A History Of The Culture Wars

Culture War Christianity has long since ossified into the de facto expression of faith for many white American evangelicals. In Part One of this series (which you can find here) we introduced the American Culture Wars. As a whole, this series examines the historical & theological shape of Culture War Christianity in comparison to Jesus’ Kingdom through the lenses of these two camps, conscientious objectors and vocal advocates. We concluded last week with a descriptor: Culture War Christianity tends to make enemies, not love them.

This week, our second part examines the historical orgins of the Culture Wars. If you’re pressed for time, I present a TL;DR that takes 2 minutes, and you can return to read the article at your leisure…

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read Summary)

The key to understanding modern Culture War Christianity is the history of American race relations and Christianity. This article locates the birth of Culture War Christianity generally in the 1970’s, after the Civil Rights movement, not before or even alongside. This matters. I believe this presents a major historical critique of today’s Culture War Christianity operating down stream of the 1970’s. It has been theologically, culturally, and politically captive from the beginning.

“Culture war” is not an American invention. And current conscientious objectors to the Culture War Christianity need not discard all pining after cultural influence as compromising or anathema. When we look at the German culture struggle of the 1870’s (kulturkampf) it’s clear that the American Civil Rights movement was a “Culture War” too. King’s commitment to non-violence laid a distinct Christian foundation for the Civil Rights movement. But white evangelicals of the time either distanced themselves from King, or denounced the Civil Rights movement entirely, with calls to “just preach the gospel.”

These future founders of Culture War Christianity share a theological calculus with antebellum white evangelicals’ who attempted to satisfy both their relationship with slavery’s moral establishment, and justify spiritual fellowship with African American brothers & sisters who remained in bondage by a white gospel perfectly adjusted to the prevailing social order. The arguments and relationships in the antebellum South were transported via Lost Cause theology 100 years into the future, seen in white evangelical responses to the Civil Rights Movement. But these leaders could not ignore the impact of King’s kulturkampf.

Culture War Christianity started after the Civil Rights Movement, not before. It borrows the playbook of the CRM. Ironically, it thrives on a sort of “persecuted minority” mindset, borrowed from the Civil Rights movement, but not actually indicative of the communal experience in its main constituents: white evangelicals. A minority mindset is a prominent characteristic of God’s people in the Scriptures. However, this mindset is not characteristic of evangelical experience in the United States. Race relations and evangelical’s historic participation in the moral establishment offer two historical keys that present a necessary critique of modern Culture War Christianity. /end TLDR

A Monumental Task

Asking “where did historical Culture War Christianity come from?” will lead you in a thousand directions. There is no simple answer. While the past is static, our telling of history is dynamic. I will cite several historians this week. There are two reasons for this. One, I am not a historian. Second, I find it’s important to show the complex task these scholars face in piecing together the many variables influencing evangelicalism in the past. Historiography always presents a complex picture. Historians examine variables like economics, gender, politics, sexuality, or race. They devise frameworks, and ways to tell this story as accurately as possible.

That said, any attempt to tell the history of the Culture Wars in one article is too big a task. I want to focus on the historical origins of our present Culture War. I believe it is impossible to understand the history behind Culture War Christianity apart from race relations in the United States. So, we begin where we left off, with this statement:

The Culture Wars 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.

The forty odd years from this origin point until today witnessed the end of the Cold War and an insurrection at the US Capitol. Between these bookends, Culture War Christianity made itself known & felt in American society through movements. (See, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne; Stan Gall, Borderlines: Reflections on Sex, War, and the Church; Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals; Tim Gloege, Guaranteed Pure; historical treatments on these movements)

Some were overtly political, like the Moral Majority or Christian Coalition. Others would serve the notion of family values, yet retain political influence, like Focus on the Family or Promise Keepers. Local churches and expansive media (books, radio, television) formed the local grassroots communities made these movements possible.

While this all may seem quite familiar, especially if you inhabited spaces within white American Christianity during the last 40 years, a history of the Culture Wars would be best served by going back 2 centuries to look at the phrase “Culture War” itself. So let’s start by going back to the 19th century, across the Atlantic Ocean. Here the Germans provide us with a glimpse into a framework upstream to both the Civil Rights Movement and “Culture War Christianity.”


In Europe, the roughly one hundred years from 1815-1914 are often referred to as “the long peace”. By 1815, Napoleon was gone. The Great War was still 100 years away. In this peace, rapid industrial and political change flourished. New technologies, liberalism, Darwinism, the evolution of the modern nation-state all developed in what the British named the “Victorian Age”. 19th century Europe was marked by innovation. And while there was relative absence of military conflict, it more than made up for this with a flurry of idealogical conflict. A new world order was being born.

At the center of these conflicts was the relationship of church to state. The Catholic Church, at the center of power in the Old World Order, was suddenly faced new threats to its grasp on power. From the political power of the nation- state to the intellectual frameworks of liberalism and Darwinism, the winds were shifting. In response, the Church produced a flurry of theological statements and denouncements meant to stem the tide of ideas that threatened its hold on the Old World Order. In its “Syllabus of Errors” of 1864, the Church attempted to do just that. (See, Nicholas Atkin and Frank Tallett. Priests, Prelates and People: A History of European Catholicism, 1750 to the Present) The Church denounced religious liberty, the nation-state, and other consequences stemming from the “threat of liberalism.”

In the 1870’s, the German people, specifically within the Kingdom of Prussia, found themselves in conflict with the Catholic Church over their own Reformation roots and a rapidly secularizing order. This conflict had ramifications for both the Church and the separated German states. As a result of this conflict swirling around the German peoples, individual German States united along highly Protestant lines under Otto Von Bismark of Prussia. (See, Helmut Walser Smith, editor, The Oxford Handbook of Modern German History) This period of conflict and change was given a name: Kulturkampf, or “Culture Struggle”. This German kulturkampf shows us how struggles between competing visions for human existence are sparked by complex reactions between religion, politics, and power.

Kulturkampf matters for our historical discussion here. For one, “Culture War” is not an American invention. Too often, the all-consuming battle posture so indicative of white evangelicalism may wrongly lead some to treat the American Culture Wars as a singularity, a phenomena. It is not.

Culture War Christianity has certainly become what Peter Berger refers to as a “plausibility structure” in American evangelicalism. A world of meaning that can hold a multitude of plausible claims within it’s hermetically sealed ‘bubble’. But on first contact with a wider world (reality) the plausibility of these mutually related claims can be thrown into disarray. There is one primary claim within the plausibility structure of Culture War Christianity that does not survive contact with the broader exploration of kulturekampf. It is the claim that Culture War Christianity, or white evangelicalism, is the sole defender of Christianity. This assumes that Culture War Christianity is also its sole expression.

By studying German kulturkampf, we can begin to see the American Culture War’s false claim to exclusivity and authority by claiming itself to be the sole representative and defender of orthodox Christianity. When we realize this —that American Culture War Christianity is not the single defender of the faith— it trains us to adopt a healthy critical filter every time a Christian leader describes the “very survival of Christianity at stake” as a smoke screen for unChristian agreements with power. On the other hand, conscientious objectors to Culture War Christianity would do well to consider how “culture struggle” might be a positive expression of Christian faith. There is space to consider positive “culture struggle”.

When we talk about “The Culture Wars” or “Culture War Christianity” we usually mean discussions about white evangelicalism. Especially how white evangelicals draws commercial, political, and moral battle lines. We think of gendered potatoes, Harry Potter and Disney. We think of Trump and Clinton. We think of abortion, pornography, and violent video games. Culture War Christianity makes itself known along many of these “front line” issues. But what about race?

The Civil Rights Movement, by all definitions, was a kulturkampf too. By recognizing this differential in our popular usage of the phrase “Culture War” we can begin to note how, historically, Culture War Christianity has remained comparatively silent on racial justice & equality. This differential is the historic hermeneutical key that unlocks that unique historical shape of Culture War Christianity.

