Why I Gave Up Politics for the Arts

art and politicsWhen I was eleven, I wrote a daily devotional I imaginatively titled  “Daily Devotions.” I started at Proverbs 11, because of my age (of course). I made it as far as Proverbs 11:7—a whopping week long. Surprisingly, it never got picked up by any publishers, but my parents asked for a copy.

The unreasonable self-assurance I had then is a little embarrassing to me now, but I am proud of myself for being so dedicated, early on, to one goal: revival. Years before I could vote, I would often respond to the classic question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “Either a pastor or a politician.” This was met with mixed responses, which I have come to understand.

With fire pumping in my young veins, I volunteered for countless political campaigns of upstanding, dedicated, righteous individuals. This turned into full-time summer work.

College came early for me. I moved into my dorm room five months after I turned sixteen. I majored in Political Science, and because it was Pensacola Christian College, a Bible minor came naturally.  After my storied single year at PCC (stories I would love to share over a beer some time), I transferred to Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. I continued my studies, but swapped out my Bible minor for Greek.

It didn’t take long for me to start detecting fundamental weaknesses in my plan to change the world through politics. Perhaps ironically, studying Political Science contributed greatly to my loss of confidence in politics. But I finished my degree anyway. Shortly after graduating—with my Political Science degree hot off the press and my Senior in Political Science award tucked under my belt—I gave up almost all political involvement beyond voting.

What truth had cooled my originally zealous hope in politics? A simple one: politics don’t change people. It can alter their actions, of course, but can it change their hearts? In reality, people change politics much more than vice versa, particularly in our democratic republic. I realized that, if I wanted to see true change, it was the desires and tastes of our culture that needed to be transformed.

For instance, our first order of business should not be to legislate a Christian definition of marriage in our country. Our first order of business should be to show, with sincerity and humility, how Christ models perfect love, and our second order of business should be to flesh out what that means for marriage and civil union. Legislation (which is little more than rules we all, as a group, agree to obey) will follow the social movements that precede them. As Andrew Breitbart used to say, “Politics is downstream from culture.” If the hearts of a people are swayed, the common rules will follow naturally. Both for good and for ill.

This is a far cry from the “culture wars” in which we “win” culture by compelling people with force to behave the right way. Though this might produce a superficial semblance of Christian civilization, the hearts and souls of the people remain unchanged.

Emphasizing politics over culture puts the cart before the horse. If I am correct about political dominance being the driving force of the Moral Majority Christian Right, then it is no surprise that Donald Trump can win their nomination. Putting politics first emphasizes a game of external control and sweeping, top-down change—a game Trump can play quite well.

Expecting righteous politics from a wicked culture is like waiting for grapes to grow from a withered vine. If we continue to demand righteous performance and legislation from a culture cultivated by everyone but us, we will continue to be disappointed. Politics has the power to change what people do. But art has the power to change what people love.

So, the arts.

Studying Political Science wasn’t the only thing I did in college. I started a folk-rock band in college. If that’s a cliché now, it wasn’t so much then. So there’s that.

We didn’t do well. Our most “popular” songs on Spotify still read “<1,000 plays.” So, yeah, we didn’t do well. But we did good. We tackled a lot of tough subjects (cliché #2). Despite our tiny and isolated audience, we accomplished more for the world in those songs than I ever accomplished in all of my campaigning and stumping combined. People would resonate with the songs, be challenged by the songs, cry over the songs, and were even happy to be changed by the songs.

Just the other day, two years after our second album came out, I got a text from a new friend of mine who was struggling with a family member who was going through a bipolar and schizophrenic episode. He didn’t say much: “I have that song on repeat right now. Thank you for making that song.” I haven’t saved the world yet, but at the same time, more than ever, it feels like I’ve made a real difference.

While we were making this music in college, we got connected to the Nehemiah Foundation for Cultural Renewal. At the time, it was basically just Michael Minkoff tinkering on projects when he could get around to it. He invested in our music in a big way, and the proof is in the two albums that exist online and in the flesh.

After graduating college and working a few different jobs, I was offered a position at the NFfCR as their operations guy. In this position, I have been able to facilitate the creation of many art projects (including books, albums, and visual art) that I honestly believe have world-changing capabilities. No, they don’t promise to change everything overnight. Only eager politicians promise that, and I don’t really believe them anymore. But now more than ever, the zealous impulse my eleven-year-old self had toward revival finds satisfaction.

I haven’t given up on political change. By God’s grace, my children will see that political change flowing naturally out of a culture whose tastes and loves have been reconciled to God’s vision of the beautiful.

  • Sean Sullivan

    Yes. Indeed. I concur. Thumbs up. Well done. “Utah” is a fantastic song. Made me cry.