What Are The Culture Wars?

The next four articles form a series to engage this question. We’ll examine the history & theology of “Culture War Christianity”. My goal is to locate the Culture Wars in American history, but also describe the shape of these Culture Wars so we can examine how they relate to the shape of Jesus’ Kingdom.

What are the Culture Wars? Think of “culture” as a way of life. It is the sum total of all values, beliefs, and practices making up a communal existence. When God commissions newly formed humanity in Genesis 1 to “fill the earth and subdue it”, he sets men and women into the world with a cultural mandate. His plan was for a human society, united under his rule in the world, ruling with him over the Cosmos as his vice-regents.

With a technical and theological definition of “culture”, we can now imagine a “culture war” as a clash of two or more competing visions for human existence. All it takes is flipping between Fox and CNN to see a measure of this struggle in our moment. American Christianity is not immune to the effects of our Culture War. As this series will show, it is far from a non-combatant.

You may recognize Culture War rhetoric all around you. Even if you’ve never heard the term. It abounds in the American Church. “Culture War Christianity” consistently frames elections, legislation, movies, businesses, etc. as affecting the survival of Christianity itself. This hyperbolic rhetoric is typical, as this series will show, of a Christianity baptized into Culture War militancy.

This series will explore how a particular type of Culture War, begun in the 1970’s by white evangelicals on the heel of the Civil Rights movement, was grounded in a theologically compromised brand of Christianity. Many of the fractures & fissures in American evangelicalism, while not caused by this culture war (they are much older), are revealed. As we begin to look at these “Culture Wars”, I want to make two points for clarity.

Means & Ends Matter

First, a theological point: the rule of God will never contradict the “who” of God. His actions are never divorced from his person, his character. You wouldn’t pick up a Johnny Cash record expecting to hear Hip-Hop. So you wouldn’t expect Christianity to advance itself in ways uncharacteristic of Christ. Which is to say, Christianity without the Cross at center, is not Christianity.

When Jesus prayed, “on earth as it is on heaven” he was indicating his expectation and desire that the culture of Heaven becomes the culture of Earth by way of his Church. But does Culture War Christianity, the sort launched in the ’70s, contradict the nature of Jesus’ Kingdom? Imagine Jesus speaking these words below, a quote from American Pastor Robert Jeffress:

“What has happened is we’ve allowed the secularists, the humanists, the atheists, the infidels to pervert our Constitution into something our founding fathers never intended. It’s time for Americans to stand up and say ‘Enough! We’re not going to allow this in our Christian country anymore!’ It’s time to put an end to this.” 

Pastor Robert Jeffress, First Baptist Church Dallas

Culture War Christianity, as we will see, has a way of making enemies instead of loving them. This is how it thrives. German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly notes, “When Jesus says ‘love your enemy’ he means the enemy that harbors hostility against you, not the one against whom we cherish hostility ourselves.” Culture War Christianity requires enemies for it to exist, and to imagine peace.

Is the peace promised by the Culture Wars the same as the peace of Jesus’ Kingdom? These questions are theological, and—on a practical level—difficult to separate from the binary of American politics. And we’ll return to them in due time. Until then, I want to call our attention to this basic theological ethic: The work of God’s rule spreading throughout the world in individual lives and communities will never contradict who God is.

Pick Your Side

The second point for clarity is this: mischaracterizations abound in current Christian assessments of, and responses to, the US Culture Wars. Christians have taken sides. To speak generally, mischaracterizations come from two camps. Let’s call one group “conscientious objectors” and the other, “vocal advocates”.

Some accuse conscientious objectors to the Culture Wars of believing that Christianity should have no influence in the public square. They slander these conscientious objectors as faithless & godless, or misrepresent them as conspiratorially hypocritical, secretly harboring a progressive political agenda.

On the other end of the spectrum, some conscientious objectors accuse vocal advocates of conflating Christianity with cultural power. This often leads them to slander vocal advocates as compromising sell-outs, or mischaracterize their advocacy & well-connected influence as grounded in an inherently complicit conservative agenda. No doubt, I believe there are instances of legitimate criticisms from boths sides in Christian spaces. But polarity abounds. 

Refugees in No Man’s Land

The polarizing gap between vocal advocates and conscientious objectors reveals a vast “no man’s land” in American evangelicalism. This is why I believe this series has pastoral and personal implications for all of us. Because either you or someone you know is wandering the no man’s land as a refugee from the Culture Wars.  

And here we arrive at a good starting point for the next article in the series. Before we assess the now, or look ahead, we need to look what’s come before. Here is where we will pick up next time, with this statement on the beginning of the Culture Wars:

The Culture Wars as we know them today began when white American evangelicals took the activist playbook from the very Civil Rights leaders they opposed, to advance a moral agenda they could support.

Here’s where we are headed:

Part One: Introduction (This Article)

Part Two: Wars, and Rumors of Wars (Culture War History)

Part Three: Thy Kingdom Come (Culture War Theology)

Part Four: No Man’s Land (Culture War Aftermath)

Published by Jared Stacy

Jared is an American Pastor, writer, and PhD Candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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