have no bearing on public life, a political retreat concedes the point at just the moment it needs the most stalwart defense. Rather than retreat, we need—our country needs—a diverse Christian political witness that treats Christian ideas as precious, good for all, and applicable to today’s needs and challenges.
If we hold that both culture and politics are appropriate forums for Christians, and if we understand that culture and politics influence each other, we can reengage politics in a way that is distinct and beneficial for the nation to which God has called us.
Take the rising concern about political polarization. A recent Stanford study found that party politics has become a “litmus test for interpersonal relations.” As one of the Stanford researchers observed, “The rhetoric and actions of political leaders demonstrate that hostility directed at the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate.” In other words, our politics is sending the message that hating your enemies is appropriate, and that attitude is undermining our culture and our communities.
The answer is not a Christian disavowal of both parties. Saying “a pox on both parties” might make us feel good, but it actually deprives Democratic and Republican politicians of the support they need to hold positions contrary to the official party platform or work with politicians of the opposing party. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, we do not participate in party politics because the Democratic and Republican parties are great; the parties will become great because we participate in them.
You find that positive Christian engagement in politics is not uncommon once you get beyond the most bombastic, conflict-driven voices. Organizations like the National Associaton of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Immigration Table advance deeply Christian ideas every day in ways that affect both sides of the aisle. Christian leaders like Joel Hunter, Kay Warren, Nicole Baker Fulgham, and so many others influence policy conversations with wisdom, conviction, grace and hope. There are countless Christians in Washington and in state capitols around the country who seek to follow Christ in their work, stumbling as we all do, but running the race that has been set out before them.
I also think of the powerful witness given by some of the Christian leaders I worked with in the last election. One national leader agreed to deliver an invocation at a rally in Columbus, Ohio, but insisted that he would pray for the candidate for whom I worked and for our opponent. So, to begin a political rally, a crowd of thousands heard a prayer that asked God to bless and keep both candidates equally. It was a beautiful example of combating a corrosive political culture.
As individuals, we can each do our part even if our career is not in politics. For example, we can participate in our local party organizations, and make sure they know they have members who will give less, volunteer less, and are less likely to vote for candidates who are overly partisan, or elevate policy stances that are contrary to our values.
If we want to sustain a culture-conscious political engagement, Christians need to create and support institutions—foundations, advocacy organizations, media projects—that support those who refuse expediency in favor of faithfulness. Politics can be a ministry, and we ought to financially support those in it as we would those serving in other fields.
As shallow as our political discourse can seem at times, its impact is broad and deep, particularly for the vulnerable. A culture more concerned with justice, virtue, and compassion, will absolutely have a positive impact on our politics. But it is no replacement for direct political engagement. It is not simple. We will falter. Yet, we serve a God who has a claim on our whole life, and we worship a savior who is redeeming all things. The way to correct the harmful politics of the past is not to withdraw, but to be faithful in politics today as we seek to be faithful in all that we do.
Michael Wear is a strategist and consultant to Christian organizations and leaders who engage in public issues. He led faith outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign, and previously served as one of the youngest White House staffers in modern American history during President Obama’s first term. Michael serves on the national board of Bethany Christian Services.