Culture Wars and the Future of the Evangelical Political Witness

Rachel Held Evans struck a chord with her breathless reminder that when it comes to the culture wars, young evangelicals are just so over that.  

There’s a lot to agree with in her post and it’s hard to not wonder how pyrrhic the marriage “victories” ultimately will prove.  The best way to ensure that the principles beneath the marriage amendment in North Carolina grows in more fertile soil is to hold it with something of an open hand.  Even if it is never overturned, no one likes a boastful winner.

What’s more, the categories of “winning” and “losing” seem alien to the work of discerning and crafting legislation, and even in another world getting it passed.  Yes, the hostilities exist and the sides are deeply divided.   But the only way through the culture wars is not to shout about our need to go beyond them, but to set about ignoring them altogether and get on with the work that is given to each generation:  providing the positive vision for society that has been informed by our Christian commitments.

'Pro-Marriage Equality March' photo (c) 2010, Emily Mills - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/It may be, in fact, prudent to simply avoid celebrating much altogether.  We ought to recognize, after all, that the overwhelming passage of traditional marriage amendments are not signs of our society’s health, but its disease–and we are all implicated in it.  Legislation ought to be the fruit of a long and careful discernment, what some have called “judgment” if we can get beyond the stereotypes for a moment.  That process costs us all something, for it demands reflection upon both the moral norms we ought to strive for and the society in which we live.   The attempt to close the gap, with legislation or some other effort, must be founded upon the recognition of failure.  It will not do to foist the burden of responsibility on others before moving on.  Not as Christians, anyway.  “Weep with those who weep” is an exhortation given to the church, but it is for the world.  For as George MacDonald wrote somewhere, were it not for our tears the world would not be worth saving anyway.

It is clear in light of last week’s events, though, that those who have spoken of the culture wars’ completion were considerably too hasty with their judgment.  The younger evangelicals of the moderate variety may be gaining in strength and number, but they are still rowing upstream.  And we are mostly living off the culture war’s legacy, too.  Those who shout the loudest that the culture war needs to end stand to gain the most by it continuing.  Ressentiment is not a phenomenon bound by age and it seems like there is plenty of it among Rachel’s commenters.  

The real question that everyone wants to know is what comes after the culture wars.  And here, beyond the few platitudes that I’ve now heard enough of, no one seems to have much of an idea.  I’m on board with Rachel’s suggestion that we ought to share stories.  But my experience makes me think that sharing stories is helpful for establishing friendship but not exactly sufficient for unwinding what shape our society should actually take.  I can’t imagine any of my gay and lesbian friends resting content with sharing their story with me without them agitating to get me to vote differently.   Most of them are looking for social and legal changes based on the perceived (and sometimes real) injustices they have experienced.  And so they should.  But that simply means our political and legal differences take shape within the context of a friendship that is almost inevitably strained because of those differences.   Stories have changed much for me, but I remain a gay marriage skeptic.  And while I work to keep the question open for the sake of inquiry (doing better with this at some times than at others), I have confidence in my position and can’t forsee ever changing it.

Of course, I have never been much of a culture warrior.  I have been to the Values Voter Summit and while I remain friends with folks at the Family Research Council, I found the whole thing off-putting.  But the possibility of evangelicals being conservative without engaging in the culture wars tends to get lost among younger evangelicals.  Many people in North Carolina doubtlessly were of the culture warrior variety.  But if I know anything about the Acts 29 movement, I find it laughable to believe that folks in J.D. Greear’s church would be among them.

“There are many times,” Oliver O’Donovan once said, “when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”  When Jesus says to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, he does not make Ceasar irrelevant.  But he does ground his political theology in a sense of indifference, undermining the passions that would have incited both devotion and rebellion.  Jesus first concern is government, but the point has implications for all those creaturely realities that we might be tempted to exalt above the Kingdom of Christ.   Like Caesar, “culture war Christianity” has become an object of either devotion or rebellion, a matter for defense or denial by evangelicals both young and old. We  have not yet escaped its grasp.  And we only will when we can begin our political theologies by speaking of something else.

