What if the “Culture War” Never Happened?

What if the “Culture War” Never Happened? May 31, 2012

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “culture wars” and their legacy and what damage they have done to the witness of the church. The problem with many of these arguments is not that they’re too critical of the culture war, it’s that they’re not critical enough of the “culture war.” In other words, they accept — lock, stock and barrel — the conceptual construct of the “culture wars” that was developed in liberal lore and passed on to a new generation. There is a kind of liberal orthodox view of what the culture wars are, who are the culture warriors, and why we need to leave the culture war behind — and this view (really a caricature) has been accepted too uncritically by too many young evangelicals today.

1.  First of all, the “culture wars” are often portrayed as an offensive attack, as conservative Christians taking up their torches and pitchforks and setting off to claim America for Jesusland. But historically the case is very clear that the movement arose as a defensive movement against fast-moving moral, legal and theological developments in the late 1960s and 1970s. In other words, the “culture warriors” did not choose this fight. They felt compelled to defend people, institutions and principles they believe important, that they believe matter to God. So when “culture warriors” are told to lay down their arms and “Stop fighting the culture war,” it truly seems to them like an assailant telling them to stop defending themselves and the things they hold dear.

2.  The notion that the “culture war” is driving people from the church is overblown.  (Notice I did not say it’s entirely untrue.  Just that it’s frequently exaggerated by the critics of the “culture war.”)  Think of it this way. Conservative denominations have, by and large, expanded or at least retained their numbers and their “market share.” So perhaps liberal Christians, seeing the “abuses and excesses” of the “culture warriors” on the Right, disassociate themselves from the Christian faith, or at least from its institutions? Well, it’s true that liberal denominations have lost great numbers after the rise of the Religious Right, but they have been losing numbers (and “market share”) at roughly the same rate as they were prior to the rise of the Religious Right.  In other words, the Religious Right may provide a convenient and emotionally satisfying scapegoat for their departure from the mainline denominations, but there’s no reason to believe they were not going to leave anyway. The argument that the Religious Right has driven people from the church assumes a kind of neutral baseline, as though no one would have left the church if it were not for the Religious Right. But people were leaving the church already. The baseline was not neutral in the first place.

3.  Besides, there are several deeper questions here.  If a follower of Christ would cease following Christ, or cease gathering with other Christians to worship God and study his Word in congregations of faith, because he sees other Christians acting sinful and conflating worldly and religious power, what kind of a follower of Christ was he in the first place? One who has never heard of the insidiousness of sin? One who did not understand the need of all people (Christians foremost among them) for grace? Was he even a Christian in the true sense? I don’t mean to sound callous; I mourn when any person leaves his faith behind, and it’s not my place to judge the status of another man’s soul. But I’m not sure these people are leaving faith so much as they are leaving its trappings behind, or the pretense of faith, or faith as a kind of political orientation (as it can become in mainline denominations, and in conservative denominations). It’s hard for me to imagine that someone who has truly tasted the living Bread and Water would leave it behind, or would depart from the fellowship of Christ in the company of other believers, because Christians with different political convictions do things of which he disapproves.

4. The other question is: How much should we really care what the world thinks? Let’s grant that the church takes a “PR” hit when it stands against the prevailing winds on a subject like same-sex marriage. Does that mean that Christians should not have the courage of their convictions and stand up for their beliefs when they’re unpopular? Or is that opposition of the world just a part of the cost of discipleship? Yes, too, the world may believe that we are being “unloving”.  That’s not a time to abandon our principles but to teach the world what “love” really means, that love does not mean allowing other people to languish in untruth and unfreedom in a faux version of tolerance. We ought not to needlessly offend the world, of course, and we can make our case with abundant kindness and grace, in the interest of our “witness.”  But for those who believe that God is calling them to defend the unborn or to uphold the institution of marriage or to combat the sexualization of children or to oppose the porn-ification of American entertainment, they should simply make their case as clearly and winsomely as possible and leave the “PR cost” up to God.

