According to Gallup, less than one-third of the U.S. population describes itself as socially liberal. Yet in 2012, more than 95 percent of Ivy League faculty and employees who donated money to a presidential candidate did so to Obama. The same is true of employees at Facebook, Google, and Apple. Any survey of filmmakers, musicians, actors, painters, or writers would probably reveal similar results.
When pressed to account for these disproportions, conservatives emphasize liberals’ readiness to discriminate against non-liberals. But that does not explain how liberals took charge of these fields in the first place. Nor does it explain why the same imbalance appears even in activities open to all. Anyone can grow purple Peruvian potatoes or make artisanal cheese. But try surveying the vendors at a green market. When I did so in Charleston, South Carolina, a state that has voted Republican in almost every presidential election since 1964, all but one self-identified as liberal.
A better explanation starts with the understanding that liberalism is more than a set of political opinions. It functions in some ways like a religion, identifying sacred values that help people find meaning in their lives and direction for their energies.
An Apple advertising campaign from two decades ago, “Think Different,” is a good window into the liberal faith. From billboards and televisions, the faces of Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jane Goodall, and others gazed like religious icons. “Here’s to the crazy ones,” a commercial intoned. “They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. . . . They invent. They imagine. . . . They create.”
The ad amounts to a catechism in liberalism’s cardinal virtues. And the company’s iconic logo, a bitten apple, symbolizes the liberal faith that rebellion against “rules” is the father of imagination and originality.
The person who views liberalism solely as a set of political attitudes finds its monopolies on the academy, the arts, and Silicon Valley baffling. But someone who recognizes in liberalism a zeitgeist with answers to life’s basic questions notices a family resemblance among the fields liberals dominate. All are associated with innovation or self-expression—what popular culture refers to as “creativity.” It is not happenstance that liberals enter the areas they do or that people working in them gravitate toward liberal ways of thinking. Such results flow from liberalism’s insistence that creative endeavor is a path to human fulfillment.
This invites the question of whether Christian belief also encourages expressiveness and innovation. The campaign contribution data that let us track political affiliation by profession do not also track religious practice by profession. But we know that those who attend church regularly and who accept Christian doctrine as authoritative tend not to be liberal. People who feel what James Davison Hunter called “the impulse toward orthodoxy” are almost certainly underrepresented in the fields where liberals are overrepresented.
That makes sense intuitively. A person who limited himself to the articles, devices, software, plays, and music made recently by liberals would not lack for stimulation. But few people, religious or secular, are ready to abandon their iPhones, stop using Google, and feed their imaginations only on the articles and entertainment orthodox Christians have produced in the last several decades.
The relative infertility of the orthodox is puzzling. Christianity sees man as made in the image of the Creator, charged with finishing the world begun in Genesis. This calling invites not generic obedience but varied creation that bears witness to the uniqueness of each human soul.
To be sure, the orthodox rank virtues differently than liberals do. While liberal icons tend to be artists and innovators, Christian icons depict saints, stressing zeal and piety rather than color or originality. For believers, expressiveness and innovation tend less to be priorities in themselves than to be byproducts of the drive to live faithfully and glorify God.
It does not follow, however, that orthodoxy is less potent than liberalism at stimulating expression and invention. The modern word for being moved to make something, inspired, originally referred to being filled with the breath of God. Wonder, hope, and grace are not only recurrent themes of orthodox creative endeavor; they are also its characteristic fuel.
A walk through Europe’s Gothic cathedrals reminds one just how combustible this fuel can be. Articulate, technically innovative, expressing an erupting sense of man’s spiritual potential, these projects to sculpt heaven in stone and light had as their taproot not simply the labor but the imagination of an entire Christian population. The desire to glorify God pulled, as it were, the cathedrals from the ground.
Orthodoxy clearly can inspire expressiveness and innovation. The question is why it seems to have done so more conspicuously in the past than today.
Even though doctrine remained relatively constant over time, perhaps orthodox culture calcified in some way. The possibility brings to mind what Michael Oakeshott called the “conservative disposition.” To Oakeshott, conservatism describes a temperament rather than a set of principles, an attachment to the familiar, and a general inclination toward conservation—of institutions, of landscapes, even of norms for social interaction. A conservative loves the fruits of innovation but not the ordeal of change. This disposition, Oakeshott suggested, runs strongest in the person who thinks of himself as having much to lose.
