Gilt statue of a unicorn on the Council House,...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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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

25 Responses to The Mythical Land Beyond the Culture Wars

  1. Dan Baker says:

    Being non-political shouldn’t be anyone’s goal because it’s both cowardly and inherently hypocritical; there is no such thing as “non-political.”

    Disagree. “Politics” is just a system, and we can opt out of any system. If I live out my faith, and it happens to align with a political ideology, that’s not politics. Politics is putting trust in the hands of a powerful elite to do “big things.” Politics is an idol which can (and should) be rejected.

    That being said: I totally agree with you re: liberals thinking they are apolitical while accusing conservatives of “playing politics.” They are both fighting the culture war, and wars can only end when both sides agree to peace.

    • Dan, I think I get where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure you have a very rigorous conception of what politics are. It’s not just an abstract “system” out there we can choose to ignore if we like. It’s true, one can make an idol or obsession of political combat or the trappings of Washington, minute-to-minute political minutia, etc. But politics itself is not an abstraction, it is the stuff of our collective relationships, and we engage in it every day whether we realize it or not. To use a bit of pretentious philosophy lingo, we are always already thrown into politics, and everything we do acts upon and in response to the customs, laws, and political systems we find ourselves in. I agree we can care way more about politics than is healthy or productive, but it’s naive to think they can be avoided or escaped. To do that would be to not be human.

    • Matthew says:

      Good response by David. I’d add that “opting out” of the political system is a lovely option that can be entertained by people who don’t have to suffer the vagaries of political changes (i.e. the poor & oppressed.) It’s not particularly loving to say, “Screw politics!” when political decisions end up affecting our neighbors one way or the other.

      • Dan Baker says:

        Thanks for the conversation. You and David both bring up good points. And yet I have difficulty accepting Politics (let me define it: exercising my rights of citizenship by direct participation in government [obviously includes voting, running for office, etc]) as a legitimate path to power for christians. Our path is to powerlessness, humility, servanthood; all of which run right up against the goals of politics.

  2. Thanks for this, David. I appreciated Matt’s post very much and am growing weary of young evangelicals who think they are somehow above the fray because they don’t care to “fight” over issues of homosexuality, etc. Demurring from their “progressivism,” however, doesn’t mean that we’re opting to remain soldiers in a “culture war.”

    I worry that both sides are working with a merely binary option here: if you care about defining marriage between a man and a woman, then you’re a culture warrior; but if you hold a “progressive” position, or (supposedly) abstain from caring about the issue [as if that weren’t a position), then you’re not engaging in culture wars.

    But surely this is a false dichotomy. I think the difference is this: it’s only a war if your goal is to win. This is where I passionately disagree with the Religious Right. But I also disagree with these young “progressives” because they want to import their supposed political ambivalence into the church.

    There’s more than one way to NOT fight a “culture war.”

  3. Sorry, the above is a bit muddled. What I mean is simply this: folks like Evans want to opt of the culture wars. So do I. The difference is, she seems to want to do so by giving up on holding a position, whereas I’m just giving up on the notion that a Christian position can carry the day in public discourse.

  4. There’s at least one more reason to want to opt out of today’s culture war: finding that one’s conscience rejects the two alliances on offer. Pro-life and pro-war? Anti-prison and pro-choice? No thanks.

  5. […] The Mythical Land Beyond the Culture Wars […]

  6. Travis Greene says:

    I think you’re reading Evans totally wrong. Not trying to “win” American culture (whatever that means) is just what she’s talking about.

    • Right. But she seems to think that entails the church giving up on articulating its own strong positions. What she lacks is sense in which the (transnational) church IS a “culture.”

  7. Harris says:

    Permit me to offer a counter on the cultural war.

    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 ressentiment 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.

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

  9. […] comment conversation on the Patrol piece on the Culture wars with contributions from James KA Smith and my friend Bill Harris. Share […]

  10. isaacplautus says:

    “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. ”

    Specifically it was Pat Buchanan who gave us the term. I consider myself liberal, and I hardly have an “allergy to vigorous debate”. I happen to think the political(not religious) opposition to gay marriage is entirely unreasonable, given our constitution’s disestablishment of religion. To paraphrase Garry Wills, I am just sick of the Right playing games with people’s lives on this issue. I fail to see how two men getting married threatens any conservative? So long as no church is forced to recognize or bless said marriage; so long as churches are still free to teach that honosexuality is sin, what is the problem?

    • isaacplautus says:

      “homosexuality” damn ipads aren’t good for typing. “technology is not infallible” as Chesterton said.

    • David Sessions says:

      Isaac, I need to be more careful with the term “liberal” here … I mean liberal as in a liberal political system, not as liberal vs. conservative.

  11. BobN says:

    I’m fighting for rights equal to that of my hetero compatriots.

    I’m told that I’m fighting to destroy humanity.

    I can totally see how those are the same thing.

  12. Jack says:

    I strongly disagree with your characterization of “liberal allergy to vigorous debate.” What liberals object to is not the debate, but conservatives’ presumption of the right to dictate their choices to others. From the liberal point of view, what women choose about birth control or abortion, or how gay couples structure their relationships, is a personal and private matter, not a political one. It’s strange to me that conservatives believe that economic power over others is a private, individual right, but what individuals do with their sex lives is a public question open to debate.

  13. […] liberal David Sessions admits that his side customarily denies its role as aggressor in the culture […]

  14. […] + '//'; s.parentNode.insertBefore(rdb, s); })(); Apropos of our ongoing discussion of what religious political engagement should look like amid the culture wars, Conor Williams has […]

  15. […] been a while. Over time, I’ve realized that’s not exactly right; the culture war is much too complicated and entrenched to ever really be “over.” But we speak of it simply in terms of the […]

  16. […] Liberals are culture warriors, too. even though they don’t like to think of themselves this way. […]

  17. Kate Schell says:

    Your point that many people who are “rejecting” the culture war are really just shifting to the other side certainly has merit, but what you might be missing is that “culture war” is used not to refer only to issues like abortion or gay marriage themselves, but how those issues are at times approached with a militancy & myopia that goes beyond alleged democracy and veers into would-be theocracy; and how Far Right Christianity sometimes politicizes (and spiritualizes!) non-political issues like leggings worn in schools or curse words said in movies. This seems less like kingdom building or even political discourse and more like regulating morality and fighting flesh & blood.
    Maybe we’re all fighting, but sometimes it seems like in different wars.

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