When Culture Abandons Reason (and Faith)

For reasons that are both unfathomable as well as perplexing, the vast majority of young Canadians are champions of Barack Obama. I was informed that when a certain teacher asked her students who preferred Obama to Romney, all hands shot up. The entire class expressed unhesitating enthusiasm for the now re-elected President. Yet, no student, when asked, could give a single reason for holding the President in such high esteem. This phenomenon offers a good example of acculturation, people being influenced more by culture than by reason.

This anecdote reminded me of an incident that took place many years ago when I was a mere lad of seven.  I was seated in a movie theater along with many others who were approximately my age. The Newsreel came on and portrayed presidential candidates Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey.  The latter was met with shouts of disapproval loud enough to drown out whatever the Governor of New York State was saying.  I was mystified.  How did it come about that these striplings, still wet behind the ears, were so fiercely united in their opposition to Dewey?  Was I missing something?  Why was I so far out of the loop?  What was going on?

I mentioned the incident to my father, hoping for some kind of explanation.  He was a Dewey supporter.  This was reassuring since it indicated that Dewey could not be all bad.  Nonetheless, my father could not give me a satisfactory explanation that would explain the raucous behavior of my juvenile associates. I was secretly convinced that my father had some valid insight into the candidacy of Governor Dewey that set him apart from the masses.

Thomas E. Dewey was indeed a valid candidate for the office of the presidency.  He finished Columbia University’s law school in just two years and became not only a successful prosecuting attorney, but a fearless one.  His vigorous and successful prosecution of organized crime brought him great respect and wide recognition. Whenever he dined at restaurants, he always sat with his back against the wall.  He was fully aware of how gangsters operated.  From 1943-1955 he served the state of New York as its governor. He lost his bid to be president in 1944 to Roosevelt and again in 1948 to Harry S. Truman.

It has been argued that Dewey lost the 1948 election, contrary to what all the polls had predicted and despite the deep divisions within the Democratic Party at the time, because he had a moustache. M. R. Montgomery wrote a piece for The Boston Globe under the glib title, “Thomas E. Dewey’s Facial Flaw,” and claimed that his moustache was a reason he did not get elected president.  Dewey was the last person to run for America’s highest office who had facial hair. Had Dewey been elected in 1944, would he have dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Could so incidental a factor as a moustache keep a qualified candidate out of the White House?  President Obama was asked, shortly after his re-election, what he might have done differently during his campaign. After a moment’s reflection, he said that he could have used two cups of coffee prior to his first debate. Can so incidental a factor as coffee be a decisive factor in so important an issue as electing a president of the world’s most powerful country?

In his Pensées, philosopher Blaise Pascal famously stated that “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”  We may also wonder how the “butterfly-effect” plays into the course of human history.  In Richard III, Shakespeare describes how the want of a nail leads to the want of a shoe, horse, rider, message, battle, and finally a kingdom.  For the want of a nail, a kingdom can be lost.

I have always been at a loss to understand the sweeping tides of culture.  One day the button-down collar is In; soon thereafter, it is Out. Why is the “wet head” dead, being abruptly and unexplainably replaced by the “dry look”?  When I was very young, I was told that I must wear a hat.  Millinery shops were in abundance.  Now hats have disappeared, replaced by baseball caps that must be worn backwards.

What moves culture? How important is it to be in step with the times? Is it the small, incidental things, greatly magnified, that drive the engines of culture?  Life can pivot on a lottery ticket. Can culture pivot on the nose of an Egyptian queen or on the moustache of a New York governor?

Acculturation is the process by which a person is drawn into the fads, foibles, fancies, and fashions, of his society’s current moment in time. In radical contrast to acculturation is the inculturation of the Gospel message, a phenomenon that has been given a great deal of attention by Paul Cardinal Poupard. While President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, he authored, The Church and Culture: Challenge and Confrontation, Inculturation and Evangelization.  He states that “To evangelize is to discern the cultural values susceptible to being enriched, purified and perfected by the power of the Gospel.”  He goes on to state that “To evangelize is to reach the very soul of living cultures and respond to their highest expectations by making them grow with the same dimensions of Christian faith, hope and love.”

Inculturation brings God into culture and is a corrective for the narrowing processes of acculturation.  Through the values of the Gospel, inculturation infuses culture with faith, hope and charity, values that are personal and timeless. The processes of acculturation are often mysterious and seem to rise unexplainably from incidental or trivial factors that are not necessarily enriching for human beings.  Inculturation brings understanding and freedom.  It provides a clear basis for how we should live and what we should do.  Acculturation tends to close in on itself, inculturation is expansive. Acculturation stresses what is up-to-date.  Inculturation emphasizes, as C. S. Lewis once expressed it, that “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”

Donald DeMarco


Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International who writes for the St. Austin Review and the Truth and Charity Forum. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT.

  • Edward Peitler

    The last two paragraphs are instructive given the Church’s focus on the New Evangelization and the US bishops recently-released document on homilies.

