Christ & Culture: A Dilemma Reconsidered by James Hitchcock

Christ & Culture: A Dilemma Reconsidered

A New Look at Culture, Christians & the State by James Hitchcock

Culture, society, and state are commonly distinguished by social scientists, with the first the most difficult to define. The state—the apparatus of political organization—is obvious. Society is somewhat less so, but it involves visible, even measurable, realities—the family, economic institutions, social classes. Culture in a sense merely comprises everything else, although in a way it also includes the first two. It is the totality of a people’s communal life in all its manifestations.

The great historian Christopher Dawson devoted his entire career to studying the relationship of religion to culture, in works such as Progress and Religion (l929), Enquiries into Religion and Culture (l937), Religion and the Modern State (l940), Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (l960), and The Historical Reality of Christian Culture (l960).

Because of his acute sense of the importance of religion as the foundation of human culture, Dawson was perhaps the first modern critic to point out the ways in which the state is often antagonistic to culture. Among other things, religion teaches that there is a divine purpose to history, that man owes God collective as well as individual worship, and that the human race must be obedient to a law higher than that of the state, all of which make the relationship between religion and the state problematical and, to the degree that religion inspires the culture and is part of it, makes culture also a danger to the authority of the state. The Roman Empire persecuted Christianity not because Christians held different beliefs from the Romans but because the state could not control the Church.

The Marriage of Culture & State

Although seldom cast in these terms, in a sense one of the important “conservative” tasks in the modern West is the struggle to maintain not only the distinction between culture and politics but also the priority of culture over politics, the merging of the two being one of the principal characteristics of modern totalitarianism.

This merger is most easily seen in such things as the official art fostered by Communist and Fascist dictatorships, or by the official science that for a long time was the only kind tolerated in the Soviet Union. However, the claim of totalitarianism to extend its vigilance literally to every obscure corner of people’s lives necessarily destroys culture by sucking it into the constantly expanding political vacuum machine.

But the apparent defeat of totalitarianism in Europe does not mean the end of danger because, as Dawson once again pointed out, there has existed in the West for some time a kind of “soft” totalitarianism that ultimately has the same effect, although it is achieved more circuitously and slowly, and less painfully.

Again art offers the most obvious window. Beyond the controversy over the specific kinds of art supported by the National Endowment for the Arts is the larger question of whether a government agency should decide which kind of art is deserving of encouragement, a power that establishes certain styles, themes, and techniques as privileged, seeks to shape public taste by determining what is to be made available, and penalizes artists who do not conform to those expectations.

What people are saying about Touchstone:

Cultural Elitism & Social Engineers

James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more from the online archives

10.4—Fall 1997

Lessons from the Nursery

The Catholic Imagination Encounters Bambi by James L. Sauer

24.1—January/February 2011

The Romance of Domesticity

Marriage Thrives in Reality, Not in Our Dreams by Nathan Schlueter

32.3—May/June 2019

Theodicies & Messy Desks

on the Infinite Problem of Goods & Evil by Hugh Hunter

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone