The Cultural Agenda of the Left

In Jeffrey Bell’s article discussed below, he makes an even more important point, one of those obvious-if-you-think-about it points that nevertheless may come as a revelation. The social conservative’s emphasis on culture is crucial because cultural change–not economics–is the main agenda of today’s leftists.

At first it was widely assumed that the collapse of Soviet communism, and of government ownership and/or direction of business as a serious economic recipe, had dealt a devastating, possibly mortal, blow to the left. But after a brief period of licking its wounds the international left found itself far from devastated. The truth is that old-fashioned, state-administered socialism had become something of an albatross for the left, impeding rather than advancing its ability to benefit from the worldwide political and social upheavals of the 1960s.

Indeed, not long after those upheavals peaked in 1968, it became obvious that the enduring, truly revolutionary impact of the 1960s was moral and cultural, not economic. By the end of the 1970s a new and adversarial form of politically engaged feminism not only became all but unassailable among North American and European elites, but also took a central political role almost everywhere the left was strong.
. . . . . . . . .
But when it first arose in recognizable form in Europe in the closing decades of the 18th century, the left was primarily about other things [than economics]. Among these were ending monarchy, eliminating or at least circumscribing the role of traditional religion in society, and liberating humanity from what it saw as repressive institutions. Often included among such institutions was the traditional family, anchored by the Christian ideal of monogamous marriage.
. . . . . . . . .
The striking thing about the history of the left is its singleness of vision amid a breathtaking variety of means. The goal of the left is the liberation of mankind from traditional institutions and codes of behavior, especially moral codes. It seeks a restoration (or achievement) of a state of nature, one of absolute individual liberty–universal happiness without the need for laws.

The proposed political way stations chosen by the left in its drive toward this vision have varied greatly. To name a few: abolition of private property (socialism); prohibition of Christianity and/or propagation by the political elite of a new civil religion to replace it; confiscatory taxation, especially at death; regulation of political speech to limit the ability of certain individuals or classes to affect politics; the takeover of education to instill new values and moral habits in the population; confiscation of privately held firearms; gradual phasing out of the nation-state; displacement of the traditional family in favor of child-rearing by an enlightened governmental elite; and the inversion of sexual morality to elevate recreational sex and reduce the prestige of procreative sex. This is, it must be emphasized, a partial list.

While many conservatives in Europe and the United States focus on free market economics and small government, they do not realize that hardcore leftists do not really care about such things! Meanwhile, they are marching through the culture unopposed. This is why the country needs social conservatives, since there is no one else to counter the left’s assault on the culture.

What do you think of this analysis? How could social conservatives be more effective? To what extent is this a political issue? Might there be other forms of cultural activism that social conservatives might pursue?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    It’s interesting, but when I look at the tremendous pressure being exerted currently to use Global Warming/Climate Change/Whatever as a club to force increasing government control over all economic activity, it seems to me the Left is still pursuing the abolition of capitalism pretty seriously.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    It’s interesting, but when I look at the tremendous pressure being exerted currently to use Global Warming/Climate Change/Whatever as a club to force increasing government control over all economic activity, it seems to me the Left is still pursuing the abolition of capitalism pretty seriously.

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    For further insite, read Reno’s article in First Things here: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=945.

    He is writing about the new educational standards at Harvard, but makes the point that the goal of postmodern liberal education is knowing oneself as a cultural animal.

    If the academy thinks this is important, it is important. It will reap huge windfalls in any cultural battle you want to name.

    Lars, the abolition of capitalism could probably be seen as a subtext to the war on culture, don’t you think? If these folks have to choose, they’d prefer to win the culture war and also be rich. When it comes to their very own pocketbooks, libs are very much in favor of profit, just like the rest of us. Even China understands that America is its Cookie Jar.

  • http://www.pagantolutheran.blogspot.com Bruce

    For further insite, read Reno’s article in First Things here: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=945.

    He is writing about the new educational standards at Harvard, but makes the point that the goal of postmodern liberal education is knowing oneself as a cultural animal.