Good Trouble

Selma, Alabama. 1965. Edmund Pettus Bridge. Two World Wars have shattered the romantic and progressive utopic dreams of European liberalism. Germany, far from a world power, is split under the occupation of two world powers. In the West, America sees itself as the defender of democracy. In the East, its rival Russia harbors communist aspirations for the globe.

Concerns about communism aside, some see the liberty offered by the democratic American State as suspect. While America was projecting itself as the bastion of freedom abroad, the delivery of this promise to it’s own citizens was faltering. So believed John Lewis, a young African American man, on the Pettus Bridge that day as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Leadership Conference.

On this day in 1965, John Lewis was beaten and arrested by Alabama State Police as he and other non-violent demonstrators marched across a bridge to protest Jim Crow and Racial Segregation in the American South. In his mug shot, Lewis is seen with a smile on his face. Later he would say, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America” This is Kulturkampf language with Christian themes. It echoes the refrain of contemporary Culture War Christianity. This similarity should not be lost on conscientious objectors to “culture struggle” today. Maybe the question is not so much whether culture struggle is Biblical as it is whether the present current struggle, as begun and ossified within white evangelicalism, was sourced along Biblical lines.

Copyright: AP

Lewis, King, and millions of Americans were engaged in a “Culture Struggle” of their own. One grounded in the Christian precepts of non-violence and the dignity of human life. It was committed to a belief that America ought to achieve the full breadth and depth of it’s libertarian promises. King’s kulturkampf was rooted in Christian principles, and sought to dismantle the injustices of racial subjugation and discrimination within America.

What makes the Civil Rights Movement a form of kulturkampf is clear. What’s important to note is the direction and definition of the struggle. It was an upward struggle, from the oppressed to the defenders of the status quo moral establishment. It was a ethnic struggle, from African Americans, Asians, and other minorities together with their white Christian allies against the moral establishment of white supremacy.

Here is where the kulturekampf of the Civil Rights Movement intersects in a sobering way with our historical survey. For this, we make a slight detour here back to Germany, post-kulturekampf now under Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The injustices and disparities within American society that King and the Civil Rights Movement sought to overturn in the 60’s could only exist in a society that had systemically oppressed a people for generations. Segregation was down stream of chattel slavery. The depth of systemic American oppression, codified in its laws and culture, was readily apparent to outsiders.

Shocking as it might seem, this was the early Nazi assessment of American race law, according to James Whitman in Hitler’s American Model. Nazi research in the early 30’s explored the feasibility of using Jim Crow segregation to subjugate Jews in Nazi Germany. But was deemed unrealistic by the Nazis, given the high social standing of European Jews. Segregation was easier because it flowed from the legacy of slavery.

This sobering assessment by German National Socialists should be a clear vote of confidence in the just cause of the Civil Rights Movement. But not everyone saw it this way. Especially some white American Christians.

Just Preach The Gospel

In his pamphlet in March 1965 called “Ministers and Marchers”, Pastor Jerry Falwell wrote a response to the images and videos coming out of Selma, Alabama. In this pamphlet, Falwell addressed the question of whether Christians ought to support this Civil Rights Movement:

“As far as the relationship of the church to the world, it can be expressed as simply as the three words which Paul gave to Timothy—“Preach the Word.” Nowhere are we commissioned to reform the externals…Our ministry is not reformation, but transformation. Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the purse saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else—including fighting Communism, or participating in civil- rights reforms.”

Jerry Falwell, Ministers and Marchers in Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle To Shape America

Falwell and other white evangelicals from varying corners of the country expressed responses along similar lines. Many of these leaders, Falwell specifically, would found the evangelical movements in what would come to define and shape Culture War Christianity in 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. But in the thick of Civil Rights, they presented an entirely different response, ranging from distancing, to distraction and denouncement.

Some espoused a cautious progressivism that sided with law and order, like Billy Graham, who criticized segregation but also denounced the non-violent demonstrations as contributing to further violence. Two years prior, Graham suggested (without evidence) that perhaps Black nationalists, not white supremacists, covertly bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Others denounced calls for desegregation entirely. Back in 1960, Bob Jones Sr. took harder lines at Christians supporting an end to segregation by referring to them as “religious infidels”.

