We are being told time and again in the church that the younger generation of Christian are not willing to take up the mantle of the culture warriors of the last several decades – the Falwells, the Dobsons, etc. They see this as:
1. Unnecessary politicization of the faith
2. A fatal alliance with only one political party that always will end in disappointment
3. A truncated view of what it means to extend the Kingdom of God
4. An unwillingness to live in a pluralistic society
John Mark Reynolds asks “who is the real culture warrior?” His answer is not the Christian conservatives of the past decades but the progressives who decided to make war on the national consensus. These are the ones who have declared war. This was not a war of choice for Evangelical Christians. So cut them some slack.
See his blog post here.
I would like to push back a bit on Reynolds. I think that his analysis in large measure is the right one. Secularists conveniently forget how many public goods have grown out of Evangelical Christianity and too readily see it as the enemy. It was the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s that gave Americans the strength to finally face the moral blight of slavery and sustain the country in its commitment to successfully wage war to liberate slaves, at a cost of over 620,000 plus lives, roughly equivalent to what today would be a proportional sacrifice of over 7.5 million American lives. Prison reform, literacy campaigns, orphan care and an overall concern for a social safety net were fired up by the revival heat rolling out of the Awakening.
But it is also true that our culture has had to wage war against an overconfident church which often failed to honor boundaries between church and society as well as to point out that many of our default positions needed to be revisited. What has been called the Righteous Empire of the American church in the mid to late 19th century needed to be in dialogue with its host culture. I think this needs to be regularly said.
In my mind is a “for instance” that I deal with in my ethics class. The church almost immediately responds to cultural debates by a reference to the effects of secularization on the home – the increase in the number of divorces, the effects upon children, etc. Mark Reynolds does so in his post. This is true in large measure. But our less stringent divorce laws with the consequence of homes more easily disassembled have also meant that women now have leverage formerly not available to them. Men now pay a larger price for ignoring the proper aspirations of wives and the respect that is due to them as equal partners on the domestic front. (Just take another look at Mad Men to refresh your memory). There is no doubt that a stricter set of legal guidelines would more negatively impact women than men. Men are now on notice that women are just as powerful in courts of law as the men and that their interests count in ways that were not true in years not too distant. So we are in the place where tighter divorce laws, a good in its own right, will diminish the standing of women in society. It is good to be against divorce. But don’t forget how tighter divorce laws negatively impact women, whose liberation and equality is also a great good.
Such instances as these are multiplied. We ought to be careful when painting the contrast between church and secular culture in too stark colors.
I think we might need a new paradigm for the culture wars metaphor. Culture gives the church feedback on whether its moral handrails prosper or in fact derail human flourishing. It is true that many militant secularists act out of a spirit of rebellion toward moral absolutes and are not interested in a non-partisan discussion. But they wouldn’t get anywhere if culture at large didn’t find something there that struck a note of truth to them. The church should continually be open to that process and not get sucked into the war mentality too readily.