5.  The term “culture war” is typically only used by the Left, to cast aspersion on one side of the struggle. Or when is the last time you heard a proponent of gay marriage called a “culture warrior”? Of course not; the Left will call them defenders of human rights, standing squarely in the tradition of the civil rights struggle. Are the advancers of abortion-accessibility called “culture warriors”? No, they are heroic advocates for the rights of women. So the term may be embraced by some (very few) on the right as a kind of ironic badge of honor, but “culture warrior” is more an accusation than a description.

The problem is, it’s a terribly impoverished term. In what sense is the life or death of an unborn child a matter of “cultural” preference? It’s a fundamentally moral and theological question. Pro-lifers are not fighting to protect their culture; they’re fighting to protect innocent human persons whose lives are being stolen from them before they were allowed to blossom. The nature and purpose of marriage, too, is profoundly moral and theological. Every culture known to human history has honored marriage precisely because marriage is not a merely cultural matter. You can say that the “culture war” has been a struggle over the direction of our culture, and that’s true as far as it goes, but it’s much deeper than that. This is why I’m tempted to say that there is no such thing as a culture war in the first place. There never was. There was and continues to be a struggle over the attempt to replace traditional Christian moral and theological beliefs on life and family and sexuality, and the attempt to defend those things.

When people on the Left, Christian or not, wish to move beyond the “culture war,” they are really wishing that one side would simply lay down its arms and stop fighting. That’s not moving beyond the culture wars; that’s just joining one side and wishing defeat upon the other. Besides, no true “culture warrior” will lay down his arms. Lives are at stake. Fundamental religious and social institutions — the kind that hold a society together — are at stake.

We can have strategic discussions; we can adjust our approach, our language, our arguments; we can work harder and harder to express our convictions in ways that are winsome and culturally relevant. We can deal with the hypocrites in our ranks and expel the charlatans. What we cannot do is simply abdicate the fight. Involvement in the legal and political processes on behalf of our beliefs are hard, and complicated, and often arouse the ire of those who disagree with us. But it’s necessary. The legal and political machinery of the United States will not simply cease to operate because we’ve chosen to withdraw. Decisions are being made, and some of these decisions involve basic matters of truth and justice. If we are not involved in those decisions, defending the things that matter to God, then the world will be the worse for it.

Politics is the pursuit or deployment of government power on behalf of the affairs of a state or polis. The proper exercise of political power should be neither a matter of obsession nor a matter of disinterest for the followers of Jesus Christ. The dead are not raised by politics. But the living are protected by it. Some things are worth the struggle; some things are worth the cost.

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  • Tim, with all due respect this is as weak an argument as I have ever read you make. My memory of the onset of the term is quite clear and I must tell you that I know of no one who influenced its widespread use among Christians more than James Davidson Hunter in his landmark book…….”Culture Wars”. What you have written here is revisionist history of the worst kind. It is shallow, historically thin and used to justify a concept that even Hunter now seems to regret invoking. It is further worsened by a terrible lack of specifics about “liberals” and “Abdicating” and “laying down arms” without even a single reference to an actual liberal or Christian. I have great respect for you, but this article is very, very disappointing and filled with the kind of simplistic thinking and reactionary defensiveness that gives conservative Christians like yourself a bad name.

    • DWJ

      It is not revisionist history to suggest that the “culture wars” was started by the Left.

      Any history of the 1950s through the 1970s will include “progressives” boasting proudly of the “progress” they won.

      The Religious Right arose in reaction to the “progress” won by the Left (for instance, Roe v. Wade).

      The Religious Right rose up because the only alternative was to simply do nothing while left wing “progressives” completely changed our culture & rewriting our lives in ways that force us to live by their (narcissistic) values.

      If you want to speak to the Left in their own language, then when they wish the culture wars would end (with themselves victorious, natch – simply say, “you can’t stop co-evolution, can you?”

  • This is the quote that is to me most telling in your narrative and the one I think you are very confused about:
    “the case is very clear that the movement arose as a defensive movement against fast-moving moral, legal and theological developments in the late 1960s and 1970s. In other words, the “culture warriors” did not choose this fight. They felt compelled to defend people, institutions and principles they believe important, that they believe matter to God. So when “culture warriors” are told to lay down their arms and “Stop fighting the culture war,” it truly seems to them like an assailant telling them to stop defending themselves and the things they hold dear.”

