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What’s Wrong With the ‘Culture War’ Mentality

While I’m conflicted about the term “culture war” (as it’s used by Christians and social conservatives) and the polarity it often creates, I’m in total agreement with the concept behind it. In one of his greatest works, The City of God, Augustine divided the world into the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. That was around 430 A.D. So the concept of a clash of worldviews isn’t all that new. In fact, Jesus warned His disciples to expect opposition from “the world” (Jn. 15:18) and the disciples went on to instruct the Church how to live like citizens of heaven in a backward culture.

Most Christians would agree, I think, that different — often stark — ideological worldviews exist between people. Some, however, believe the current “culture war” rhetoric has gotten way out of hand.

Popular blogger Rachel Held Evans, in a post entitled How to win a culture war and lose a generation, writes:

My generation is tired of the culture wars. 

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

Evans’ post dealt largely with the issue of gay rights and how the politicization of the issue has led, in part, to the disenfranchisement of millions of young adults and college students. I think she encapsulates the sentiments of many when she eschews the culture war rhetoric.

Nevertheless, I have reservations and questions that swing both ways on this issue. On one hand, I agree that the current culture war approach is not always helpful, even potentially dangerous. On the other hand, culture war verbiage often reflects real ideological differences and helps us forcefully maintain cultural expressions of those differences.

On this post, let me begin what I agree with. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with what I believe is right with the culture war concept.

What’s Wrong with the Culture War Mentality

First, If there’s a war, then someone must be your “enemy.” Sure, the Bible affirms that there are “enemies of the cross” (Phil. 3:18). And Jesus said to love your enemies and pray for them (Matt. 5:44). Which implies having enemies is somewhat status quo for Christians. The problem for believers is two-fold:

  • On what grounds is someone my enemy, and
  • How do I treat them?

Even if there are people advocating positions that we feel are anti-Christian, Scripture is clear that the real war is “not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). People, ultimately, aren’t your enemy. Neither are political parties, institutions, media elites, or producers of trashy reality TV shows. The “tension” exists at a much deeper level — a spiritual, ideological level. So…

  • Fox News is not the enemy
  • Bill Clinton is not the enemy
  • The Catholic Church is not the enemy
  • The LGBT community is not the enemy
  • Westboro Baptist Church is not the enemy
  • Bill Mahr is not the enemy

As wrong, as un-Christian, as hateful as you think any of the above individuals or groups are, they consist of human beings made in God’s image. And even if they are political, ideological, religious foes, we are commanded to treat them with love, kindness, and respect. (And let me just confess, I’ve got a long way to go in this category.)

I think one of the strongest arguments against the culture war rhetoric is that it demonizes and dehumanizes people;  it pigeon-holes people, stereotypes them, strips them of nuance. It polarizes people and creates an “Us against Them” mentality:

  • “She’s a liberal” and “He’s a conservative.”
  • “This is a Red State” and “That’s a Blue State.”
  • “They’re for us” and “They’re against us.”
  • “He’s religious” and “She’s secular.”
  • “They’re Pro-Choice” and “They’re Pro-Life.”
  • “This is American” and “That’s anti-American.”

Blah, blah, blah.

The questions I’d propose to supporters of culture war rhetoric are these: Who’s your real enemy? Is polarity really necessary? And does an “Us vs. Then” mentality keep you from relating to people in a Christian way? Either way, your answers will probably dictate the terms of engagement.

Second, the culture war mentality conflates the importance and power of politics. The apostle Paul wrote:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. (II Cor. 10:3)

So Christians should be about “waging war.” They just do it differently. The Church always faces the temptation of engaging a legitimate struggle in the wrong way. We are tempted to fight the world with the weapons of the world.

Using politics to fight a culture war is a dangerous thing. Especially if that culture war is really a spiritual or ideological war.

I’ve come to believe that religion is more to blame for the state of the government than the government is for the state of the nation. If the government is reflective of the nation’s values, then it’s at the level of values that Christians should focus, not at the level of government. Am I suggesting that politics are not important. No. But if our focus is primarily political, we are in danger of erecting a cultural facade without any substance.