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  • http://chrisblackstone.com Chris Blackstone

    I find it interest that Held Evans, among others, critiques evangelicals engaging in “culture wars” when, if it was an issue she supported, she would be calling on the church to break its silence. For example, does anyone really think she would have been silent and been OK with church leaders being silent leading up to the Civil Rights Acts of 1964? I think not.

    • Jennifer Akins

      Melissa, you are awesome.

      Matt, Are you saying that Acts 29 churches are not going to fight this cultural war? I believe that you are right when you say this, if this is what you meant. I have been thinking of attending another church, since there is no interest in these matters from the pulpit or from its people.

      The silence is deafening amongst the churches that would rather “opt out” and not support this war either way. I find that very troubling. To me it generates a culture of confusion and dissension within the walls of the church and that is not saturated in the word enough to explain their stand on this and other matters of the family of God.

      I never thought that my fight for the unborn or marriage would be considered as “conservative”, I just thought it was Christian. I guess it is rebellious against the culture to have these views and to fight for them in the public square?? Actually, I know this now, and the fact that a good amount of evangelicals are against this movement, to me, is appalling.

      Also, I believe you are right to say that young evangelicals have less of a claim to this war…or want nothing to do with it. This is because of the same thing I mentioned before, but really is about foundational ground work. If they had a foundation that these mean much to the Father, then they would fight with all they have to protect it and to speak about it to their gay and lesbian friends.

      Having said this, I know that their is a large believing youth population fighting this fight. The Catholic church has a strong presence in this war (no, I am not becoming Catholic, but making a point), and I do see most evangelical factions could care less…this saddens me deeply.

      I don’t know how anyone could call themselves a Christian and not stand up for the unborn, mothers, fathers, marriage, sexual purity, and holiness. So what if people hate that? So what if it becomes a “cultural war” or whatever people want to label it??? I don’t understand the fear and lack of character in those that chose to sight with giving rights to those that want to live sexually impure lives and not point them to the savior instead, so that God, the Father can make them clean and also help others do the same?

      Can’t those who want to sight with the ones that want to redefine marriage (within the church) NOT feel the enemy in that?? I get that it is sad to those that want to live “happy” lives with those they love, but it is NOT right to encourage, enable, condone, or “be on the forefront to take a lead to”..not at all. I don’t know how that can not be seen? I’m serious about this. They must be blind to it, is all I can deduce. smh

      So disappointed in the church not rising up and march on for truth and higher ground in promoting God’s Kingdom among the world.

      • Jennifer Akins

        Does it really matter what the outcome is or where the war ends up? Like it isn’t important??? I think anyone who goes to war, goes with the intent of two things: to protect and win…No matter what they war is.

  • linds

    Though I’m not in full agreement with you on every point, this is very nicely said.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Give it time, Linds. Give it time. : )

      Seriously, thank you. The kindness means a lot.

  • http://www.benjaminasimpson.com Ben Simpson

    Thanks for your insightful post, Matt.

    I too read Rachel’s post, and found myself more disillusioned than encouraged. I am tired of the “culture wars”, but not for the reasons suggested by Rachel. And the solutions proposed were unsatisfying as well, for they did not seem to equal to the challenge of Jesus. While Christ was for peace, he was not beyond marching in to conflict. While Christ was for laying down arms, he willfully suffered. While Jesus did indeed wash feet, he also spoke truth to power. My reading of Evans’ suggestion was that of a withdrawal ethic, and while the privatization of religion and adherence to personal piety within the bounds of our exclusive, like-minded church communities is a comforting ideal for a generation that is conflict averse and conditioned by the educational system to create environments where everyone gets along and everyone is wonderful, it is far from the politics of Jesus. And that is not a rallying cry only for conservatives. If evangelical liberals believe their political vision is the one to be followed, and if their vision includes the elevation of same-sex marriage to a right, then they should head to the forefront and lead. If anything, Evans’ appears to suggest that it is the conservative culture warriors that should get out of the way, so that the secular, liberal power brokers can lead according to their ideology, which more closely aligns with Evans’ viewpoint anyway, at least as it concerns gays and lesbians.