    Tim, which of those “moral, legal, and theological developments” that those who founded the religious right do you think we should continue to defend? You make it seem like those things were mainly rooted in the sexual revolution and that to want to end the culture war narrative is somehow to surrender on abortion. But surely you know that the among the other “moral, legal and theological developments” that many of the founders of the Relgious Right in the 60s and 70s found troubling were civil rights, medicare/medicaid, pulling out of Vietnam, interracial marriage and detente in the COld War. It is a deeply conflicted history that you should not be so surprised to see Christians struggling with their identification with. What you are offering here is a sanitized history every bit as distorted as the leftist nonsense of the New York Times editorial page.

    • DWJ

      Tim, which of those “moral, legal, and theological developments” that those who founded the religious right do you think we should continue to defend? You make it seem like those things were mainly rooted in the sexual revolution and that to want to end the culture war narrative is somehow to surrender on abortion. But surely you know that the among the other “moral, legal and theological developments” that many of the founders of the Relgious Right in the 60s and 70s found troubling were

      Even if you could prove that every single person who opposes abortion also opposed civil rights, it would not stand to follow that because civil rights won, therefore the abortion fight is not worth fighting.

      Each cultural issue has to be examined on its own merits. The attempts of the left to argue that because the left won on issue X, it must therefore be correct on issue Y, is neither logical nor fair. It has been found wrong to ban interracial marriage, but that does not mean that gay marriage is the same, because interracial marriage was argued for different reasons (the motive in questioning gay marriage is not a desire to keep “gay” genes separate from “straight” ones), and the arguments that won the day in interracial marriage are not applicable to gay marriage (for instance, it is far easier to prove that a black man is not significantly different from a white one, than to prove that a man is not significantly different from a woman; it turns out the differences between men and women are significant – and so are the differences between a same-sex couple vs. a procreative one, when it comes to entering into an institution that is largely concerned with procreative activity).

      The left wants to have it both ways: it wants to be seen (and credited) as the initiator of change, but apparently it also wants to deny its role as the initiator of change. But it is the one who initiated change who is responsible for “starting the culture wars”, if anyone did. Since clearly the left did start the change – and it is willing to argue (rightly enough) that at least some of these changes were good and needed – then the logical conclusion is not to blame the right for the culture wars. but to question the whole idea that the culture wars are bad – or that we should stop fighting them.

      The fight is unfortunately necessary to legitimacy. As much as the left may wish that a single court verdict can settle an issue forever, it is not so because that overstates what the court is capable of. It is only capable of interpreting which laws are or are not Constitutional. It exceeds its legitimacy when it seeks to invent rights, shape culture, or make laws. That is why interracial marriage (which was fully argued and won fair and square) is not very controversial now, while abortion (which was not won fair and square, but imposed by judges relying on rights that come, not from the Constitution, but from the judges’ own beliefs and interpretations) is not only still controversial, but is losing popularity.

      The left relies heavily on demonizing the right as a means of avoiding debate about the substance of the issues. That is what the whole “religious right” caricature is about – the left did not invent the phrase “culture wars”, but they are the ones who decided to wage war on the status quo, and in so doing, they declared “total war” – that is, instead of principled warfare, they would rely on demonization, slurs, ridicule, mockery, caricatures, etc.

      The only real argument the left can make about this is “well, we’re right, and that justifies our misbehavior”. But since that is obviously illogical, they don’t make that argument – they just say “YOU’RE ARCHIE BUNKER!” (as if Archie Bunker were a real person, instead of a straw man invented and rendered by liberals).

