The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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In And Of the World: How Culture Is Transforming Born-Again Protestants
D. G. Hart - 03/23/09
globe in man's hands

Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

Throughout most of the twentieth century, evangelical Protestants, the ones to be distinguished from fellow protesters in the mainline denominations, manifested a remnant mentality. This stemmed from a feeling of displacement. Having been part of the large, white, English-speaking Protestant denominations and a generically WASP culture, evangelicals migrated after the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s to the backwaters of American life. American society had once been but was no longer their home. Evangelical theology and practice reinforced this sense of exile. Beliefs about the imminence of Christ’s second coming and prohibitions about all manner of worldly amusements spoke loud and clear that, as one evangelical hymn put it, this place “was not their home” because evangelicals were “just a-passing through.”

A different attitude emerged, however, when evangelicals went from being a faithful remnant to a moral majority. Indeed, the culture wars and the politics of identity those battles inspired lured evangelicals out of their isolation into arenas of human achievement markedly distant from the Bible colleges, foreign missions agencies, Christian broadcasting and publishing that had formed the conservative Protestant cultural ghetto.

One aspect remained the same despite the different ways that evangelicals engaged the culture before and after 1975. Although its leaders now found their way on to the cover of Time magazine, the religious right still reflected the remnant mentality of fundamentalists. After all, the point of engaging public life was to remedy the worldliness that was corrupting not simply the mainline churches or even American society, but was also trickling down to the very institutions by which evangelicals reproduced (both physically and spiritually) their way of life. Seldom pointed out, however, is that this political activism stemmed not only from desires to rebuild the walls between the secular society and evangelical hearth and home to keep out the harmful influences of a decadent culture. It also sprang from the social mobility and rising affluence of born-again baby boomers. In this sense, evangelical cultural engagement was simply what suburban, college-educated, white, middle class Americans do. That evangelicals during this time replaced songs like “This World is Not My Home” with “Shine Jesus, Shine” was more than coincidental. If you believe, as the latter song sings, “As we gaze on your kindly brightness/So our faces display your likeness” you might tend to feel comfortable, as they say, in your own skin and the world supporting it.

Andy Crouch’s thoughtful and engaging book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, is intended explicitly for evangelicals who no longer regard cultural engagement as something at odds with or forbidden to their religious identity. As he explains at the outset, the book is written for “a Christian community on the threshold of cultural responsibility.” [9] His purpose is not simply to point evangelicals away from a culture-warrior posture. Equally problematic is the other side of evangelical cultural life found more in the style sections of newspapers than in stories on electoral politics. Born-again Protestants have an intuitive knack for appropriating various forms of popular culture and turning them into mechanisms for recruiting new converts and attracting the faithful to forms of devotion more contemporary (“hip” comes to mind) than your father’s method of following Jesus. The phenomenon of contemporary Christian music and its liturgical equivalent of Praise & Worship worship (redundancy mine) is the clearest example of this kind of cultural appropriation (critics call it cultural syncretism). Crouch observes correctly that evangelical cultural imitation has been wildly successful with college students and young adults, in fact turning many of evangelicalism’s biggest and most successful churches into little more than youth ministries for grown ups. The problem with either the antagonistic or imitative approach to culture is that each has a thin account of cultural endeavor and so does not take culture seriously. Crouch is trying to remedy this.

Traditionalist conservatives have generally employed an argument about the significance and priority of cult to culture when trying to argue for the importance of culture. Russell Kirk, for instance, followed T. S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture in asserting for close links between religion and cultural expression. As Kirk explained in an essay, “Civilization without Religion?,” “A culture is a joining together for worship . . . the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power.” And from this common association in acts of religious devotion “human community grows.” “Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible,” Kirk wrote. “Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government—all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.” Cultural decline occurs then, according to Kirk, as well as Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and Eric Voegelin, when the cult withers. Without the spiritual convictions and practices that created a given culture, the civilization planted on it would inevitably dry up and decay.

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