Is It Time for American Christians to Bow out of the Culture Wars? Part 1
First, what do I mean by “the culture wars?” Well, of course, in the broadest sense there have always been culture wars. Anyone who knows anything about American history knows it. There have always been struggles between different religious and political groups over public and private morality, what is shameful, sinful, what should be legal, illegal, etc. One of the “biggest” was the “war” over alcohol that was temporarily won on the legal front by the “temperance movement” composed mostly of conservative Christians. It was called “Prohibition”—a period in American history when the manufacture, distribution and even consumption of alcoholic beverages was illegal. But that’s just one illustration; numerous other examples could be cited—examples of times in American history when people imposed or tried to impose a moral vision on the public at large by legal means.
Second, what culture wars are going on now in America? Well, of course, anyone who is paying any attention to American culture already knows it. The current culture wars are driven mostly by conservative Christians and the two main issues are homosexuality and abortion. I find that many young people are not aware, though, that these are not new issues. Does anyone remember Anita Bryant or Randall Terry?
Third, although the current American culture wars are being driven mainly by conservative Christians and reactions against their moral campaigns, there was a time in American history when progressive Christians were waging their own culture wars—against laissez faire capitalism, for unions, against poverty, for some form of socialism. The Social Gospel was progressive Christians such as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch linking up with more secular progressives to promote changes in American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They weren’t satisfied with merely preaching to their own congregations; they were public voices speaking to legislators about public policy changes (e.g., the full legalization of unions).
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
The fact of the matter is that both some conservative and some progressive Christians have always been interfering in matters of public policy—attempting to impose on everyone their own religiously-motivated visions of morality. “You can’t legislate morality” has been resisted by both left-leaning and right-leaning Christians who have always been active in some American culture war.
Things have gotten bad. I speak into the current (second decade of the 21st century) scene in America. Many American Christians, especially conservative ones, mostly new fundamentalists, believe they have a political champion in the current president who claims to be a Christian but whose personal life is fraught with problems. A church historian cannot help but see parallels between this situation and that of Christians in the early fourth century when a Roman emperor named Constantine seemed to let Christians into the halls of political power after a long period when Christians in the Roman Empire felt powerless. Whether this development was good or bad—for Christianity and/or for Western culture in general–is still hotly debated. But there can be little doubt that it represented a major turning point for Christianity which had before been virtually powerless in terms of politics and shaping public policy.
Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, in America, Christians are lined up against each other—over whether and to what extent traditional religious morality should influence public policy and, if so, whose religious morality and how? Today the main dividing line, breaking point, is not between Catholic and Protestants or between infant baptizing Protestants and believer baptizing Protestants or between Protestants who believe in miracles and Protestants who don’t believe in miracles. Today the dividing line is over politics and often even over a single individual political leader. Deep and abiding, long-term and intimate friendships, even among close relatives, are being broken off via social media by these differences. People are shifting church membership over these differences.
Some Christians are saying that Christian involvement in direct or indirect political issues is dangerous to the gospel of Jesus Christ and that especially when Christians adopt a political ideology or party or leader as intimately, even inextricably, associated with the gospel.
The issue being raised by some Christians, evangelicals included, is whether Christians are called to shape public policy ever and by any means at all—as Christians. Some are calling for Christians simply to be salt and light in an American culture that is post-Christian. Any attempt to intervene in politics, they argue, invariably corrupts the church and leads Christians into what some church leaders of the past have called “Satan’s territory.” (Augustine of Hippo sometimes seemed to think this way even though he was not consistent about it. He did call on the empire to suppress heretics.)
A basic question is: Is it too late anyway—for Christian morality (however understood) to influence public policy? Put another way, is America now a post-Christian society much like most European countries, Canada, Australia and other societies that once were strongly Christian at least in terms of listening to and taking seriously Christian pastors, theologians, and public intellectuals? Many Christians now view America as secular and pagan (a strange combination) to the core. “Post-Christian” in the sense that Christian claims make no sense to most people outside of their own church and private spiritual lives if they have any.
Various Christian intellectuals have put forward this thesis (namely, that the answer is “yes”) and have proposed various “models” for Christian involvement in American culture that take seriously its post-Christian condition. Most of these proposals seem to have one thing in common: belief that the church and Christians in general should influence society and culture by example and prayer rather than by political action.
This proposal, in its various varieties, of course, is not new. It harks back to pre-Constantinian Christianity and the Anabaptist approach to “Christ and culture.” Some say it also harks back to monasticism (but, of course, at various times abbots of monasteries had great political power).
So, this is my question to my readers. I don’t have any definite answer. I am torn. One day I tend to think it’s too late and possibly spiritually dangerous (for the churches to attempt to intervene in public morality and policy-making). Then the next day I think “But if Christians don’t speak up in the public square and pressure lawmakers to keep American culture from sinking into total hedonism and decadence, who will?” I have long been torn between Staneley Hauerwas and Reinhold Niebuhr (for those of you who know these two theologians who represent both ends of the spectrum on this issue).
In Part 2 (next) I will float a trial balloon solution to my dilemma and see what others think about it. Watch for it. In the meantime, feel free to share your solutions or agree/disagree and give reasons.
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