  • And one last thing :)–I have lived through this whole period and I just find laughable the notion that culture wars is a creation of the left and used primarily there to cast aspersions on the Right. Wow, I am glad you did not have to live through the age of Dobson’s rise, Falwell’s ascent and Lahaye’s coming of age, but as someone who did I don’t even recognize the story you tell. These men identified themselves in culture war categories and used those categories to cast aspersions on many a good, faithful Christian who they saw as collateral damage in their culture war efforts. You would do well to learn some of that history, the tough history of Ron Sider and Millard Fuller and Tom Sine and Martin Luther King and Jim Sire and others who in their faithfulness to Christ as they understood HIm in the 60s, 70s and 80s were demonized and villified by those who you now claim were only reacting in defense to an assault on their godly Christian country. It is simply not as easy and clear a picture as you paint.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    Greg, assuming you’ve caught your breath, I hope you reread the post. You called the post “heated” on Facebook, and I really don’t see that at all. I’m not angry; I don’t engage in name-calling; I don’t think the language is inflammatory; and I focus on arguments and not people. But please clarify for me: what concept is my revisionist history being used to justify? I’m not sure how to respond to that one because I don’t really understand what you mean.

    I didn’t say that the Left invented the culture wars. I said that the Left has largely defined *the term*, and that the term is an impoverished and misleading one. The term is meant to describe something, and that something is real, but it’s not a helpful term.

    As for the straw man charge, do I really need to point to particular people? I would have thought, for someone who follows these things, it should be obvious whom I’m talking about, and I didn’t want to give an air of personal attack here.

    The enduring elements of the “culture wars” (as that term is presently defined) have more to do with issues like abortion, pornography and same-sex marriage. Take a look at Dobson’s “Children at Risk,” for instance, or the work done by the Family Research Council or etc. I’m not saying I agree with their every position, I’m just saying those are the culture war issues that have remained central. The Religious Right, of course, is a broader phenomenon and the likes of Falwell and Robertson and Kennedy and LaHaye all took up multiple causes that have little to do with the “culture war” as now defined. But it was largely understood as a defensive movement, focused on issues around family and sexuality due to the sexual revolution, and necessitated (as they saw it) by a culture straying further away from its Christian roots.

    I don’t deny that there are good reasons to be critical of the Religious Right. I don’t claim that the only reason liberal Christians oppose the actions of the Religious Right is because they’re concerned about their popularity. I’m responding specifically to arguments that we have to move beyond the culture wars (which, note, is related to the Christian Right but not the same thing) because they are damaging to our witness and people are leaving the church because of them.

    Personally, I find the concept of the culture wars rather absurd. People are now, as they always have been, fighting over things that are deeply important to them, things they care about. Culling out some of those issues and calling them the “culture wars” and then using this term as a term of aspersion against one side, is…well, at best it’s outlived its usefulness. One could call them “culture wars” in the sense that they have to do with the direction of our culture, but it’s misleading insofar as it suggests that these are “cultural” issues. They’re much more.

  • brettongarcia

    The culture war was not started by Christians, fighting bolscheviks in the “kulturkampf” ?

    We could chicken-and-egg this all day. But? Consider the culture war issue of abortion; which as it turns out, was kicked off by EWTN/RN, c. 1976-1980, in part as a deliberate effort to get votes for the conservative Republican party. Even though its theological/religious roots, were new and quite questionable, they were soon declared to be eternal and conservative. http://www.democraticunderground.com/12184628

    See my 700-page working paper, advancing 200 arguments, that argue that even Catholic Church theology, allowed abortion as a minor sin. http://brettongarcia.wordpress.com/

  • THanks for the feedback, Tim. I appreciate the clarifications. I still don’t know who your article is referring to specifically and one of the nice features of blogging is that it allows us to address directly, via links, real people and real arguments. I think your post would have benefitted from that but perhaps I am just not hooked in enough to know what should be obvious. I don’t think it is a personal attack to disagree with someone and it allows the argument to actually be connected to what real people are saying. I think that not doing that and then proceeding to defeat the argument is the essence of strawmen arguing. I am guilty of it at times and I think you are guilty of it here. I think people can take, and indeed welcome, thoughtful response to their ideas.
    In terms of the left being the main user of the term culture wars, I just don’t know where to start with that other than to just perhaps say that I really don’t see it like that and I think it is part of the sanitized presentation and overly favorable painting of the picture that I think is weak about this article.

  • John Gibson

    Call me ignorant. Or maybe not sufficiently nuanced to grasp the distinctions here.

