On winning the culture

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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My posts yesterday on culture generated a lot of conversation.

One reader — who agreed that losing the culture inexorably led to losing elections — emailed me this:

One of the reasons I have been thinking about this is that over the holidays, I stumbled upon and watched the HBO series “Girls” … I recommend watching a few episodes to understand how we lost single women and under 35 and may never get them back.

As I noted in my column, it will take a long slog to reverse the trend. The first step might be to look back to a time when conservative values were relevant — not just in politics — but also in the culture.

In his excellent book, ‘Bad Religion,’ author and columnist Ross Douthat observes how — even as Evangelicals were gaining in the realm of religion — they were simultaneously losing influence in the larger culture. (Evangelicals and conservatives aren’t necessarily synonymous, but I think this is part of the same phenomenon).

As Douthat writes:

Either [late 20th century] Evangelicals still weren’t sufficiently successful at nurturing intellectual and artistic gifts in their churches and communities, or else the most creative young believers tended to drift away from the fold. The roster of Evangelical theologians and Bible scholars was impressive, but the ranks of Evangelical novelists, filmmakers, poets, and public intellectuals were strikingly think, especially compared to the Christian flowering of midcentury. There was no real Evangelical analogue to W.H.Auden or T.S. Eliot, no impressive Evangelical literary school to match the Catholic novelists of the 1940s and ’50s, no Evangelical public intellectual who enjoyed the kind of respect from non-Christians the way Reinhold Niebuhr and other golden-age figures had commanded …

… Evangelical art and architecture were generally middlebrow, garish, and naive. The best attempts of Christian hipsters and Bono acolytes notwithstanding, Evangelical pop culture still felt ingenuous and tacky — the stuff of Kirk Cameron movies and Christian rock music … (Emphasis mine.)

 (Note: If If you’re interested in this topic, sign up to read my notes and highlights on Douthat’s ‘Bad Religion.’)

Of course, there have been recent efforts to address this problem. A website called Culture 11 was launched a few years back, ostensibly to address this problem. It quickly folded.

Perhaps they were just ahead of their time?

The good news for cultural conservatives is that a new generation, aided by new technology, might finally conspire to change things. Young conservatives like R.J. Moeller — the man who brought comedian Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager together — are dedicating their lives to ideas and culture, not overt partisanship.

As technology lowers the barriers of entry, removing power from the gatekeepers, it is entirely possible that artists who happen to be conservative (as opposed to “conservative artists”) will have an easier time breaking into the culture. It might be hard, for example, to sell a record label on signing you, but what if record labels become irrelevant? — what if talent and the ability to produce and sell electronic music render them moot?

Of course, this vision will still require talented people to stay out of partisan politics, opting instead for a career in the arts.

Perhaps seizing on the moment, New York Times best-selling author Eric Metaxas is calling on Christians to do exactly that. During his latest BreakPoint commentary, Metaxas urged:

“[I]n the coming year, I hope more Christians will learn the importance of getting involved in creating culture—and helping those who create culture to do so. Again, quoting Chuck [Colson], ‘the problems of our society are moral and spiritual in nature. Institutions and politicians are limited in what they can do.’”

Matt K. Lewis