The recent discussion of gay marriage (see my October 2 post and related comments) has reminded me once again how difficult it is to be both culturally liberal and morally conservative. It seems that today most folks fall into one of these categories but not the other. That is, people tend to be either culturally liberal or morally conservative. By culturally liberal I mean someone who readily recognizes and aggressively pursues truth, goodness, and beauty in culture-from politics and higher learning to art forms such as film, literature, and popular music. By contrast, a cultural conservative would be someone who does not share this inclination but rather is suspicious of culture and human creative expressions. A parallel distinction can be made regarding a person’s moral sensibilities. Moral liberals are those who readily embrace shifts in ethical standards, while moral conservatives are suspicious of such change.
Perhaps it is only natural that people tend to be liberal or conservative generally rather than according to context or subject matter. That is, our tendency to be liberal or conservative is not isolated to particular areas or issues. It’s no coincidence that the artistic centers of our culture, from Hollywood and Broadway to art institutes and MTV, are also the most morally liberal communities. And it’s also not coincidental that the most morally conservative communities tend to have little interest in the arts. Similarly, the press and media, as well as the most prestigious centers of learning tend to be liberal, while people from the most morally conservative faith traditions are those who are least likely to run in these cultural circles.
Now these are very general observations, I know. But these tendencies should be obvious enough to all of us. I consider it to be a tragic trend, as it is the timeless moral truths which made American culture possible in the first place and which will sustain it as long as it lasts. While it is appropriate to question or reject artistic norms and institutional conventions, moral verities such as the sanctity of human life and sexuality cannot be rejected without devastating repercussions, both in individual lives and culture at large.
So the noble challenge, as I see it, is to vigorously explore the arts and other aspects of contemporary culture while maintaining one’s ethical moorings; to remain committed to abiding ethical principles without sacrificing the will to eagerly pursue truth, goodness, and beauty in human creations-in short, to be a cultural liberal and a moral conservative. It’s a challenge because somehow, at least at this time in our history, it is unnatural. And it’s a noble challenge because it is for our own good-both as individuals and as a society.
I wonder if subtlety wouldn’t aid in making a bridge between morality and the more mainstream arts of our culture for those who are morally conservative. It seems that when the morally conservative (generally speaking) do interact with the culture, it is in a blatant fashion of truth-telling. (Jesus loves you, God disapproves of this behaviour, etc.) Yet, much of the morally liberal message comes through more shrewdly in the form of compromised heroes and storylines in TV and film and attitudes in music. Many instances of christian arts appeal only to christians — as is evidenced by “christian” music and the “Left Behind” books and movies. Perhaps we should consider shrewdness a virtue as we go into the world as Christians. Metaphor and virtuous acts of characters in the arts would better infiltrate our culture than praise music (which may have its place when a Christian is looking to praise her Maker, but is irrelevant to the culture at large). Cultural expression that subtly causes people to ask the right questions would perhaps go farther than giving them answers to questions they aren’t asking.
So I was reading Yeats the other day and ran across a note (quoted below) where Yeats lamented how the rise of the middle class in Ireland at the turn of the century usurped the cultural moorings of the poor and the politics of the rich, both of whom were enmeshed in a wholistic approach to their respective endeavors. His observations are not quite the same dichotomy that you draw, but still an interesting parallel nonetheless. Just thought I would share it.
“. . . These controversies, political, literary, and artistic, have showed that neither religion nor politics can of itself create minds with enough receptivity to become wise, or just and generous enough to make a nation. . . . In Ireland I am constantly reminded of that fable of the futility of all discipline that is not of the whole being. Religious Ireland–and the pious Protestants of my childhood were signal examples–thinks of divine things as a round of duties separated from life and not as an element that may be discovered in all circumstance and emotion, while political Ireland sees the good citizen but as a man who holds to certain opinions and not as a man of good will. Against all this we have but a few educated men and the remnants of an old traditional culture among the poor. Both were stronger forty years ago, before the rise of our new middle class which showed as its first public event, during the nine years of the Parnellite split, how base at moments of excitement are minds without culture.”
WB Yeats, 1914 (quoting from http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/lpy/lpy167.htm [page 361] because I don’t have my Yeats anthology handy).