    Tim, you seem to hate the concept of a “culture war” while simultaneously validating the existence of a struggle to determine the moral direction of the nation. Why the focus on the label as if by attacking it you can change the reality behind it?

    Is it really important who came up with the label? This seems more like a distraction from the the real issues that define the struggle. And yes, it is a struggle between 2 distinctly different ideologies over what moral path this nation should follow. In the end you appear to tell us to continue to fight the good fight because it is, after all, a good fight. But eschew the label since, in your opinion, liberals came up with it and you don’t like the way they use it. I am not sure what the point is since in its absence some new label will step up to take its place. It too will imperfectly define the struggle and both sides will seek to exploit it.

    Greg, I too have walked through the war the entire time, so I do have a good historic view. I think you are incorrect that Tim is advocating abandoning the struggle. Rather I see it as a flawed attempt to get us to redefine our approach to it. The principles behind the struggle are worthy of our defense, both as individuals and as the institution of the church.

    The problem of where we find ourselves now is that we have allowed the efforts to defend principles to degenerate into a war against the people on the other side. Easy enough to do, since they stand for principles we don’t agree with.

    Dobson, Falwell and others who were instrumental in the early and defining days of the religious right movement should be highly commended. They showed up and stood up when it counted. Without them there very well may never have been any response. But being flawed, like all of us, they also helped define the struggle as “us” against “them”. This has turned out to be a big mistake. It all just went downhill from there and now everyone just regards the other side as enemies and there is no clear path to turn it around. For example, gays are not regarded as sinners in need of Christ, but proponents of the “Gay Radical Agenda” and “someone” who must be stopped. Defining them as the enemy virtually ended attempts to minister the gospel to them and a huge gulf now exists between Christians and gays. Somehow I don’t see Jesus doing it this way.

    I think in the end, we have to learn how to stand for the direction we believe the nation needs to go without defining the people on the other side as the enemy. After a generation of fighting, its evidently a failed strategy, since we appear to be losing ground on all the cultural fronts. Lets remember there are real people in need of Christ on the other side and they are the reason we are here. Ephesians 6:12 comes to mind as appropriate.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I agree that it’s an important struggle over the moral path this nation should follow. But words matter, and the way in which we frame and understand the struggle is important. Calling it a “culture war,” and denigrating one side as “culture warriors” when the others are defenders of human rights, and etc., is misleading.

  • David Naas

    So, you going to see “For Greater Glory” and cheer for the Christians? or for the Lions?

  • David Naas

    As a point of clarification, my above remark was not primarily flip (although flippancy is not scareilgious, but a measured response to over-seriousness), but very serious.
    I, also, have lived through the period in question, and remember when tv stations used to sign off their broadcast day with “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” Once the politically correct boomers started taking revenge for Kent State, and essentially declared war on religion, the old Culture Warriors (the aforenamed suspects with accomplices) stgarted pushing back. Prayer in public school, rip it out, push back. Pledge of Allegiance, can’t have that, push back. Captain America, how un-PC get rid of him, push back. And so it went. The so-called Mainstream Protestant Churches caved into PC, or rather, ran and jumped into replacing the Old-Time Religion with an ardent Political Correctness — subject to change weekly (and invented Process Theology to justify themselves.)
    If you don’t think the Culture War is a serious thing, look at the Mainstream Media snooping around for something to “get” on Romney or Timothy Dolan. And are shameless about it.
    Not that the evangelicals are pure on this point. I have, frankly, heard as much lie, distortion, and smearing the name of good people for political ends as much ore more than from their opposition.
    Which, makes a good case for Christians to do one of two things. Maybe three.
    1. Stop playing the harlot with secular politicians who won’t respect you in the morning.
    2. Start actually living, not just megaphoning the gospel or creating feel-good ghettoes where you never hear a discouraging word.
    3. Stop acting with the same anger and lascivious regard for domination as you accuse your oppisition of having.
    Maybe all three are contained in #2.
    So, gonna plunk down ten bucks to watch (and incidentally to support the makers of) “For Greater Glory”?

