Memorial Day Reflections: Can Politics Change Culture?

By training, I am a historian. At least I like to think so. I had good teachers, and I still love the subject. I dabble in it, even professionally, and even get asked to lecture occasionally. I am also a keen observer of American political debate. I have a horse in most political races, and it is generally the one that could be labeled conservative, though not rigidly so. I also believe in what professor Stephen H. Webb has called "American Providence." (Perhaps more about Webb’s historical thesis later this week.) Simply put, God cannot be removed from American life and politics if one has a robust view of providence, as I think I do.

As we celebrate Memorial Day I am struck as an American, and a historian, at how divided we are as a nation. No one doubts that we are divided, at least politically. Think red and blue states. But we are increasingly divided at the more basic level of community values and national vision. In the end I think it is safe to say that the unique American concept of church and state is breaking down in our generation. This is happening as partisans on the left and right are increasingly attacking the motives, personal values and deep abiding commitments of those with whom they disagree.

I heard a sample of this division two weeks ago in a Santa Cruz (CA) bookstore. I overheard several women talking about a political book as they stood in line to get Sue Monk Kidd to autograph her newest book. One said, "Do you know what these Christians want to do? They want to teach creationism in our schools and take out all references to evolution in our textbooks. And that is not all. They want to require every student to read the Bible and pray." This seemingly intelligent woman has bought into a liberal stereotype given to her by the people she reads and respects. But the opposite can be seen on the right.

Perhaps the most heated recent debate has been the Senate’s discussion about the filibuster and its use to stop a vote on judicial appointees. No one can seriously doubt that what this is really all about is the forthcoming matter of Supreme Court nominees. Democrats are committed, at least most of them, to blocking the president’s likely choices for the highest court.

The so-called "nuclear option" (designed to end the filibuster by changing the rules about it) was averted last week when fourteen Senators, seven from each party, opted for a compromise solution. If I did not know the basic arguments, and the historical nature of the debate, I would have thought that the seven Republicans, which included several loyal supporters of the moral agenda of the Christian Right, were some of the biggest betrayers in American political history. This is, in fact, what Dr. James Dobson said when he referred to the compromise deal as "a complete bailout and betrayal by a cabal of Republicans." And Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, wrote, "I don’t think the leadership caved. It was a handful of senators who preferred to stay in the Land of Political Indecision."

The question here is about the place and value of political compromise. As any student of history knows American democracy can not survive without compromise. The Senate is itself a compromise body, based upon what some founders called, "the great compromise."

The one great Senate compromise in our history that truly failed was the "Missouri Compromise" by which the state of Missouri was allowed to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a non-slave state. This one lasted thirty years and its failure led to the most bloody war in American history, a war we have never fully recovered from as a people.

But compromise is not working today in these huge debates over judges. Why? The simple answer is that a moral chasm exists between us about values. The entry of the Christian Right into politics has changed the landscape. This movement brings moral certainty joined with deep passion. Struggles over gay rights, abortion and stem cell research all strike Christian conservatives as bedrock issues over which there can be no compromise. (In terms of the faith and practice of the church there can be no compromise over the moral issue of sexual fornication and life. But there is room for a wide range of disagreements regarding the application of moral truths to certain decisions that we make day-to-day!)

Let me put this another way. Sheryl Stolberg, writing in the New York Times on May 29, noted that in the present battle the left accuses the right of trying to impose its morality on the nation while the right accuses the left of killing helpless infants and destroying moral culture. In such a context Stolberg writes "Both sides demand that politicians not give in to the heretics."

This is the very kind of debate that preceded the Civil War. David S. Reynolds, author of a new and potentially groundbreaking biography of abolitionist John Brown, notes that "There was this very strong ideology of pro-slavery as being a very Christian and very beneficent thing for both whites and blacks." Northern abolitionists saw slavery, as the rhetoric increased in passion, as "the devil’s work." Southern Christians saw slavery as a necessary economic evil, or even as a protected institution, since the Bible could be interpreted as defending it. The two groups of Christians could not hear one another and the results were catastrophic.

My concern this Memorial Day is not that we are on the brink of another Civil War. We are not. But we are engaged in a great culture war that could lead to much worse. I want to see a culture of life replace the culture of death. I want to turn back the promiscuity created by the radical sons of the 1960s. I want to see judicial appointees approved who will seek to interpret the Constitution in ways that honor the framer’s intent, as well as the traditions of judicial restraint. But, and this is where I draw the fire of some conservatives, I do not think we can change culture by these political means, at least not as our primary method.

You do not win hearts and minds through political arguments. The civil rights movement succeeded because Dr. King understood this. He knew you could protest wrong but you had to also change hearts. He knew that good laws needed to replace bad ones but he also knew that moral persuasion went along with such laws. Our modern Christian Right seems to understand next to nothing of this reality. We seem to think that moral right makes us superior to those who hold to moral wrong and thus we are always right in our political decision making. The lack of wisdom this generates is immense. The comments of men like Falwell, Dobson and others simply underscores this problem.

This Memorial Day I give thanks for those who sacrificed their lives for our liberties. I am grateful that we can disagree poliitcally and still pursue a common purpose as a people. I also pray today that we will soon be given more eaders who think about our history and common cause with depth. We do need to employ political compromise, at certain times, in order to make the types of advances that will allow us to later win more hearts and minds. And we must seek to convince more and more people of the rightness of our cause. Culture is almost never changed abruptly, but only after a generation or so of people with new hearts learn to think and live differently. If the conservative ministers who engage culture so politically would engage in better efforts for reforming their churches biblically I think they would advance their moral agenda far more effectively. While they have been trying to win back the culture through politics the next generation of youth has not responded to their gospel message at all.

All of this calls for a new evangelization, a bold initiative that understands our mission, and the proper use of apolgetics, in an entirely new way. This begins when we understand that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus first. Then, as God calls these disciples who are fully trained to live their lives under Christ’s Lordship, we will impact the culture for the better.

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