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What’s Right About the ‘Culture War’ Mentality

What’s Right About the ‘Culture War’ Mentality

by Mike Duran · 12 comments

Andy Crouch, in his terrific book, Culture Making, opens by noting how difficult the idea of culture is to define. For instance, culture is the second most complicated word in the English language to define after nature. Writes Crouch:

…our ways of talking about culture — how it works, how it changes, how it influences us and what we hope from it — often do not serve us well.

Perhaps this is one reason why the “culture wars” mentality gets a bad rap — the catch-phrase really doesn’t do justice to the complexity of ideas involved. Nevertheless, I still think the basic idea behind the rhetoric is necessary. Why? It’s simple:

There’s a real spiritual, ideological struggle which takes shape in culture. There’s two parts to that, both of which inform what’s right with the culture war mentality in my opinion.

First, the culture war mentality correctly recognizes real spiritual, social, moral, ideological differences.

In his book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law and Politics in America, sociologist James Davison Hunter describes this cultural “struggle” as the political and social hostilities generated from differing systems of moral understanding. These “hostilities” — involving issues like abortion, homosexuality, education, law, politics, family, censorship, media, and the arts — divide society along social / political lines, often forming two warring groups. The important point, one I find fascinating, is Hunter’s belief that today’s culture war is NOT defined primarily by religion, ethnicity, social class, or even political affiliation, but rather by ideological worldviews.

This concept of clashing ideas and worldviews is pretty basic to Christianity. Light and dark. Good and evil. God and Satan. This terminology and imagery is replete in Scripture. It’s no wonder that the biblical authors described Christians as spiritual warriors, wielding truth and grace, shining as lights in a dark culture. What child of God hasn’t at some point felt like a stranger in a strange land? The shape of the world, its system of values, often militates against our ideals. Sure, we can oversimplify the struggle and unnecessarily demonize “opponents.” And we can debate what it looks like to “fight the darkness” (can we do this at the ballot box?). However, it’s pretty hard to deny that a Christian worldview is often at odds with the American zeitgeist.

The rhetoric of the culture war reveals the fact that American society is deeply divided on moral issues. It’s not an artificial creation of social conservatives or political parties seeking to drum up support. Yes, the culture war rhetoric may trivialize or inflame the issue. Nevertheless, there are real, deep differences among Americans about what our society should look like. In this sense, it’s not about winning a culture war as much as it recognizing there is a clash of cultures, ideas, and morals.

This is one reason why I can stomach the culture war mentality. There is a war. It’s a real war, with real casualties, and real consequences. Sure, it’s not necessarily a physical war. But we dismiss its import — and impact — at our own risk. The prophet Isaiah said, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil” (Is. 5:20). I may disagree with you about what’s evil and what’s good, and the different shapes those things take in culture. But the moment we remove those categories from our thinking and stop speaking against them altogether, we’re in big trouble. As long as there are contrary views about right and wrong, good and evil, they will war. God help us when there’s “nothing to live or die for.”

So it may be smart to set ourselves at odds with culture, be suspicious of its subtle influence, and counter that influence often. Advantage: Culture warrior.

But let me add something else here: It’s not a coincidence that many of those who oppose the culture war lingua are typically progressives and social liberals. (Of course, it could be said that they’re simply reacting to the Religious Right’s hijacking of the term.) Why is this? It’s pretty simple: Progressives are progressing, i.e., moving away from more static, traditional ideological boundaries. In the case of gay rights, for instance, what’s being asked by progressives is not just that conservatives get out of the way so society can advance, but that they let go, that they abandon deeply held values about human beings, gender distinctives, marriage, parenting, and the role of the family in culture. Thus the appeal to “Stop the Culture Wars” is an also appeal to surrender our values.

And this in and of itself could constitute another attack.

Another reason I think the culture war mentality is valid is this: If ideas take shape in culture then it’s legitimate to fight them at that level.

Yes, this butts against something I said in my last post. Changing the underlying mindset and winning hearts is the best, most effective way to change cultural consensus. However, this is not a reason to not act for change within culture. Had Martin Luther King Jr. waited for cultural consensus, he may have never marched on Washington. Yesterday, Melissa referenced in her comments William Wilberforce’s political crusade against slavery. Same thing. Work to raise public awareness or pass legislation? Or both? Do those who oppose the culture war mentality ever slight King or Wilberforce for warring against their existing culture? Nevertheless, they will rail against pro-lifers.

So why is it that slavery was a legitimate “culture war,” whereas abortion is not?

I don’t think there’s any way around it. Sometimes politics is a necessary part of our cultural struggle. Of course, political victories will always be short-lived and ring hollow until underlying values and worldviews are changed. All the laws in the world can’t keep someone from being a racist or valuing unborn human life. Yet legislation is sometimes the first step.

