Which way does influence lie? It’s a question social conservatives need to ask.
Before his death, the internet provocateur Andrew Breitbart observed that politics is downstream from culture. This was a savvy insight, and it haunts social conservatives to this day. Political decisions matter, to be sure, and free elections give citizens at least a symbolic voice in what a nation will become. Elections influence all three branches of government, both as symbols of what a nation aspires to be and in the pragmatic effect of who ends up serving in the three branches. That these appointments are, whether formally or otherwise, often for life deepens the stakes.
But what may seem like a powerful tool can backfire. One need only consider the federal judiciary’s rulings on abortion, trans rights, and religious freedom to see that what can seem like certain victory in the legislative branch becomes so much sand after one court’s decision. To what extent popular culture influences courts will always be subject to debate, but that popular culture seeks to shape the populace is pretty well beyond dispute. Consider the wave of one-sided documentaries and dramas that pour forth from Amazon, Disney, HBO Max, Hulu, and Netflix.
Abortion has long been a subject of films, and a few work in enough skepticism about its effects on women to create engaging drama or even comedy. I can think of these examples: Fame (in which the receptionist at an abortion clinic is depicted only as caring about the form of payment), Citizen Ruth (which casts a jaundiced eye on activists across the spectrum), and Knocked Up (in the series of Judd Apatow’s raunchy comedies with hearts of gold). In his new book Rock Me on the Water: 1974-The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics journalist Ron Brownstein sees significance in the protagonist of Maude (a Norman Lear sitcom) choosing an abortion at age forty-seven, and this within a month of oral arguments in Roe v. Wade.
Brownstein’s book tells the story of how progressive forces experienced something close to a harmonic convergence in 1974, with clear victories in film, music, TV, and politics. Brownstein is markedly hostile to the cornball sitcoms that preceded the Norman Lear legacy. He depicts Green Acres as somehow embodying the most retrograde and dull culture known to modern TV, mostly because it did not, unlike Lear’s programs, grind people’s faces in political debate: “Elite publications, not to mention national organizations, had never debated the social impact of The Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres. ‘Probably no show ever got more ink than Archie Bunker,’ CBS executive Robert Wood exulted to a visiting Los Angeles television columnist. ‘We can’t turn it off—not that we want to.’”
Fair enough. But so what? Both the Hillbillies and Green Acres mocked America’s class markers, primarily money and fame, so it was a question of whose ox was being gored. And Green Acres was the closest thing to Dada TV that most Americans would see. Think of it: fraternal twins named Ralph (a woman) and Alf who build nonsense fixtures like a closet that opens to the outdoors. A talking pig named Arnold whom everyone understands—except for protagonist Oliver Wendell Douglas!
Rock Me on the Water is a celebration by a nostalgic baby boomer rather than a guidebook, but it drives home the point that cultural triumphs are often slow and hard-won, equally attributable to persistence and dumb luck. One lesson for social conservatives is that efforts to influence popular culture are unlikely to ever be as dramatic as what Brownstein describes, if only because they are significantly outnumbered in presence and influence.
Consider the record of TV, one of the more visible realms of misbegotten projects. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Broadcasting Network on viewer donations but sold it off in 1997. It is now part of ABC Family. All that remains of CBN is a daily broadcast of The 700 Club (which ABC is obliged to include in its programming) and news reports. Likewise for the PTL Network, which had a quirky start but ran into the wall of money, sex, and power.
Only Mother Angelica’s EWTN has become a media powerhouse across cable TV, radio, and publishing. It represents an unabashed conservative Catholicism, a full-throttle faith that speaks from the heart and trusts audiences to decide whether EWTN is right for them. Where else can you watch two priests in clerical garb answering doctrinal questions, or listen to Raymond Arroyo’s “Papal Posse” on The World Over?
What’s missing in all this fondness for networks? Original storytelling, for the most part. Especially with the rise of the web, Christian programming now consists of evangelists promoting themselves or their churches, or otherwise chatting with one another, as on Trinity Broadcasting Network, which shows a bewildering lack of concern for what heterodox doctrines it helps make popular.
As a journalist, I cannot pretend to be part of the solution. I can say with a measure of happiness that the fiction gene has not eluded the LeBlanc family entirely. My niece Alicia Joy LeBlanc was part of a team that created the one-hour film Gun and a Hotel Bible, which weaves a story based on the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon.” This film treats the Bible and its truth claims with seriousness. It is an honest wrestling match between faith and doubt, and one of the best engagements with theodicy that I’ve seen committed to film.
One encouraging trend related to the web is the rise of new storytelling. For its depictions of heroism, consider the film Blue Miracle on Amazon Prime, which is part of actor Dennis Quaid’s second act as a star. It tells the noble story of an orphanage in the Dominican Republic that hangs in the balance when its founder and his orphanage charges enter a deep-sea fishing contest. The director John Lee Hancock, a graduate of Baylor University, always tells moving stories, including Netflix’s The Highwaymen (about heroism, and what it costs) and his earlier theatrical release The Blind Side (compassion).
Even what may seem like unlikely vehicles, such as the violent and dark Fox series Justified, can surprise viewers with remarkable storylines. Justified depicts a troupe of snake handlers passing through town, and while that led to the usual smug images of gullible crowds slurping up revivalism, it also imagined a prostitute’s conversion. It was one of the most amazing depictions of repentance committed to the screen since Robert De Niro’s character in The Mission forsook his former life as a slave trader.
One remarkable exception to the aforementioned phenomenon of one-sided documentaries is the filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of the House Speaker, who has a gift for showing people in their beautiful complexity, both fallen and idealistic, regardless of their ideology. Her subjects have included President George W. Bush, former Governor Jim McGreevy of New Jersey, megachurch pastor Ted Haggard, and everyday voters in the heartland. Whoever appears on camera with Pelosi usually seems more approachable, more interesting, and more relatable as a result. Surely hers is an example artists of all ideological varieties can heed.
The strongest lesson in these developments is less for social conservatives than for me as an individual. It is this: Don’t expect a conservative version of 1974, but don’t despise small beginnings.
Douglas LeBlanc is a veteran writer and editor living near Charleston, S.C.