Furthermore, an over-emphasis upon politics is often evidence of an inability to persuade at other levels. Someone once noted that every riot is a failed revolution. Revolutions begin at the grassroots level, they persuade and engage and articulate. If that fails, just start throwing rocks and bottles. Much political activism is the equivalent of a riot. Since we can’t articulate our position and persuade at the grassroots level, we’ll just make some placards, choose a snappy slogan, form a committee, and push this bill through.

Sometimes I wonder if evangelical political involvement is evidence of failed evangelism. Changing culture requires time, tact, passion and persuasion. Shaping national consensus is a lot harder than just signing a petition or voting a party line. It requires lucid thinking, right living, and transferable values. Evangelical infatuation with politics could actually be evidence of failed persuasion, of the Church’s spiritual anemia. We can’t make healthy disciples any more, so we resort to making political ideologues.

But if our real “war” occurs on the level of beliefs, ideas, and sympathies, then reducing the struggle simply to politics is a no-win situation. If winning the culture war is simply defined as voting for a certain Proposition, electing a different President, getting prayer back in school, and keeping “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, then I’m afraid we’re going to lose this battle.

The questions I’d propose to supporters of culture war rhetoric are these: Can politics really bring about a “spiritual” outcome? Have we abandoned our primary means of changing culture and substituted spiritual persuasion for political sloganeering?

So there’s two reasons I’m iffy about the language of the culture wars — It polarizes people, creates an “Us against Them” mentality, and it conflates the importance and power of politics. Tomorrow I’ll give you the other side: What’s Right With the Culture War Mentality.

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{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Jill September 17, 2012, 9:28 AM

    There is so much in this article that it’s difficult to know where to start responding. For a start, I’m not sure the culture war is entirely one of a spiritual nature. There is definitely a political culture war afoot–just look at the comments on your Team Romney post. To me, that is a different battle to the ongoing spiritual battle. And at the same time, I’m sick of Christians feeling that all cultural trends are in opposition to their faith. They fight back, feeling as if they’re fighting a spiritual battle, when they’re actually fighting to hold onto their old traditions (e.g. “Biblical” Womanhood/Manhood against the Feminist Movement).

    • Mike Duran September 17, 2012, 10:28 AM

      Hm. I think there’s probably a finer line or less distinction between the spiritual and purely political nature of issues. Most of the big cultural issues — abortion rights, gay rights, civil liberties, public education, poverty, crime, even fiscal responsibility — do have spiritual tethers.

      • Jill September 18, 2012, 9:42 AM

        Perhaps they have spiritual tethers, and perhaps not. One of the biggest cultural differences I find among people is generational.

  • Katherine Coble September 17, 2012, 10:03 AM

    This post sounds vaguely familiar…


    • Mike Duran September 17, 2012, 10:37 AM

      Wow. Lots of similarities. I remember reading that and intentionally staying out of the fray. (I get in enough trouble here.) I’m guessing that my next post may reveal a few differences in how we view this topic. Maybe not.

      • Katherine Coble September 17, 2012, 10:44 AM

        Since I don’t think anything is right with the culture war I think it’s safe to say that it will… 😉

    • Bobby September 17, 2012, 1:10 PM

      Wow, I just read through that whole thing. Talk about a rhetorical blood bath.

      • Katherine Coble September 17, 2012, 2:30 PM

        It was a whole lot of fun, lemme tell ya. And by “fun” I mean “I thought about taking up strong drink”.

  • Bobby September 17, 2012, 12:07 PM

    A two-parter post! *Waiting impatiently for next part*
    I see you’ve discovered Mrs. Evans, Mike. Yours and hers are the only two blogs I follow regularly. Or perhaps you’ve just recently mentioned her in your posts, but known of her longer. I like Rachel, and I’ve commented on her blog quite a few times. I disagree with her direction at times, but I definitely enjoy her more even-handed approach to issues versus the sarcasm, cynicism and occasional vitriol from many of her progressive contemporaries.

    I would comment further, but I’m VERY intrigued by tomorrow’s post so I’ll hold my complete thoughts until tomorrow.

