More and more often, my speaking engagements that focus on faith and culture have wound up, in the Q&A session, turning quickly to politics. People need to be informed and engaged, we often say. They are now. More than ever…

After the most recent event this weekend, a young woman stayed to talk privately about something I’d mentioned in the talk, about the need to restore critical thinking skills, the art of conversaton, Socratic reasoning, sound argument, classical liberal education…..

She was enlivened by the idea, interested in exploring it, asking how to make that happen in a community setting like…say…a church parish. We explored ideas…

Later, looking over dozens of headlines from major media and online magazines and blogs to update latest news, I spotted this, and couldn’t resist. (Anybody who asks whether culture matters more than politics has my attention.)

Ours is the age of misplaced priorities. Instead of art and culture, we focus on politics and punditry. Chatting over lunch, we talk about the upcoming elections or Sarah Palin’s significance for the conservative movement or the effects of the Chinese trade surplus. Imitating news analysts, we speculate about what it will mean for the future.

These days, the ability to talk about politics in a knowing way is treated as a mark of sophistication, so much so, I think, that we’ve come tacitly to regard political analysis as the rightful domain of intelligence. If George Stephanopoulos were to make passing reference to John Milton or Henry James, the TV host would very likely treat it as a joke. But his slightest speculation about Barack Obama’s latest public statements are treated with high seriousness.

Ordinary conversations follow the same trajectory.

Thank you, R.R. Reno. He says…

the capacity to talk about Jane Austen or T.S. Eliot or James Joyce was once seen as clear indication of a highly developed and socially relevant mind. Literature, theater, film, the visual arts—a certain acquaintance with and command of these domains made people intellectuals.

But our interest has shifted, which is way more polite than saying our culture has been dumbed down. The information and technology explosion leaves us more at risk for TMI and we definitely have shorter attention spans.

But look at this analogy:

The traumas of the Great Depression and World War II profoundly disoriented Americans, as did the rapid growth in income and increase in status so many experienced, and many felt the need to answer basic questions about society and human destiny. Some turned to the classics of the past, others sought answers in Marxism or Freudian psychology, and still others drew inspiration from the cultural experimentation that culminated in the 1960s.

In this atmosphere, the pressing question about politics was not “Who is going to win?” but instead the question “What is politics for?” It was a question that required examining our more fundamental views of what human life is for, and what role society plays.

Today as we shift toward a seemingly ever-increasing interest in the machinery of partisan politics, we’re becoming Marxists by default.

Startled?

Consider…

whoever controls the levers of state power can influence and guide economic affairs, and thus control everything.

Everything? Well, yes. We

…vote in order to forestall what we fear, and to achieve what we hope for. We’re only likely to put our shoulders behind political causes we believe necessary or desirable, which isn’t a matter of syllogisms, surveys, or social scientific analysis.

This is why the most potent force in political life is the human imagination, not control over the levers of state power.

Which is probably the farthest thing from the public mindset right now, as people argue politics and state power.

At the end of the day, elections don’t shape or influence our cultural imaginations. On the contrary, our imaginations influence our elections…

Way more provocative than what passes for prevailing political wisdom in most cases these days.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....