Pop culture at CPAC: Kurt Elling and conservatism

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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This week, two of my favorite events are taking place. Their synchronicity has caused me to reflect, once again, on one of the major problems, indeed perhaps the premier problem, facing the right. Conservatives just don’t do popular culture.

The two events are the annual CPAC convention in Washington and the release of jazz singer Kurt Elling’s new record, “The Gate.” What could these two things possibly have to do with each other? The fact that they seem to be from different galaxies only makes the point: conservatives do not understand, celebrate, or in any meaningful way care about popular culture. It’s why we look myopic and joyless to a lot of people. And the popular culture lineup CPAC has is enervating. It’s like when liberals get a minister to say a blessing at a Planned Parenthood conference. Something just seems off.

Although the reason a minister should not be blessing Planned Parenthood is obvious (let us praise dead babies!), the reason conservatives continually fumble popular culture is not. Kurt Elling became one of my favorite singers on Saint Patrick’s Day, 2006. He was playing at the Strathmore Center, a breathtaking concert hall in Maryland. Elling, a former divinity student at the University of Chicago, was performing the classic “My Foolish Heart.” In the middle of the song, the band slowed down and the piano and bass drifted back into silence until there was only a soft thump of the drum. Elling began to sing:

One dark night
Fired with love’s urgent longings
Clothed in sheer grace
I went out unseen
My house being now all still

It was from “The Dark Night of the Soul,” the classic by the 16th-century mystic St. John of the Cross. Elling was poetically commingling a standard from the great American songbook with a Catholic mystic. I felt chills, as I do now writing this and remembering the performance. It was the kind of moment that should have been captured in the pages of First Things, National Review or the Weekly Standard. Indeed, an orthodox theologian with a working knowledge of John Paul II’s “theology of the body” could have captured Elling’s juxtaposition of the sacred and the carnal better than a writer for the Washington Post or Rolling Stone. And we shouldn’t be covering these things simply for political gain, although that’s fine. We should because we are believers in God, and the beauty of God is reflected in the beauty of the arts. I’m sorry, but a monster truck pull just doesn’t cut it.

I wrote about the night Elling sang his prayer in my new book “A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The book is an attempt to make the case for the conservatism of popular culture, particularly popular music. It’s not only obvious that popular music tends to follows certain sonic formats that are arguably more inflexible than classical and jazz; it’s that the themes in popular music are conservative. In our secular world, popular music celebrates transcendent love that conquers time, space, mountains, rivers and valleys. And more than one person has argued that punk rock, with its do-it-yourself ethic and disdain for drugs and hippies, is actually right-wing. On top of that, the best explanation of the spiritual grandeur of U2 was offered by conservative Stephen Catanzarite in his book “U2 Achtung Baby: Love in the Shadow of the Fall.” It argues that at the heart of U2’s music is a dynamic balance between calling for peace and justice and the recognition that this fallen world can be a terribly sad place — that, as St. Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Seriously, there should be entire right-wing foundations dedicated to this stuff.

This year’s CPAC did not invite Stephen Catanzarite. Instead, the panel on pop culture — “Pop Culture: an Influence or a Mirror?” — has (as of this writing) three presenters: Martha Zoller, Doug Giles and Rachel Campos-Duffy. These three are all attractive personalities. Martha Zoller is an intelligent talk show host. Comedian/minister/author Doug Giles is like the warped (in the best way) love child of Dennis Miller and Don Knotts. And of course Rachel Campos-Duffy is that looker who got tortured by the genius performance artist Puck on the San Francisco season of “The Real World.” She is now a mother and is married to Sean Duffy, a congressman. I realize that CPAC is about fun and red meat and whoopin’ it up; but it is also way past time that conservatives start embracing the best parts of popular culture, particularly popular music, and do so in an intelligent way that does justice to the art. Life is about more than low taxes and limited government. Next year, invite Kurt Elling.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.