A few months ago, Jim Tune asked me to write something about the culture wars in America for an issue of his “Reignited” journal. I’d love your thoughts.
It’s Christmas time.
Not as you read this, I’m sure, but as I write it, it’s December and the wars to “keep Christ in Christmas” are raging on for another tired year. Somehow we believe we’ve scored a moral victory if Target employees wish us a merry Christmas instead of a happy holidays.
As I write, the US Supreme Court is also making news by agreeing to hear two gay rights cases that could legalize same-sex marriage across the country. This comes just months after Chick-Fil-A’s record-setting sales in support of the company’s president and his comments supporting traditional marriage.
And just a few days ago, Adam Lanza killed 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut; the gun control debate has taken on a new urgency, with more than 126,000 Americans signing a petition asking for stricter gun laws and others arguing for teachers in public schools to carry weapons.
As the country becomes more divided along partisan lines, Christians struggle with their position on the issues, the extent of their participation and the best way to represent their faith to a watching world. But the church’s mission is to change the world through grace and truth, not politics and debates, and the current culture wars are signs that we haven’t done our job.
Should we get involved?
It’s nothing new for the people of our country to disagree. From the Civil War to Civil Rights, from Prohibition to feminism, much of our development as a nation has come about because people of conviction spoke their conscience (and sometimes came to blows).
“The non-confrontational, therapeutic evangelicalism that some young evangelicals, and their older mentors, seemingly advocate today as they denounce culture war is at odds with much of evangelical history, which has always thrived on conflict,” wrote Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, in a recent American Spectator article. “No less important, it’s also at odds with much of American history, dating to the 17th century New England Puritan divines, who envisioned a righteous nation. Even supposed secularists of today often walk in that tradition as they demand contentious social reforms, including, in their view, same sex marriage.”
In a New York Times article, Ross Douthat made a similar point. “From election to election, politics is mostly about jobs and the economy and the state of the public purse — which is as it should be,” he writes. “But the arguments that we remember longest, that define what it means to be democratic and American, are often the debates over human life and human rights, public morals and religious freedom – culture war debates, that is, in all their many forms.”
Often I’m one of those non-confrontational evangelicals. I have opinions about same sex marriage, abortion, guns, prayer in schools, and even Christmas (Season’s Greetings to all of you!). I support the right of each individual to vote, petition, and even protest for her beliefs, but usually bow out of the debates myself. Tooley and Douthat’s points are well taken, however; if everyone kept their beliefs to themselves, important discussions wouldn’t happen, significant changes wouldn’t be made, and the decisions that “define what it means to be democratic” would be lost in arguments about fiscal policy.
They issue a valid challenge to step up. However, even when I agree with a cause, I usually disagree with the tactics of its most ardent supporters (it’s classic for Christians to organize a national moral crusade predicated on buying junk food). Even if I longed to rush into the latest skirmish of the culture war, I usually have issues with the battle plan.
Even more importantly, I often remain quiet because I do not want to be identified with the zealots on either side. Although the wars in our country may not be new, the increasingly frantic tone of our most recent debates and the rancor behind them are remarkable. During the countdown to last month’s election, more than one of my Facebook friends posted the comment by Tim Keller that now our political opponents “are not considered to be simply mistaken but to be evil.” He continues, “After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion.”
And this is my major issue: in our urgency to win the culture wars, Christians have forgotten we are also citizens of another kingdom, with radically different methods and goals. We pine for the good old days when the majority of Americans shared our worldview and we equate advancing the cause of Christ with getting our way in court. But I think we’re determined to win the culture war in the public square because we have failed to win it in the pews.
For decades we have grown complacent about truly living as citizens of a new kingdom because our American citizenship gave us everything we needed. The majority agreed with our morality, sexual issues and their consequences were not discussed in polite company (have you noticed how most of the current culture wars involve sexuality?), and our biggest “persecution” was the end of prayer in schools. During our country’s golden years, it was easy to be a Christian because it looked a lot like being an American.
Today it’s not so easy. “Traditional” values are not assumed, the sexual revolution has forced us to confront promiscuity and homosexuality, and being American does not mean being a Caucasian Christian. Cities are growing, as are the numbers of multi-ethnic groups living in them and practicing a variety of religions. Our country remains the last great super power, but decades of questionable foreign policy and financial mismanagement threaten our international influence. It’s a difficult time for people who have confused their earthly citizenship with their heavenly one; no wonder we are frantically grasping at any politician or policy that promises a return to the good old days we once knew.
A restoration movement
The early church did not blur these lines. After seeing the religious and Roman authorities kill Jesus, I doubt the apostles believed their government was the best way to spread Christianity. The first Christians did not demand, or even expect, their communities to agree with them. We talk about restoring the New Testament church, but we forget this church dealt with trials, arrests, beatings and even death. Opposition from religious and civic leaders is a constant in the book of Acts—why do we think something’s wrong when today’s culture doesn’t embrace our values?
These believers also exercised their right to free speech and civil disobedience, and it’s fine for us to support the causes we care about. But if the church had been actively, persistently, lovingly growing God’s kingdom for the last 50 years, we would not need the government to enforce our morality. There would still be sin, of course, but if we had reached out to unwed mothers and surrounded them with support systems and mentors there would be fewer abortions. If we had welcomed homosexuals into our churches there would be understanding and growth instead of suspicion and fear. If we had provided permanent homes for foster kids and orphans there would be less crime, drug use, homelessness, teen pregnancy, and poverty.
If more of us had loved and served our neighborhoods and the individuals living in them instead of hiding in church buildings, we would have a different country today. This kind of ministry is messy and the results aren’t immediate. Like most good things, it’s difficult. But the results last beyond a demonstration day or even an eight-year presidency.
We confuse being a Christian with being an American, and we must remember America is bigger than Christianity; millions of people champion thousands of worldviews, and we cannot force everyone to agree with us. But Christianity is also bigger than America, and with God’s help we can change our communities in ways no government can.
Political action has a place, but for followers of Christ it is just one tool in accomplishing a bigger mission: giving, sacrificing, and submitting so that others can see glimpses of Him. For too long the skeptics have known us by our laws. It’s time for them to know us by our love.