  • mcurt2s

    Recognizing that the 14th amendment protects the unborn is the civil rights issue of our time. Where is the Wilberforce of our generation? Abortion is the holocaust of our time, not only in total numbers killed, but in its genocidal targeting of blacks and the poor (far more are killed than their proportion of the population). Who are the Bonhoeffers of our generation?

    These people were not popular in their day, but they were ultimately “on the right side of history.” I keep thinking of Till We Have Faces.

    I know a minister in NC who opposed the law that he saw as too harsh–forbidding civil unions as well as gay marriage. Well, they have civil unions in NJ and it’s made it hard for Christians to run adoption agencies there. This minister thinks it will damage Christian witness to take such a position, but it’s the liberal churches who are losing members. It seemed ok to repeal DADT, what’s so bad about letting people serve openly in the military? But now chaplains may be forced to perform ceremonies that violate their conscience. You get the feeling that the other side is not content to live and let live. They keep pushing for more and more till you feel backed into a corner. Well, Here I Stand, for my generation and my kids’! I will not leave them a world (and especially a church) where it’s ok, even desirable, to make certain moral choices. I will not abet in making the crooked ways straight and the rough ways smoother for wickedness! It’s not like we’re being thrown to the lions.

    • In 1973 the Supreme Court in their abortion ruling allowed those to “DO WRONG” and much suffering has taken place with the ” TERRIBLE” burden of conscience! After an Abortion is over many women have to live with this guilt…many becoming PRO-LIFE.
      The TIDE is turning….maybe the “LIBS” have aborted themselves out of existance…but the latest polling is encouraging.
      The so called “CULTURE WARS” will continue as long as EVIL exists! We all must armor ourselves and stay strong and protected, no matter what forces surround us with GOD’S HELP!

    • Monimonika

      “But now chaplains may be forced to perform ceremonies that violate their conscience. ”

      Chaplains: Whaa! I’m being forced to console a soldier who isn’t the same kind of Christian as me! It’s against my religion not to proselytize to the unconverted and yet this soldier is telling me I’m abusing my government-paid position to violate his rights during his time of need. What about MY rights!? Doesn’t my religious freedom supersede those of any of the soldiers? I’m sure I’m not being paid to give comfort or help to heathen soldiers (even if I happen to be the only chaplain available at the moment).

      • Nancy Spalding

        there are no objections to comforting and counseling soldiers of varying faiths and dilemmas, but MARRYING them? that is the issue, not pastoral counseling. and that is a big one.

  • Guest

    As someone who is young and is wearisome of the “Culture Wars”, it’s still aggravating to hear the fundamentalism and impoverished Christian perspective on the Right. “Culture wars” are about more than conservatives’ pet projects, which you so typically stated here (abortion). It’s about what sort of public life we should have together, and this sort of flip treatment is disheartening. Not once in the post did you mention poverty. Not once did you mention racism. Those are some of the hardest and most grievous, Kingdom impacting issues that have been a part of the culture wars, and you conveniently neglect them. As a Christian I am not willing to concede those Kingdom gains for spoiled conservatives (oh, the plight of the poor white man!). And my final complaint: have conservatives really been fighting a “defensive” battle? In terms of will to power white males (the backbone of conservative culture) have had it pretty good, and hearing all this whining about American Christian persecution, the attack of the “secular elite”, and other assorted nonsense is so frustrating its infuriating. When you get killed for your faith or have to give up something substantial (like gee, I don’t know, money???), then complain about your hardships. God’s peace.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Guest, my own views are that poverty and combating systemic injustices such as racism are extremely important and critical to my faith. But they’re not generally considered “culture war” issues. Just because I don’t reference them when discussing the so-called “culture war” does not mean that I think them unimportant.

      And the “defensive battle” did not have to do with defending a privileged position in society, but defending things that these Christians considered important.

      Sorry if this sounds rude, but: try to read a little more carefully, and charitably, before you jump all over me.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Well done, Tim. Thank you!

