By P. Andrew Sandlin
Because culture is religion externalized, every attempt to alter the structure and content of a culture constitutes a form of religious subversion. The ancient Greek philosophers were well aware of the possibility of cultural subversion; and Plato, a devout statist, singled out the arts as a field potentially hazardous to the commonwealth which should never be reluctant to suppress artistic expression.
What we term the status quo of any culture is always dynamic, never static, always with internal (and often with external) forces committed to cultural change. From the standpoint of the status quo, “cultural change” is a euphemism for cultural subversion. We should have no illusions about this fact, and the most devout advocate of “democracy” cannot escape the force of its logic. To argue, for example, that democracy (however defined) is merely a mechanism to assure that the majority’s will can peacefully prevail in a society is thereby to acknowledge the successful subversion of all non- and anti-democratic programs of society and politics. “Democracy,” therefore, is not merely a political mechanism; it is, has always been, and must always be, a form of cultural subversion.
When our Lord spoke parabolically of His ministry as binding “the strong man” (Mk. 3:22-27), He was asserting that in the prime struggle of the ages — that between the Triune God and covenant-keepers on one side, and Satan and covenant-breakers on the other — transformation from covenant-breaking to covenant-keeping is not possible apart from the suppression of the former. While this suppression begins with the individual, it works its way outward to affect and reshape every area of life and society. Christ’s expulsion of demonic forces did not merely set the stage for His spoiling of Satan’s power over individuals; it was an act of cultural subversion — the subversion of Satan’s iron stranglehold not merely on particular individuals, but on the culture itself. Just as Satan, under the inscrutable decree of God, had temporarily subverted divine culture in the Garden of Eden, so Jesus Christ permanently subverted Satanic and humanistic culture in His earthly sojourn, culminating in the great redemptive complex of His sacrificial death, bodily resurrection, glorious ascension, and victorious session at the right hand of the Father; where He presently sits in anticipation of all His enemies being made His footstool (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The subversive effects of this redemptive complex are no less cultural than individual, and cultural precisely because they are individual.
In R.J. Rushdoony’s language, cultural subversion is an inescapable concept: individuals and forces within a society are constantly working to subvert that society’s culture. Different societies legally permit certain forms of subversion, though no society legally permits the subversion of its basic structure. This is why blasphemy of the Triune God is forbidden in a Biblically ordered society (Lev. 24:16) but permitted in a humanistic society, while suppression of homosexuality is permitted in a Biblically ordered society (Lev. 20:13) but forbidden in a humanistic society. The issue is never unfettered free speech, but that no society permits certain selected forms of speech immediately subversive of that society. As the United States has become increasingly homosexualized, censure of homosexuals has been labeled “hate speech,” already forbidden on many “politically correct” campuses and gradually in other areas of society. In a Biblically ordered society, blasphemy is culturally subversive and therefore forbidden; in a humanistically ordered society, suppression of homosexuality (and several other sins) is culturally subversive and therefore forbidden. Just as cultural subversion is an inescapable concept, so the political suppression of certain basic forms of cultural subversion is an inescapable concept. The political structure of every society works to preserve certain basic cultural tenets, and when we observe an alteration in laws respecting particular subversions, we are in actuality seeing the success of some particular subversion itself.
Today’s Cultural Subversion
The present cultural status quo of the United States reflects the successful subversion of a bland and liberal cultural order regnant roughly since the 1870s, an order which itself had subverted the older Puritan, Trinitarian order first brought to these shores in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The culture of the United States we observe today is an extension of the 60s revolution to virtually every area of modern life. [For example] This was especially evident in the former President Clinton impeachment debacle, and I refer not merely to the White House. To the extent that there existed any genuine conflict, it was a conflict between certain Republican politicians who retain a vague sense of Christian morality and, on the other side, the entrenched perpetrators of the 60s revolution. It was a conflict of decades—between the predominant cultural vision of the 60s revolutionaries, and the vastly outmanned and outgunned vision of the successors of the 40s (era) patriots. Given the cultural dominance of the 60s revolutionaries, it is not surprising which decade’s champions won out. As E. Michael Jones perceptively argued, this recent debacle was indeed about sex—about the dominance of the sexual revolution and about the revolutionaries’ rabid commitment to preserving it at all costs: “President [Bill] Clinton is going to defend Dionysos to the death; he can’t afford to back out now. Like Ahab he is willing to take the whole country down to make a point.”1 What the 60s sexual revolutionaries were fighting for in the late 90s was the perpetuation of the cultural status quo, and the fact that the President’s approval ratings increased with every Republican revelation of his philandering, adultery, perjury, deception, and obstruction of justice indicates that the Republicans, in this particular case, were occupying a subversive role. Their ultimate failure stems from the resiliency of the 60s revolutionary culture that dominates American society. This resiliency, as Joseph Sobran effectively notes, is a part of the liberals program, constantly reshaping itself to push toward greater cultural depravity: “I gnash my teeth when conservatives argue that `affirmative action’ violates `the spirit of Dr. [Martin Luther] King’ —`colorblind justice,’ and all that. Nonsense. If King were alive today, he’d certainly support state-imposed racial preferences. He was a Marxist, always moving leftward. Liberals are right to claim him as their own; conservatives who appeal to his `spirit’ only make fools of themselves. . . . In the maze of history, today’s conservatives are nearly as lost as the liberals. That’s why their critique of liberalism is fundamentally weak: more than they realize, they are liberals too.”2 Even as today’s status quo, the Left is subversive.
