booknotes: right (part two)

Part one of this review was posted last Wednesday.

Strictly speaking, this isn't so much a review as an extended quotation from one of the student interviews excerpted in Right and commentary on that particular quotation. Senior Jeremiah Loring, interviewed in March of 2007, was asked Do you think what you are doing is analogous to the counterculture, to what hippies were doing in the '60s, that it's a new revolution? Since I've been thinking a lot about the concept of "counterculture" (and how various scholars and lay folks define it) for my thesis, I was particularly intrigued by Loring's response.

I have always liked the idea of a counterculture. That's how Christianity should be. Not a subculture, because a subculture is something that, when a culture moves to the right or to the left, the subculture moves with it. However, a counterculture is everything that is outside of it, and we are solid. Regardless of where the culture goes, we are staying put. I think our society lacks that consistency. We have been blown by the wind of fashion. In this last election the nation had a left-leaning sweep, which was expressed in the polls. We tend to have a wishy-washy society. I think that's expressed in politics by the growing number of moderates who do not have a consistent voting pattern, and I think it shows that they have lost a sense of principle trying to base their votes and actions on something solid and concrete. Christianity provides us with an anchor: if the culture moves, we are going to be pro-life. We are not going to change. The whole culture can leave us, and we are still going to stand there and say that abortion is wrong. If the time comes when everyone is saying abortion is wrong, and it's outlawed, then we are fine. But, if it leaves us again, then we have to stand where we were before, because the Bible is eternal, and the word of God never fades.

Leaving aside the specific example of abortion, I was struck by two aspects of Loring's definition of "culture" and "counterculture." One was the way in which he describes counterculture as "everything that is outside" of culture. While I get the gist of his argument, I would argue this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the impetus for countercultural activity: that is, it is inherently oppositional. It is counter; it derives its purpose, at least in part, from offering a values system or worldview that is at odds from the dominant culture. The relationship between dominant culture and counterculture, then, is a dynamic one: as the dominant culture shifts, so too does the counterculture. This understanding of a counterculture is quite different from Loring's concept of a counterculture that exists eternally, unmoving, outside of "culture."

And that, indeed, is the second point of note in Loring's response: he fails to identify is own Christian worldview as a culture -- instead, it is outside of culture entirely. "The culture" and "the whole culture" are set up in opposition to his particular Christian evangelical, politically conservative understanding of the universe. I would argue that it is much more fruitful to understand cultures (sub, counter and otherwise identified) as cultures, your own or not. This is because cultures do actually change over time, and can be studied from an historical perspective -- and even if Loring's Christian counterculture holds eternal values (as he argues they do), from my perspective as an historian I would suggest that the way those values are expressed changes over time -- and that those changes are worth situating in a cultural context.

Finally, I do think that the interviewer's question is a valid one, and that there are legitimate, fruitful comparisons to be made between the type of resistance to modernity mounted by the 1960s counterculturalists and that articulated by the current fundegelicals (as my friend Amy used to call them). Indeed, I think it's a shame that folks within both countercultures (if you will) don't more often explore the values they have in common, as well as eying each other suspiciously from opposite ends of the "culture wars" spectrum. I'm not quite sure what would come of such a mutual assessment of shared values, but possibly it could help to clear up some of the confusion Rosin and others have over the nuances of home education, Christian fundamentalist-evangelicalism, and the struggle for political power.

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