February 6, 2018

Culture Wars and Culture Building

Christians don't have the option to withdraw from the culture war, but in order to effectively engage, we need to first have a vision for what godly culture is like.

A great deal has been said over the past few decades, both within and from outside evangelicalism, about the phenomenon of “culture wars,” to the point that a sort of war-weariness has set in. With that weariness has come an inclination to withdraw from the culture wars, especially among those who feel as though they are on the losing side. It was James Davison Hunter who coined the term in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Hunter’s award-winning book identifies the family, education, media and the arts, law, and electoral politics as the fields of conflict in all culture wars. These areas represent "our most fundamental and cherished assumptions about how to order our lives – our own lives and our lives together in this society."[1] 

The language of cultural war was quickly picked up in mainstream academia and journalism. Here in Toronto a popular radio program hosted a long-running segment called Culture Wars. Just three years after Davison’s book, Michael Horton released a book called Beyond Culture Wars: Is America a Mission Field or a Battlefield? In it he claims that the very idea that Western Christians are engaged in a culture war is misguided; he asserts that this is a war we have already fought and lost. Rod Dreher echoes this sentiment in his 2017 The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, where he urges Christians to “stop wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles,” and instead to organize into “communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”[2]

For Horton’s part, he exhorts Christians to get back to what he perceives as our true calling, to carry out personal evangelism and apologetics in order to get people into the church. We would do well to heed the reminder that a political power-grasp by God’s people is no way to serve as salt and light in the world. However, Horton dramatically overstates his position, and betrays some problematic assumptions about the nature of culture. He writes:

The Holy Spirit will not convert a single soul through moral crusades…, or change the direction of the homosexual by prime-time denunciation from moralistic preachers. Yes, we are called to preach the good news and to call men and women to repentance, but that is not a political issue, that is not ultimately a moral issue, that is a gospel issue. Repentance can no more be coerced by the state than faith; both are the gracious gifts of God.[3]

Horton is all too right that it is only ever the gospel, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that redeems and restores sinners; but what are cultures but groups of sinners in need of redemption? When men and women respond to the gospel in repentance and faith, their morality is changed, their politics is changed, as they begin to take every thought captive in obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). In some cases, the change is obvious, as when a former abortion doctor turns from his sin to operate a pro-life clinic.[4]

But often the change is less conspicuous – the converted politician who has always voted for pro-life legislation because it helps him stay elected, who now does the exact same thing because he has come to know the precious, liberating, life-giving love of God. We gravely underestimate the power of the gospel if we think it can be cordoned off from moral or political issues (Rom. 2:12-16).

The idea that Christians can withdraw from the culture wars is a category mistake, because human beings are created to be cultural. But emphasis on culture war has perhaps contributed to some of our confusion, because a culture war presupposes and rests on a plan of culture building. Before we can engage in a cultural war, we need to build a culture, the same way we need to build planes before we can engage in an aerial war. The cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28), reiterated to Noah and his family (Gen. 9:1), and then expanded and clarified in Jesus’ Great Commission to his disciples (Matt. 28:18-20), is a program for building a culture.

Ed Vitagliano notes that culture wars have always existed, that until the return of Christ in glory they always will exist, and moreover, that they are not limited to societies of Christians: “From Cain and Abel to the philosophical battle between Epicureans and Stoics (Acts 17:18) to battles over abortion, people have always disagreed about fundamental truths.”[5] Consider again Hunter’s assessment of our “most fundamental and cherished assumptions.” The spheres that he lists are common to all peoples and societies; every worldview has an idea about the goals and methods of educating children, an understanding of justice, a vision of artistic beauty, and so on.

Our efforts at culture-building will reveal our expectations for the outcome of our unavoidable culture war. If we believe that this is a war that Christians are ordained to lose, or have already lost, then our cultural efforts will be minimal, because you don’t keep building jets once you’ve waved the white flag.

But what about the alternative? Do we believe that, by the powerful mercy of God, our efforts to infuse our schools, courtrooms, art galleries and film studios with the sweet aroma of the gospel of Jesus will bear fruit? The gospel promises true freedom, life, and beauty, and when men and women turn in repentance and faith and embrace that gospel, the natural result is cultural transformation.


[1] James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 42.

[2] (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 12.

[3] Michael Horton, “Beyond Culture Wars,” Modern Reformation, last modified 2016, http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=831&var3=issuedisplay&var4=IssRead&var5=91.

[4] Patrick Craine, “Former abortionist now head of one of the largest pro-life medical practices in the U.S.” Lifesite News, last modified 2018, https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/former-abortionist-spreads-gospel-of-life.

[5] Ed Vitagliano, “Have We Lost the Culture War?,” American Family Association, last modified 2018, https://www.afa.net/the-stand/culture/2015/09/have-we-lost-the-culture-war/#.

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