My variation on the game Scissors, Paper, Stone (US: Rock, Paper, Scissors) is State, Religion, Culture. The terms derive from the theory of the three Potenzen ("powers"), which we owe to the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97). In my game, state trumps religion, religion trumps culture, and culture trumps state. The idea that politics should take precedence over faith is the principle of cuius regio, eius religio ("whose realm, his religion"), established at the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 to put an end to religious conflict: subjects must follow the faith of their ruler. The separation of church and state, with the former legally protected but subordinate to the latter, gradually prevailed right across the West. Hitherto, religion has similarly dominated culture-viz. almost any museum-though even the sceptical Burckhardt could not have foreseen the iconoclasm of our 21st-century secularists.
What interests me here is the third Potenz: culture, which generally trumps the state. In America, the realisation of this has dawned among the shrewdest authors of post mortems on the presidential election. In National Review, Mark Steyn commented: "Culture trumps politics. Culture trumps economics. On November 6, culture trumped reality." Voters are influenced, he wrote, not by policies, but by their "identifiers"—race, gender, sexuality or profession. "The Left understands where the real victories are won," he observed. "Politics is a battle, but culture is the war."
In an interview for the Wall Street Journal, Professor Harvey Mansfield—a lone voice of common sense among the learned Laputans of Harvard—also invoked culture as the key to a conservative comeback: "Democrats have their cultural argument, which is the attack on the rich and the uncaring. So Republicans need their cultural arguments to oppose the Democrats', to say that goodness or justice in our country is not merely the transfer of resources to the poor and vulnerable." He suggested that the poor should be taught "to prize independence and not just live for a government cheque. That means self-government within each self, and where are you going to get that except with morality, responsibility and religion?"
Under the dictatorship of relativism, however, culture has often been debased to mean almost anything. In German, as Mara Delius notes in her column, Kultur has a deeper, more metaphysical resonance. For that reason the word was perverted beyond recognition by the Nazis, and still has sinister connotations for their victims.