In the twelfth century, when Abbot Suger sought to express a theology of God as light, he all but razed France’s most revered chapel to build what turned out to be the first Gothic church. By contrast, the Archdiocese of New York just spent $175 million meticulously restoring St. Patrick’s Cathedral to its early glory. It did not commission a single original statue or painting.
Oakeshott’s insight suggests that the very achievement of innovators such as Suger eventually became an anchor on the devout mind. With much to appreciate and much to lose, believers became more interested in conservation than creation. Communities that once glorified God with ideas and images of their own sponsorship gradually adopted the proprietary mindset of the museum curator.
Such conservatism would have been alien to the risk-takers and builders who launched orthodoxy. Men like Paul, Origen, and Augustine shared an appetite for discovery. Yet orthodox intellectuals today often speak as if conservatism is the inevitable companion of orthodox belief. Perhaps that presumption helps explain why the orthodox appear so seldom in fields that prize innovation. Their conservatism does not encourage it.
This account points to a related analysis by Pope Benedict XVI. According to him, “a weariness has crept into the inner life of the Church.” As orthodoxy’s footprint contracts, he expects believers to pass through a period of disorientation and questioning that eventually produces a fresh self-understanding. By becoming a “creative minority,” he predicts, they will ultimately convert worldly decline into fresh vitality.
No prior pope ever so explicitly urged the Church to think of itself as a minority. Yet a group can hardly be swept from every elite institution in a preeminent society without altering its identity—and perhaps its aspirations as well. If centuries of dominance and achievement put orthodoxy’s instinct for invention to sleep, the humiliation of defeat might awaken it. Benedict looks for believers to shift their attention from the power they no longer exercise to the creative capacities they retain.
For his purposes, the word creative means actions that let God’s sacrificial love irradiate human experience. Conscious that belief can inspire art or scholarship, he insists that faith is creative in a more immediate sense. Just as the Japanese craft of painting water on rocks is pursued for intrinsic satisfaction, prayer aims at delight. Liturgy, like a child’s fantasy or a mathematician’s speculation, is a form of play. It follows that a priest or nun pursues a vocation as creative in its nature as a playwright or inventor. Similarly, a mother who raises rather than aborts a child with Down syndrome commits the “random kindness and senseless act of beauty” that liberals associate, in other contexts, with creativity.
To Benedict, the exaltation of bringing color into a gray world properly belongs to believers as much as to artists or inventors. But his aim is not just to cast traditional piety in a new light. He anticipates and invites a shift in mood. As believers adapt to their new place in the world, they will increasingly participate in the life of the Creator by making beauty as well as beholding it, discovering truth as well as preserving it.
Apologists such as G. K. Chesterton, Nicholas Berdyaev, and Dorothy Sayers emphasize that the experience of conceiving or building wakes the spirit. One need only contrast a child drawing with a child idle to be reminded that making new things mysteriously multiplies energy rather than depletes it. Benedict sees in such vitality a resource for the Church’s renewal. The mentality of the creator is an antidote to spiritual fatigue.
It also contains fresh motivation for fidelity. Members of an original and imaginative group, he suggests, thrive on distinctiveness. Rather than abandon positions repugnant to established opinion, they build identities premised on them.
It is not lost on Benedict that liberalism derives energy from understanding itself as a “counter-culture.” Christianity once did, too. Historian Peter Brown attributed the literary and theological achievement of fourth-century Latin Christians to their status as a “harassed minority.” Belonging to a “group vigorously committed to asserting its identity against the outside world is,” Brown observed, “a spur to creativity.”
Steve Jobs once asked a captious pundit, “Do you create anything or do you just criticize others’ work?” Liberalism poses this question to believers. And Benedict welcomes it. Though the ethos of the bitten apple seems to him an idolatry of creative endeavor, he would gladly stake orthodoxy’s future on its ability to make human experience into something beautiful and alive. Through “small vital circles of really convinced believers,” he predicts, the Church “will become the salt of the earth again.” Orthodoxy thrives by making the world taste like God.
Colin Moran manages a private investment partnership in New York City.