Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in September 2015.
In August 1992, Patrick J. Buchanan addressed the Republican National Convention, gathered in Houston to nominate then-President George H.W. Bush for a second term. Buchanan had mounted a strong primary challenge to Bush but now implored his supporters — many of whom were conservative Christians — to rally behind Bush against Democratic nominee Bill Clinton. “There is a religious war going on in this country,” Buchanan asserted. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.”
The phrase “culture war” thus entered the American vernacular. It still usefully characterizes the political battles over the country’s most divisive social issues since Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling on abortion. Over the following three decades, evangelical Christianity became associated (or, to critics, intertwined) with conservative political activism, primarily as a powerful bloc within the Republican Party. For better and for worse, “pro-life, pro-family” policy planks went hand in hand with right-leaning positions on taxes, immigration, and national defense for baby boomer evangelicals.
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34b
The landscape has changed rapidly for the trailing generation of Christians, many of whom consider the very idea of a culture war unpalatable. In his May article in byFaith on “The State of the PCA,” Bryan Chapell summarized their perspective. “Christians in the generation that is 40-minus years old have never perceived themselves as a majority, but always as a minority in a pluralistic culture,” he wrote. They thus recoil at the forceful speech and political activism of some of their parents’ heroes, considering them more a hindrance to the Gospel than a positive proclamation of its beauty. They prefer instead to emphasize mercy and social justice, what Chapell calls “help” ministries. Even so, these Christians are finding themselves drawn into battles not of their choosing.
“A lot of Christians want the culture war to be optional,” says Erick Erickson. “They say it doesn’t affect them. But it does!” Even in conservative circles, Erickson is a complicated figure. As a sharp-tongued commentator on both CNN and Fox News and a talk radio host who occasionally fills in for Rush Limbaugh, he has sometimes pushed against (and, by his own admission, beyond) the boundaries of propriety to make his points. As founder of RedState.com, he holds unquestioned, if sometimes unwelcome, clout in the Republican Party. Erickson is a member of First Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, and is currently pursuing a degree from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He represents the combination of Christianity and politics that, depending on one’s point of view, is either heroic or regrettable.
Erickson is currently writing a book entitled “You Will Be Made To Care,” a phrase he coined in a blog post in 2013. In context, the post was a response to another Christian’s ambivalence about same-sex marriage, the current secular shibboleth. The larger point of both the article and the book is that believers wishing to disengage from hot-button social issues will find themselves unable to do so because the secular world will press the fight to them. “The time will come, more quickly than you can imagine, when you will be made to care,” he wrote in the post. “Your church, should it … refuse to perform a same-sex wedding, will be accused of discrimination. In some places, the church will be forced to stop performing weddings.” (If this sounded alarmist two years ago, it seems much less so now. In their dissenting opinions, both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas suggested threats to religious liberty resulting from Obergefell v. Hodges, the case recognizing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.)
If external forces are a negative reason why Christians cannot escape the culture war, there are other, positive, reasons to engage proactively. If the Gospel is true, then it is the foundation for human flourishing, and Christians’ call to be salt and light extends to all realms, including the political. “Every time Christians apply the gospel to their communities, they are, at some level, engaged in ‘culture warring,’” wrote Daniel Darling in a May article for The Gospel Coalition, a popular evangelical organization. “They are bringing the kingdom of Christ to bear on the fallen world, corrupted by the enemy. It’s a battle of light against darkness.”
Darling, vice president for communications at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, cites issues such as human trafficking, racial justice, immigration reform, and animal cruelty as examples, pointing out that Christians engaged in these issues are no less culture warriors with their faith on their sleeves than those addressing abortion and same-sex marriage. American believers have so many open avenues for co-belligerence with the secular world in kingdom-oriented work. But there is a word of caution here as well, for both popular and unpopular avenues for Christian social activism are inextricably linked to the same Gospel. “Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we can avoid the cost of discipleship,” writes Darling. “The gospel itself is … at war with a fallen humanity.”
However distasteful orthodox Christianity’s teaching about (for example) homosexual practice may be to contemporary American secular society, it will never be more offensive than the unflinching call to confess damnable sin to a just Creator-King and receive the undeserved, unearned gift of redemption offered solely at His pleasure and Christ’s expense. Obedience to the Great Commission will always eventually bring Christians into conflict with culture.
