Friday, August 28, 2009

American Mistra: Putting the Culture Back in the Culture Wars

by Matthew J. Milliner

The urgency of protecting the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, and the institution of marriage goes hand-in-hand with cultivation of the arts.

John Witherspoon (the man after whom Public Discourse’s sponsoring institute is named) was faced with a choice. His eighteenth-century Scotch-Presbyterian milieu was divided between two parties. The Popular party, which today might be called the conservative wing, displayed the rigorous thought that accompanied Calvinist orthodoxy. The Moderate party, the more liberal branch, was doctrinally compromising, but peppered sermons with generous helpings of poetry, drama and literature. Faced with these alternatives, the young Witherspoon picked a definite side and became the champion of the Popular party. Witherspoon perceived that the Moderate penchant for poetry was not a supplement to classical doctrine, but an attempt to replace it. He penned a widely read satire of the Moderates, wherein they recited an “Athenian Creed” which began, “I believe in beauty and comely proportions of Dame Nature…,” and ended with, “I believe in the divinity of Lord Shaftesbury, the saintship of Marcus Antonius,” and so on. Witherspoon was a serious man who chose hard thinking over sponsorship of the arts. On the matter of Christians attending the theatre he was clear: “Where [amusement] is not necessary, it must be sinful.”

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