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An enduring image from my university days in Brisbane is the late Dr Denis Murphy, perched on the platform of the lecture hall, hugging his knees to his chest, a toupee poorly disguising the effects of chemotherapy, and exhorting us to active engagement in the study of Australian history. His hook: graphic recall of the late 1960s when students challenged him for every line he delivered.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

He wanted us to forsake pursuit of a job ticket, for active engagement in the shaping of culture. His own engagement reformed the Queensland Labor Party, before cancer took him, and gave us Premiers Wayne Goss and Peter Beattie. Sadly, I can’t remember a generation of students that took up his challenge since, in any Western nation. In South Africa, China, in the Czech Republic we have seen it, courageous and powerful. So this week, on America’s National Public Radio the question was raised with concern – why US students are becoming more and more conservative? The discussion is magnetic to me as one who teaches such students.

Let me make a detour into history that might help us make sense of the US culture wars as they play out in schools and Universities, cities and suburbs, in the press and cinemas. For in three areas where the battle for belief in American culture is hottest right now – evolution vs. intelligent design, theocracy vs. separation of church and state, and freedom of speech vs. political correctness – conservatives of every stripe are showing more cunning, passion and commitment to their agenda.

The detour is to medieval Prague. On a tour of St Agnes Convent turned art museum a year ago, in modern Prague, I caught a glimpse of the power of medieval painters to shape the way Czechs thought about themselves. The symbols derived from eastern-church missionary influence, and the heroes of the culture became those who lived out the ideals of the Christian gospel as then taught. Over centuries, the images became Western church interpretations of Czech heroes. To persuade Czechs to Christianity, Jesuits took even pre-Christian heroes of the culture and depicted them as fulfilling the true Christian life. The museum arranged this chronologically and that turned on some lights for me.

When the followers of Jan Hus protested against the corruption of institutionalised Roman Christianity, not surprisingly they and later Protestants rejected visual arts as a means of expressing the faith. The persuasive power of art was a major force they had to contend with in reforming the culture, and Roman church artists were the epitome of technical excellence. The Jesuits won on more strategic grounds, however. They provided a better liberal arts education. And so in the Czech lands the Hussites failed, Bohemian artists had a mandate, and the baroque monuments that so prettify Prague signify a culture war won by a Roman churched Austrian Hapsburg Empire.

Fast forward to two British journalists from The Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who in their book The Right Nation, say the truly missionary players in the US today are conservative, Republicans – people who’ve felt belittled and marginalised for half a century, and are convinced that politics is one of a bag full of weapons in the war to decide whose mind rules.

They document the almost single-minded nature of the conservative crusade since F.D.R. and the New Deal of the thirties gutted them. The infrastructure that entrepreneurial conservatives have built since – in alternative schools, media, and think tanks – coupled with their capacity to unite groups as disparate as the gun lobby and evangelical Christians, has put them in charge for the foreseeable future. It’s playing out in ways that frighten and disturb a flat-footed liberal establishment.

Paul Krugman in the New York Times spoke to the latest threat last week. He identified the strategic reframing exercise of a White House at war with liberal secularism. Casting doubt on long held social belief creates confusion that allows for reshaping the culture. As President Bush plays theologian again and opines ever so carefully about ‘intelligent design’ as a valid alternative to ‘evolution’ to explain human origins, his political astuteness and timing can’t be questioned. He is riding on more than a decade of growing doubt about the enlightenment experiment in the West, as well as a recent op-ed in the NY Times by a representative of the new Pope, questioning evolutionary theory. This challenge is welcomed by people of many types of traditional faiths in various deities, not only those labelled fundamentalist Christians, Catholic or Protestant. Traditional believers have an instinctive distrust of scientific rationalism that reduces us to mere matter. And such are those immigrating to the US and the West in record numbers.

The response from those committed to Western science is far from helpful. With such interest and doubt being expressed, there is now opportunity to help cultural newcomers or even slowcoaches like me, to ‘get’ why we should trust the evolutionary explanation, or why separation of church and state matters so much. I use ‘Western’ deliberately. Western civilisation seems caught in a cultural crisis. Its presuppositions are not shared globally. Its projected cultural superiority is now fair game in the global village. And, its own philosophers have demonstrated that scientific conclusions are less than objective, since all interpretations of data come from the interpreter’s prior assumptions about origins. We’re all editors.

That’s why it’s refreshing to hear from thinkers like Noah Feldman who tackles another front line in the US – how to think about the separation of church and state. He convinces me that liberals and conservatives don’t play by the church /state separation rules because they sense the rules are wrong. Feldman suggests new rules. Looking to encourage bipartisan public discussion, he observes that liberals seem to take umbrage that they have to explain their faith in the scientific method. It’s as if in the clicheé of a California valley girl: ‘Like, hello! Isn’t it obvious?’

Well … it’s not anymore.

The church was once in this place and it was the scientific thinkers, passionate and culture grappling, that caught the reigning theologians, fat and hubristic, and over two centuries generated the enlightenment. Feldman, like The Economist journalists, says that evangelicals and conservatives are the ones now alive to their mission and meanings, willing to talk, explaining their agendas using every technological tool at their disposal. They enjoy public discussion on belief issues in a way that many liberal thinkers find embarrassing, even beneath their dignity. And it’s another subject to explore how invested evangelicals are in the US training cinematographers, and artists of every kind. They’ve rediscovered the arts. It has a Czech-historical ring to it, but the players have swapped roles.

So we face a paradox. Many US students heeding the Denis Murphy exhortations are becoming conservative, with a radical edge. And the best response? I say engage with them in the cultural struggle.

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