    If the academy thinks this is important, it is important. It will reap huge windfalls in any cultural battle you want to name.

    Lars, the abolition of capitalism could probably be seen as a subtext to the war on culture, don’t you think? If these folks have to choose, they’d prefer to win the culture war and also be rich. When it comes to their very own pocketbooks, libs are very much in favor of profit, just like the rest of us. Even China understands that America is its Cookie Jar.

  • kerner

    How can social conservatives be more effective? Well, for one thing we could fight among ourselves somewhat less. I get a little hot and bothered just debating on this blog sometimes myself, and I know I should watch that more.

    But I think the reason we argue with each other is because we haven’t agreed about how our culture went wrong or how to fix it. The level and means of the influence of Christianity on American culture is something we need to understand better. Maybe that’s because American culture varies a lot from region to region.

  • kerner

    How can social conservatives be more effective? Well, for one thing we could fight among ourselves somewhat less. I get a little hot and bothered just debating on this blog sometimes myself, and I know I should watch that more.

    But I think the reason we argue with each other is because we haven’t agreed about how our culture went wrong or how to fix it. The level and means of the influence of Christianity on American culture is something we need to understand better. Maybe that’s because American culture varies a lot from region to region.

  • fw

    I think this analysis is a characature. Like liberals describing conservatives by the most radical element of them.

    It would serve the conservatives to listen respectfully to liberal arguments and respond in this framework.

    This is not happening. especially from what I can see from reading this article. I don´t, for example see any of the current liberal democratic candidates favoring the anarchy described in this article.

    Example of caracature:

    “The goal of the left is the liberation of mankind from traditional institutions and codes of behavior, especially moral codes. ”

    I see this leveled at homosexuals who seek to legalize gay marriage. How silly. Listening and asking questions would be a good thing. and the christian and respectable thing to do.

  • fw

    I think this analysis is a characature. Like liberals describing conservatives by the most radical element of them.

    It would serve the conservatives to listen respectfully to liberal arguments and respond in this framework.

    This is not happening. especially from what I can see from reading this article. I don´t, for example see any of the current liberal democratic candidates favoring the anarchy described in this article.

    Example of caracature:

    “The goal of the left is the liberation of mankind from traditional institutions and codes of behavior, especially moral codes. ”

    I see this leveled at homosexuals who seek to legalize gay marriage. How silly. Listening and asking questions would be a good thing. and the christian and respectable thing to do.

  • kerner

    OK, I read Mr. Bell’s article a little more carefully, and I think he needs to backtrack a little. The values of Social conservatives are often called “family values”. This is not an accident. You don’t have to be a Christian to have family values, but you do have to come from a culture that recognizes the family as the basic social unit.

    Muslims parallel Christians on “family values”. They promote virtues like chastity, modest dress, and respect for parents.

    The Church has always recognized the family as the basic social unit as well. At least 3 of the 10 commendments forbid tampering with, or even yearning to tamper with, family relationships. These themes continue into the New Testament, in which we are directed to obey our parents, submit to our husbands and love our wives.

    Marxism, by contrast, seeks to establish the State as the only important social organization and authority. Marx saw loyalty to smaller units such as the family as competitive to the State, and he certainly didn’t want “Two Kingdoms”. So, all other sources of authority had to go. Accordingly, for Marx no individual man or woman owes any loyalty (sexual or otherwise) to any other individual man or woman, nor do children owe any particular loyalty to any particular adults, except as they represent the good of the entire state, nor is there anything special about a parent’s duty to raise a child. That is the duty of the entire society (it takes a villiage, you know). And the Church should have as little influence on society as possible.

    So over the last century the values that hold the family and the Church together have been under attack.

  • kerner

    OK, I read Mr. Bell’s article a little more carefully, and I think he needs to backtrack a little. The values of Social conservatives are often called “family values”. This is not an accident. You don’t have to be a Christian to have family values, but you do have to come from a culture that recognizes the family as the basic social unit.

    Muslims parallel Christians on “family values”. They promote virtues like chastity, modest dress, and respect for parents.