The More Things Change
“Ours is transitioning into a post-Christian culture, and that has taken the form of a ‘culture war’ over the past four decades,” says Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University, which was founded by culture-war icon Dr. Jerry Falwell. Prior is a prolific evangelical commentator who in 2014 published “Fierce Convictions — The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist,” the story of an important, if unheralded, culture warrior of a bygone era. More and her friends, including William Wilberforce, led the campaign to abolish slavery in the British Empire in the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century. Their hard-earned success signaled the dawn of evangelical influence on both sides of the Atlantic.
Prior discerns that America’s modern culture war is much altered since the 1970s and 1980s. “American evangelicalism has not abandoned political solutions, but now sees that they are not the most important ones,” she notes, drawing a contrast between then and now. “The biggest transition is the recognition that, if there is a political culture war, we are losing.”
This internal realization accompanies external realities. While issues such as abortion remain consistently divisive, with relatively little variation in public opinion over time, others have changed quickly and radically. Pew Research reports that 57 percent of Americans, including strong majorities of Roman Catholics and white mainline Protestants, now favor legal same-sex marriage; in 2007, it was 37 percent. The values of conservative Christianity are no longer those of a “moral majority” of Americans.
Aside from Obergefell v. Hodges, several recent high-profile events highlight American evangelicalism’s friction with an increasingly hostile secular culture:
∀ In the 2014 case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court ruled on religious freedom grounds that the privately owned retailer could not be forced to pay for abortifacient contraception methods for its employees, as had originally been mandated by the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
∀ By declining to provide cakes for same-sex weddings, Christian bakeries in Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere have faced legal sanction for discrimination, even though they have been willing to serve the same customers in other contexts.
∀ InterVarsity Christian Fellowship recently regained access to the California State University system after being “derecognized” in 2014 for requiring its leaders to affirm a statement of Christian doctrinal beliefs. IVCF has faced similar resistance at other college campuses, including Vanderbilt University.
∀ Gordon College, an evangelical school in the Boston area, recently found its accreditation up for review by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) over its policy prohibiting sexual relations outside of traditional marriage. While the college investigated ways to better engage LGBTQ students, it did not change its rules. In April 2015, the NEASC reaffirmed its accreditation.
These incidents may not be evidence that the American church is under persecution per se — after all, Christians have emerged as “victors” in most. But they nevertheless illustrate that the character of its engagement in cultural conflict has shifted from activism to defense, not only in official channels, but also in the court of public opinion.
The need for Christians to adjust both tactics and rhetoric is obvious. Pat Buchanan concluded his 1992 speech with the martial language of a counteroffensive: “We must take back our cities, and take back our culture and take back our country.” Such a tone from mainstream conservatives would sound jarring now, even to those who might agree. Erickson sees the situation as nearly opposite from a generation ago. “In the 1980s, voices hostile to Christianity were the ones that were alienated, while Christians were comfortable being vocal in the public square,” he says. “Now, secularist voices are louder and people of faith are more timid.”
How Should We Then War?
In one sense, this ought not be surprising. From its earliest days, Christianity has always been a counterculture, not a dominant movement. One need read no further in the New Testament than its first book to see repeated predictions from Jesus that contempt and even violence from the world will come. Chapters 5, 10, 16, and 24 of Matthew all contain the warning, along with encouragement to endure and promises that faithfulness, even unto death, will be rewarded. Christ’s return, as prophesied in Chapter 24, will permanently situate all His redeemed on the right side of history.
Yet expecting disdain in the marketplace of ideas doesn’t encourage new forms of engagement. With conservative Christian political clout on the wane, Karen Swallow Prior suggests waging the culture war via culture. Ever the English professor, Prior quotes an English poet: “Percy Bysshe Shelley said that ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’” she reminds. “Artists shape a culture’s imagination and cultivate its desires. We need to be making good art that captures the vision of the abundant life and portrays it winsomely.”
Winsome Cultural Engagement
A gifted writer, Hannah More exemplified this in Edwardian England. While Wilberforce worked in Parliament to end the slave trade, she wrote anti-slavery poems and treatises that appealed to London’s high society. She also penned shorter pamphlets (known as “cheap tracts”), popular among the working class. In both cases, More infused existing art forms with a Christian moral vision.
One approach to abortion provides a more current example. “The church got some things right in the 1980s, and promoting sonograms was part of that,” Prior says. Today’s young adults grew up seeing pictures of themselves in utero, making it more difficult to ignore abortion’s consequences — a perfect example of cultivating the imagination through cultural media, in this case technology.
