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Culture, Democracy, & Religion

Robert Royal has been reading a new book in Spanish by Mario Vargas Llosa, in which the great novelist writes about the power of culture and the crisis of culture. Excerpt from Royal’s essay:

Without religious knowledge [says Vargas Llosa], new generations will be, “bound hand and foot to the civilization of the spectacle, which is to say, to frivolousness, superficiality, ignorance, gossip, and bad taste.”

Recent theorists have used Marxism, sociology, political theory in efforts to understand culture. But all of that has been eclipsed by what is now a global standard culture that requires no personal cultivation, makes no special demands on anyone, anywhere. Its primary vehicles are pop music and movies – reinforced and spread by the Internet and social media.

Vargas Llosa notes that this situation does not equally empower all, as is often claimed. Quite the opposite. Without independent cultural bases, it’s very difficult for anyone – whether your “culture” is Hollywood or Bollywood – to maintain real freedom.


Every civilization has embraced something beyond itself, partly as a bulwark against present suffering and hope of future justice. But Vargas Llosa notes that it’s an obscure – and sound – human intuition that without something that transcends us – that envelops and gives us reliable guiding stars – the worst human evils will inevitably follow. That something, for most people, is religion. We’re already bad enough, even with the transcendent.

Let’s hope that this little book will soon appear in English, because it’s time to figure out why several distinguished non-believers – Jürgen Habermas in Germany, Marcello Pera in Italy (both of whom have done books with the current pope), and now Vargas Llosa – are arguing that you can’t have high democratic culture and, maybe even a moral economy and stable democracy, without religion.

[A note to readers: I will be traveling today, and will only be able to approve comments intermittently. Please be patient. You will see new blog entries appear throughout the day, but that’s only because I wrote them in advance and have scheduled them to publish at certain times. I will be checking in as I can, via iPhone, and will be able to approve late in the evening anything I haven’t gotten to by then. Thanks for your patience. — RD]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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