There is hardly a moment’s pause in the discourse about the culture war both in the mainstream media and in evangelical circles: who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s conceding, who has the best long-term strategy, etc. I’ve written a few of those pieces myself. But on the occasion of Rachel Held Evan’s post on the matter and Fitz’s and Matt Lee Anderson’s different responses, I think we take a moment to acknowledge how slippery the term “culture war” is, what it may actually mean, and where that leaves us.
First of all, let’s look at the usual way this is discussed. Often in both the media and among hip, moderate-to-liberal evangelicals, only the right fights the culture war. Conservatives are culture warriors, but gay marriage activists are not. Thus when the topic turns to “getting beyond the culture wars,” what is really meant is conservatives giving up or at least shutting up. We will get beyond the culture wars when the conservatives at least admit they’ve lost and decide to stop talking about this stuff so much. Again, I’m sure I have expressed a version of this view on various occasions; the only excuse I can offer is that seeing debates from the outside is a constant struggle.
So one problem with the dominant discourse on the culture wars is that one side of the battle is mostly ignored. The other problem is even bigger: with so much media usage and partisan co-optation, the meaning of the term has become incomprehensibly broad. Does it mean political activism? Championing a particular side of a divisive issue in intellectual debate? Does it just mean tone—ie, does being hyperbolic and hysterical make you a culture warrior, while making the same argument in measured, sophisticated tones means you’re just someone with an opinion? And on which front of the culture war are you fighting? The whites-vs-minorities one, the sexual traditionalist vs. the sexual progressive one, the rural vs. urban one, the Keynes vs. Hayek one?
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; it tries to shove deep disagreements into a corner with some kind of label indicating that this is not welcome in “reasonable” discourse. “Culture warrior” is an epithet, used by the “sides” against each other and by bipartisan elites against all that shrill partisanship. But the reality is that certain issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc, are deeply divisive, and they symbolize and encapsulate dearly-held views about what is good and right in our country and the identities of people who hold those views. Despite what Washington pundits might tell you, people should have strong feelings about these issues, and they should fight about them. It’s called politics.
This presents a dilemma for Christians on opposite sides of political issues, who need to both remain faithful to their theological/moral/political beliefs and to love other Christians who disagree about those very charged issues. It’s hard to do, but it’s not impossible. And the worst thing that can be done, I think, is to keep using the term “culture wars” against people who disagree with your politics while, in the same breath, claiming you are tired of fighting. I don’t mean to pick on Rachel here, because she is a lovely person who is doing much worth admiring. I get what she’s trying to say, and I have even made these same arguments in the past. But in a post like this, she is taking a fairly clear political position: that evangelical political opposition to gay marriage is wrong. She opposes Amendment One. I agree with that position, but I can’t deny that it is a position, and that it puts me on a “side” of the “culture war.” (Similarly, Matt cannot convincingly claim he’s “not much of a culture warrior” when a significant amount of his work is devoted to energizing a conservative Christian worldview that has political dimensions he cares about passionately.)
For the evangelicals who lean more to the left, I think it’s better to be honest about that than to try to make the typical liberal move of framing your own position as non-political while blaming the reactionaries for being so mean and political. Being non-political shouldn’t be anyone’s goal because it’s both cowardly and inherently hypocritical; there is no such thing. If you want to preach a message of peace, focus on the way that political rhetoric impacts Christianity, maybe, rather than pretending people are going to give up their convictions and interests for the sake of harmony. Your convictions will tell you whether, for you, certain issues are battles worth fighting politically, theologically, rhetorically, etc, or whether your energy would be put to better use washing feet. I fully support fighting the other “side.” But just because one decides service is better than activism doesn’t make all activism illegitimate—and it doesn’t make the struggle go away.
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