It’s difficult to deny the influence of theology on these responses. And while a full historical examination of American theological development is not possible here, we can say a few things. First, these were religious leaders. Second, as such, we would expect their moral reasoning to flow from a theological calculus. How did they come by this theological calculus? Historial theology.

The Calculus of Antebellum White Evangelicals

Charles Ivory’s masterful Proslavery Christianity examines the white evangelical relationship with black evangelicals before the Civil War. He looks at how these interactions between white and black Christians, slave and free, actually came to shape the white evangelical theological defense of slavery. If we want to understand the Culture War Christianity of Falwell, and other white evangelicals, we need to examine their response to the Civil Rights Movement. I believe their response has its source in the theological calculus of white evangelicals in the antebellum South.

Ivory writes it was not uncommon for white and black evangelicals to worship within the same church. Indeed, the revival of the late 18th century did not discriminate on the basis of cultural background. But the theological conflict in evangelical churches pre-Civil War centered around conversion. Namely, does Christian conversion necessitate manumission? Today, Christians would argue chattel slavery is indefensible regardless of a slave’s conversion to Christianity. Humanity is not property. However, the historical context of the time made the question of conversion and manumission the frontline theological conflict regarding chattel slavery within evangelical churches.

Secular authorities in Virginia saw manumission as a threat to the prevailing social order. Early evangelical relationship to these authorities was first one of dissent. Ivory notes how black bodies became pawns in white evangelicalism, which originally sought to undermine Anglican establishment to secure religious freedom. One way they sought to undermine Anglican authority was by sharing the gospel outside traditional Anglican boundaries. This meant bringing the gospel to slaves. Not every Virginian evangelical framed the issue this way. John Leland was notable in his advocacy for religious freedom and an end to slavery. But in Virginia, after Anglican establishment fell, the traditional posture of evangelical dissent to authority (characterized by evangelizing slaves) gave way to a posture of authoritarian establishment. It’s important to note: white evangelicals before the Civil War were participants in moral establishment. We will return to this important fact later.

White Evangelicals in the antebellum South (and arguably still today) found an irreconcilable tension within their own identity. One that often invites compromise. Aaron Griffith describes this tension as an “anti-statist statism”. (See, Aaron Griffith, God’s Law and Order) Finding themselves firmly in the State establishment, evangelicals sought to minimize accusations their gospel fed insurrectionary tendencies for the slave population. But they could not ignore their dissenting, anti-statist past. Which took the form of accusations from black evangelicals pointing their white brothers & sisters to how the white gospel perpetuated a theological conflict found in supporting both spiritual fellowship and physical ownership.

One strategy white evangelicals’ used to avoid the “divisive” theological issue and satisfy both the makers of the status quo and their black brothers and sisters was to cast slavery as primarily a civil, not moral or theological issue. With slavery relegated to the legislative arena, evangelical churches could claim plausible deniability on their lack of action, which amounted to a passive defense of chattel based slavery. In this false peace, they could offer a hand of fellowship to the authorities who accused evangelicalism of threatening the social order by preaching a gospel that incited insurrection by slaves. They could also shrug their shoulders at the protests of black brothers and sisters and simply say “change will come with laws, in time.”

One common marker of Culture War Christianity today is the priority it places on the political battlefield as an expression of Christian faithfulness in America. Are we prepared to see this priority of politics as an abdication of responsibility rather than an expression of it? This is the historical criticism we can level against Culture War Christianity down stream of historic white American evangelicalism. Reframing the problem of slavery away from the Church towards the Civil arena by white evangelicals was an abdication of prophetic power and witness that ignored the eschatological nature of the Church.