    In closing, you are right to note that this is about political theology, and a sophisticated, biblically grounded, reasonable, and sound vision for the culture as a whole. Advocating for any view will bring conflict, fighting, hurt feelings; victories and defeats. I’m just as repulsed by smug liberals who champion their causes as I am by arrogant conservatives. Both sides are guilty. For evangelicals, when they do win “victories”, the true key is not the championing of a stance, but the glorification of a Savior, done humbly, respectfully, and lovingly.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Ben,

      Really hot stuff here. This part is my favorite:

      “If evangelical liberals believe their political vision is the one to be followed, and if their vision includes the elevation of same-sex marriage to a right, then they should head to the forefront and lead.”

      I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is exactly right.

      Matt

    • Jennifer Akins

      Ben, you said “when they do win “victories”, the true key is not the championing of a stance, but the glorification of a Savior, done humbly, respectfully, and lovingly.” I agree. No one is to boast in a “stance”, but for THE LORD’s work be done.

  • http://graphw.wordpress.com Ryan Lunde

    A great response to Evans’ post, Matt.

    My continual frustration with Christian leftists and conservatives alike is the refusal to actually engage with the central questions at the heart of our disagreement. Evans post was yet more evidence that we can’t have this conversation well. When I read it I found myself frustrated by her intentional refusal to see anything good in the Church’s desire to preserve culture.

    In general, it seems the Church has been manipulated by political forces from above on both sides of the isle. Until the Church gains a distinct, independent political voice, one that takes seriously all aspects of Christ’s Kingdom and is unafraid to span both sides of the aisle, I’m afraid we’ll be haplessly enthralled by the hallow promises of the right or the vain dreams of the left.

    • http://graphw.wordpress.com Ryan Lunde

      *aisle not isle…

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Ryan,

      You’re right about the inability to have a good conversation about all this. Which is ironic given how loudly folks call for it. We get, alas, what we wish for.

      Matt

  • brent fahsholz

    The George MacDonald quote is from Lilith – great book, great quote, and great place in your post Matt.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Brent, for the reference and the compliment! Lilith–what an amazing book!

  • Melissa

    I’m not sure I see an alternative to the “culture wars” – if we’re both in positions of responsibility for the laws of this country (i.e. lawmakers and not pundits, the latter of which has a lot more freedom) and I think one thing should be legal and encouraged you think it should not, what do we do? If we fundamentally disagree, conflict is impossible. Talking helps, but at the end of the day many disagreements remain. Everyone’s views can’t win.

    Most who say they want an end to the culture wars, really mean they just want one side to win and the other side give in. 9 times out of 10 this means, go with the cultural flow of the mainstream – stop fighting to save unborn babies, stop fighting to promote human rights, stop fighting to maintain a healthy view of human flourishing through “traditional marriage,” stop fighting to get clean water to those who don’t have it…all things I would be more than happy to stop fighting for if there was no reason to fight for them because we all agreed. If we all wanted what is best for mothers, daughters, families, people of other faiths, people in other countries, the marginalized, the sick, I wouldn’t have to fight. If we all agreed on the best way to promote justice and peace and human flourishing, I wouldn’t have to fight. But we don’t. And I cannot just be silent to avoid the supposed greater evil of engaging in a “culture war”. Where this is injustice and pain, we must fight for the good no matter how unsavory the battle is.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Melissa,

      FWIW, I wasn’t suggesting that we could avoid conflict or that we should let go of our disagreements. Nor am I ready to roll over and give up the fight for justice. Hopefully people know enough of my writing at this point to know I’m not ready to back down. I think the “culture wars” rhetoric, though, has less to do with policy proposals and more to do with the manner in which such proposals get argued for. I take it that Hunter’s To Change the World describes much of this well.

