Songs That Shape Laws

By Mark RodgersThe great social movements are rarely the result of isolated legislative decisions made by a handful of people. Often, legislative change is the response to a cultural revolution. It took me only a few years working on Capitol Hill to recognize the truth of Damen of Athens’ observation, “Give me the songs of a nation, and it doesn’t matter who writes its laws.”Why are the songs of our nation so important? By songs I mean “cultural artifacts” such as stories, films, even computer game scenarios. They are important because they articulate what we love and hate and provide a conduit for common expression. From the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, to Jesus’ parables recorded in the Gospels, these cultural artifacts reveal the values and beliefs of a society.Today, technology delivers cultural content to our cell phones. Music consumption is at a historic high, the average US home has 2.5 people and 2.8 television sets, and a recent study found that over 90 percent of teenagers play video games. In a postmodern context, when your reality is yours and mine is mine, one of the few ways to communicate truth is through story. What we consume as a culture shapes our worldview, values, priorities—yes, even our politics. A film like Gattaca can create a“cultural conversation” about bio-engineering better than any floor speech or white paper.As Christians, we chose to ignore this fact in the latter half of the 20th century. We disengaged from sectors of influence and chose a “Christ against culture” separatist modality, especially when it came to the arts.In January 2007, I formed the Clapham Group, named after 18thcentury British politician William Wilberforce’s action-based community of faith. Wilberforce successfully led the movement to abolish the British slave trade. His story is portrayed in the film Amazing Grace, which depicts him persevering against remarkable odds to fight the entrenched pro-slave trade interests.Wilberforce’s life was guided by “two great objects”: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners. For Wilberforce, the reformation of manners meant confronting activity that trivialized life and virtue, such as brutal sports, animal cruelty, dueling, and drunkenness. It also meant respecting the Sabbath as a day of rest in God’s honor and promoting Christian devotion among all classes.It is important to note that Wilberforce was not a lone ranger fighting the evils of his day. Rather he was part of a community of peers who worked ceaselessly to confront injustice and promote Christian virtue. This group of Christian social reformers—known as the Clapham Sect—included respected politicians, clergy, scholars, bankers, economists, writers, and artists, all pious evangelicals committed to the rule of law, free markets, and limited government. Motivated by a shared faith, they transcended liberal and conservative paradigms and denominational boundaries that were often polarizing. Instead this courageous group sought to right wrong and reform society.As part of their efforts, the Clapham Sect pioneered “cause marketing”—the use of cultural artifacts (story, poetry, plays, songs, and visual art) to raise awareness and create conversation. Ceramics pioneer, businessman, and philanthropist Josiah Wedgwood created an image on a plate of a slave kneeling, with the words “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” emblazoned around it. This image continues to be the icon of the abolition movement today.Hannah More, the most prominent female philanthropist and intellectual of the day, furthered the causes of Clapham by starting the Cheap Repository Tracts movement, putting short stories in the hands of the lower classes in order to shape their moral imagination and behavior. It is important to note that both the tracts and the Wedgwood plate were sold, not given away, in the belief that selling them gave them more value. The Clapham Sect did not find it inconsistent to “do good while doing well.”Like our namesake, our contemporary Clapham Group exists to promote the good, true, and beautiful in the public arenas of politics, policy, and pop culture. Over the past year, we have worked with organizations such as The ONE Campaign (fighting AIDS and extreme poverty) and The Humane Society of the United States (the nation’s largest animal protection organization) to explore the role of faith within their spheres of concern. But we have also worked alongside brilliant artists in the development of cultural artifacts tackling some of our most pressing issues. These include films like Amazing Grace (slavery), Bella (adoption), Take (restorative justice), and Trade (sex trafficking). In addition, we have worked with music artists, fine artists, graphic novelists, and documentarians.Does culture inform politics? Yes— culture is upstream of politics. They are distinct but connected channels for justice to roll through like a river and righteousness to flow through like a never-failing stream!Before founding the Clapham Group (ClaphamGroup.com), Mark Rodgers worked on Capitol Hill for 16 years as a leadership staffer in the US Senate as well as chief of staff to Sen. Rick Santorum. He was known on the Hill for his work on such issues as poverty alleviation and global AIDS, as well as protecting life at its most vulnerable stages. Currently he serves as a fellow at the Ethicsand Public Policy Center.Link: http://www.esa-online.org/Images/mmDocument/PRISM%20Archive/Art%20Soul/JanFeb09ArtSoul.pdf