  • Linda Smith

    Timothy Dalrymple: You have clarified an essential point: The term “human rights” (as it was used in, for instance, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights) has been re-defined. It is now used by certain thinkers, many probably of good will, to describe the desires of “progressives,” so to speak, who desire the right to suppress freedom for persons who are not in agreement with them. They intend to have their way with everyone (“Freedom for me, but not for thee”). They are convinced that their desires are best for everyone – their version of a requirement to be free, as they define that term. Thank you for setting up this discussion. Courage.

  • Sam Hamilton

    I thought Tim’s comments were right on the mark. I don’t like that certain issues such as abortion, gay marriage, (and more recently contraception) and a few others have been termed “culture war” issues. I have never heard issues of civil rights, poverty, medicare/medicaid(!), the Vietnam War, etc. referred to as culture war issues by the media or politicians. And they’re certainly never referred to as culture war issues by Christians on the political left.

    As this point in time, “culture war issues” is a pejorative term made in reference to a small group of issues about which Christians on the political right care. I don’t think it’s incumbent upon Tim to cite sources to make his point. It’s like demanding that someone cite sources proving that political conservatives are hostile to the anthropomorphic climate change theory. If you’ve been paying any attention to politics and its intersection with Christianity over the last decade or so, this has been a consistent meme being pushed by the political and Christian left (Christians need to give up fighting the culture wars!). Read the Sojourners’ blog God’s Politics for a period of time and you’ll see what I mean.

    • Rockerbabe

      Culture wars often are fought over rights for women and folks who aren’t white men. Christians aren’t the issue, unless you believe women are second class citizens, that forced childbearing is ok, rape is ok, gay folks are bad, etc.

  • Sam Hamilton

    I’ll also add that it’s important to distinguish between Christians who are committed to opposing abortion, gay marriage, the sexual revolution, etc. and politicians and certain political activists who attempt to use these Christians and these issues for their own personal and political benefit. If you want to refer to politicians/activists who use “culture war issues” to benefit themselves, while not really giving two figs about the issues involved, that’s fine with me. Criticize them all you want… But I don’t think that’s what Tim is defending here.

  • I am sure that we are all reading into the term culture wars what we have experienced it meaning to ourselves and our sense of what is best for our country. Perhaps we can all agree that however we choose to use the term, we should be clear about what we mean by it and what we don’t mean by it. Thanks for stimulating us on this, Tim.

  • William Harris

    Whatever the term we give it, “Cultural Wars” does seem to have a specific cultural referent, arising as it does out of the mobilization of the white Evangelical community in the run-up for the 1980 Reagan election. Travelling along with the politics were conflicts in denominations (e.g. the emergence of the PCA, or of the conservative take over of the SBC — both driven by a mixture of biblical concerns and objections to women in ministry); conflicts over education — not just evolution in the classroom, but advancement of home-schooling as a preferred choice for many; and the variety of demographic shifts as Boomers not only had families, but increasingly had those families in the Sunbelt. One could easily think of this as a time of purification, a neo-Puritan movement; certainly the Reformed markers were there going into the first term of Bush, a time I take as the high water for the movement.

    I would also call attention to the essential Boomer quality of the movement. Conservative Evangelicals of the age cohort shared the same idealistic even moralistic approach of their peers. Tucked into this is the reality that the period 1978-2008 is one where the Boomers were having families, and with it the set of anxieties that naturally arise (schools and sexual boundaries being important).

    Now was this a “defensive” movement? Strategically, perhaps, similar to asserting that the South fought a defensive war in 1861-65, but at various points it also set out to expand its boundaries, to establish its view as the normative one for politicians on the Right. As much as anything, these intra-party disputes underscored the militant nature of its politics, a militancy well attested to.

    And finally, I cannot be as blasé about the spiritual damage wrought. The reactionary neo-atheism of the Left seems to be a direct by-product. At an anecdotal level, the successful identification of the political and the religious, not only made it far more difficult for those on the Left to hear the Gospel claims, but encouraged them to see the authentic religious claims to be the merely political. I think this qualifies as a great loss.

