Talk of war is everywhere. It exploded into popular discourse when sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia published Culture Wars, his book-length analysis of our nation’s moral impasse. In his follow-up book, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War, Hunter argues that the conflict over values is so severe that our very democracy may be in jeopardy.
In his provocative book Beyond Culture Wars: Is America a Mission Field or Battlefield? Reformed theologian Michael Horton uses the same language of battle and claims the war has been fought and lost. Horton cites Jewish scholar Irving Kristol's doleful lament: “In his [1992 Republican] convention speech, Pat Buchanan referred to the ‘culture wars.’ I regret to inform him that those wars are over, and the Left has won. . . . The Left today completely dominates the educational establishment, the entertainment industry, the universities, the media. . . . There is no point in trying to inject ‘family values’ into these institutions. They will debase and corrupt the very ideal while pretending to celebrate it.”
Evangelical leader James Dobson of Focus on the Family also uses the powerful metaphor of war, writing urgently about “the ongoing civil war of values.” His newsletters rehearsing various battles of this “civil war'” mobilize thousands. Other ministries and, indeed, Christianity Today authors comment on both victories and losses in this Herculean struggle.
Undoubtedly, the metaphor of “culture war” reflects the reality of conflict. Today Christians swim against a tide of sub-Christian behavior: drugs, distorted sex, greed, violence, abortion, abuse, broken families, children without fathers. Key institutions—the media, universities and schools, and government agencies—sometimes seem less concerned to change such behavior than to defend it from “Puritanism.” Christians who want to reverse destructive behavior may find themselves at odds with a culture that enables, encourages, or even celebrates it under the rubrics of personal expression and individual rights.
Activist Christians may also encounter anti-Christian attitudes—a spirit of condescension if not outright hostility. ABC News religion commentator Peggy Wehmeyer, herself an evangelical, observed in an interview in TV Guide: “The elite in this country—the courts, education, media, the arts—tend to view people who take their faith very seriously . . . with a smug, arrogant attitude.” On National Public Radio, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz noted that no evangelical Christian could be appointed as a faculty member at Harvard Law School. He lamented the fact that pluralism is often a code word for “ideologically correct.”
And yet, I believe Christians should be wary of adopting uncritically the friend-or-foe, either-or rhetoric of war. Such a metaphor is problematic for several reasons.
The Dangers of War Talk
First, culture-war rhetoric can be self-fulfilling prophecy, exacerbating the very conflicts it seeks merely to describe. Repeated recourse to the language of war makes it harder to love our enemies—and it is already hard to do so—because it inflames angry feelings.
Second, culture-war rhetoric leads us to distort others’ positions, to see enmity in place of mere disagreement. It leaves no room for nuanced positions, or for middle ground.
Third, culture-war rhetoric distorts our own position, too—making our message seem mainly to be angry criticism when it ought to be mainly the reconciling gospel of Jesus Christ.
Fourth, culture-war rhetoric plays into the hands of extremists on the Left, who would like to convince Americans that “the Religious Right” seeks to impose a theocratic state on them.
Fifth, culture-war rhetoric tends to create division among Christians, even evangelical Christians—for in war, there is no room for question or hesitation, and those who are slow to march in lockstep seem to be cowards or traitors.
These concerns apply to all orthodox believers. Culture-war rhetoric may hurt our purposes—and hurt us.
I regret the haunting title of Hunter's recent book: Before the Shooting Begins. Such rhetoric may sell books. But such rhetoric does little to foster an ambiance in which those Americans who are alienated from each other can seek reconciliation. Indeed, it reinforces the mindset of people like those extremists who laud the killing of abortion doctors and staff.
The vast majority of other Americans are not hostile toward evangelical Christians and are not ready to shoot anybody. We would be more accurate to portray the bulk of the American public not as belonging to two giant phalanxes of the Right and Left engaged in mortal combat, but as religious centrists, remaining to varying degrees committed to Judeo-Christian values and to First Amendment guarantees regarding freedom of religion. There are theaters of cultural warfare, but millions of Americans are not self-consciously enlisted soldiers in them.
