• Bill Wichterman

Culture: Upstream From Politics

(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.

The Unwritten Constitution of the Culture

That the culture is in a steady decline, if not a virtual free fall, has been amply demonstrated by numerous commentators, including William Bennett, William Raspberry, and Robert Bork. One has only to surf network television, browse through a Blockbuster video store, attend an academic conference or “professional” wrestling bout, or walk through an art museum to witness the cultural toxicity. Fatherlessness, abortion-on-demand, random violence, drug abuse, rampant extra-marital sex, debasing manners, and general incivility all point to a nation headed to moral oblivion.[3] The corruption of popular culture is led by the framers of the unwritten constitution, those individuals and institutions that shape the mores and habits of the heart. I posit that CNN’s Ted Turner and Hollywood movie producer Oliver Stone have a far greater impact on culture than the entire U.S. Senate.

It is important to note that it is not just political conservatives who are concerned about cultural ill health. There are many Americans of all political stripes who decry teen pregnancy, violent videos, the collapse of marriage, and the vulgarity of prime time television. Although they may differ with conservative Republican legislative prescriptions, they join in the chorus of dissenting voices on the direction of American culture. We must not overlook their participation in cultural renewal.

The primary spiritual illness afflicting the culture is the loss of an active belief in absolute truth that transcends the immanent realm, or present temporal world. Transcendence, as it will be used here, refers to belief in absolute truth grounded in a reality larger than the collection of temporal events and experiences forming everyday life. C.S. Lewis refers to belief in transcendence or “the Tao” as “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”[4] This is not to say that cultures rooted in transcendent truth are immune to social decay. Indeed, the content of this belief in transcendent truth is very important. Nonetheless, it is the eroding belief in transcendence and the rise of subjectivism[5] that is at the core of the American culture’s declining health.

Superficially, the rejection of transcendence by Americans is a highly conflicted matter. According to the Barna Report,[6] 95 percent of Americans still believe in God; 68 percent agree God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today; 84 percent believe Jesus was God or the Son of God; and 43 percent attended church in the last week. On the other hand, 72 percent of adult Americans believe that “There is no such thing as absolute truth; two people could define truth in totally conflicting ways, but both could still be correct”-- including 62 percent of born-again Christians and 42 percent of Evangelical Christians.[7] In other words, a significant percentage of Americans have inherited a theistic world from previous generations which they have “syncretized” with the cultural elite’s relativism, holding fundamentally incompatible ideas and affirming both simultaneously. The so-called moral majority is at best a schizophrenic majority, both embracing a transcendent God of the universe and rejecting the very basis of that belief.

James Davison Hunter’s portrait of America as a deeply divided people, locked in a culture war with one another, does not seem to comport with the operational subjectivism of most Americans. Closer to the mark may be Alan Wolfe’s One Nation, After All. Wolfe argues that there is no culture war because the middle class does not believe in most things strongly enough to want to impose them on others. While Wolfe agrees that America’s elites are engaged in cultural conflict, he finds that America’s middle class has found a common creed in a non-judgmentalism that trumps morality. Thus, when the Supreme Court hands down decisions overturning state restrictions on abortion and Internet obscenity, bans student-led prayer in official school functions, and mandates legal authority to enact special rights for homosexuals as a protected class, Americans register their disapproval in opinion polls, but not at the polling booth. Where the Court’s decisions should provoke legislative and electoral resistance, the public shrugs. For many supposedly theistic Americans, their morality has no legs.

It would be wrong to say that American culture has completely rejected transcendent truth. To be sure, there is much in American society that is still rooted in a notion of objective right and wrong. However, it is the overall trajectory of American culture that is cause for great alarm.

[3] While some of these downward trends seem to have turned the corner in recent years, the historic trajectory has been grim and cause for celebration is premature.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: MacMillian Publishing Co., Inc., 1947), 29.

[5] “Subjectivism” means that all truth is relative and is defined by the individual.

[6] Website (www.barna.org) under “Beliefs: general religious, heaven and hell, and theological.”

[7] George Barna, Virtual America (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1994).

The Unwritten Constitution’s Overwriting the Written Constitution

Some will argue that the American form of government is not so easily changed or its Constitution so easily amended that this cultural degradation will find expression in the wise government of the people. The true genius of the American Experiment, they say, is its insightful structuring of checks and balances among the branches of government, not in the character of its citizens. The Framers recognized the limitation of trusting in human goodness to establish good government and overcame that obstacle through their clever drafting of the Constitution.

This attempt to privatize morality and pretend that it has no effect on government does not work. In time, the unwritten constitution of the culture rewrites the constitution on paper. J. Budziszewski in his book, The Revenge of Conscience, writes that “…every country gets the government it deserves: one cannot expect liberty, justice, or concern for the common good where knaves rule a rabble. . . The single greatest problem of politics is simply this: How can we make government promote the common good when there is so little virtue to be found?”[8] Attempts to recover a correct rendering of the Constitution solely through the appointment of strict constructionists to the high court, while laudable and important in its own right, overlooks the greater influence of popular culture on judicial decision-making.

The restoration of just policies must be preceded by the rediscovery of transcendent truth in the unwritten constitution our culture creates. Robert Bork notes that, “The tyrannies of political correctness and multiculturalism will not be ejected from the universities by any number of conservative victories at the polls. Modern liberals captured the government and its bureaucracies because they captured the culture. Conservative political victories will always be tenuous and fragile unless conservatives recapture the culture.”[9]

It would certainly be a mistake to think of politics as nothing but a reflection of culture. Law is a teacher, and politics is one of the culture-shaping institutions. Legal sanctions do help to inform and guide the conscience of a nation. Everything from tax policy to health insurance law plays a role in shaping culture. My own active political involvement underscores this conviction. Mobilizing voters, distributing voter guides, congressional hearings, petition drives, phone banking, and fundraising, are integral to a healthy republic.

But the tendency for many Americans is to overstate the importance of politics in shaping culture. When compared with Hollywood, academia, media, or the family, politics plays a relatively minor role in forming culture. Political life, while it may appear to be at the vanguard of a society, is more like the infantry. Politics stands at the front lines, but is directed from the rear by the culture. Its prominence in the place of battle may deceptively suggest that the battle rages there. That we mark our history by various government actions like the New Deal, the Great Society programs, Roe v. Wade, and the 1994 Republican congressional takeover might suggest that law and politics lead our society. Instead, philosopher Michael Oakeshott notes that politics protects a particular social order, but does not lead or guide it. The Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights only seem to emerge from the political order. In fact, their content is written by a “stratum of social thought far too deep to be influenced by the actions of politicians.”[10] Oakeshott continues, “A political system presupposes a civilization; it has a function to perform in regard to that civilization, but it is a function mainly of protection and to a minor degree of merely mechanical interpretation and expression.” The animating genius of any political system is far behind the lines of the visible political battle, calling the shots like a general.

Edmund Burke wrote that “manners are more important than laws,” and Plato wrote, “Give me the songs of a nation, and it matters not who writes its laws.” Consider what animates most individuals: literature, religion, entertainment, and music. Individuals rarely change their lives based on a political speech or a government act. An individual may be inspired to work for a political candidate who reflects what he finds most important in preserving or creating a certain kind of culture. But, more often than not, it is the cultural consensus that precedes the political expression.

[8] J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 1999), 55-56.

[9] Robert H Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York: Regan Books, 1996), 339.

[10] Michael Oakeshott, Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life, ed. Timothy Fuller (Need City: Yale University Press, 1993), 93.

American Framers’ Reliance on Culture

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution believed that a republic could be maintained only with a healthy culture as its foundation. Although the Framers did not specifically use the word “culture,” their concern for republican virtues among the citizens is another way of saying the same thing. John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of Independence and professor and president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) who was dubbed the "great teacher of the American Revolution,” said:

Nothing is more certain than that a general profligacy and corruption of manners make a people ripe for destruction. A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery must ensue. On the other hand, when the manners of a nation are pure, when true religion and eternal principles maintain their vigour, the attempts of the most powerful enemies to oppress them are commonly baffled and disappointed.[11]

George Washington said in his Farewell Address of 1796, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Likewise, Gouverneur Morris, drafter of the U.S. Constitution and the ambassador to France during the French Revolution, wrote, “They [the French] want an American Constitution with the exception of a king instead of a President, without reflecting that they have no American citizens to uphold that constitution.”[12] It was the constitution written on the heart of the American citizenry that made the difference between France and the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “While the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare. . . .”[13]

If the brilliance of the American Government lay solely in its Constitution, there would be no reason to worry about the unwritten constitution of its citizens. However, the Framers believed that government is “the greatest [as in largest or truest] of all reflections on human nature . . . If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”[14] Even with the careful thought behind the founding document, the brilliance lay not in the Constitution as an abstract document divorced from the spiritual and cultural state of a people, but as a document which reflected the highest, truest, and best in the American people at that point in history. Benjamin Franklin responded to the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia who asked what the Constitutional Convention had crafted, “My dear lady, we have given to you a republic – if you can keep it.”[15] His reply demonstrated that the Framers knew that the durability of the new nation would reside not primarily with the superior design of the government but with the enduring character of the nation’s culture.

[11] “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men: A Sermon Preached at Princeton on May 17, 1776,” Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (1730-1805), ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991), 553.

[12] Gouverneur Morris letter of July 10, 1789 to William Carmichael in The Life and Writings of Gouverneur Morris, Vol. 2. ed. Jared Sparks (Gray and Bowen: 1832), 75.

[13] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America in Political Thought in America, ed. Michael B. Levy (Chicago: The Dorsey Press, 1988), 295.

[14] James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 51.

[15] Taken from “America’s Bill of Rights at 200 Years,” by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, printed in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Summer 1991), 457.

A Republic, Not a Democracy, to Reflect the Will

Although a healthy culture was the necessary predicate for the maintenance of a healthy polity, it was not sufficient. The Framers consciously intended to construct a democratic republic that would be an expression of the people’s higher selves as manifested in the will, and an inhibitor of the lower self, manifested in the passions. Political theorist Claes Ryn writes that the higher self “refers to that in our being which pulls us in the direction of our own true humanity, that is, towards the realization of our highest potential as defined by a universally valid standard.”[16] The lower self is moved by human appetites and is less guided by conscience and more by short-term self-interest. The will affirms transcendence, and the passions reject it. From this desire to accentuate the healthy elements of culture, the Framers consciously chose not to establish a democracy. In fact, the word “democracy” does not even appear in the U.S. Constitution. Americans have largely lost the ability to distinguish between democracy and the democratic republic established by the Framers. They would be surprised to read the harsh words the Framers had for democracy. James Madison warned, "Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention."[17] Fisher Ames, author of the House of Representatives’ language for the First Amendment said, "The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness which the ambitious call, and ignorant believe, to be liberty."[18] According to Gouverneur Morris, "Democracy [is] savage and wild."[19] “A simple democracy . . . is one of the greatest of evils," inveighed Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence.[20] John Witherspoon warned that, "Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state -- it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage."[21] Instead, the Framers sought to establish a democratic republic in which the immutable law of the universe, rather than the nominal majority, was more likely to find expression in government. They hoped to impede the majority’s passion from expressing itself in government, and ensure that the majority’s will, which the Framers insisted must be grounded in an affirmation of transcendent truth, would find its voice. Theirs was a popular government whose majoritarian elements, while not absent, would be softened by representation, divided government, and constitutional authority. Because the Framers believed that humanity was corrupted,[22] they relied, in part, on representation rather than on plebiscite. Representation was not an unfortunate byproduct of a large nation, destined to waste away once the means of more direct democracy were achieved. Even supposing that electronic technology had been available to the new nation, permitting on-line voting, referenda, and polling data, the Framers would have chosen representation. They believed representation would serve as a check on the passions of the majority. This check was not only to protect minorities, but also to protect the majority from its lower self. Representatives were to “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country….”[23] While supporters of majority rule abhor the notion that representatives would do anything other than directly transmit the majority opinions of their constituents, the Framers relied on them as one way of thwarting the majority’s sometimes flawed judgment. The Framers also relied on checks and balances among the branches of government to inhibit majorities. The Framers distrusted governmental power not only because of its ability for an elite few to oppress the majority, but also because of the ability of the majority to oppress a minority. They sought to establish a system in which a bicameral legislature,[24] a chief executive wielding a veto pen, and an independent judiciary would be in constant tension with one another. This complicated structure ensured that quick action by the government, especially in domestic affairs, would be difficult to achieve without an overwhelming and sustained consensus. The government was deliberately hobbled with inefficiencies and duplication in order to thwart the passions of transient majority opinion. It is no wonder that this complicated structure is anathema to majoritarian enthusiasts, who are frustrated by the inability of the voters to quickly and easily force government action. The third check on popular wishes was intended to be the most difficult of all to surmount. The Constitution, the literal embodiment of the enduring will of the people, was crafted to express the people’s higher and more virtuous aims, and was intended to be “a mirror for the national conscience.”[25] It was ratified by near unanimity, ensuring that it reflected the clear consensus of the people. The Constitution codified the principles by which justice would be sought.[26] As Ryn writes, “The constitutional norm serves as a constant reminder of the contrast between the values endorsed by the people in its better moments, when it looks at politics in the perspective of the moral end, and the imperfect, sometimes degrading practice of day-to-day politics.”[27] To ensure that the Constitution reflected the enduring will of the people, instead of their temporal passions, the Framers ensured that it would only be passed after much deliberation. The value of deliberation stands at the heart of the process enacted by the Framers. Unlike the majoritarian theory that views deliberation as an unnecessary impediment on expressing the public voice, the Framers’ view of deliberation was rooted in their desire to approximate transcendent justice. If transcendent truth exists, and humans are corruptible and self-interested, as the Framers believed, then deliberation is necessary to reveal truth. The deliberation necessary to ratify the Constitution -- the super-majority of both chambers and the affirmation of three-fourths of the state legislatures -- was intended to establish the fundamental principles by which the republic would function. Once the Constitution was enacted, the Framers intended the Supreme Court to safeguard the enduring principles of the Constitution, or the higher self of the people. Where a simple majority vote in the legislature was enough to enact our passions, the Court was designed to defend the people’s higher will by checking their baser passions. If the passions of a majority sought to overcome the Constitution’s will as defended by the Court, a constitutional amendment was required -- an almost insurmountable barrier to any but the most enduring of our designs. The idea of an unelected body serving for life, independently interpreting the U.S. Constitution to ensure that the majority does not overwrite fundamental principles, expressed the Framers’ belief that higher principles should not easily be cast aside. The cultural predicates for the establishment and ratification of the U.S. Constitution were the acknowledgement of transcendent justice and truth, humanity’s corruptibility, and the importance of empowering the will and mitigating the passions. Out of this worldview was born the Framers’ democratic republic in which numerical majorities were inhibited through representatives, a divided government of checks and balances, and a Constitution affirmed by a super-majority.

[16] Claes Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990), 62. This book is essential reading for individuals interested in the relationship between culture and politics. Dr. Ryn’s works, Plato’s Republic, and Eric Voegelin’s series of works, Order and History, have been the most important influences in crafting my thesis. [17] James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 10. [18] Fisher Ames, “The Dangers of American Liberty” (February 1805) in Works of Fisher Ames (Boston: T.B. Wait & Co., 1809), 384. [19] Gouverneur Morris, An Oration Delivered on Wednesday, June 29, 1814, at the Request of a Number of Citizens of New-York, in Celebration of the Recent Deliverance of Europe from the Yoke of Military Despotism (New York: Van Winkle and Wiley, 1814), 22. [20] Benjamin Rush, The Letters of Benjamin Rush, Vol. 1, ed. L.H. Butterfield (Princeton: Princeton University Press for the American Philosophical Society, 1951), letter to John Adams on July 21, 1789, p. 523. [21] John Witherspoon, The Works of John Witherspoon (Edinburgh: J. Ogle, 1815), Vol. VII, p. 101, Lecture 12 on Civil Society. [22] Consistent with the Judeo-Christian worldview in which they were grounded, the Framers’ believed that humanity had fallen short of what God intended it to be. This “Fall,” using the biblical idea, from God’s intentions and his original creation does not mean that humanity is as bad as it could be, or that it can never rise above the worst proclivities of the heart. But it does mean that the whole self (reason, will, emotions, etc.) is subject to sin and self-deception. [23] Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 10. [24] Interestingly, Reform Party Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, a noted populist, advocates the elimination of the bicameral legislature in the states, since it impedes the instant expression of the majority. But he maintains that it is still important in the federal legislature to ensure that smaller states' rights are not trampled upon by larger states. [25] Rene de Visme Williamson, Independence and Involvement (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), 126-127. [26] Where proceduralists expect the majority to define justice, the Framers expected the complicated republic to approximate the pre-existing justice which transcends time and place. Consistent with natural law theory, the Framers assumed that justice existed, and it was the role of a healthy government to approximate that law. [27] Ryn, Democracy, 199.