  • Jason Garber


    I generally love your writing, and I think you made several good points in this essay, but I also think you are profoundly wrong at other points. Sometimes the answers we receive depend upon the questions we ask. You write about (a) people leaving the church and (b) not caring what the world thinks of us, but you don’t even mention evangelism. If Christians truly believe the Bible when it says that Christ is the only way to God (with all the eternal consequences that follow from that belief) they MUST care about what the world thinks of them. Please don’t misinterpret me here. I am not saying that Christians should roll over, deny the Bible, and say that homosexuality is fine because they want to increase their ability to do evangelism. But I am saying that your point about Christians not caring what the world thinks is extremely misguided from an evangelistic point of view.

    Let me briefly speak from my own experience. I’m 31, grew up in a non-Christian home in New Jersey. I became a Christian a few years ago when I stumbled into an orthodox evangelical church. But before then I could count the number of Christians I had ever met in my life on one hand. So my only conceptions of Christians were what I saw in the news and through the media. That meant I thought that Christians cared primarily about abortion and gay marriage. I didn’t hear anything about grace or the cross. I heard about “the radical gay agenda” and then I looked over at my gay friends and family members and thought they seemed very ordinary and unradical. Later, after I became a Christian and came to believe in Biblical authority, my views on homosexuality changed. But the only way they could have changed was by first accepting Jesus as my Savior and Lord. No political discussion could have changed my mind on that issue if I didn’t come to trust Jesus and His views first.

    My concern is that certain forms of “the culture wars” make non-Christians think that Christianity is primarily about these secondary and tertiary issues rather than about who Jesus is and what He accomplished on our behalf. Or to put it another way, I’m concerned that because many non-Christians disagree so strongly with Christians on these culture war issues and because those issues are almost the entirety of what non-Christians see of Christianity, non-Christians will never give a true hearing to the claims of the Gospel.

    I think we’re seeing evidence of this in the religious views of the youngest generations of Americans. The amount of under 35 Americans who list “none” as their religion is dramatically higher than all other age brackets. (See the sociologist Robert Putnam’s book American Grace for more data).

    Again, I’m not saying that Christians should roll over on these hot button issues. But I think we need to a better job at not being defined by them. Otherwise we (inadvertently) push too many people away from the faith.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I don’t disagree with this, Jason. I did not mention evangelism but I did mention witness. I’m not saying that we should have no concern for what the world thinks of us, but that there are right and wrong kinds of concern.

      The reputation of conservative Christians, that they care more about abortion and homosexuality than about serving and witnessing, is a demonstrably false one. The amount of time and money that evangelicals spend on serving the poor, helping the homeless, adopting children in need of parents, fighting disease and poverty overseas, fighting sex trafficking, and so on and on, dwarfs the amount of time and money evangelicals spend on the hot-button issues. But the hot-button issues get much more attention because they’re hot-button. I’m never asked to defend my view that we should radically serve those in need. I’m constantly asked to defend my view on homosexuality, so unfortunately we end up talking about that a great deal. Think of Franklin Graham. He makes a statement on abortion or homosexuality and gets assailed for putting the culture war ahead of serving the needy. But the majority of his efforts are devoted to Samaritan’s Purse, which is precisely about serving the needy.

      So, who is to blame for the false reputation? I actually place more of the blame on a media eager to play up these elements, and (to be honest) on some Christians who also perpetuate that notion as a way of validating themselves as the alternative.

      As I noted in my qualifier toward the beginning of the post, I think the concern about driving people away is overblown but not entirely wrong. There are ways in which the previous generation of the Christian Right, I think, were insensitive, sinful, and not tactful. That goes without saying that there are flaws, and some of the statements of the putative figureheads are deeply unfortunate.

      So the question is…what do we do? We spend much more time and effort serving the poor. Do we need to do better PR? Do we need to bring attention to all the evangelical organizations that serve the poor and the needy? Does each church need to highlight its service and charity work? Honestly, I don’t really know. Would love to hear your thoughts.

      • Jason Garber


        I wrote a reply (basically agreeing with you) and tried to post it, but the website flagged it as spam and wouldn’t post it. You might want to look into this.

        Thanks for your reply,

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Yeah, this happens from time to time. Sorry about that.