The recently released study of American sexuality, for example, The Social Organization of Sexuality, paints a more conservative portrait of Americans’ sexuality than we would suppose, given the lurid presentation often proffered by the television, film, and print media. Similarly, a recent Roper poll sponsored by Focus on the Family uncovered a spectrum of beliefs regarding abortion, not the monolithic divisions associated with a culture-war model. A majority of Americans lean toward the pro-life position, with 52 percent of men and 60 percent of women fitting this description. In their book The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90’s, George Gallup, Jr., and Jim Castelli note the surprising finding that the formal beliefs of Americans have changed relatively little since the 1940s: “In fact, the nation in some respects has remained remarkably orthodox—even fundamentalist—in its belief.”
The imagery of a spectrum must be counterbalanced with Augustine’s famous descriptions of the City of God and the City of Man. Evangelical Christians do believe that only some follow Christ and the Spirit; these disciples are distinguished from others who follow the Evil One and the flesh (see also Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13). Moreover, hard-fought spiritual warfare is taking place on this planet and right in this country. Nor should we run away from the biblical passages that compare the Christian life to soldiering and fighting the good fight and contending for the faith.
But Augustine reminds us that, at the societal level, it is preferable if the citizens of the City of God and the City of Man live at peace on earth. The imagery of a spectrum encourages our seeking after civic peace, disdaining rhetoric that promotes unnecessary explosive confrontations.
Perhaps the spectrum might be envisioned in this way. On the Far Right are those Americans who want to impose Christian values by law on their fellow citizens and who appear willing to sacrifice constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of religion. The culture-war motif serves them well as a rationale for enlisting and inspiring partisans.
On the Far Left is a relatively small but powerful group of atheistic elites in education, government, law, and the media who want to drive anything but atheism from the public square. Their tactic is to woo the huge, confused middle by characterizing conservative Christian political activists as extremists who want to take away the civil rights of other Americans.
The culture-war motif also serves their cause beautifully. With their oversized media megaphones, they can try to persuade Americans in the middle that perfidious Christian extremists (read fundamentalists or the “Religious Right”) are the nation’s foes. And whenever a Christian leader speaks about a desire to recreate a “Christian America,” or a fringe extremist from the Far Right commits murder, he or she gives ammunition to those who would want to frighten the religious middle.
It would be wrong to confuse those in the muddled middle with the left-wing extremists. What many Americans in the middle are concerned about is the imposition of moral teachings by law. They cannot justify this approach with their perception of the Constitution’s guarantees regarding separation of church and state. For example, Hunter has found that some Americans oppose abortion but feel their personal beliefs should not be forced upon others. One woman told Hunter’s researchers, “I would say my views are true for me, but I can't put that on someone else. I just can’t force my truths on other people.” Those of us who oppose abortion and believe the law should explicitly protect unborn children may sometimes misinterpret our neighbors’ concern as hostility toward us or our view of the morality of abortion. In fact, they may agree with us about the horror of abortion but come to a different conclusion when they wrestle with the issue of how its eradication should take place. They often view religion and morality as “private,” having no place in public life. It does not necessarily help, in persuading such people, to cast them in the role of “enemy.”
In an address to the National Association of Evangelicals, NAE president Don Argue declared: “The so-called Religious Right has lost its right to be heard by a large segment of the general public.” He continued: “Our positions regarding abortion and homosexuality are very clear, but we need balanced, articulate, biblical leadership” in order to avoid alienating “the very people we are trying to lead.” He lamented the fact that some evangelicals “have violated Jesus’ command to love their enemies and do good to those who persecute them.”
I would argue that the very use of “culture wars” rhetoric tends to reinforce that attitude. It pushes people into opposite camps instead of encouraging them to seek areas of common ground. It blinds us to our own shortcomings by keeping our focus on the wounds inflicted by our “enemies” rather than on addressing our own failings. Culture-war rhetoric can even stir misunderstandings within the evangelical community itself by creating a climate in which anyone who speaks up for civility can be suspected of inadequate courage in fighting for “Christian values.”
