This column is adapted from a recent talk at Washington College’s Institute for Religion, Politics and Culture.
Culture Leads Leaders Follow, a book I wrote, was published in 2015. This is an excerpt from the Foreword written by Chelsea Horvath who was then a Trinity Forum Academy Fellow.
“Culture Leads, Leaders Follow is an edgy and pointed assessment that critically addresses free markets, media, technology, faith in the Public Square, and fatherhood.” She goes on to say the book is, “for today’s young leaders who are attempting to creatively navigate the legacy of a convoluted culture left by previous generations, despite the temptation to submit to its unchallenged flow.”
But, and this is my coda to Chelsea’s comments, it is a book about culture and leadership and in particular the force fields of both. I am reminded of Peter Drucker, the leadership guru of my generation’s quip: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”
Over and over journalists, columnists, talk show hosts, even academics begin some expression with a sigh of relief: “I am certainly glad that I don’t have to raise my children in today’s world.”
The overarching question is how today’s world became what it is. Who pushed the buttons or maneuvered the levers? Was it political figures? The Church? Educators? Courts? I can make a case that each one played some role and often an unfortunate one.
In my lifetime I have seen dramatic swings. Sunday has been taken over by sports. Tobacco was once cool; now it is not. When the push began for same-sex marriage then US Senate candidate Barack Obama said, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Or what about the swing in civility? Societal cleavages are deep; unity is really hard. As “critical race theory” deepens conflicts, recall the words of Martin Luther King Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But let me do a hard pivot to Washington College’s Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture. I am especially intrigued about the intersection of the sectarian and secular. And am particularly saddened by the diminished cultural influence of the sectarian.
Church and State are, wisely, separated but what about church and culture? When, for example, was the last time Proverbs was cited in articles about morality or ethics? Or for that matter any biblical verse. My guess: it was in a sectarian publication.
Turning to politics the most abrupt and vivid lesson for me on the ways of power politics came from then Secretary of Commerce, in the Reagan administration, Malcolm Baldrige. The White House wanted to nominate me to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Commerce Department but the nomination would only go forward with Secretary Baldrige’s approval.
As I entered the Secretary’s office on a cold December day in 1986 I quickly took in the elegant setting complete with a fire in the fireplace. Baldrige motioned for me to sit in a chair opposite his desk. There was a large horse saddle to his left. Baldrige was still at age 64 competing in rodeos.
After a quick “hello” Baldrige said and I quote, “Al, Washington is a god-damned tough town. Everybody is after a piece of your ass. How do you rate yourself for aggressiveness?”
Politics at the highest level should not be understood as an invitation. The ambition of politicians is to hold power and not lose it. Does that sound like Caesar?
Sure, there are political or judicial moves that disappoint or even inflame the faithful. They should be considered when we play our role as citizens in a democracy. But, the faithful have a larger role to play and the Gospel, in my tradition, writes the script. If it doesn’t what does?
In 1954, while still working on his dissertation, Martin Luther King Jr. became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. King was only 25 years old.
In December of 1955, he became the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott to end segregated public transit. He acted locally and became the leader of the most important cultural and then legal changes in my lifetime. The only way the faithful succeed is by changing the culture and the best place to start is where you live. Power politics is not only not biblical it often entangles the most well-intentioned.
David French, who is an evangelical Christian, author and commentator recently wrote:
“Why do I so often repeat verses like Micah 6:8 (“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”)? Or Luke 6:28 (“bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”)? French explains his citations: “I know there’s a very good chance that someone reading my work is hearing those verses and concepts for the very first time in their lives, even if they identify as Christian.” He was commenting about polling data that show a significant percentage of people identify as evangelical but do not attend church.
French goes on to say: “The transformation of white Evangelicalism into a primarily political movement is a cause for deep and profound concern.” As Baldrige noted, “everybody is after a piece of your ass.”
If Christians reshape the culture in significant ways it will start, and I hope has started, in communities across the nation. King’s movement started in Montgomery, Alabama where he was a pastor; his leadership reshaped the national culture.
Relatedly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded in 1980, by Candace Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver. According to Wikipedia there is at least one MADD office in every state of the United States and at least one in each province of Canada. Statistics show an approximate 50% reduction in drunk driving deaths since the founding of MADD and the enactment of more punitive penalties.
I could go on but will stop there. My point is simple: culture leads, leaders follow.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.