  • Melissa Ortega September 17, 2012, 12:20 PM

    “Sometimes I wonder if evangelical political involvement is evidence of failed evangelism. Changing culture requires time, tact, passion and persuasion. Shaping national consensus is a lot harder than just signing a petition or voting a party line. It requires lucid thinking, right living, and transferable values. Evangelical infatuation with politics could actually be evidence of failed persuasion, of the Church’s spiritual anemia. We can’t make healthy disciples any more, so we resort to making political ideologues.”

    Having worked in the realm of federal government on the political side for over a decade I have a mixed view of this. On one hand I completely agree, however, from the perspective of a Christian who worked inside government I learned to recognize that there is a time and place for moving beyond simple dialogue and into a place of activism. I think the best illustration of this is Will Wilberforce and his Clapham crowd. Their political war against slavery was definitely a culture war – and it took forty years to win – but it was not JUST a culture war. There were eternal consequences at stake. Even though I stepped away (for multiple reason) I am still keenly tuned to go Beowulf on certain issues, and I don’t think this is wrong. What I fear is happening in the evangelical world is that secular political influences have infiltrated our deeper values and cheapened them. We view these “fights” as something akin to a super bowl party where everybody has color coded t-shirts, etc. We have become too “game.” That whole mentality is incorrect and immature. It’s like we’re all at a game cheering and doing the wave and booing for our “team” and forgetting that there are real people on the other side of the stadium and that in reality, we want everyone to win, not just us.

    In short, evangelicals behave a little bit too much like other humans right now when it comes politics. We are moving in unison with visible mascots, instead of the Invisible. We look too much like everyone else. We forward emails without thinking of checking their content for accuracy (which is btw called “bearing false witness against your neighbor”), we stick a sign in our yard for some guy we don’t know from Larry, drawing an instant line between ourselves and our Tom and Dick neighbors. And worst of all, we enjoy it. We rejoice when our “enemy” falters – we love it when “they” screw up. We divide ourselves from everyone on everything instead of remembering “in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in non-essentials, charity.”

    I think the Clapham crowd worked differently – they worked on that harder level that you speak of – but they still managed to wage an essential culture war. And even then, it was their TIME. I have often been amazed that Joseph had so much power in Egypt yet never attempted to free any slaves – God waited for Moses and a more perfect time to do that. And that showdown was a major culture war that became very personal between God and the gods of Egypt. Why the time was more perfect is a mystery to me, but there you go.

    I had a long time to sit and think about all this while serving in the middle of it, and I still can’t find a one-answer-fits-all conclusion – but I do know that scales feel like they are tipping out of balance.

    *is babbling*

    *shutting up*

    • Mike Duran September 17, 2012, 1:40 PM

      Love this comment, Melissa! You stole some of my thunder with the Wilberforce mention. He’s just one of many believers who have engaged political culture with a deeply spiritual POV. I also think you’re spot on about how we can allow politics to cheapen our values.

  • D.M. Dutcher September 17, 2012, 1:29 PM

    I’d agree with your point about the “failed evangelization” and would expand it to “failed catechism” too. I’d go further and say in one sense we aren’t being strong enough culture warriors: we aren’t transmitting and maintaining a distinctively Christian culture as an alternative to the world we all reside in. Not through political means, and I agree with you on those points to. But we don’t seem to have a vital Christian culture outside of some fundamentalist churches.

    I’d use Pilgrim’s Progress as an example. Christian is at war with the world, but doesn’t use political power at all. The war comes because the world is at enmity with the things of God. I worry that we’ve all forgotten this, and have staked out comfortable marketplace positions in Vanity Fair.

  • Justin Hanvey September 18, 2012, 9:28 AM

    Good thoughts. Will be interesting to see what you say in part two

  • Jenni Noordhoek September 18, 2012, 9:43 AM

    I definitely agree that these are the issues surrounding the culture war. I am not sure to what extent a real culture war is going on (I’m sure there is one – but I’m also pretty sure that it’s not what everyone thinks it is seeing as all that comes of this one is pain) but at this point I don’t really feel like being part.

    I’m a young person who has been through a lot and currently refuses to listen to most Christian radio stations because they have too much political activism stuff on them. (i.e. AFR) I do miss my music and the actual local news from the local station but I can’t stand the talk radio segments throughout the day.

    I guess my bigger question, though, is: how do I deal with people in my life who believe so firmly in the culture war mentality that I can’t seem to really connect with them on things not related to that?

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