Historians and sociologists have spilled an enormous amount of ink seeking to explain how we have arrived at this point in American life. A number emphasize the spectacular rise of “secularism” to challenge the concept of a “Christian America.” Secularism’s appearance, which they date from the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, served as a precondition for the conflicts that have emerged over values in this country. They claim the Founding Fathers stipulated that the public square should be empty of religious values due to the Constitution’s guarantees regarding the separation of church and state. According to this interpretation, the Founding Fathers assured secularism’s dominant role in the public square.
But recent research reveals that this historical reconstruction underestimates religion’s strength in the eighteenth century. Moreover, as professors Stephen Carter and Garrett Sheldon have demonstrated, it shelters a misconstrued reading of the Founding Fathers’ intentions.
Our conflicts are, in fact, rooted in multiple sources. One more proximate cause fostering differing views of the world and ethics was the influence of radical forms of the higher criticism of the Bible. Against the intentions of some late nineteenth-century practitioners, this criticism eventually subverted a belief in the authority of Scripture for numerous intellectual elites. In consequence, the Bible lost its role as a compass for their ethical and moral decision making, whereas it retained this role for millions of other Americans.
Moreover, in our own day, despite the continued profession by a large percentage of America’s clergy and parishioners that they believe in the “truthfulness” of Scripture defined in various ways, many in practice look selectively at Judeo-Christian ethics as the standard for making life’s ethical choices. George Gallup, Jr., calls this Americans’ “ethics gap.” In an independent spirit, they fashion their own versions of Judaism and Christianity. This affects many believers, even those who still claim the Bible as their infallible authority. Pollster George Barna has discovered that evangelicals do not live much differently from other Americans with regard to ethical and lifestyle choices.
Nearly 15 years ago, social analyst Daniel Yankelovich warned that a radical “duty-to-self” strain of ethics had begun to sweep like a huge wave through the American middle class. This ethic of human autonomy mandated that we should seek “self-fulfillment” at any cost.
In the 1990s, the “duty-to-self” surge continues to advance across a large front. A swatch of Americans make daily decisions without reference to Judeo-Christian values, or to concepts of “virtue” as described, for example, in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Life’s choices are often dictated by raw egoism, crass pragmatism, and untamed passions. Civility, rational discourse, generosity and .character, sexual restraint—all can be quickly washed away in this societal sea change in values.
Even professing Christians feel the undertow of this powerful wave of “human autonomy” ethics. We may sincerely profess orthodox doctrine yet find that our primary interests revolve around ourselves rather than the neighbors we are called to love or the God we are commanded to honor. We may bemoan a moral decline in the country. Our actual concern, if the truth be known, is not to see a vital Christianity flourish, but rather to secure a more orderly and less violent society in which to live out comfortable and self-satisfied lives.
So “duty to self’ ethics may be a contributing factor giving impetus to culture-war rhetoric and action. When people, religious and irreligious, place themselves at the center of the moral universe, it is easy to understand that they exhibit explosive reactions to anyone who criticizes or “crosses” them. The idea of talking things out and trying to understand another person’s point of view in a civil fashion becomes foreign. The “disagreeing other” automatically becomes “the enemy” and thus can be depersonalized with a slur.
In political debate, the art of persuasion and appealing to the common good is frequently abandoned for an approach that demonizes opponents. How much easier it is to misrepresent and caricature another opponent’s position than to assess its merits and weaknesses carefully. As we saw during the fall elections, political ads can quickly become grimy with crude personal attacks.
Christian activists have become a target for such “demonization.” Before the recent elections, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Those Troublesome Christians” chronicled a number of attacks. Christian activists were accused of engaging in McCarthyite tactics, spreading “homophobic” panic, and backing “stealth” political candidates. Critics indicted conservative Christians as, in fact, “unchristian” and “what the American people fear the most.” After reviewing these sloppy attacks, the editorial concluded that the central charge boiled down to this: “namely that evangelicals and other Christians have committed the crime of getting into politics to make their views heard.”