Historically, I’ve tried to show how this false peace agreement forged by white evangelicals over slavery in the 18th century strengthened itself leading up to the Civil War in the 19th, all so it could flow from the lips of Southern evangelicals in the 20th. In the pre-war South, white evangelicals held out a politically shaped gospel, one that eschewed politics rhetorical, but was shaped by politics practically. This gospel was created to preserve the evangelical’s relationship to and participation in the moral establishment. Their gospel was thus perfectly domesticated to the prevailing social order. Their theological conclusion was Jesus made slaves more submissive, not more free. In the South of the Civil Rights movement, this same mentality prevailed, 100 years later. How did this prevailing theological sentiment travel from the Civil War to Civil Rights? The Lost Cause.

Lost Cause Theology, a Southern apology meant to reframe the South’s capitulation in the War more in keeping with a Southern antebellum concept of “honor” was successful in recasting the impetus to War as “States Rights” not slavery. Additionally, it provided a continued theological justification for white supremacy and abdication of prophetic witness in terms of race relations. Lost Cause theology casts the South as a faithful, righteous remnant of Christianity.

Such echoes of a faithful minority would be heard again in the fundamentalist/ modernist controversies of the early 20th century. Thus, a particular expression of American Christianity was prepared to reject any call for racial equality on the grounds of long held, historically developed, theological arguments.

Embedded in Falwell’s and other white evangelical’s “preach the word” was a long history of rejecting calls for social justice by invoking the gospel of Jesus Christ. All the while, evangelicals ignored their participation in development and direction of America’s social and moral establishment. They had no qualms about working for culture change along different moral lines post-Civil Rights. So what are we to make of this?

“Preach the word” or “just preach the gospel” sounds like a self-imposed limitation of authority. It sounds pious. But such theological posturing in light of historical examination can be critiqued not as a relinquishment of power on behalf of evangelicals, but a projection of their power and authority. Culture War Christianity shows its power in its speaking and its silence.

A Playbook For Change

The Civil Rights Movement achieved a great deal in its own culture struggle. It saw to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. As Jemar Tisby makes clear in his book, The Color of Compromise, injustice this side of Jesus’ consummated kingdom does not become extinct, but adapts to new cultural conditions. We can trace ethnic injustice present in chattel slavery from Jim Crow and immigration laws to the carceral state today. Waiting for the passive extinction of injustice in one cultural framework cannot be called a Christian ethic, it is not Christian righteousness. If this sounds like a call to kulturekampf, you’d be right.

Time will not permit us here to showcase the varying ways white evangelicals adapted to the new cultural landscape at the close of the Sixties. Politics did not suddenly cease to be racist. Nor did institutions. Private schools were started by white Christians all around the country, many enforcing a cultural segregation. Historian Frances Fitzgerald, quoting a GOP official at the time, wrote that nothing did more to awaken the white evangelical political activism than the IRS threat to revoke tax exemptions from these schools on the basis of enforcing cultural segregation.

Again, it is impossible to consider the origin of Culture War Christianity and its legitimacy as an expression of sound Christian faith and practice apart from it’s historical rejection of the Civil Rights Movement. We can see echoes of this relationship in modern evangelical responses to Black Lives Matter.

But in the Seventies, new moral issues were on the horizon. Issues like abortion, criminal justice, feminism, and the Cold War arms race. All issues to which Christians would obviously respond. But how? Though they did not support Civil Rights in the fullest extent, white evangelicals chose to benefit from the kulturkampf movement they criticized.

One of the secondary fruits of the Civil Rights Movement was the development of a playbook for change. Parks, King, Malcolm X, and Lewis had shown varying paths towards reaping monumental change in American society. White evangelicals who criticized the Civil Rights Movement now could walk the kulturkampf path pioneered by the Civil Rights leaders to bring about change. They had been given a new playbook. One that Gay Rights Activists and Pro- Choice Activists would pick up alongside White Evangelicals.

And so we come to our statement:

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.

What aspects of the Civil Rights Movement does Culture War Christianity borrow? That is another article entirely. But I would like to discuss one, which I believe has historical precedent and allows us to flow into a theological discussion in the next article. One element borrowed by Culture War Christianity from the Civil Rights Movement was the adoption of a faithful minority mindset. But for white evangelicals to adopt this mindset ignores the historical development of evangelicalism in the United States.

