So Sean Hannity lost half his audience after the 2012 election. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come. No. I have nothing against Mr. Hannity. I probably agree with him more than not. I’m simply coming to believe that…
Winning elections is not about politics, but culture.
In After the Crack-Up, Lee Habeeb placed the blame for Republicans poor showing in the 2012 election not on politicians, pundits, or pollsters, but on conservatives “profound storytelling deficit.” He writes:
…if there is one thing conservatives can agree on post-election, it’s this: The dominance of the Left in the storytelling arena is making a difference at the polls. It’s impossible to measure, but anyone who doesn’t think it skews outcomes is living in an alternative universe.
The fact is, it’s easier to sell a political narrative to America when it comports with the cultural narrative we see and hear every day. (emphasis mine)
Winning elections requires winning the culture. When an individual, an industry, or a party, represents or controls “the cultural narrative,” winning elections is a given. And one reason that political conservatives — and specifically, conservative Christians — are sliding in every political / cultural poll may be our influence, or lack thereof, upon culture. Conservative Christians are losing the culture. Which is why they’re also losing elections.
Hopefully, the despair felt by the “Hannity conservatives” is only temporary. However, if the result is simply becoming more shrill and politically savvy, a renewed effort to campaigns and candidates, I fear we’ve not learned our lesson. We must consider how to influence and shape the “cultural narrative.” And that’s NOT done primarily through politics. It’s done through art.
Which leads to my thesis for this post:
One reason conservative Christians are losing the culture is our approach to art.
Progressives have long realized the importance of art in shaping culture. Robin Phillips in his article on German philosopher and sociologist Hebert Marcuse entitled The Illusionist, discuss the profound effect Marcuse’s theories have had on shaping American thought. Marcuse was part of a unique intellectual vision that came to be known as “the Frankfurt school.” The adherents were disillusioned with traditional Western society and values, believing that Western Civilization was something we needed saved from. Phillips summarizes the vision of the Frankfurt School thus:
That vision was essentially Marxist, but with a twist. Whereas Marx believed that power rested with those who controlled the means of production, the Frankfurt school argued that power rested with those who controlled the institutions of culture. The school would come to include sociologists, art critics, psychologists, philosophers, “sexologists,” political scientists, and a host of other “experts” intent on converting Marxism from a strictly economic theory into a cultural reality. (emphasis mine)
The Frankfurt School inevitably came to the United States where its vision was progressively embraced by American academia. Thus began the “sabotaging” of American ideals, the deconstruction and revision of commonplace terminology, an appeal to youth (Marcuse was an intellectual guru of the 60’s counter-culture who invented the catchphrase “Make love, not war,”) and the slow takeover of “institutions of culture.” Ever wonder why the mainstream media, the arts, the entertainment industry, the halls of academia, major news outlets, and our youth culture primarily lean Left? Well, it didn’t happen overnight.
Which is why I agree with Habeeb that a more realistic — albeit, long-term — approach to our sad state of cultural affairs should not be primarily political. We must seek to influence institutions of power, primarily media / entertainment centers which now have massive sway in shaping mainstream thought. Writes Habeeb:
We’ve invested billions in our great think tanks but little in the task of translating that work into stories the average American will care about. Yes, we have Fox News and political talk radio — important outlets, but outlets that narrowcast to the conservative base and are driven by politics and opinion, not storytelling.
What we don’t have is an alternative to NPR. Or The Daily Show. Or 60 Minutes. Or The Charlie Rose Show. Or Frontline. Or Ken Burns. Content that doesn’t scream its politics at the audience but that lures America in with great storylines, not lectures.
But this — THIS — is exactly the rub. Christian art, as it’s currently defined, simply “narrowcasts” to its conservative base. Like Fox News, the party line is the extent of our influence.
At the heart of American Christianity’s cultural impotence is differing views of “the world” and how we influence it. The predominant view of culture is the one that has forced Christians out of, not into, the institutions of power. So rather than integrate into Hollywood, we separate from it and make “Christian films.” Instead of influencing the cultural narrative, we write “alternative” fare. Rather than combat Marcusian theory head-on, we leave both the academy and the art gallery to the barbarians. Instead of being salt and light in the existing cultural empire, we separate from it and build our own kingdom.
It’s precisely our retreat from culture that has got us into this mess.
All that to say, the Christian approach to the arts must change if we are to influence the cultural narrative. We need “storytellers” who produce “Content that doesn’t scream its [religion] at the audience but that lures America in with great storylines, not lectures.” Yet to do this, we need to rethink our entire view of what Christian storytellers and storytelling looks like. And this, my friends, is the real culture war.