Anyway, there’s a few of my thoughts. Bottom line is I’m kind of conflicted about the issue. One the one hand, I don’t think the term “culture wars” or its rhetoric are especially helpful. Furthermore, framing politics as the primary tool to fight this “culture war” not only muddles the issue, it conflates politics in a way that is unhealthy. However, there is a real clash of ideas and worldviews out there. We are called to be different from the world and reflect those differences in the culture we live. Sometimes that will take on political tones. But always it must be a resistance toward complete assimilation into an ungodly system.

Love to know your thoughts!

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Katherine Coble September 18, 2012 at 2:39 PM

Your whole premise here completely contradicts what you wrote yesterday.

Either fighting other men as our Enemy is okay or it isn’t. There is no exception clause.

“there is a real clash of ideas and worldviews out there. We are called to be different from the world and reflect those differences in the culture we live. Sometimes that will take on political tones.”

It is possible to have political opinions and statements that do not inflame or injure. Too often Christians have convinced themselves that the rightness of their positions automatically confers a rightness upon whatever behaviour they deem necessary to assert those positions. Taken to its ridiculous and Swiftian extremes that ends up with doctors who perform abortions being gunned down outside their homes.

You ask this question:
So why is it that slavery was a legitimate “culture war,” whereas abortion is not?

Wilberforce did not stand outside the homes of people who had slaves and yell and scream and call them whores and murderers. Wilberforce did not wave pictures of bloody dead slaves at people going to slave auctions. Wilberforce used politics in a very POLITIC way.

In abortion lives are ended. When we fight against abortion using the archaic guerilla methods approved by noted anti-abortion crusaders of the 1980s we abandon Grace for the expediency of creating a public villain. The souls of women who abort their babies are as valuable as those of the babies who are killed. But the Culture War mentality, so eager to be RIGHT forgets that Righteousness without love is hollow and sacrifices those women on the battlefield.

If we are Christians our first duty is to be Disciples of Christ. It’s not the cause that lacks grace, it’s the mindset that says Do Battle.

As Christians our goal is transformation: transformation of the Self into the image of Christ, transformation of others into the rebirth of Grace. Where we seek to redress wrongs in society, whether by writing good laws or striking down bad ones we need to always proceed from the mindset of those redeemed. Any actions that are not reflective of Grace do damage to our foremost cause.

Engage in processes, engage in dialog. But never ever forget on Whose behalf you do so.

That’s why I think the entire Culture War mentality needs to die. I don’t care what is on the Culture’s TV. Or in the Culture’s movies, books, music. I cannot hope to change it all.

I’m not fighting for the grassy field. I’m feeding the sheep.

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Jill September 18, 2012 at 3:54 PM

One thing you have to remember is that Wilberforce was a peaceable person and thought he could persuade others due to the virtuousness of his cause. But he didn’t outlaw slavery alone. Many other, pushier people were involved. In addition, the slave revolts were excessively bloody, and those were one of the biggest persuasive factors in ending the slave trade. At the same time, images were used as propaganda: drawings of slaves on meat hooks–that sort of thing. These drawings were extremely graphic, and they were meant to repel those who lived in fantasy land, believing that plantation owners and slave traders treated their slaves well. It was not peacefully done at all. If left up to Wilberforce alone, the abolition of the slave trade may not have happened. However, I think you’re probably right that people didn’t picket outside slave traders home and yell and scream at people. And Wilberforce certainly didn’t. He used peaceful rhetoric.

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Katherine Coble September 18, 2012 at 4:29 PM

That’s why I always find it very interesting to see Culture Warriors cling to Wilberforce and say “but, but…slavery!” with the implication that since the cause was righteous, all who fought it were as peaceable as Wilberforce.

I don’t know if Abolition could have succeeded without blood sacrifice.

I do know that for every person in a rabble who argued over the institution there were quiet farmers who stayed at home and didn’t engage in the frenzy in the public square. Tended their crops, minded their own business.

At night when everyone else took their hoarse throats and grisly pictures home with them those same “disengaged” men who didn’t take sides hid runaway slaves in their barns.

That’s sort of how I view my part in the Abortion War. I’m not yelling and screaming and Being Right on a street corner. But in my way I’m ushering babies and the women who carry them to safety.

By staying out of the ephemeral War I’m effective at getting things changed.

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Mike Duran September 18, 2012 at 5:25 PM

“Your whole premise here completely contradicts what you wrote yesterday.”

I told you I was conflicted about this issue.

“Either fighting other men as our Enemy is okay or it isn’t. There is no exception clause.”

But men can be used by the Enemy, can’t they? Men can undertake evil causes, be deceived, and willfully engage in malice. The robber who points his gun at me may not be the Enemy, but if I don’t at least treat him as one, I’m gonna get took.

“When we fight against abortion using the archaic guerilla methods… we abandon Grace for the expediency of creating a public villain.”

And what of those pro-life tactics that aren’t “guerilla methods”? Are those acceptable? Voting for pro-life legislation, is this acceptable? Encouraging adoption over abortion, is this acceptable? Distributing tracts at abortion clinics, is this acceptable? See, you’ve resorted to a stereotype to make your point, as if all pro-lifers are rabid and hateful.