Insiders With Outsider Language

Culture War Christianity deifies and celebrates the heroic lone ranger archetype, the John Wayne figure according to Kristin Kobes Du Mez. But historically, evangelicalism is not an outsider. For 200 years, white evangelicalism has been an insider. No where has the minority mindset been more pervasive in our modern conception of Culture War Christianity than rhetoric. Phrases like “drain the swamp”, “make America great again”, and “take back America for God” in evangelical politics go right next to “that’s too political” and “just preach the gospel” in evangelical churches.

David Sehat argues in The Myth of Religious Freedom that before the 14th amendment just after the Civl War, evangelicalism enjoyed a de facto establishment at the state level. While separation of church and state was federally enshrined in the Constitution, it did not play out in those strict terms in state and local governments. This changed in the early 20th century, when the Scopes trial, New Deal politics, and internal theological warring between fundamentalists and modernists left a vacuum in American society that evangelicalism used to fill in common culture. Neo-evangelicals like Billy Graham emerged in this vacuum. But for the long of American history, Christians have not only been influential, but privileged.

How can a privileged majority come to see itself as a minority? Culture War Christianity accomplishes this in part by dressing itself in the Biblical and theological concept of a remnant. A faithful few of God’s people who remain loyal to God and his ways in a foreign, godless land. But this theological adaptation does not line up with the historical participation of white evangelicals in the moral establishment of the United States. Yet, the drums of Culture War for white American Christians implied a greater enemy beyond its borders.

But there remains an irony in the historic white evangelical appeal to the civil established authorities of the antebellum South, and in 20th century appeals to “due process” as a response to Civil Rights. The irony is that evangelicalism itself was deeply entrenched in the moral establishment of the 19th and 20th centuries. Not until the middle of the 20th century would evangelicalism’s participation in the moral establishment be shaken due to various supreme court rulings and internal theological squabbles.

Yet today, Culture War Christianity thrives on casting itself as the minority. It applies the Biblical concept of a remnant to itself without considering whether it has played the role of Babylon better than Israel.

In our current historical comparison between the Civil Rights kulturkampf and Culture War Christianity, only one of these struggles emerges from the down and out, the gutters and margins of American society to confront the center of power. This historical origin belongs to the Civil Rights Movement. The Culture Wars of white American evangelicalism was not the reaction of the minority against the majority, but the majority against a imagined majority. It is hard to avoid this conclusion given overwhelming support for President Trump.

Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead have shown correlative beliefs in white evangelicalism that suggest the more an evangelical prizes religious freedom, the more they believe America should be declared a Christian country. Even within evangelicalism’s own self-perception, it is hard to shatter the pervasive sense of oppression many Culture War Christians perceive at the hands of secular authorities. Especially as Culture War Christianity historically defines religious freedom as Christian privilege. What are we to make of this?


Any attempt to offer a history of the origins of Culture War Christianity will leave much unsaid. For our purposes here, we simply conclude this brief survey by pointing out three major points. First, that Culture War is not an invention of American evangelicalism. Conscientious objectors would do well to consider how culture struggle, like that of the German kulturkampf or the Civil Rights Movement may inform our contemporary struggles that are characteristic of Jesus’ rule and reign. Vocal advocates of Culture War Christianity must examine how, historically, the position of evangelicalism has been more towards establishment than beleaguered minority. This invites a posture of listening and repentance, which is antithetical to a militant mindset. Second, Culture War Christianity is the product of a historical expression of Christianity that has proven itself captive to varying social and political establishments, from the antebellum South to the evangelical consumerism of the 20th Century. Third, it is impossible to separate the historical origins of Culture War Christianity from its theology. Especially as Culture War Christianity so readily adopts the theological “remnant identity” without a historical critical examination of its majority status. The next article will examine the theological nature of Culture War Christianity that we have only glanced in this article.

Success! You're on the list.

Published by Jared Stacy

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

One thought on “A History Of The Culture Wars

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: