One of the lines we have taken for a long time at Mere Orthodoxy is a skepticism about culture war strategies and motifs in Christian public speech and Christian political strategy. (This is one of the first pieces I wrote for the site after becoming editor-in-chief.) And for a brief window, I think a lot of other folks were with us in that skepticism.
But then as religious liberty issues rose to the forefront after Obergefell and, especially, as trans issues became more public and far more extreme, the culture war motifs came back with a vengeance. It was easier to be anti-culture war when our country still knew what marriage was and what men and women are. But as the SOGI landscape has shifted, culture war has started to look like a viable strategy, especially if the alternative is talking about drag queen story hour as a “blessing of liberty.” That said, the long term costs of adopting the culture war strategy are significant and so, even now, we should reject it.
The Culture War Triad
It’s best to define our terms first. So here are the three issues that I see making up the culture war strategy:
The explicit framing of one bloc of people as “enemies.”
A commitment to defeating enemies primarily through political means.
An abandonment of other forms of public speech, moral advocacy, and persuasion as a consequence of both “1” and “2.”
It’s the triad here that gets you to “culture war” as opposed to “ordinary Christian political advocacy,” I think.
To break this down a bit more, a Christian account of public life is going to recognize a variety of communities that go into constituting a polity. Minimally, you will have churches, magistrates (governments), and families, as these three communities are all explicitly sanctioned in Scripture to pursue certain goods.
But you can also make a case that a Christian account of a polity will include something like guilds, labor unions, or worker collectives, as those are going to be the social entities that can unite people as workers, which is an important form of union in a capitalist society. You need blocs of workers united together in order to preserve a certain degree of economic power for the vast majority of participants in the economy. Businesses or other firms might fit in too as social entities that unite people in pursuit of fairly specific goods. Then there are also other entities, like neighborhoods, voluntary organizations, philanthropic entities, and so on.
In a Christian account of public life, all of these entities have distinct roles to play in a healthy society. Moreover, the entities can overlap at points and compete with one another at some points. So virtuous public life is going to involve making distinctions between entities and recognizing how to participate in each entity righteously. My participation in my family’s life won’t look the same as my church’s or my participation in governmental matters, though of course my participation in every sphere is governed by the moral law.
For that reason, the idea of seeing some bloc of people as an “enemy” is not necessarily wrong in any and every situation. There’s a realism about it that is helpful, I think. Indeed, implicit in the command to love one’s enemies is a recognition that one can and will have enemies. But, of course, far more explicit in that command is the imperative to love those enemies. So recognizing someone as an enemy doesn’t absolve us from the command to pray for them, treat them in a certain way, and so on.
Additionally, seeking to use the political domain toward its rightful ends is not wrong. For example, there is such a thing as obscene speech that is corrosive to public life. As such, it is not inherently and automatically wrong for the government to regulate that. (And here it is worth recalling that there very few free speech absolutists. There are any number of things I could say in the extremely progressive coffeeshop I’m sitting in as I write this that would get me into trouble with the coffeeshop owner. And in this hypothetical If I brought my case to our very blue city council, I do not expect that they would be sympathetic to it.) That said, much of how a government behaves can and should be defined by restraint, both because respecting a person’s individual freedoms is a form of neighbor love and because iatrogenics, doing harm in the pursuit of bringing healing, is a real concern, particularly in a society as confident and technocratic as our own. To exercise political restraint is not inherently cowardice or timidity; often it’s the better part of wisdom. So neither the first nor second part of the triad are, in themselves, always and forever bad or wrong.
It is the combining of the three points above that makes the culture war so corrosive. When politics comes to so dominate our approach to public life, we lose track of the many other sorts of communities and publics that we belong to. To centralize the political in this way will often lead to us giving up on persuasion altogether. This, in turn, often leads to our giving up a great many of our communities altogether since those communities are made up of people who differ sharply from one another and must find ways of navigating their differences. When we give up on all forms of public associations with people we sharply disagree with, we lose a Christian theory of common life and replace it with some species of sectarianism, be that theonomy, integralism, or the sort of right-wing successor ideology you find amongst many conservative nationalists.
That, incidentally, is why I try to shop at fairly progressive local businesses, maintain relationships with people to my left as much as possible, and so on. I don’t go to church with them, sure. But I do live in neighborhoods with them, frequent many of the same businesses, drive on the same roads, attend many of the same public events, and so on. Given the necessity and inevitability of these relationships, it makes good sense to do all I can to keep things cordial and even affectionate, so much as it depends upon me.
So how does what I’m proposing above cash out when it comes to practical issues of the day? Suppose you find yourself in a situation like the one facing one of my friends in their blue state context:
Your 7th grader in the local public school walks into her homeroom and is shown a video about “gender reassignment” that includes footage of a penis being cut off and “made into a vagina.”
Our response to this needs to be layered:
a) If possible, get your kid out of that school.
Obviously this is a burden for many families who may not be able to homeschool or have the resources to afford a private school alternative. So families that stay in public schools should not be ostracized or attacked within their Christian communities, nor should the public school employees who are attempting to do good work in the schools while resisting these ideologies. Additionally, families who have children with special needs may stay in a public school because such schools are nearly always far better equipped to teach and assist their child than are non-public schools.
That being said, if things like that described above are happening in your child’s school, I would nearly always advise getting them out if at all possible. This is something churches need to be helping with. One way of doing that is through having a portion of the church budget set aside to help families send their kids to Christian schools, which is still a common practice in the CRC, I’m told.
But there are other things that can be done. My home church, for instance, makes its building available to a local homeschool coop. I’m not sure what the coop pays to use the space, but I know it’s not a high rate relative to real estate in Lincoln. This in turn allows the coop to keep its prices very low.
So we need to think about this issue not in purely financial terms—how do we get money together to help our families pay tuition?—but also in terms of ‘what are our resources more generally and how can we use those to make Christian education accessible to as many as possible?’ This could mean starting new schools or new homeschool coops or any number of other possibilities.
b) Use what political levers you can to try and challenge school curriculums that teach these things.
This would include voting for qualified political candidates running for offices that will be able to address these issues as well as raising awareness locally about the issue. So, for example, a number of friends of mine were involved here in Lincoln when the city council tried to push through a fairly draconian fairness ordinance. In that case, our appeal was successful, and the fairness ordinance was defeated.
Significantly, we managed to accomplish that while mostly avoiding the propagandistic tactics increasingly common with the young right. One goal of this advocacy should be that we engage in that work in such a way that the reason our opponents attack us or even hate or insult us is purely because of the position we have taken and not because of our behavior within the city. “So much as it depends upon you, live at peace with all men,” we are told.
c) Don’t lie about the schools, teachers, or administrators.
This is Christian Ethics 101 and yet many Christians routinely fail in this area as it relates to their public speech. When we criticize someone publicly, we need to say what is true about the problem, not embellish, exaggerate, or lie about the issue in order to drum up more political support or attract more attention. And yes, I know that this limit will make certain parts of attracting attention and building awareness more difficult. But this isn’t my rule. It’s God’s. (And, yes, there are times where we can say what is true and still be accused of lying. That’s why I said “don’t lie,” instead of “don’t be accused of lying.”)
d) Act like Christians in our personal interactions with everyone.
This, again, is where much public speech by Christians fails rather egregiously. A close and sober reading of what our fathers and mothers in the faith have said about the ninth commandment would do all of us a great deal of good. (And, yes, I will freely admit that I have failed this test myself in the past. When we mess up, we should apologize in whatever way is appropriate and try to reconcile with the party we wronged.)
We shouldn’t only pray for the administrator or teacher whose decisions we are opposing. We should also pray for the students being affected by the policy and for the other employees of the district who perhaps oppose the policy themselves but are unsure how to proceed or handle the issue.
I take all of the above to be consistent and in keeping with a basic Christian approach to public life.
What if we don’t maintain all of the above layers?
The difficulty we have is that the vast majority of evangelicals fall into one of two categories: One group refuses to do “A” or “B” for fear of giving unnecessary offense or because they lack internal clarity about the gravity of the challenges before us.
The other group, in contrast, is usually clear on “A” and “B” but seems to almost completely miss “C,” “D,” and “E.” Often they are so cruel, dishonest, or insincere in their speech that it renders any form of interaction save for confrontational public performance basically impossible, which, in turn, reenforces the impossibility of change coming through any means aside from brute political force.
There is a knockdown effect from these two respective errors too. Seven years ago when I wrote the essay linked near the top of this post, I noted that you can’t fight a war between cultures if you don’t actually have two distinct cultures.
When we lack the courage to take unpopular stands, use licit forms of power to call for change, and so on, we risk colonization by the very culture we’re trying to reach. (Chase Davis will have an essay on this issue in print #4.) So the Christian culture of churches and families is eroded by the pressures of the prevailing regime in precisely the ways that something like The Benedict Option was warning us.
On the other hand, when we give up on persuasion and the ordinary means of preserving and advancing Christian community, our “Christian communities” become indistinguishable from partisan communities. Voting choice becomes a test of orthodoxy, one’s emotional response to current events a sign of one’s spiritual seriousness. It is hard to see how a community so constituted, particularly in this particular political environment, can live up to the moral vision of the Ten Commandments.
Thus we might say the problem with the culture war is that it is broadly fictitious. When we embrace the culture war triad, what we end up with is less a clash between distinct cultures with different values and more a clash between mirroring cultures that possess similar capacities for cruelty and inhumanity.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).