Sadly, Christian activists have sometimes yielded to culture-war temptations. Unsubstantiated charges, fearmongering, global denunciations, and the “demonization” of opponents have surfaced in newsletters and public rhetoric. This approach may raise money, but it does not raise the moral tone of the debate. Fortunately, many other Christian activists have refused to adopt this kind of mindset. Like Francis Schaeffer, they have wept for their opponents’ good rather than attacking them at the personal level. They have tried to reason with their opponents and have tried to get their facts straight before making an accusation.
The Path of Discipleship
If we step back from the present cultural conflict, we discern basic biblical principles that should guide our thoughts and actions whatever our political persuasions. As those who seek to follow Christ, we do not want the powerful metaphor of a “culture war” to skew our perceptions of Christian discipleship.
First, we must remember that we serve a triune god who loves sinners: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.” This familiar verse (John 3:16, NIV) reviews a marvelous display of God’s salvific love. For “the world” we could substitute the rapist, the homosexual, the adulterer, the secular humanist, the capitalist robber-baron, the militarist war-monger. God really loves these people. He loved them so much that he gave his only begotten Son for them. And we are to love them as well, even while we know that sin is truly grievous to God (Pss. 5:6–7, 7:11; Malachi 1:3).
Our Savior models this attitude of love. Matthew’s gospel reads: “And when he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36, NIV).
If we see the world through our Lord’s eyes, tender with compassion, we will be wary of putting on the culture-war spectacles of “us against them.” Moreover, if we look deeply into our own hearts, we may sense that the only difference between ourselves and “them” is that we have received the gift of “amazing grace.” Those of us who have been discouraged by the duplicity of our own motivations and have been duly shocked by our own capacity to sin, sing John Newton’s lyrics with particular sincerity: “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost, but now am found, / was blind but now I see.”
When we look out at the world through those spectacles, we see our neighborhood or local school not as another battlefield in the “culture war” but as a mission field. Our home and church do not become military bunkers but havens of hospitality with the sign “Welcome” displayed over the front doors.
Christians characterized by the traits of compassion, generosity, and humility are attractive even to hostile detractors. Whatever we may think of Mother Teresa’s Roman Catholic beliefs, we know that the compassion and humility she shows in touching, loving, and feeding the ill and unwanted have made it very difficult for her critics from the “culture war” to attack her stand against abortion.
Second, the command to love has a particular obverse side: we may not “bear false witness.” We must always seek to tell the truth about opponents, the whole truth. After engaging in careful research, we may discover that we have misunderstood them, and if so, we are duty bound to say so rather than to continue misrepresenting them because they are on the “wrong side.”
Even if our cause is just, and a political battle must be waged or a letter-writing campaign initiated, we have no license to demonize others in our rhetoric or in our literature. Nor as individuals may we take the law into our own hands and do bodily injury to our opponents. For example, the murder of abortion doctors must be wholeheartedly repudiated.
This, too, is both commanded and modeled by our Lord. Jesus’ remarkable admonition to his disciples remains applicable to us: we are to bless them that curse us, and pray for them that despitefully use us and persecute us (Matt. 5:44). This may seem like an impossible command to obey in ordinary circumstances, let alone in today’s supercharged political environment. But we remain under this directive from the Lord.
The fact that we are to love our enemies does not mean we do not defend the helpless who are being attacked. Defending the weak and helpless may mean using strong and muscular language to warn the unwary of the designs of those who seek their ruin. On occasion the Lord used powerful language to describe those who did evil. He spoke as one who knew the human heart, however. We do not, and so we must be careful lest in calling others evil we ourselves become evil.
Third, we must be loyal to Christ, speaking clearly and bravely in his name. Being a disciple of Christ can be very costly in certain venues of contemporary culture. Some of the Lord’s teachings are extremely offensive, especially in this allegedly pluralistic age. Sadly, Jesus’ claim that he is the way, the truth, and the life makes politically correct moderns gag. It is the ultimate heresy for secular pluralism. A Christian who affirms the validity of Christ’s teaching can provoke cries of fool and bigot, if not worse.
