Bottum’s down: The problem with conservative eggheads

The world has lost God. It is no longer seen as enchanted by regular people. This is a problem that Christians and conservatives need to concentrate on reversing. Because it’s a bigger problem than gay marriage.

That’s the basic point of “The Things We Share,” a controversial essay by Joseph Bottum that appeared recently in Commonweal magazine. Bottum, a Catholic intellectual and former editor of First Things magazine, argues that the gay marriage battle is lost, and that conservatives need to focus on reorienting people towards God. “The goal of the church today must primarily be the re-enchantment of reality.”

Bottum’s essay has been called “discursive” and “meandering.” I prefer to think of it as something that is good preparation for taking on “Ulysses.” (Or maybe reading “Ulysses” is necessarily to work your way up to Bottum.) But behind the rhetorical thicket is an obvious problem with conservatism: the fact that it is run and financed by people who either care only for politics, or are so intellectual that they cannot see the enchantment in front of their faces. You might say they’ve disappeared up their own back passages, but the potential for excess punnage with Bottum’s name is just too dangerous. They’ve been so isolated in think tanks, magazines, and political websites that they are no longer engaged with the culture, or even the world at large. Like liberals in academia, conservative journalists and intellectuals tend to get recruited young and then settle into a long career of agitating for political causes, squirreling away at think tanks, and writing essays and books few people read. They stop going to movies, reading popular novels, and falling in love with bands, then they complain that the world sucks.

When was the last time Joseph Bottum went to a movie? Read a popular novel? Gone to a museum? Listened to a great new rock band?

Politics is downstream of culture. That’s a famous quote from the late Andrew Breitbart. I would only add too that: and culture is where people often find their enchantment, their connection to God. And the fact is, today conservatives are losing battle after battle because we do not support the people who create or reveal the spiritual enchantment of the world: filmmakers, painters, poetic scientists, artists, musicians. In short, the popular culture. People go to movies not only for intellectual stimulation, although that can certainly be part of it, but for spiritual enchantment. “Star Wars” became a phenomenon for two reasons: the enchantment fans felt at being able to zoom amongst the stars, and the theme of faith being more important than technology. (“Use the Force, Luke.”)

A crucially important fact that right-wingers tend to forget is that Ronald Wilson Reagan was an actor. And in the compelling 2007 book, Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, John Patrick Diggins makes the following observation: “If government is the call of duty, democracy is the theater of desire as well as freedom, and the actor, more than the politician or the preacher, knows that the heart vibrates to dreams born of desire.” Reagan would not have been Reagan, would not have been as successful a leader, had be not been an actor. Had he not been devoted to an art whose primary effect is enchantment and, when done right, spiritual understanding and uplift.