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Point of view: Neither recluses nor revolutionaries

White House
White House

Like many modern-day conservatives, I am wont to blame the deterioration of American culture on Hollywood, Washington bureaucrats and coastal elites. But in my better moments, when I’m willing to exercise a little patience, I see things differently. Actually, it’s what I don’t see that really concerns me. I don’t see conservatives.

Survey today’s most influential cultural institutions, from Hollywood to higher education, and you’ll find any meaningful conservative presence lacking. I know that’s not news. But before conservatives go blaming “liberals” for the sea change in American culture, they need to take a moment to think about who inhabits our most influential cultural institutions.

Conservatives sure don’t. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, at least one recent study reports that more than 70% of college administrators self-identify as liberal, while just 6% identify as conservative. I suspect the numbers are similar in other bastions of liberalism.

So where are the conservatives? Gone, mostly. And I don’t blame them. After all, conservatives in academia and movieland are routinely shouted down or shut out. While many conservatives have taken to the hills, a few brave souls have stayed to fight the good fight. But most of them spend too much time pointing fingers at liberals. Yes, it’s easier to run and hide or play the blame game. But hiding and blaming won’t get the job done.

There’s an analogue here in the longtime debate within the Christian tradition over how to be “in” but not “of” the world. For those who aren’t familiar, the debate amounts to a disagreement among Christians about how they’re called to relate to culture. Over the centuries, most Christians have landed in one of two very different camps: flight or fight.

But there are lesser-known centrists’ ways. University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter sets forth one such view in his 2010 tome, "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World." In that book, Hunter challenges Christian norms about cultural engagement, arguing that Christians need a better paradigm for cultural engagement: Christians need “faithful presence.” Christians should not be defined by flight or fight. Instead, Christians ought to be known by faithful presence.

Modern-day conservatives need to take a page from Hunter because, to borrow a phrase from Yuval Levin, our “fractured republic” demands more. Modern-day conservatives can’t just make for the hills. Nor can they stay behind merely to fight. Now is not the time, in other words, for conservatives to be recluses or revolutionaries. No, now is the time to build; now is the time to winsomely engage.

The energy to engage winsomely begins with the belief that culture precedes politics. This is quintessentially conservative; after all, disordered loves, fractured relationships, and poor imaginations are set right by better cultures, not better politics. Politicians’ speeches and statutes don’t move us to serve our neighbors or sacrifice for our spouses. But the same cannot be said about a culture’s best books, movies, and music. They inspire people to serve and sacrifice all the time. This does not, of course, mean that politics is irrelevant. It isn’t. But conservatives should not expect politics to do what it wasn’t meant to.

Walker is a third-year student at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.