Nonetheless, we know that Jesus calls his disciples to count the cost of following him: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt. 16:24–25).
Whereas we sometimes ponder the cost of following Christ, we sometimes forget what it costs to deny him. Jesus also said: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:32–33, NIV). If we have denied the Lord either blatantly or in subtle ways, we should make every effort to retrace our steps and deny the denials.
If we are prone to say nothing when Christian values are trampled upon and the faith is attacked, if we are unwilling to bear the reproach of the Cross, then we should consider whether our real passion is to receive the world’s approval rather than the Lord’s commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
When we speak in the public square, however, we can be faithful to Christ while still using the language of the public square. Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson provides this counsel: “The courtesy we owe to fellow citizens argues for framing public questions in language that invites everyone to participate in the discussion on comfortable terms. It would be insensitive as well as ineffective, for example, for Christians to exhort their Jewish, Muslim, or agnostic neighbors in terms of what Jesus would want us to do. On the other hand, Christians (or religious people in general) should not be excluded from the political conversation either, as they would be if only agnostic opinions could count.” Some of us may choose to use more explicit language, while recognizing fully the rights of others to disagree with us and contest our views.
John F. Kilner, director of the Bannockburn Institute for Christianity and Contemporary Culture, in Bannockburn, Illinois, has deftly explored the problems facing evangelicals who want to influence public policy: “There is a tremendous reluctance to go the second intellectual mile. Many people exhaust themselves developing explicitly biblical positions on issues. They stop short of taking the next step of developing arguments for those positions in language that society is willing to consider. Others, anticipating the difficult challenge of developing socially persuasive arguments, simply skip the first step of formulating an explicitly biblical account. The first group is not likely to engage the society with their thoroughly biblical concerns. The second group is not likely to have thoroughly biblical concerns with which to engage society.”
The Power to Love Our Enemies
If we follow Christ’s example of compassion, we will see America more as a mission field of people who need a shepherd rather than as a “culture war” battlefield needing more political generals. In short, we will love rather than hate our enemies, pray for them rather than seek to destroy them.
In our own strength, it is nearly impossible to love the way Christ commands. But when the Holy Spirit works powerfully in people’s hearts, he converts them into people of reconciliation. Consider Justin Martyr’s description of his Christian brothers and sisters of the second century who confronted perilous culture wars raging in the pagan Roman Empire:
. . . we who formerly delighted in fornication, but now embrace chastity alone; we who formerly used magical arts, dedicated ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all.
A number of contemporary pagan detractors agreed that early Christians did, in fact, live this way. This kind of Christian living is not impossible for us. The same Holy Spirit who inspired the Christians of the early church can work in any generation.
Recently a federal judge remarked that if evangelical Christians become known only as political militants fighting a “culture war,” they can easily be dismissed as another cause group.
In some regards, we would then resemble that high-school team in the New York City area that bears the name “The Fighting Quakers.” In the same way, the name Christian is compromised if it is always modified by politically militant. Rather, we should be more widely known as Christ’s servants, who demonstrate compassion and nonetheless speak out boldly and clearly regarding our Master’s teachings.
According to a Newsweek poll, 76 percent of our fellow Americans believe this nation is in moral and spiritual decline. Should we not pray that the Holy Spirit will work powerfully in the evangelical churches so that we might forsake our own sins, be renewed in our own hearts, and love both our friends and our enemies? After all, it is through renewed Christian churches that spiritual reformation will come in this land.
And should we not share with clarity the transforming gospel of Christ with our fellow Americans? For as Saint Paul declared, it is that gospel which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). And it is that gospel, fostering reconciliation among people, which has the ultimate power to tame the ferocity of America’s culture wars.
John D. Woodbridge is professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and visiting professor of history at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He is the author of Revolt in Prerevolutionary France (Johns Hopkins) and the editor of Ambassadors for Christ (Moody) and More Than Conquerors (Moody).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.