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Does First Things influence American culture?

James Davison Hunter, a professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, would probably say “No” in his latest book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010). Historical context is needed to understand why First Things – and other religious publications – are not influencing culture:

The WASP establishment meant that from the colonial period certainly through the mid-nineteenth century, many if not most of the leading institutions of cultural production in America reflected or were informed by certain assumptions and understandings of historical Christianity. Christian faith had been enormously influential in the culture precisely because it had a principal if not hegemonic role in the culture-producing institutions of this society. This was most obviously true for the churches, the dominant arbiters of spiritual and moral understanding and sensibility. This was also the case, of course, at the founding of elite colleges and universities (e.g., Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, etc.), private schools (e.g., St. Paul’s, Groton, Deerfield, St. Mark’s, etc.), and even the public schools. All had a self-conscious and distinct Protestant identity. This was the case in the major movements of social reform as well – the temperance movement most prominently. And it was true in popular culture (e.g., hymnology) and, in less explicit ways, in that small but growing realm of high culture – music, literature, and art.

Needless to say, WASP hegemony within the culture-producing institutions has waned. There are multiple and complex reasons for this. Perhaps the most obvious explanation is found in the exponential growth and pluralization of the culture industry as a whole, including the news media, film, television, popular music, the internet, and the like (pp. 84-85).

Hunter evaluates the cultural capital of Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Evangelicals since the 1960s. He then characterizes three features of cultural productivity among American Christians today:

First, the works that are produced are almost exclusively directed to the internal needs of the faithful . . . . Second, this cultural productivity all tends to operate closer to the margins than to the center of the broader field of cultural production . . . . Third, cultural production in the Evangelical world is overwhelmingly oriented toward the popular (pp. 87-88).

In short, the cultural productivity of American Christians tends to be insular, marginal, and populist.

Hunter mentions First Things in his examples of marginal cultural productivity, although he is “kinder and gentler” to this magazine than others:
Evangelicalism boasts a billion-dollar book publishing industry, yet the books produced are largely ignored by the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and other key arbiters of public intellectual argument. Magazines such as Christianity Today, World, or Books and Culture also do well in the Evangelical and Reformed world, yet they do not  compete with or counterbalance their secular counterparts, and generally only First Things attracts an audience outside of this particular faith community (p. 87).

Hunter concludes by addressing the financial, political, and cultural capital of American Christians:
In the early decades of the twenty-first century as in the last decades of the twentieth, Christian presence in America has been a presence primarily in, of, and for the middle class in everything that this designation means. This is especially true for the Evangelical, Reformed, and Catholic traditions. There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions tend to prove the rule. Thus, the financial capital that fuels Christianity’s religious, social, and political causes is generated primarily from the extraordinarily generous tithing of the ordinary faithful. The considerable political capital American Christianity has amassed exists primarily in its pressure groups and the ability of those groups to mobilize the grassroots, middle-class, church-going voters. The vitality of its cultural capital today is a vitality that resides almost exclusively among average people in the pew rather than those in leadership, on the periphery not the center of cultural production, in tastes that run to the popular rather than the exceptional, the middle brow rather than the high brow, and almost always toward the practical as opposed to the theoretical or the imaginative. There is little taste for “high culture” especially in Evangelicalism, where the tendency has long been toward translation – making things accessible to the largest number of people . . .

Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production. Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from its various communities) have not had influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of historical Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.

As I’ve said repeatedly, there are exceptions, but some observers make far too much of those exceptions. The reason is that the Christians who do operate in positions of social, cultural, and economic influence are neither operating within dense social networks nor working together coherently with common agendas, not least because they are largely disaffected from the local church. There are those with fairly high levels of social and economic capital but it is not linked with high levels of cultural capital. It is fair to say, then, that in any socially and culturally significant way, Christians are absent from the institutions at the center of cultural production. The cultural capital American Christianity has amassed simply cannot be leveraged where it matters most (pp. 88-89. 91).

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