“Engage in processes, engage in dialog. But never ever forget on Whose behalf you do so.”

Amen.

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Lyn Perry September 18, 2012 at 6:57 PM

I think the “conflicted” issue is well articulated in your two posts, Mike. One thing that helps me is to remember that, as Christians, we aren’t called to transform society. Influence it, surely. But transformation is a Holy Spiritual work. When we feel the need to do battle, we are primarily called “to stand” (a la Eph. 6) albeit at times we are “to advance” – I’m just not convinced we’re to advance “in hoc signo” so readily as the evangelical right has been wont to do since the 70s and 80s.

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Bobby September 19, 2012 at 7:50 AM

Agree here about the evangelical right. When Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. got into all this (and issuing, basically, a call to arms) I don’t believe they had bad intentions. They want(ed) to see Jesus’ name spread, and for others to prosper in that Name.

I think over a few decades that “call to arms” just became more “militant-like” than it should have. It became easier to see an enemy in men, not a spiritual enemy. And it’s very, very easy to find a villain in men. I struggle with this quite a bit.

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Brandon Barr September 18, 2012 at 9:56 PM

Mike, I think your second to last paragraph sums it up nicely.

“Bottom line is I’m kind of conflicted about the issue. One the one hand, I don’t think the term “culture wars” or its rhetoric are especially helpful. Furthermore, framing politics as the primary tool to fight this “culture war” not only muddles the issue, it conflates politics in a way that is unhealthy. However, there is a real clash of ideas and worldviews out there. We are called to be different from the world and reflect those differences in the culture we live. Sometimes that will take on political tones. But always it must be a resistance toward complete assimilation into an ungodly system.”

I think their is a balance that needs to be struck. A tension.

Mike, I’d be curious what you thought of this 14 minute speech by Gordon Pennington titled “Our Influence”. I promise it won’t be a waste of time. http://vimeo.com/5391831

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Sean Phillips September 18, 2012 at 10:57 PM

Ask yourself: What was the primary motive for those seeking to abolihs slavery?

What is the primary motive of those seeking to otlaw abortion? are they the same?

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Mike Duran September 19, 2012 at 4:02 AM

Sean, I’d say Yes. They both have to do with human dignity and freedom. Although individuals motives can differ.

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Jenni Noordhoek September 19, 2012 at 7:44 AM

It’s the ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals’ who usually fight against the culture war terminology? That’s interesting: the few people I have seen fighting against it are still quite conservative; they’re just tired of the vitriol…

I think part of the problem with the abortion debates is that in order to make your comparison to slavery, you first have to convince everyone that unborn babies are people too… not an impossible task. :)

Sometimes I feel like both sides of the culture war are just children throwing rocks at each other. I’m sad that we’re not better than that.

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Mike Duran September 19, 2012 at 9:44 AM

“It’s the ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals’ who usually fight against the culture war terminology? That’s interesting: the few people I have seen fighting against it are still quite conservative; they’re just tired of the vitriol… ”

Yeah, I know people on both sites of the aisles. But from my experience, it’s usually the conservatives who use the culture war language and the more liberal who are calling for a stop to it.

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Justin Hanvey September 19, 2012 at 9:16 AM

Getting back to this…I think the main point is to remember we war not against flesh and blood. The line becomes blurred sure, but as Christians we are called to love our enemies, and neighbors. We have to find the line, blurry as it is…ideologies do matter, and we do need to battle with principalities and powers, but there needs to be an honest love as well. Speak the truth in love right?

But we also need to remember we don’t live in a Christian nation, sure the founding fathers may have been Christian (although rather iffy on the whole point of killing off thousands of people who lived here before us just to own it. We can say they were war-like all we want and we were just defending ourselves, but they were here before us, and it was their land, not ours, that point still stands) We live in a religiously free nation, the laws should reflect this. Freedom even from Christian morals is a reality of our nation. People have the right to sin. To do what we don’t agree with. When it comes to issues of life and death (i.e. abortion) I do see somewhat of more reason for militance, but I don’t think we can forget, like the lady said above, that these women are legitimately believing they’re not killing an actual baby. Our “war” if you will in that arena is not in laws, but in science, in proving the fetus is alive. Sure it might take more than one discussion, but it takes time. Everything takes time.

The war is also not gonna be won by laws. That idea is silly. Politics never changed a person from the inside out. Real, human, contact between two people that love and respect each other changes lives. Laws only stop people from doing what you don’t like, it doesn’t actually change the person. And isn’t changing the person the point?

I don’t think the wars will be fought on the battlefields we use now, I think they’ll be won in friendships, in loving discussions, in grass roots efforts, in speaking the truth in love, and how is it possible to speak in love to a stranger who you have no idea why he believes the things he does, you just know what he believes…that is not enough ammunition to change him, that is only enough to anger him and push his buttons and then lose the chance to ever fight again.

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