Blame the Culture War?

Think Christian points to a Capital Commentary from Michael Gerson, and asks, “How can Christians rise above political polarization? ”

The appropriate Gerson comment is this:

“(partisanship) turns near every political disagreement into a culture war debate, making social compromise far more difficult. “

That’s the issue, it would seem. How do you unwind the cultural war?

No matter how much Matthew Anderson wants to play it down, the point of the cultural war was to weight political decisions with values, such that the usual pragmatic concerns, those that split the difference, could not be acted on. This weighing of political discussion with values, where nominal decisions become freighted with (eternal) significance is the product out of any number of religious disputes. It is peculiarly the creature of American church conflict and its myriad of self-differentiating sects, and of American culture’s natural bent towards an individualism. So the same tactics, the same type of over-the-top invective so useful for (religious) product differentiation, becomes the stuff of the every political task.

But in one sense we are at the end of the cultural wars. The great clarification, the sorting in the Protestant church and in the political sphere, both sides have seized their appropriate ground. So as long as you keep going to the cultural war well, you end up with the same stalemate.

The stalemate is a trap. It’s very frustration, it’s deadlocking encourages participants to the path of power, to basically forcing the issue by might. For Christians that is a trap since it trades short term success for long term disability in the public sphere. (Win and the losers resent, lose and the winners discount your belief. Lose-lose either way).

Gerson gets the point that maybe we need to move sideways. Talk about Africa, say. As part of that, one must necessarily also die to self. We need a new vision of what it means to serve God in this world other than that conventionally political one which the cultural wars have brought us.

If I’m a Christian, do I have to be a Republican?

A month ago, Kevin White at Mere Orthodoxy raised up the question about what it meant to be a social conservative. Terms get mushy when we speak about “cultural warrior” and even more so, when the conversation turns to the meaning of conservative itself.

So some conservatives are defined by one or another cultural ideology (not just the “Religious Right”), some primarily by an economic theory, some by a vision of American greatness. There is a conservative political movement in America, but it is itself a coalition of conservative movements, of varying mutual compatibility. They have more in common than an opposition to modern progressivism, but that “more” can be tricky to pin down.

He continues

Even social conservatism is a cluster of movements. Some are single-issue, others take on a thicker portfolio of concerns. Some threads have a positive vision, and others are reactive and based on resentment. Some care deeply about the proper role of each level of government, others see that array of governments as a jumble of available tools. Some loved Falwell, other social cons struggle still to distinguish him from Mephistopheles-minus-the-style.

So he opts out for a Mr Nice Guy philosophy.

So perhaps the question is not how to find a “non-culture-war conservatism”, but how to be a thinking, winsome social con who can self-present and be received as those things.

Perhaps it is as simple as this: there is no unified conservative worldview or approach. None. The very amorphous nature of those who would wear the label probably rules against its use save in the comparative sense (“this more conservative than that”) and of course as a political label. On top of this, so much of our own political and cultural thinking will be driven not by philosophy but by our particular social circumstances. We are as much conservative (or liberal) by birth as by our “coming to the light.”

As a matter of politics — this mass communication aspect —  the use of the term “conservative” is somewhat slippery, suggesting that one actually has a set of principles that will lead one to act independently on various political or policy decisions. A kind of semantic glue, perhaps, but also a sort of scrim hiding from us what the issue really is, that of power to determine the political agenda on the Right. Here, the social conservatives (for want of a better term) appear to be engaged in a two-fold struggle, first to enlist fresh soldiers from the Millennial cohort, and second to gain traction within political councils against the more economic and libertarian factions.

In a biblical moment, the only point of convictions is to be able to deny the politics, in the word from Proverbs, to swear to our own hurt. The charge of hypocrisy resonates as much for its sense that  “conservative” is merely another name for Republican and the settling for the politics of power and pragmatism, as it does for any failing of personal ethics.  The Christian political approach must always be one seeking to build across the social chasms rather simply stay content with one’s own side. However nice one puts it.

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.” Continue reading “Culture War Reconsidered”

Cultural War or Boomer Politics?

David Sessions wonders if “cultural wars” is simply a slipping sideways by liberals, afraid of conflict.

I think most of us loosely think of culture warring as a special class of ressentiment, combat driven by a mentality of besiegement, symbolic struggle, and supposed existential threat to a cultural identity. But I’m not so sure we can make a clean separation between that and good old democratic disagreement. Democracy as we generally conceive it is a structure for managing and containing conflict, a framework for legitimate political struggle. There will always be factions, sides, particular interests, etc, and those imply we will have political friends and enemies. Deep down, I think describing serious political conflict as a “culture war” is part of the liberal allergy to vigorous debate


As received language or rhetoric, “cultural war” has a more specific, defined meaning. It’s not just simply politics, but the organized, political organization of (initially) conservative Protestant constituencies by para-political bodies. It begins with Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 80s, continues through Focus on the Family, and the more current iterations. We also know that this organization was not organic, rising from below, from the outrage of the people (the basic <i>ressentiment</i> you noted), but this was a planned mobilization by activists on the Right.

The hallmark of this mobilization was the shaping of a set of moral and cultural issues as a central motivator for voter behavior.  It quickly moved beyond the banks of the fundamentalists and the original nativist wing in the Republican right, to sweep up conservative Catholics and other traditionalists. Although its religious roots were plain, its breadth and scope ask for more — thus we now speak of “social conservatives” instead of the religious right.

And in practice, there was something stronger at work than the usual political horsetrading. In making moral issues a voting matter, the advocates created a more Manichean frame, one that easily leads to demonization of opponents and a kind of scorched earth partisan politics. And like other wars, there has been collateral damage, not least being the pushing away of young people. Not surprisingly, the introduction of such moral certitude has also produced a counterforce, now seen in a sort of vehement secular stance on the left, and to a lesser extent in the rise of gay politics.

So given the specificity of its origins, its backers, the distinct cluster of issues and its hard edged agenda-driven approach to politics, thinking of cultural wars as “good old democratic disagreement” seems limited. Tucked in Evans’ essay and noted elsewhere, this political phenomenon we term “cultural wars” is perhaps best understood generationally (as J A K Smith has noted elsewhere), the product of Boomers and our (I’m one) milennialism.

Gospel Politics

Matthew Lee Anderson is thinking about this recent post from Rachel Hyde Evans, and wondering about the future of the cultural war.

 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.

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 here: 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.

On Negative Advertising

Bill Vis calls attention to Peggy Noonan’s essay, this ending line especially stood out:

I wish someone would make this ad and show it across the country and say at the end: “Cheer up, have faith, greatness is possible, sometimes it’s there but you only see it in retrospect. Not everyone’s a bum.”

“It’s halftime, America.”

Here is the ad community’s thinking.

“Negative” ads are part of the drawing of bright lines between the two sides. They can be done with fun or not (most of us prefer the fun ones).

What Noonan does not get to directly, or only touches on, is the structure that generates such ads. When you have your Super PACs out there, funded by a rather small set of extremely wealthy individuals (a fraction of the fabled 1 % ), you end up with pretty much this sort of stuff. Why? Because a PAC cannot go out and advocate FOR a candidate, thus its easiest media path is to go after the other guy.

This is the genie Citizens United let out of the bottle.

As to the antidote? Well those with skin in the game want to keep their voice, so I am doubtful of any legislative action. But for the christian community that does mean that we can be part of building civic and civil discourses. This turn will be seen by activists as one to the apolitical, a pulling back from cultural engagement. It probably is. A second difficulty will be nurturing communities that provide local civic leadership. Once this was relatively easy, when Calvin essentially served a regional audience. her poli-sci grads then went off and worked in their communities. The national shift at Calvin has meant that those same poli-sci grads aspire to more national status and so zombie-like, get infected.

In short, if we want a better community, then we will need to be about the task of creating a better culture.

Climate Change

This from Michael Gerson:

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.
But however interesting this sociology may be, it has nothing to do with the science at issue. Even if all environmentalists were socialists and secularists and insufferable and partisan to the core, it would not alter the reality of the Earth’s temperature.

The transformation of skepticism into a shibboleth is fascinating, and something of a learned response. It’s a matter of identity, that in turn suggests that the issue is tapping something deeper in the skeptic. Climate disruption carries with it the whiff of disruption, or impermanence, true; perhaps even more it is the role of climate as a sign of hope. The issue is the bow in the sky, Nature/Creation’s seeming permanence proclaims that one can begin again. It’s never drastic. Our nature calendars tell us that this world is good. this is a delight that is egalitarian — we all have access to this beauty, this goodness that is outside our door.

Climate disruption would seem to put a lie to this; the tragic has happened. The beauty we see, the memories of cold winters and green summers at the lake are fading, not to be ours. Science and the elites seem to take it away from us. And so it becomes a matter of cultural war, not because of science or faith, but of loss.

Casualties of the Cultural War

‎*applause* He makes a good point… ppl have idolized a text to the point of becoming rigid, grinchy parrots, and display none of the attributes the same text recommends….
The Bible & Homosexuality: Enough with the Bible Already – Pomomusings
[I know many will not agree with this post. I know many will say I’m on the slippery slope, have rejected Scripture, thus rejected Christ, and I am teaching things against the Gospel. ..

I probably share some of your viewpoint, especially on the focus on displaying the attributes of Gospel living (tho’ I prefer the word “discipleship” or practices). A post like this always gets me nervous because it so often is the sort made as one is heading out the door, so to speak (not that the author is). As we go into the secular we let go of those things, and so we write something or pick up something that warrants as it were, the decision of the heart.

The tragedy in this struggle is the way that it not only sends some people out, but also hardens the hearts of those who stay in.

other comment: There’s much more to be said here. The underlying essay is one more instance of how biblical texts alienate as much as attract. The alternate to using text as club is not a wish-away but an openness to God and to the other person. If we are not shaped by the text, it is hardly likely that we will be able to respond; if we are not rooted in what God gives, we are also unlikely to be able to offer the spiritual hospitality that the person in front of us seeks.