I Am Not Interested in Your Culture Wars
For my entire life Christians have been involved in a long-running and mostly-political conflict which seeks to forestall or reverse particular cultural changes. These culture wars are so pervasive that for many Americans the term “Christian”, or at least “Evangelical”, is more about a set of political stances than it is about religious beliefs. One of the questions confronting many younger evangelicals is whether they should join into the culture wars or find another way. In this article I intend to outline why I have never had any interest in participating in the culture wars.
The first reason is fairly simple: I do not agree with all the culture-wars issues. Some of them I do agree on – like the earliest Christians I see no meaningful difference between abortion and infanticide. On some of them though, like teaching evolution, I’m on the other side. In fact, as a biology professor I am not merely on the other side in an intellectual manner, but I am actually an agent by which evolution is taught. However, it would be theoretically possible for me to be selectively gung-ho in the culture wars.
The second reason I dislike the culture wars is more nebulous, almost a matter of taste (but that sounds too weak). Frankly, the culture wars feel like an attempt to bring America back into 1950. In fact, I’ve heard that exact sentiment voiced a time or two. I didn’t grow up in 1950. I wasn’t born for many decades after the fifties. The world of the fifties with its (unusually) high levels of social conformity (which led, probably inevitably, to the social revolutions of the sixties) may feel comforting to some older people but to me it seems stifling. (That’s despite the fact that as a white male I would have been one of the people most free to follow my dreams within that social order.) The culture wars are conservative in a political sense but they also feel conservative in the most basic sense of that word – an effort to keep things as they are/were, not allowing things to change. Some things needed to change. It feels odd to me to be asked to fall in with a movement where echoes of the old mistakes are widely tolerated because at least they are old mistakes.
The third reason I dislike the culture wars is the biggest reason, or at least the one that I haven’t heard expressed dozens of times before on the internet. For my entire life Christians have been losing the culture wars. Abortions are now broadly legal everywhere. Teaching evolution will, in my estimation, never be banned again. In twenty years it’s likely that every single state in the union will have legalized same sex marriage if the federal government hasn’t already passed federal reforms to make that happen. Already everyone but the most intensely Christian youth believe that sex outside of marriage is not merely tolerable but a normal and proper part of a healthy relationship. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce (a statistic that looks only marginally better when one realizes that some individuals end more than one marriage). Growing numbers of children are being born to single parents. I’ve never seen a victory in the culture wars. Why would I want to sign up to lose?
Of course, Christians are called to a life that is, as I recently heard it expressed, one of constant training for martyrdom. Losing is itself a small thing. But losing signals to me that there are a number of wrong moves being made.
The first is that the culture wars are being fought from the outside in. The culture wars are mostly political and are fought by political means. Instead of people convincing their neighbors to behave in a manner that pleases God, people vote to prevent their neighbors from doing otherwise. There’s a certain Old Testament logic to this but it seems at odds with a New Testament Church that lives amongst the pagans. Paul certainly doesn’t try to up-end Roman society to make it more Christian when he first gains followers. Jesus doesn’t use his status as Messiah to win a seat on the Sanhedrin and vote in important decisions. Indeed, when the apostles write to their congregations in the Roman world they generally advise them to be social conformists except where consciences would strictly prohibit. So, for instance, both Peter and Paul tell their congregations to honor the emperor, even though the emperor is persecuting Christians. If either man sees a social revolution coming, it is by one neighbor converting another until the fabric of the empire changes from the inside.
There’s probably a good reason for this. Politics is ugly. Culture war politics is some of the worst: all the usual lies and arrogance with an added dollop of divine mandate. Pick an issue in the culture wars and fifteen minutes on Google will find you someone who swears that they love Jesus and types a new slanderous lie against their political opponents in every line. Apparently participation in the culture wars rots your soul (a statement that is probably broadly true of most politics). No wonder God’s might is not giving Christians victory in this fight.
The second wrong move is that the battle is already lost. Yes, it will be a slow defeat but the writing is already on the wall. As old people die and young people take their place in society, the people who cared to conserve the old ways will be replaced by those who don’t like those ways. Going down with guns blazing sounds good but only if there isn’t some other perfectly sane option.
I grew up in New England where the culture wars are finished. Almost no one is Christian and everyone is socially liberal. I still grew up Christian. In fact, Christianity began in the Roman Empire where everyone was pagan, where entertainment consisted of watching people murder each other in cold blood, where slavery was rampant, where sexual desires of all sorts were widely indulged in (often with slaves who had no say in the matter), and where politics was as much about who you could assassinate as who you could convince to support you. Yes, 21st century America has some challenges but they shouldn’t prove even remotely lethal to the church.
So, rather than going down guns blazing why aren’t we manning the lifeboats? The old way of being Christian, a rather comfortable existence as pillars of society, is done. We could cling to the last shreds of power until we’re eliminated (earning plenty of ill-will before we go) or we could begin to reform now. How will we navigate the next hundred years? It won’t be in the same form as the last hundred.
I am not interested in fighting the culture wars. Instead, I wait for the day when Christians realize that the world has changed, that this is not a future that can be held off but a present that is already here, and that they will then start the hard and necessary work of figuring out how to live faithful lives in this world.