    The Church has always recognized the family as the basic social unit as well. At least 3 of the 10 commendments forbid tampering with, or even yearning to tamper with, family relationships. These themes continue into the New Testament, in which we are directed to obey our parents, submit to our husbands and love our wives.

    Marxism, by contrast, seeks to establish the State as the only important social organization and authority. Marx saw loyalty to smaller units such as the family as competitive to the State, and he certainly didn’t want “Two Kingdoms”. So, all other sources of authority had to go. Accordingly, for Marx no individual man or woman owes any loyalty (sexual or otherwise) to any other individual man or woman, nor do children owe any particular loyalty to any particular adults, except as they represent the good of the entire state, nor is there anything special about a parent’s duty to raise a child. That is the duty of the entire society (it takes a villiage, you know). And the Church should have as little influence on society as possible.

    So over the last century the values that hold the family and the Church together have been under attack.

  • Joe

    “Example of caricature:

    ‘The goal of the left is the liberation of mankind from traditional institutions and codes of behavior, especially moral codes. ‘”

    I think you are right that none of the candidates are advocating for this, but listen to the intellectual left. The non-politicians who frame the ideal. This idea of not letting someone else define your existence is not really that new or radical. Its basic new age religion and post-modernist morality. I don’t find it shocking at all.

  • Joe

    “Example of caricature:

    ‘The goal of the left is the liberation of mankind from traditional institutions and codes of behavior, especially moral codes. ‘”

    I think you are right that none of the candidates are advocating for this, but listen to the intellectual left. The non-politicians who frame the ideal. This idea of not letting someone else define your existence is not really that new or radical. Its basic new age religion and post-modernist morality. I don’t find it shocking at all.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    FW, The current liberal candidates do not go that far, indeed, but if you go onto a university campus, the notion that we need to be liberated from institutions is a commonplace. (Recall the post from some time ago about how Clintonistas who have gone into academia are finding themselves ostracized as conservatives!) Read the article, who traces this position from Rousseau, through the French Revolution, and to today.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    FW, The current liberal candidates do not go that far, indeed, but if you go onto a university campus, the notion that we need to be liberated from institutions is a commonplace. (Recall the post from some time ago about how Clintonistas who have gone into academia are finding themselves ostracized as conservatives!) Read the article, who traces this position from Rousseau, through the French Revolution, and to today.

  • allen

    From the cited article -

    “The third major element that often makes social conservatism look anemic is the reluctance of Republican elites, including conservative ones, to talk about social issues.”

    Well, Christians are going to have to figure out how to explain things to fair-minded atheists/agnostics in a way that will seem good to them. This should be possible. All truth is God’s Truth, and God’s Truth is wholly true.

  • allen

    From the cited article -

    “The third major element that often makes social conservatism look anemic is the reluctance of Republican elites, including conservative ones, to talk about social issues.”

    Well, Christians are going to have to figure out how to explain things to fair-minded atheists/agnostics in a way that will seem good to them. This should be possible. All truth is God’s Truth, and God’s Truth is wholly true.

  • Rose

    God chose the paradigm of Fatherhood to reveal Himself to us. When we intentionally avoid becoming parents, we miss out on great experiential understanding of the nature of God. Does anyone know of writings dealing with this theology? I’ve been researching it and so far have only seen the “full quiver” concept which isn’t quite the same idea. I would appreciate it if you would post back any theology of the growth and grace of accepting parenthood.

  • Rose

    God chose the paradigm of Fatherhood to reveal Himself to us. When we intentionally avoid becoming parents, we miss out on great experiential understanding of the nature of God. Does anyone know of writings dealing with this theology? I’ve been researching it and so far have only seen the “full quiver” concept which isn’t quite the same idea. I would appreciate it if you would post back any theology of the growth and grace of accepting parenthood.

  • fw

    #7

    This article would seem more genuine if other liberal/radical agenda items were mentioned, like the removal of habeus corpus, acceptance of torture and rejection of the geneva conventions, allowing spying on us citizens without the traditional judicial review, things that attack the very foundations of law in our society. No.

    Instead they drag out the standard list I get in mailers all the time.

    I DO agree,Dr Vieth,that academic freedom is under attack in most parts of the world, including here in Brazil.

    There are notable exceptions.

    I am impressed with the academic environment of the university of chigago that has produced Milton Freedman AND Barack Obama. I would love to see that kind of evidence of academic freedom.

  • fw

    #7

    This article would seem more genuine if other liberal/radical agenda items were mentioned, like the removal of habeus corpus, acceptance of torture and rejection of the geneva conventions, allowing spying on us citizens without the traditional judicial review, things that attack the very foundations of law in our society. No.

    Instead they drag out the standard list I get in mailers all the time.

    I DO agree,Dr Vieth,that academic freedom is under attack in most parts of the world, including here in Brazil.

    There are notable exceptions.

    I am impressed with the academic environment of the university of chigago that has produced Milton Freedman AND Barack Obama. I would love to see that kind of evidence of academic freedom.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Right, Frank. Torture, abrogation of rights, etc., are properly LEFTIST tactics. Part of the problem with our current crop of Republicans is that they are too LIBERAL!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Right, Frank. Torture, abrogation of rights, etc., are properly LEFTIST tactics. Part of the problem with our current crop of Republicans is that they are too LIBERAL!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    I would add to the distinguished products of the University of Chicago Mortimer Adler, a key figure in the revival of classical liberal arts education, such as we are practicing here at Patrick Henry College. I’m told the university has declined quite a bit from its golden age of an excellent classical core curriculum and that it has fallen prey to the same political correctness that stifles other colleges. Does anyone know about that?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    I would add to the distinguished products of the University of Chicago Mortimer Adler, a key figure in the revival of classical liberal arts education, such as we are practicing here at Patrick Henry College. I’m told the university has declined quite a bit from its golden age of an excellent classical core curriculum and that it has fallen prey to the same political correctness that stifles other colleges. Does anyone know about that?

  • fw

    #12 Dr Vieth

    In your post you use words like “effective” and “cultural activism”.

    Might I suggest that that way of thinking is actually the problem? Might I further suggest that we christians are best equipped to know better good doctor?

    I am greatly persuaded by what Stanley Fish writes about the purpose and use of the humanities. We christians have practices in liturgy, chasuble, smells and bells, cathedral, magnificent buildings lovingly adorned with expensive art and instrument to be used once a week for …..what utilitarian purpose exactly? Used for other-worldy head-literally-in-cloud rituals that have no practical purpose and seem undermined by attempts at justification exactly as Stanley Fish states ….

    “Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. ”

    Full quote here:
    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/?th&emc=th

    This perpective allows for true humanity. But not as intended consequence or justification. Just because. Contrary to Calvinist, John Miltonian (“When I consider how my life is spent…purpose(d)…serve(d)”), you are, in your very person, “art for art´s sake”.

    The beauty of your existence invites me, without purpose, to enjoy you, cultivate and tend to you, and my faith completes my joy uniquely by informing me that my fatherly God desires that very response. Nothing more.

    In the cross I see your beauty as it is in completion: that my God was Passionate enough to die for you, as obsessed lover for gorgeous song of solomon beloved.

    Yet the humanities demonstrate to me amply that I don´t need even to be even a deist to grasp this vision in wonderful unintentional fullness. It is apparent to all those who look carefully.

    Perhaps the true value of the humanities for us religionists, is that it provides the certain antidote to agendizing “Christianism.”

    The existence of humanities departments mirrors the apparently effete adoration of Jesus Christ: Christianity.

    And the humanities, through the unlikely voices of pagans, ancient and contemporary, Catullus and Frost and John Waters, lets us know that all this wonderfully purposeless joy and awe and wonderment is indeed all-right.

  • fw

    #12 Dr Vieth

    In your post you use words like “effective” and “cultural activism”.

    Might I suggest that that way of thinking is actually the problem? Might I further suggest that we christians are best equipped to know better good doctor?