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  • Oliver

    While eternal values certainly exist, I find it disingenuous to suggest that acculturation leads to support for Barack Obama, while inculturation leads to support for the more conservative candidate. It is likely that the Obama-supporting students mentioned above were acculturated due to their parents’ inculturation with the values of social justice. I have personally witnessed an almost identical situation in which children supported Romney, but could not explain why. The issue is that they are children — not that we’re all lemmings. The association of morality with the Republican viewpoint is very much open to debate. It is quite understandable that people from other first world countries, who have grown up in societies where everyone has health insurance, are shocked that US citizens don’t all have it too. To many of them, this appears deeply immoral and unjust.

    • HigherCalling

      That not having nationalized health insurance seems deeply immoral and unjust to other first-worlders has nothing to do with whether it actually is immoral and unjust. Morality and justice must comport with truth, or they are false, and neither can deliver what they promise. It could be argued that single-payer/nationalized health care is unjust and immoral based on Catholic principles. The very fact that Obamacare demands payment for abortions and smashes religious liberty (as any nationalized health care takeover must in a pluralistic society), should be a glaringly obvious clue to educated Catholics (especially the bishops) that the whole notion is fundamentally flawed (i.e. violates natural and moral law) from the get-go.

      Other first-worlders also find abortion, euthanasia, same-sex “marriage” etc to be just and moral virtues for our times. Of course, they are not. These synthetic and sterile progressive virtues, like nationalized health care, must be imposed from above because they cannot rise naturally from below. The progressive Utopia must be coerced. Obamacare, being forced down the throats of Americans, strikes normal people as wrong for a perfectly explainable reason. It feels like we are choking because, spiritually speaking, we are. That’s what happens when a thing actually is immoral and unjust, and we haven’t been artificially conditioned to believe otherwise. Obamacare, like abortion and same-sex “marriage,” ultimately violates the natural order, as well as Catholic principles. It is a metaphysical absurdity. It is as much a spiritual issue as a temporal one. It is ultimately unworkable and will fail to enrich mankind, because it ignores and rejects so many human truths.

      • Helen-Mary

        HigherCalling writes, “It could be argued that single-payer/nationalized health care is unjust and immoral based on Catholic principles.”

        Only if you believe life ends at birth. Actually, as I think about it, the unborn need healthcare too. Prenatal care leads to better outcomes for infants. Think of healthcare as being on the same level as defense. Why would we invest in protecting ourselves against harm from terrorists but not against harm from illness and injury?

        • Adam Baum

          “Only if you believe life ends at birth. Actually, as I think about it,
          the unborn need healthcare too. Prenatal care leads to better outcomes
          for infants. Think of healthcare as being on the same level as defense.
          Why would we invest in protecting ourselves against harm from terrorists
          but not against harm from illness and injury?”

          What incredibly an obvious but utterly irrelevant set of declarations.

          “Helen-Mary” ignores, or doesn’t know the fact that healthcare has been the subject of massive government intrusion for over seventy years, through direct action and indirect action, which progressively disordered the market.

          While a complete list of the logical and factual errors she made in her post is impossible, here’s a couple:

          Healthcare is not the same as defense, there are manifest differences. It is not economically speaking a “public good”, that is a nonexcludable, nonrivalrous good. Sorry, but a “public good” has a meaning, it doesn’t mean some the left declares indispensable and uses to advance their power.

          Worse, and perhaps most dangerous is the implicit premise that the only alternative to nationalized healthcare is individual spending. It’s not like we haven’t invested (I always love how easy the left
          appropriates that word to sanitize their wild goose chase spending sprees) trillions of dollars in private (commercial
          insurance), governmental (medicare, medicaid, NIH, etc.) and charitable
          (St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, the MDA, all sorts of foundations), it’s just that the federal government will fix everything.

          Yes, this would be the same government that “gives” us the Internal Revenue “Service”, Amtrak, Social Security (soon to be insolvent), Medicare (sooner to be insolvent), TARP, Solyndra, the TSA groping us, and a myriad of other irrational, ineffective asnd inefficient indignities-but does so thanks to an endless supply of people who think this time they’ll get it right.

          • Katie

            Helen-Mary writes, “Why would we invest in protecting ourselves against harm from terrorists but not against harm from illness and injury?”

            Very wise words, Helen-Mary! We spend twice as much per capita as most countries on health care, cover only a fraction of the population, and have poorer outcomes.

  • Ib

    Excellent post. Too often people assume their opinion, simply by virtue of being theirs, is the truth. When we realize how easily acculturation changes an accepted Roman Catholic teaching (social justice, for example), distorting it into something that the Roman Catholic Church has never taught, to the neglect of issues such as abortion on which it has clearly taught, we can see the power it has over weak minds (such as children). Weak minds will always be moved by the movements of intellectual fashion, the “church-of-what’s-happening-now,” rather than seeking beyond that facile acculturation to the Roman Catholic Church. Alas.

    • Alecto

      Can I ask you a question? We write and speak of (especially in reference to the election results of 2012) the concept of weak minds and weak character. What do we as Catholics, faithful Catholics mean by that? This is a sincere inquiry. TIA

  • Pat

    Acculturation and Inculturation … the difference is in being formed in CHRIST or NOT being formed in CHRIST by the Teachings of HIS Church working to transform the culture … GOD Bless us all.

  • Pat

    I mean being formed in CHRIST by the Teachings of CHRIST’s Church and the HOLY SPIRIT … working together as One to transform the culture … GOD Bless us all.

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