The Culture:  Upstream from Politics


by William B. Wichterman

(Published in Building a Healthy Culture: Strategies for an American Renaissance, ed. Don Eberly; Eerdmans, 2001; pp. 75-100).




Political interest in America’s worsening cultural conditions has grown in recent years.  Some have even characterized the polarized political debate over moral values as “culture wars,” which indeed it often appears to be.  The rise to majority status of the Republican Party in the U.S. Congress in the 1994 elections was made possible in part by a constituency and an agenda that took dead aim at America’s cultural conditions.


I write, not only as a cultural conservative, but as one who served as a congressional staff member in the midst of this convulsive political period in Congress.  Over the past decades, a series of unexamined assumptions has settled in the consciousness of many fellow conservatives. Although liberals have clung to mythologies of their own, my focus is on cultural conservatives. Republicans’ perceived[1] performance in Congress, simultaneously alienating “mainstream” citizens and disappointing the conservative core constituency, is prompting cultural conservatives to reexamine their assumptions.


The conventional wisdom of many cultural conservatives runs something like this: Our nation is in decline largely due to a series of public policy mandates, especially those handed down by the courts.  These mandates have undermined the founding principles of our country and the institutions of society.  Since the culture wars began in government, so the argument goes, they can and must be won in government.  Whether it is the abortion license, no-fault divorce, school prayer, special legal protections for homosexuals, or pornography, many cultural conservatives believe they must elect a conservative majority and appoint conservative judges to reverse the nation’s moral corruption.


In contrast, I believe that the cause of America’s moral degradation is not political but cultural.  While cultural conservatives bemoan judicial activism that reinterprets the plain meaning of the written Constitution, they forget that the courts are only finishing on parchment a job already begun in the hearts of the American people.  A sound cultural constitution that values the good, the true, and the beautiful, and seeks to suppress perverse inclinations, has been subverted by our rejection of transcendent truth, and the interpretation of the written Constitution has reflected that change.  Transcendence has been erased from the paper only as it has drained from our culture.  Politics is largely an expression of culture.


Many cultural conservatives have difficulty believing this since they have been steeped in the doctrine that politics is the root of America’s cultural decay, and not its flower.  This belief has led them to overlook more influential shapers of culture, and misled them into believing that conservative governance could have prevented cultural debasement.  The truth, as social commentator Don Eberly has rightly noted, is that “politics is downstream from the culture.”


Cultural conservatives concerned about moral erosion have spent much of their energy working for change in the political sphere, and too little energy working in the cultural sphere.  Economic liberals have tried the same tactics with similar results.[2]  This has been a profound mistake, not because politics plays no role in shaping the nation, but because its role is less important than the other culture-shaping institutions of the family, academia, journalism, religion, entertainment, literature, and the fine arts.


The Framers of the Constitution understood the primacy of culture, and founded a government intended to reflect the higher elements of a generally virtuous populace.  As American culture continues its slide away from the belief in transcendent truth, the Framers’ constitutional order is slowly being replaced by an increasingly democratic legislature, reflecting the appetites of the majority.  Even the judiciary, the branch most associated with leading the nation against the majority, largely reflects social changes already underway.


The task before cultural conservatives is to renew the culture, thereby restoring an operative acknowledgment of transcendent truth.  Without this renewal, the unwritten constitution of the culture will continue to deny transcendence and degrade morals, and our society will keep on sliding into the moral abyss.  And since government is, in Plato's phrase, the soul writ large, this degradation cannot help but find expression in the state.




[1]               I say “perceived” because many of Republicans’ legislative actions have been widely misreported by the media.  From school lunch funding to the proposed ban on partial birth abortions, the media has regularly failed to accurately portray what is actually being proposed.


[2]               In the 20th Century, economic liberals tried to institute centralized planning.  By the end of the century, it is becoming clear that their attempts have fallen short.  It has proven impossible for statist economic policies to be sustained as the culture exalted higher still individualism and liberty.