Subversives on the Right
The so-called Religious Right, so active in the 70s and 80s and so fragmented and misdirected in the 90s, has not learned the lesson of culture and cultural subversion. Its champions have been seduced by the popular but pathetic illusion that politics is central to life and have assumed that we can “clean America up” by electing Christian and Christian-influenced candidates. They have tended to assimilate the mechanism of this vision from political liberals for whom political power has always been the prime implement of social engineering. The more astute political liberals, however, are aware that politics is only a single cultural phenomenon, one among many, and that the fundamental issue in society is culture, that is to say, religion. All cultural wars are in reality religious wars. The Religious Right, unfortunately, is often less culturally astute than politically active. Thus, it fails to recognize that any fundamental change in society must be a cultural, a religious, change. The Religious Right and other Christian organizations as well as individual Christians disturbed by the overt depravity of modern culture would be better served in penetrating and transforming the fundamental culture itself than in electing individual Christian candidates and passing individual Christian legislation, vital though these activities are. In modern democracies, the culture is eventually the manifestation of the will of the majority. The broad religious perspective of the populace at large creates a culture which in turn shapes political outcomes.
If Christians wish to alter the political landscape, they should devote themselves to altering the cultural (religious) landscape. This means training and commissioning a greater number of culturally astute orthodox, Bible-believing ministers, educators, musicians, poets, theologians, novelists, disc jockeys, film makers, journalists, and so on. The predominating attitudes of a society are more fundamentally shaped by its university professors, film and TV personalities, pastors and theologians, popular musicians, and journalists than it is by its politicians, who generally are little more than an echo or reflection of the prevailing cultural ethos—particularly in modern democracies. In simpler terms, [current movies and television shows] are more culturally significant in the United States than the President and members of Congress. The former are religious statements that shape cultural norms; the latter tend to be products and therefore reflections of the culture itself.
Cultural subversion of some sort is always occurring in a society. As long as men remain in a sinful state, cultural subversion is inescapable. Not until the eternal state will all cultural subversion disappear. Revelation 20:7-10 discloses that, even at the conclusion of the earthly millennium, Satan will stir up his followers in an attempt to subvert Christ’s kingdom. God will effectively and decisively quash this cultural subversion, but the fact that it could occur even within a predominately Christian society evidences the inevitability of cultural subversion in all human society. The commission of Christians, in fact, is to be godly subversives in every area of life. It is, by the power of the Spirit of God, to subvert the indwelling sin in our own lives. But the subversion does not stop there. It is designed to move outward to every area of thought and life. Of this subversion, Cornelius Van Til states:
The individual believer has a comprehensive task. His is the task of exterminating evil from the whole universe. He must begin this program in himself. As a king reinstated it is his first battle to fight sin within his own heart. This will remain his first battle till his dying day. This does not mean, however, that he must not also seek to destroy evil in his fellow Christians and in his fellow men while he is engaged in destroying evil within himself.…
We must go one step further. It is our duty not only to seek to destroy evil in ourselves and in our fellow Christians, but it is our further duty to seek to destroy evil in our fellow men.…
Still further we must note that our task with respect to the destruction of evil is not done if we have sought to fight sin itself everywhere we see it. We have the further obligation to destroy the consequences of sin in this world as far as we can.…3
To argue that Christians are simply one competing interest among many “options” in the modern pluralistic culture is to talk nonsense. Christianity is designed to be a dominant faith, like all faiths, including the faith of democratic pluralism. Modern pluralism is the natural outgrowth of Enlightenment liberalism which sees “reason” as the arbiter of all claims. Differing and conflicting religious views are permitted (even encouraged), for what is really important is maximum freedom under the guidance of reason. The emergence of postmodernism has exploded this myth of reason, and it is expressed no more baldly than by Stanley Fish:
But what if reason or rationality itself rests on belief? Then it would be the case that the opposition between reason and belief was a false one, and that every situation of contest should be recharacterized as a quarrel between two sets of belief with no possibility of recourse to a mode of deliberation that was not itself an extension of belief. This is in fact my view of the matter …. [L]iberalism is tolerant only within the space demarcated by the operations of reason; any one who steps outside that space will not be tolerated, will not be regarded as a fully enfranchised participant in the marketplace (of ideas) over which reason presides.4
Liberalism itself, he implicitly acknowledges, is a subversive faith, subversive of all views that do not conform to the dictates of reason as shaped by liberalism.
The Church’s Great Miscalculation
A prime theological error of the church in the United States in the last century and a half which has effectively translated into its prime tactical error is the assumption that cultural subversion is not inevitable, that covenant-keeping and covenant-breaking can peacefully coexist in a single society. Since Genesis 3, however, there has been no possibility of cultural détente between covenant-keeping and covenant-breaking — and there never can be. Virile, Biblical Christianity works at all points to subvert covenant-breaking — in the individual, the family, the church, science, art, education, technology, and the state. While sinless perfection can never be achieved in any individual, institution, or sphere in this life, Christianity is not in principle compatible with covenant-breaking. It works, in other words, to subvert covenant-breaking wherever it is found. It works to gradually transform prodigal sons into obedient sons, and prodigal cultures into obedient cultures. It would be an event of nothing less than epic proportions were the church of Jesus Christ to recover not only a recognition of the inescapability of cultural subversion, but a restoration of its calling as cultural subversives. By the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the application of His law-word, the Bible, to all areas of life, Christians must commit themselves to subvert and replace evil in all individuals, institutions, and spheres. While Christ definitively bound the “strong man” in His earthly ministry, the calling of His people is to translate this redemptive victory into every area of life.
- E. Michael Jones, “The Nomenklatura Calls for a Referendum on the Sexual Revolution,” Culture Wars, November, 1998, 14.
- Joseph Sobran, “Media and Mythology,” Sobran’s The Real News of the Month, November-December,1998, 1.
- Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics(Phillipsburg, NJ, 1980), 86-87.
- Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (. . . And It’s a Good Thing Too), (Oxford, 1994), 135, 137, emphasis in original.