Culture War Reconsidered

Timothy Dalrymple is clearly unhappy with the notion of “cultural wars” thinking it more a term imposed on a movement than properly existing as anything.In his essay, What if the “Culture War” Never Happened?, he frames the fight as emerging from a broader imperative to engage culture. For him it is fundamentally a political task.

We can have strategic discussions; we can adjust our approach, our language, our arguments; we can work harder and harder to express our convictions in ways that are winsome and culturally relevant. We can deal with the hypocrites in our ranks and expel the charlatans. What we cannot do is simply abdicate the fight. . . .
The proper exercise of political power should be neither a matter of obsession nor a matter of disinterest for the followers of Jesus Christ. The dead are not raised by politics. But the living are protected by it. Some things are worth the struggle; some things are worth the cost.

What Dalrymple evidently wants to do is to have the freedom of political engagement but without the attendant baggage. The nature of his argument implicitly admits the damage that harsh language has done; it also draws a wider scope than the mere political (e.g. what exactly does one do with “the porn-ification of American entertainment,” a cultural referent if ever there were one). As I note (below), this desire to clear the ground for political action may actually pass too lightly over the phenomena and changes that we generally define as “the Cultural Wars.”

Whatever the term we give it, “Cultural Wars” does seem to have a specific cultural referent, arising as it does out of the mobilization of the white Evangelical community in the run-up for the 1980 Reagan election. Travelling along with the politics were conflicts in denominations (e.g. the emergence of the PCA, or of the conservative take over of the SBC — both driven by a mixture of biblical concerns and objections to women in ministry); conflicts over education — not just evolution in the classroom, but advancement of home-schooling as a preferred choice for many; and the variety of demographic shifts as Boomers not only had families, but increasingly had those families in the Sunbelt. One could easily think of this as a time of purification, a neo-Puritan movement; certainly the Reformed markers were there going into the first term of Bush, a time I take as the high water for the movement.

I would also call attention to the essential Boomer quality of the movement. Conservative Evangelicals of the age cohort shared the same idealistic even moralistic approach of their peers. Tucked into this is the reality that the period 1978-2008 is one where the Boomers were having families, and with it the set of anxieties that naturally arise (schools and sexual boundaries being important).

Now was this a “defensive” movement? Strategically, perhaps, similar to asserting that the South fought a defensive war in 1861-65, but at various points it also set out to expand its boundaries, to establish its view as the normative one for politicians on the Right. As much as anything, these intra-party disputes underscored the militant nature of its politics, a militancy well attested to.

And finally, I cannot be as blasé about the spiritual damage wrought. The reactionary neo-atheism of the Left seems to be a direct by-product. At an anecdotal level, the successful identification of the political and the religious, not only made it far more difficult for those on the Left to hear the Gospel claims, but encouraged them to see the authentic religious claims to be the merely political. I think this qualifies as a great loss.

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