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.

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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 is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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