Two years ago I wrote that we may be seeing the first signs of what could be a new cultural renaissance in Italy. In March 2006, the Catholic News Agency reported that “a significant number of Italian lawmakers, politicians and intellectuals, led by the president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera and including such individuals as Italy’s Culture Minister, Rocco Buttiglione, presented a manifesto in which they attribute the confusion and fear in Europe over Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism to ‘a moral and spiritual crisis’ that prevents the continent from finding ‘the courage to react.’”
The article went on to say that “the manifesto, endorsed by more than 70 different leaders in government, trade unions and universities, states that the West is ‘under attack from the outside by Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism’ and is ‘incapable of responding to the challenge.’”
The authors of the manifesto argued that “Europe is sick.” They pointed out that “the birth rate continues to fall, as well as [Europe’s] competitiveness, unity and action on the world scene. It hides and denies its own identity and thus fails to provide itself a legitimate constitution of its citizens.”
The document also argued for the “better integration of immigrants” (In other words, assimilation into Western culture) and defends the right to life “from conception to natural death.” Additionally, these leaders affirmed that the natural family is the foundation of society, and marriage and argued that it “must be protected and differentiated from any other type of union or bond.” Ultimately, these leaders acknowledged that continued commitment to radical secularism, moral ambiguity, and postmodern tolerance will form the basis of Europe’s ultimate demise.
Apparently, this anti-secular, conservative momentum has continued to build in the two years since. This past month, voters in Italy overwhelmingly re-elected pro-life conservative former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The LA Times reported that “the margin of Berlusconi's victory, in which he and his allies gained indisputable control of both houses of parliament, also suggested a stinging condemnation of the left…”
Already, Berlusconi’s administration has proposed new laws restricting abortion, an issue which featured prominently in the election. Berlusconi has also called on the United Nations to approve a worldwide moratorium on abortions. Acknowledging this pro-life trend, Chuck Colson’s Breakpoint recently reported on Italy’s Giuliano Ferrara, a former Communist who now edits a conservative newspaper called Il Foglio, “the Sheet.” Colson writes, “Ferrara used his paper and talk show to advocate a moratorium on abortion and ‘to call attention to the value of life.’”
Colson adds, “This is not the first time Ferrara has bucked conventional secular wisdom. His paper has also supported the Catholic Church on matters like bioethics, relativism, and the decline of the Christian faith among Italians—this despite the fact that Ferrara is an atheist. While Ferrara insists that he is a ‘nonbeliever,’ other Italian politicians, as Britain’s New Statesman put it, ‘have been eagerly declaring their Christian credentials.’”
Colson continues, “According to the publication, this eagerness is a response to what it calls the ‘crucial change’ in Italian life since 2001: ‘the collapse of every grand political idea.’”
This “crucial change” began with a small group of cultural leaders who rose to oppose Italy’s cultural and spiritual decline, which is precisely the point I made two years ago. This has always been the impetus for long-term cultural change. Throughout history it has been small groups within societies that have initiated and produced real cultural change.
Pitirim Sorokin, the noted Harvard sociologist, observed in his study of social history that within hedonistic cultures a “temperate and creative minority” can arise. As a result of the “creative minority’s” commitment to virtue and chastity there naturally follows an increase in their creative output that affects various spheres of culture such as “religion, non-materialistic philosophy, non-hedonistic and non-sensual ethics, and the fine arts.”
In other words, a competent moral minority can, in fact, produce sustainable cultural change. For example, prior to the Italian Renaissance (14th-15th centuries) there was a steady decline of sexual morality, marriage and family beginning in the thirteenth century. Nonetheless there remained a small but “virtuous” class of intellectual elites whose creative productivity increased while the surrounding culture declined. These cultural shapers ultimately laid the foundations for another minority of intellectual elites that would initiate the Protestant Reformation followed by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. This produced the intellectual, scientific, political and economic revolutions that established the preeminence of Western cultural achievement.
In every instance, positive cultural progress and, in some cases, reversal of cultural decline was produced by a small minority who had the insight, wherewithal, and courage to act in contradiction to the cultural drift toward immorality and the resulting creative stupor. This point was strongly reinforced by Randall Collins, The Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Collins argues in his book, The Sociology of Philosophies that over the course of 3,000 years of history only about 500 thinkers have been at the center of world civilization.
Many of these were men and women of faith who, choosing to live in obedience to God, resisted the values of their culture while pressing the truth of Christ into every area of life and culture. These Christians were counter-cultural in virtually every way as well as intellectually competent in their respective spheres of influence. These two must go hand in hand in order to impact culture. In doing this they were able to establish a Christian cultural consensus that shaped Western culture for centuries.
In conclusion, Christians, competent in their faith and possessing a comprehensive biblical view of life and reality, must rise to challenge the cultural trends toward secularism, moral ambiguity, and the stupefaction of culture. We, once again, must become cultural leaders capable of exercising the tools of reason and persuasion, not political coercion, if there be any hope of reversing the deleterious effects currently unfolding in American culture.
© 2008 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the founder and President of the Center for Christ & Culture
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.