Symbolism in politics

Dr Leithart reflects on ‘the political potency of symbolism‘ in an article titled ‘Who Wears the Crown‘ at the SBC web site Canon & Culture.

In a nutshell, Dr Leithart argues that while American Christianity tends to dismiss symbolism as the opposite of substance, this is out of touch with historical reality. Leithart argues that the cultural and political Left clearly grasps the importance of symbolism and uses it to outflank and overpower Christian advocates of cultural and moral sanity.

Christians today are often political Erasmians, and our oblivion leaves us politically vulnerable. We get out-flanked by opponents who know how to paint pictures and tell stories. Gay sex and gay marriage have been mainstreamed by activists who have slowly, deliberately created icons of gay normality. Obama laid out his version of American history in his second inaugural address with three symbolic movements of liberation—Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.

Arguments won’t turn the tide. We need to fight symbols with symbols, stories with better stories, encouraged by the recollection that injustices and tyrannies have been toppled more often by symbols than by swords or bombs.

Dr Leithart is certainly correct that the Left has a mastery of the use of symbolism in their cause—indeed, symbolism that, while effective, also seems contrived and manipulative. But I think Dr Leithart is mistaken when he claims that better symbols will be more effective than better arguments for ‘our side’.

Symbolism is effective in animating a principle already present in a thought process. In the case of the ‘icons of gay normality’ the presence of that principle required the slow and deliberate undermining of competing views of morality. The ‘icons of gay normality’ are effective precisely because they nurture the view of sexual autonomy our society embraced many decades ago, a view that openly despises sexual chastity and actively embraces infidelity. The meaning of ‘love & marriage’ in our society today is no longer recognisable as the ‘one flesh’ bond God ordained.

Symbols need underlying propositions to give them meaning. On their own, symbols don’t mean anything. Symbols are only powerful when they are analogies or illustrations of things we are already inclined to believe. Indeed, symbols are most powerful when they help us to move subtle assumptions from the realm of tacit persuasion to full conviction.

The ‘icons of gay normality’ work because they are situated within a network of beliefs about sexuality that has nothing to do with God’s design and everything to do with sexual autonomy and sexual self gratification. These ‘icons’ are not self interpreting. Their meaning and effectiveness has everything to do with how they illustrate the application of already held beliefs to a wider situation.

And of course, that’s the problem with Dr Leithart’s suggestion that we ought to ‘fight symbols with symbols’. We no longer share with our opponents any of the propositional beliefs that would make our ‘symbols’ intelligible to them. Our ‘icons’ of fidelity and chastity have a very different meaning to them. Any such tokens represent to them the shackles of repulsive oppression and displays of repressive dishonesty.

I’m not denying the power of symbols and symbolic actions. I’m denying that they have an independent power to communicate meaning and to persuade. The ‘icons of gay normality’ are effective today because of decades of work that has preceded those icons, work of cultural transformation that has established a new norm for sexuality, a norm which makes sense of those icons and which those icons can now illustrate.

What, then, must we do? Well, let us start by examining ourselves to see if we have tacitly adopted ways of thinking, speaking, and acting that comport more with the oppositional viewpoint of sexuality than with what we claim to believe. Here’s where we still have some common beliefs with our opponents: we both have a fairly close notion of what constitutes high-handed hypocrisy. Let us stop living glibly in opposition to the very things we claim to believe! This isn’t a demand that we be morally perfect: imperfection is not the same thing as hypocrisy. Rather, I’m insisting that we must hold ourselves to the standard we profess and judge ourselves accordingly, bringing the grace of the Gospel to recover us from our sins and failings. This will involve us in some significant acts of sacrificial love, humble leadership, and bold testimony that may even rise to the level of ‘iconic’ symbolism Dr Leithart so admires.

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