      Matt

  • Keith

    This response is very kind. Kinder, perhaps, than RHE’s post deserves. I agree with the thrust of Mr. Blackstone’s assessment: the philosophy espoused by RHE would, if consistently applied, support an anabaptist-ish withdrawal from the political process of our culture.

  • Harris

    Re-reading the post, I would second it.

    Perhaps being older, I read RHE in a somewhat different light: this is not the first time that some one noted how engagement in the cultural wars pushed non-believers away. For that, one might want to consult Amy Sullivan’s writing in 2004, another time of intense conflict. If the public thinks that Christians public position is to be defined as rejection of homosexuals (this is the point RHE cited, from Barna), then at the least you have a marketing problem.

    You also have something more: a millstone problem.

    Public speech, including political speech, must be that which is seasoned with salt as Paul says; we are to speak with graciousness and we are certainly to work to invite people to the Gospel. But if the non-Christian only sees us by what we hate — and that a side show in Scripture — what is this, but the sort of barrier, the burden we are warned against? Jesus is pretty explicit that we are not to work to gain the world if it means losing our soul.

    Moreover, when Evangelicals are especially silent about other things that Scripture is utterly not silent about (hint: $$$), how then does this witness have credibility? Again, there’s a Gospel lesson: log and speck.

    Lastly, to speak as a politico and a Christian, I think that folks underestimate just how spiritually stressful politics can be. It summons up passions; it focuses on the concerns of the ego; it constantly tempts with the exercise of power, of lordship instead of servanthood. This is tough work. And the battles of the cultural war trivialize it, or worse pretend that such harm will not touch us. It may be that we need less of a Christian politics or a Christian political agenda, and something much closer to a Christian political practice. This would be the stuff of Wisdom rather than of the prophetic.

  • Jennifer Akins

    I see the rainbow flag in the pic. Do we want to fly by that flag or the Christian flag (metaphorically speaking)??

  • http://www.bravelass.bloodspot. Kamilla
  • http://www.bravelass.blogspot.com Kamilla

    What Mrs. Evans and others who moan about wanting an end to the culture wars seem to not recognize is that we, orthodox Christians who are politically active, didn’t start this war. Rather, it is the folks who want to declare a metaphysical impossibility to be a civil right who started as on this path. Same sex “marriage” is no more a possibility than round squares.

    Evans seems to want to re-create the Evangelicalism she finds so embarrassing in the image of the dying mainline. I’d humbly suggest she just find herself a church-like entity in TEC and join it. I think she would be quite comfortable there and gain a bit insulating emotional distance from her outré home town and Alma mater.

    • Jennifer Akins

      Whoa! That “round square” analogy was dead on!!
      It made me think of the toys that babies put together with the shapes into the holes.

      God shaped marriage and so you can’t fit it or make it fit your wants. To change it or make it into your own image, would be going against God’s grain.

      “We didn’t start the Fire” song came into my brain as I read your post too Kamilla. We didn’t start it, but can’t run away or dismiss it either. For it to “go away” would have to mean some side wins, while another loses.

      Question about it should be: Which side of the battle you chose to be apart of and commit to/enlist in? Not “Why is this not over?” or “Can’t we just get ride of this war?” or “Can’t we all just get along?”

      I guess my thinking is, when God calls us to be set apart and love what he loves and love others, it doesn’t mean that we don’t work that into every arena of our lives; nor does it mean that we shy away from them, just because it may be uncomfortable or counter-cultural and bloody (so-to-speak) to do so.

      The challenge I believe a Christian faces is this:
      Are you ready to step out and stand up for his statutes and precepts?
      Are you going to be a good steward of my resource, The Bible, in regards to every issue you come across, so that my Kingdom on earth is ushered in?

      As I have found in the Pro Life movement and in those that stand for biblical marriage in the public square, they are less interested in alienating a nation, but rather protecting it from the evil one; and giving those that need support in those certain key and critical areas, a helping hand to meet their needs to do the same.

      I feel that every time I step into the fight with them that they are the Light into the world, doing God’s will on earth at being the Salt to the world, and that for sure wouldn’t be accepted to those in the dark.