Renewing the Culture From Within: Recovering Transcendence
Although politics is relatively ineffective at shaping the culture, its role is not unimportant. The law is a teacher that can help recover belief in transcendence. Abandonment of the political sphere would be detrimental to efforts for cultural renewal.
But politics is not enough. For too long, cultural conservatives intent on transforming the nation have focused almost exclusively on the political realm. However, it is the cultural fields, long overgrown with tares from decades of conservative neglect and liberal domination, which need to be plowed and resown. Cultural conservatives must learn, or relearn, that it is the unwritten constitution of culture that shapes the written constitution of a nation.
It is worth noting that once one understands the primacy of culture and joins in the effort to renew it according to transcendent standards, the question of one’s political label becomes less important. A healthy culture is about lifting up the good, the true, and the beautiful. These are not ideological categories. There is plenty of common ground for cultural renewal among individuals who differ on the particular role law should play. For instance, some citizens may join in the cultural fight against social pathologies, even though they oppose legal restrictions on those pathologies. This applies to abortion, violent prime time television, pornography, divorce, and many other social maladies. This is not to say that the policy differences are inconsequential. But renewal can be furthered even without political agreement, again, because culture trumps politics.
Notable efforts are underway to reclaim the culture. Within every gatekeeping institution, bold and courageous scholars, actors, journalists, and artists are challenging their colleagues to re-think their faulty assumptions. Cultural conservatives are beginning to renew their involvement in popular entertainment, in journalism, and the arts. There are encouraging signs that Americans concerned about cultural decline are forming “beachheads” to renew culture.
But much more needs to be done, and great gains will only come with sacrifice. Restoration will take time. The degradation did not occur overnight, but really began with modernity’s denial of transcendence. Cultural conservatives must dedicate themselves to a decades-long work in the culture. If these efforts fail and the culture continues on its present course, the implications for the nation are grave. As the vestiges of the older transcendence are jettisoned, government will continue to reflect and accelerate the passions of the people, and the tyranny of the majority will grow. The infantry of politics cannot help but respond to the cultural generals in the rear.
Because politics is downstream from the culture and the polis is the soul writ large, the culture, as the source of political order, must be renewed so that politics can justly play its hand. Well-ordered government in the absence of a culture grounded in transcendence is unsustainable in the long run.
The Framers’ reliance on a healthy culture and their careful formation of a government that reflects the more noble aspects of that culture gave America a good start. It was only as the unwritten constitution of the culture rejected transcendence and embraced subjectivism that the government mirrored the slide away from truth. The rise of majoritarianism in the legislature is one result. In the judiciary, the subjectivist passions of the culture are being fanned by a Court effectively negating the remaining belief in transcendence. The public is unable to resist the Court’s decisions, which is only tracking the culture’s logic. The Framers’ cautious republic slowly transforms itself into Rousseau’s democracy of passions.
Tocqueville recognized that America could not long survive and thrive without a reliance on transcendent truth, especially a religious faith:
Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot. Religion is much more needed in the republic they advocate than in the monarchy they attack, and in democratic republics most of all. How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?
With Americans increasingly turning away from the belief in transcendent truth necessary to sustain just governance, the American experiment is imperiled.
Thankfully, there is cause for hope. The antibody of transcendence, though weakened by the virus of subjectivism, remains within the culture. Its reanimation is not impossible, especially when one surveys the looming alternative in the despair and disorder of relativism. Tragedies like that at Columbine High School may be catalysts, causing Americans to recoil from the false hope offered by the subjectivist worldview. With a ready alternative in transcendent truth still recognizable beneath the gathering dust of cultural decline, despair is premature.
And with plenty to do in the cultural vineyards, despair is counter-productive. For it is in culture that we can amend the constitution of the heart, and thereby protect, preserve, and strengthen the American Experiment.
 De Toqueville, Democracy in America, 296.