    I am greatly persuaded by what Stanley Fish writes about the purpose and use of the humanities. We christians have practices in liturgy, chasuble, smells and bells, cathedral, magnificent buildings lovingly adorned with expensive art and instrument to be used once a week for …..what utilitarian purpose exactly? Used for other-worldy head-literally-in-cloud rituals that have no practical purpose and seem undermined by attempts at justification exactly as Stanley Fish states ….

    “Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. ”

    Full quote here:
    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/?th&emc=th

    This perpective allows for true humanity. But not as intended consequence or justification. Just because. Contrary to Calvinist, John Miltonian (“When I consider how my life is spent…purpose(d)…serve(d)”), you are, in your very person, “art for art´s sake”.

    The beauty of your existence invites me, without purpose, to enjoy you, cultivate and tend to you, and my faith completes my joy uniquely by informing me that my fatherly God desires that very response. Nothing more.

    In the cross I see your beauty as it is in completion: that my God was Passionate enough to die for you, as obsessed lover for gorgeous song of solomon beloved.

    Yet the humanities demonstrate to me amply that I don´t need even to be even a deist to grasp this vision in wonderful unintentional fullness. It is apparent to all those who look carefully.

    Perhaps the true value of the humanities for us religionists, is that it provides the certain antidote to agendizing “Christianism.”

    The existence of humanities departments mirrors the apparently effete adoration of Jesus Christ: Christianity.

    And the humanities, through the unlikely voices of pagans, ancient and contemporary, Catullus and Frost and John Waters, lets us know that all this wonderfully purposeless joy and awe and wonderment is indeed all-right.

  • Rose

    In the late 60s, the University of Chicago was one of the first to introduce “values clarification” to graduate students in their (now-defunct) Education Department.
    I witnessed the first shot of the war between God-revealed values and child-created values. Then in the 70s I sang at the installation of John Tietgen as President of Seminex at the new ELCA seminary at Chicago. Also in the 70s, Martin Marty wrote an apologia for Norman Lear and All in the Family–the beginning of the ‘Father as Fool’ genre. So I had a Forrest Gump view of major leftist changes. Each alarmed me. (I later learned from a spiritual gifts survey that I have the gift of prophecy–which is not an endearing gift, I might add.) My niece recently graduated Chicago; I will ask her whether political correctness is alive in the social sciences.

  • Rose

    In the late 60s, the University of Chicago was one of the first to introduce “values clarification” to graduate students in their (now-defunct) Education Department.
    I witnessed the first shot of the war between God-revealed values and child-created values. Then in the 70s I sang at the installation of John Tietgen as President of Seminex at the new ELCA seminary at Chicago. Also in the 70s, Martin Marty wrote an apologia for Norman Lear and All in the Family–the beginning of the ‘Father as Fool’ genre. So I had a Forrest Gump view of major leftist changes. Each alarmed me. (I later learned from a spiritual gifts survey that I have the gift of prophecy–which is not an endearing gift, I might add.) My niece recently graduated Chicago; I will ask her whether political correctness is alive in the social sciences.

  • fw

    #11 Dr Vieth

    Conservatives and liberals alike value democracy and personal liberty as ultimate goals. To different ends. But the ends of both look self-ish. They look like individual right and not responsibility towards other.

    All “-isms” ultimately opt that it is better that the one should die for the benefit of the greater cause. conservatism, communism, socialism, christianism, liberalism, captalism share this one trait in common.

    The rule of law looks different. It is not liberal OR conservative. It is not free market or socialist.

    It at once protects individuals from caprice yet unseparably from a societal context.

  • fw

    #11 Dr Vieth

    Conservatives and liberals alike value democracy and personal liberty as ultimate goals. To different ends. But the ends of both look self-ish. They look like individual right and not responsibility towards other.

    All “-isms” ultimately opt that it is better that the one should die for the benefit of the greater cause. conservatism, communism, socialism, christianism, liberalism, captalism share this one trait in common.

    The rule of law looks different. It is not liberal OR conservative. It is not free market or socialist.

    It at once protects individuals from caprice yet unseparably from a societal context.


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