Tweeting the Truth in Love
Technology equips individual culture warriors with far more powerful weapons than those of the 1980s. Everyone with a social media account now has a publishing platform capable of reaching an audience of dozens, hundreds, or millions. For her part, Prior writes numerous online articles and participates avidly in social media, stating in a recent interview that she sees a parallel with More’s cheap tracts.
While there is great culture-shaping opportunity in new forms of media that can bridge micro-level relevance and macro-level reach, the dangers ought to be obvious to believers enjoined by James 1:19 to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” The paradox of generating instant commentary with a perpetual lifespan also underscores the weight of bridling the tongue, another of James’ admonitions (James 1:26).
Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, and a frequent blogger for The Gospel Coalition, addressed the pitfalls of online commentary in a 2014 post. While acknowledging that public discourse and even sharp disagreement can be warranted in such conversations, DeYoung urges Christians to ask themselves some questions before posting. “Do I hope to serve or be served with this post?” he writes. “Am I looking to love or be loved for this tweet? … Have I even taken time to ask any hard questions of my heart?” He also counsels seeking the wisdom of others and avoiding doing “personal work in public space.” Such steps are essential for believers desiring to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), online, or anywhere else.
Arguing over controversial issues in new media exposes and amplifies what may be the greatest difficulty facing Christians in this phase of American cultural conflict: loving each other. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus in the upper room, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Winsome cultural engagement and intelligent apologetics are important, but they are not the final measuring stick of an effective witness. Even the phrase “speaking the truth in love” is presented in the midst of an exhortation to edifying, missional, doctrinal unity. (See also II John.)
Arguing over controversial issues in new media exposes and amplifies what may be the greatest difficulty facing Christians in this phase of American cultural conflict: loving each other.
Never an easy calling, demonstrating such unity is made especially complex by the fact that professing Christians in America are more divided than ever on the very issues that draw scorn from the culture. The same Pew report cited above shows that 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants favor legal same-sex marriage, nearly double the proportion in 2007. Among black Protestants, the figure is 33 percent, up from 24 percent in 2007. Prominent and erstwhile evangelical figures such as Rachel Held Evans, Matthew Vines, and Ken Wilson have made impassioned cases for the biblical legitimacy of such unions. Former PCA congregation City Church of San Francisco announced its policy of affirmation earlier this year, and relief agency World Vision made headlines in 2014 for its brief attempt to find a third way. How is “speaking the truth in love” to be lived out amongst discordant Christian voices?
“The church has done a poor job of explaining to itself what ‘judging’ is,” contends Erickson. “Laying out the standards of the faith is not ‘judging.’” There is, however, an appropriate role for judgment in Erickson’s view, one most relevant to “friendly fire” in the culture war. “Paul tells us in I Corinthians 5 not to judge those outside the church, but to take a firm line on those within who do not behave as they ought,” he points out. “We have got to stop allowing people to take our labels and language and misuse them.”
Formally, this is nothing new. Debates resulting in insistence on doctrinal fidelity go back at least to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, and Paul was not embarrassed to report his strong public confrontation with Peter to the Galatians (Galatians 2:11-14). Outside apostolic church structures — in the blogosphere or on Twitter, for instance — drawing lines is more nuanced. Truth and love do not often blend well in 140 characters. If the “sword” that sets close relatives against each other in Matthew 10 is God’s piercing Word rather than an instrument of physical violence, it must nevertheless be wielded with great care.
“The English language has done us wrong by giving us only one word for all the emotions wrapped up in ‘love,’” offers Prior. “It is not loving to leave out the truth,” she says, affirming the call to proclaim God’s Word. “On the other hand, believers trying to ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’ have found that not to resonate well. We need better language for a proper understanding.” It looks different, for example, to love victims of abuse than it does to love repentant abusers. And it may look different to love professing believers than avowed atheists, even when disagreeing on the same issues. It is worth noting that Prior and the aforementioned Evans have opposed each other on social media in tones of mutual respect — even admiration.
Courage and Costs
Bringing God’s Word to bear in the culture war truthfully and lovingly presupposes not only knowing it, but also having been transformed by it through the Holy Spirit’s power. After this happened to the believers at Pentecost, they knew there was only one thing left to ask for. “Look upon their threats,” prayed Peter, John, and the others, “and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). These original culture warriors did just that, knowing the cost. American Christians, facing a far lower cost, do well to remember brothers and sisters in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East for whom this is not the case. May we join with them and with our forebears in praying for courage, regardless of the stakes, to fight in a war that is already won.
Phil Mobley is a writer and content strategist who lives in Lilburn, Georgia. He and his family attend Parkview Church (PCA).