Most people with even passing knowledge of Christianity in America knows that evangelical Christians have been waging a culture war for quite a while now, which they are now starting to lose. They are beginning to see the fallout with evangelical churches slowly decreasing in number. Yet, there are those within the churches who have been trying to guide evangelicalism away from the culture wars such as Rev. Jim Wallis who wrote a fascinating book called God’s Politics(free advertising). Wallis pinpointed what he thought was evangelicalism’s critical flaw, it worked to seize power and place all attention on a few issues while ignoring other huge issues. I intend to examine in this series of posts a few of the problems with evangelicalism’s culture war as well as bring up a few bright examples such as the Canadian evangelical churches. This first post will focus on the nature of the conflict and how it compares to the Civil Rights movement and Israel in Jesus’ time.
First of all, the word war implies a great struggle for control, which is certainly no exaggeration. One need only take a look at the group TeenMania, which is an evangelical youth organization which puts a lot of focus on teens being warriors to take back the nation for Jesus. Here’s a video as an example:
Yet the reaction to the evangelical culture warriors has at times been an equally fundamentalist secularist reaction which demands a complete separation from faith and civic duties(such as voting, petitioning, and policy making). It appears from a reading of the winds that secularism is winning. But, I believe both secularism and fundamentalist evangelicalism miss the mark. Neither of them can explain, for example, the success of Martin Luther King Jr. While certainly not a perfect man, King brought a message of righteous indignation to the modern American conscious and he did it through the lens of faith. Why was his message victorious to a certain degree whereas the culture war appears to be a dismal defeat? I believe the matter lies in what the messages focused on.
First, King and the general Civil Rights movement did not seem to be waring against people but rather general sins of humanity such as racism and apathy towards the plight of those different than you. On the other hand, the culture war had definite enemies it was targeting, i.e homosexuals, Democrats, feminists, public education, etc.
Second, the Civil Rights movement was not concerned with taking political power. Its goals were for justice to be done to a marginalized group. With the culture war, all it takes is a quick Google search to see many of those involved were quite adamant about gaining power. When you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die there is no middle ground. Or, as the documentary God in America put it, you can either be a prophet standing outside of society calling out its flaws or you can be the ruler but you can’t be both.
Third, the Civil Rights movement was not limited to one political party. It called out both parties for their institutional racism. On the other hand, the culture warriors, mostly aligned themselves with Republican interests.
Yet all this talk of culture warriors might make us believe it is a new phenomenon, which it most certainly is not. The Gospels present quite an interesting example of culture warfare, as the Jews desperately fought to keep their identity and morals in the Roman world. They also had groups they viewed as being particularly immoral such as the publicans and Samaritans. They also had culture wars among themselves as can be seen with the struggle between the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes who all wanted to define Jewish identity. It is interesting how Jesus responded to them. He also seemed to dismiss all their culture warfare and brought up ideas and morals they had never thought of before or simply hadn’t applied in a certain way. While they viewed themselves as being the moral gatekeepers, He pointed out that their morality in truth left a lot to be desired.
The next part of this series will be a more specific critique of the overall culture war as well as a vision for the future of Christianity in America, particularly in regards to social and political engagement. I want to emphasize however that I know and respect many people of different faiths, including those of the more conservative Christian variety and I do not intend to condemn them or their ideals. In the end, we are all responsible for working out our own thoughts and perspectives while hopefully remaining empathetic enough to see things from another person’s perspective.