The distinction between “values voters” and any other kind of voter (e.g., someone “voting his wallet”) is, of course, a stupid one. There are no non-values voters, that is, there are no non-values voters unless our deeds are not decided by what we take to be good. This is Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics. Even a Kantian does her duty because she sees it as good and not merely because it is her duty.
I am disappointed in the outcome of the election, to say the least. Did Americans vote for Barack Obama because they think he’s doing well on the economy or because they like his positions on “social issues”? Whatever the specific reasons, they voted for him, inevitably, because of their values.
If we are unhappy with the outcome of the election, then we must take a hard look at our American culture and try to understand why people have the values they do and so voted the way they did. The culture needs to be transformed if values are going to change.
But how do you go about doing that? How do you transform a culture? You can do very little at the ballot box although that’s part of the program. Politics does shape culture but, again, it is only a part of what we need to focus our attention on.
Transforming a culture starts at the level of the family and continues through educational and religious institutions. Then there are “the arts” and today there are also the media (both old and new) and the entertainment “industry.” The “ground game” is in all these spheres and if we ignore them or do not develop a better approach to them, we lose.
Another way of putting this is to say that the “culture wars” are still on and have to be on (in fact they are perpetual) if the US is not going to go the depressing route of western Europe, which we all know has been dying a slow death for a century or more (or even longer?).
Again, it starts in the family. This is what John Paul II understood and his emphasis on the importance of a healthy family was perhaps the signal contribution of his pontificate. But then there is the rest of the Church. In the US I think the Church has turned a corner and is getting back on the right track: the laity are beginning to understand that their primary task is to be witnesses in their families and in the world (“living our faith” is not about being a lector at Mass). The seminaries are returning to orthodoxy and sound spiritual and pastoral formation. The quality of bishops is improving.
We have to continue to press our arguments on all issues (moral, economic, political, etc.) in the public forum. It is good that the bishops are doing this more and more but lay folks should be taking the lead. Indeed, I would say that we should be even more visible in the public forum than the bishops.
Catholic higher education is still in abysmal shape. The great old Catholic universities seem practically incorrigible at this point. I do not, however, want to discourage the faculty and small groups of students at these institutions who continue to fight the good fight. But it is now the “Newman Guide schools” who are at the forefront of the Catholic academy. If the Church is going to impact American culture positively through higher education, it is going to be through these schools.
What about the other cultural spheres? Catholics are making great strides in the media and this needs to continue. As for the arts and the entertainement world, unfortunately, these have gotten only marginal attention from this generation of Catholics, so I would like to spend a little more time talking about them.
Several years ago Ross Douthat (with whom I often, but not always, disagree) wrote an excellent piece for the National Review that provides some direction here. The title and sub-title say it all: “So, You Want to Win The Culture Wars? It Would Help to Engage in a Little Culture.”
Douthat was directing his piece at “conservatives” or “the right,” broadly conceived, but his observations apply equally to Catholics to the extent that we share the ideals of these groups.
[W]hen it comes to literature, architecture, television, and film, the Right has mainly expended energy trying to reduce its power to shape the artistic landscape—highlighted by its long-running and only recently abandoned effort to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts. For all the supposed vastness of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, its only significant tentacles in the artistic realm consist of a few excellent but low-circulation journals like The New Criterion. Even the recently founded Claremont Review of Books, envisioned as a conservative answer to The New York Review of Books, concerns itself almost exclusively with works of history and political philosophy. The conservative footprint in film and music is all but invisible—despite all the attention-grabbing plaintive liberal ink spilled over the politics of Fox News.
And Douthat continues:
[T]he problem for conservatives isn’t that liberal American artists promote left-wing values in their art—it’s that the Right has so consistently failed to nurture artistic talent of its own. Would-be politicians can make the trek to the Leadership Institute, up-and-coming journalists have the Collegiate Network, but the right-leaning artist is left to drift alone through a professional world where avowed conservatism can be the kiss of death.
In conclusion he suggests that…
…the best hope for a conservative “renaissance” … may lie with the artistic Left’s principal bogeyman: Christian conservatives. It’s a strange thought, since America’s conservative Christian subculture has produced a remarkable efflorescence of artistic dreck over the last few decades, in music, art, film, and literature alike, of which the egregious Left Behind series is only the latest example. But The Passion of the Christ may have changed all that—not, pace Michael Medved, because it revealed the existence of a conservative audience, but because it made manifest the possibility of conservative art. The Passion sold a traditional Catholic aesthetic to evangelical Protestants, and—despite horrifying critics accustomed to a somewhat, shall we say, tamer interpretation of Christianity—reaped a cultural phenomenon for its efforts, while exposing its religious audience to the possibility of an imaginative realm beyond the usual potboilers and pious treacle.
Whatever your opinion of Mel Gibson or The Passion of the Christ Douthat is right about it making manifest the possibility of conservative art, and, we may add, Catholic art. But that art certainly need not concern itself only with religious themes.
(Speaking of film, here at AMU there are a number of students and faculty interested in this area of culture, so much so that a Film Center was recently founded, which also has its own blog. I encourage you to check it out.)
Transforming the culture will entail serious involvement in all the spheres of culture, especially the ones that we Catholics have neglected of late. American politics won’t change, unjust laws will not be overturned, unless the culture changes. It will not be enough for the GOP to do some soul-searching or for third parties to be formed, as helpful as either one might be.
There is much more that needs to be said about the work that lies ahead and I will probably be posting on this topic again in the future, but I think I these reflections should be sufficient to get the conversation started.