“Politics is downstream from culture.”
Author and researcher Don Eberly is credited for first writing that statement over 20 years ago, but it’s a sentiment that has been around much longer.
Is it true? It’s complicated.
Historically, any significant legislation or court opinion has almost always been preceded by a social movement that moved the needle.
Before the Declaration of Independence was signed, pamphlets, protests, and preachers called for freedom from King George’s tyrannical rule of the American colonies. Before the abolishment of slavery, there was an abolitionist movement that gained traction. There was a Civil Rights Movement before there was a Civil Rights Act.
This truth can be seen with the sexual revolution. Academica, media, culture all were light years ahead of the political sphere. The revolution didn’t happen overnight, and it continues to evolve, ramp-up speed, and we can see it in our news, on TV, and online.
It’s important to point out that society typically adapts after a law is passed or court opinion is published, though not always.
Laws and court opinions can “lock in” the change that was sought, but not always. For example, after Obergefell, it’s unlikely that same-sex marriage will be overturned as public opinion has shifted (that’s not an endorsement of the practice, just acknowledging political reality). However, the same can’t be said about abortion after Roe v. Wade.
One has to acknowledge, however, that before Obergefell, there was a cultural shift. While the sexual revolution started in the 1960s, there wasn’t the same shift for legalized abortion.
Another example, who opposes seat belt laws? Have seat belt laws help change behavior? Yes. Laws can change behavior which has an impact on culture.
Also, one can argue that politics is part of the culture. It is. It’s an extension of culture.
I look at the debate over this phrase this way: long-term cultural shifts vs. short-term political victories. In terms of cultural issues, if you are depending on a law being passed or a particular politician being elected to reverse a cultural shift, you’ve lost in the long term.
Does this mean we should disengage from politics? That’s not what I mean. However, it does mean you should recognize that the change didn’t happen overnight, and the long-term solution won’t either. It also means politics does not come first.
Relying upon politics means depending upon having political power at the time. Political power changes hands. It always does. We currently see most political action (and legal action) as a way to preserve the right to do just that.
As an evangelical, the idea of politics being downstream from culture also means that my ultimate purpose on earth is not to win political battles. It also means my approach to politics needs to be different.
The Westminister Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?”
It answers, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
That’s our ultimate purpose. This brings Colossians 3:23 comes to mind, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” (ESV).
Christians work with God’s commands and purposes in mind. First, we are to be witnesses for Christ (Acts 1:8). Second, we are to be disciple-makers (Matthew 28:19-20). Third, we are to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). Finally, we are to do this while loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:36-40).
We are to do this regardless of the cultural and political environment we find ourselves in – at home, at work, and in our communities.
That is what brings lasting change and makes an impact for eternity.
Consider the impact of the 1905 Welsh Revival within Methodist Churches in Wales:
- There was not a single arrest for drunkenness in Swansea County.
- In Cardiff, the jail population was reduced by 40%.
- Taverns struggled economically.
- Prayer meetings happened in coal mines.
- Bibles were being sold out.
- Criminal courts were empty, and police were being laid off as a result of nothing to do.
- Stolen goods were returned to the stores they were taken from.
- My personal favorite: it is reported that “Cursing and profanity were so diminished that… a strike was provoked in the coal mines… so many men had given up using foul language that the pit ponies dragging the coal trucks in the mine tunnels did not understand what was being said to them and stood still, confused.”
Politics can’t change society like that, but the Gospel can. All of the above was a side effect of those once dead in sin being made alive in Christ.