How important should politics be to a serious Christian? What is the importance of culture? I hit a bit of a hot button last week in my introductory post on this blog when I wrote:
I promise to try not to get too caught up in the specifics of politics. Politics is like the horse in Psalm 33: “The war horse is vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save” (Psalm 33:17).
“The war horse is vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save” (Psalm 33:17).
One commenter took me to task for downplaying the importance of politics, pointing out (correctly) that, in its beginning, Naziism presented a primarily political problem; if German Christians both Catholic and Protestant had understood that their faith obliged them to oppose Hitler and the Nazis in the political sphere, enormous evils might have been averted. She’s right – and yes, Christians should have worked to stop Naziism at the political level before it metastasized into the full-blown horror of the Third Reich.
I agree that we should be involved in politics – and as I pointed out to the commenter above, I started this blog in the first place at least in part as a political act, a rejection of the Twitters & Googles and all their works and empty promises, and in particular their giant thumbs on the scales of our political discourse. We need to understand politics in its proper place, however, as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. I’d like to explore that idea in a little more detail here.
Let’s start in my wild and crazy undergraduate days, when I thought it would be interesting to take a course called “Theory of Communism”. Much of it turned out to be not-so-interesting, particularly some of the assigned reading, which contained what must have been the most tedious prose I ever had the misfortune to read (who knew world revolution could be so dull?).
I did take away a few things, though. One thing that stuck with me was a diagram the professor put on the board one day. It looked like a pyramid made of three steps (figure 1). On the bottom and largest step he wrote “economics”, on the middle step “culture”, and he labeled the smallest step, the one on the top, “politics”. The pyramid was a graphic illustration of the Marxist concept of how society is structured: the economy forms the basis for society, and the foundation (and source) of the culture, the second step, that rests on top of it; the political system is founded on top of the other two.
While it is itself a product of the economic system, the culture helps to preserve that system, and the political system serves to protect the two lower layers from which it procedes. Given this concept, we can see why the Marxists believe that simply changing the economic system will lead to a new kind of society, and even a New Man . . . a change, granted, achieved with a helpful nudge here and there from the propaganda power of a properly revolutionized culture and state power taken into the hands of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
This pyramid came back to my mind a couple decades later when I read George Weigel’s biography of Pope St. John Paul II. John Paul knew that the Marxist understanding of human society was all wrong. The economic system is a product of the culture, not the other way around, and culture’s true foundation is religion. If John Paul II had felt inclined to use a pyramid diagram as my college propfessor did, it would look something like figure 2. At any rate, he believed that, if he reconnected the Polish people with their religious heritage, they would embrace their true culture. Then, a more authentic, human politics would become possible, and the Communist police state would wither away. Events proved that he was right, and the Marxists were wrong.
Now let’s take it a step further, because the second pyramid is not quite complete. Religion has one thing in common with politics: it’s not an end in itself. The word religion is believed to derive from the Latin religare, which means to bind back, i.e., to reconnect. And to whom or what does it bind us back? To God, of course. God is the ultimate foundation of everything. The Marxists aren’t wrong that the upper layers of society are a product of the lower layers, and that they serve to preserve and protect the layers that lie below. They are wrong about which layers are dependent upon which, and being atheists they deny the existence of the most important layer of all. If St. John Paul was right, and it appears that he was, our conclusion should be that the end of a healthy politics is to protect a healthy culture, which in turn provides fertile ground for sound religious institutions, which then serve to bind us back us to Our Lord. Notice that politics does not bring us salvation: it merely helps create conditions conducive to those institutions that can lead us in the direction of our true Savior.
So what does all that have to do with us here and now? Let’s go back to the second pyramid, which contains the three layers within our control. For two thousand years, our culture and politics have rested on the foundation of religion, most tangibly present in the Catholic Church (and in varying degrees in other Christian communities as well). While the upper levels are dependent on the lower, they can protect those layers beneath . . . or actually harm them. It’s undeniable that religion has been crumbling, and as it does, culture and politics and economics follow suit. But remember, the influences go both ways: weakened cultural and political institutions fail to do their job of protecting the the base, and religion is further damaged. I sometimes picture an actual step pyramid in my mind, with pieces of the upper levels falling off and smashing parts of the lower levels as they collapse on top of it.
So, yes, politics is important, but its role is mostly defensive: it can protect the cultural and religious institutions that it rests upon, or if it is neglected or abused it can damage or even destroy them. Politics itself can help order our material existence in the short term, and protect life and property, but it can’t create human happiness. Attempts to use politics to achieve utopia have always resulted in bloody failure. Marxism in practice, for example, has always tried to use political power to force the changes that it seeks in the cultural and economic spheres, with incalculable loss in human life and societal destruction.
For us, even if we win the political battles we see in front of us (and I agree that they need to be fought), the victory will only be temporary if the culture is eroding beneath us, and our religious foundation is collapsing under that. While I don’t agree with Rod Dreher that the culture war is already lost, we are losing it, and losing badly. We must fight the political battles for justice in the short term (as in, for instance, the fight to protect innocent life), but the long term battle will be won or lost at a more foundational level.
There’s more that could be said on this topic, but this post is already running too long. We’ll come back to it next week – I welcome your thoughts in the meanwhile.
(See my follow-up post: “In the World But Not Of It”)