In his book Deconstructing Evangelicalism, Darryl Hart makes the provocative and persuasive case that evangelicalism is a façade:
“The theological critiques and historical soul-searching of the 1990s raised important questions about how to fix evangelicalism…The one response that few have considered is perhaps the most radical and the point of this book: Instead of trying to fix evangelicalism, born-again Protestants would be better off if they abandoned the category altogether. The reason is not that evangelicalism is wrong in its theology, ineffective in reaching the lost, or undiscerning in its reflections on society and culture. It may be, but these matters are beside the point. Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, it is the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism.”
I wonder. If it is true that evangelicalism is a false construct, perhaps it is also true that one if its favorite pass times is also something of a mirage: culture war. If by “culture war” one means a “disagreement which has become a fight about how the world should shake out” then it sure seems like that has been going on ever since Adam and Eve were sent packing east of Eden. But most seem to speak of culture war, having just popped up over the last thirty-some years, as if it were more than this. Something tells me a modern arrogance is, yet again, at play: “Nobody at any other point of time and place has ever really disagreed like we do in ours—let’s call it ‘culture war’ to denote just how special and unique our squabbles are.” The term itself seems like a power-phrase designed to get everyone to pay attention to your particular beef, especially when you talk about it as if the things on the table will decide the fate of humanity. “It has all lead up to here and now, exactly where the best people in human history live. We are so advanced in every way that what we decide will make or break the human condition.” The way that transformationalism is modern religious fantasy, culture war, as most understand that phrase, seems like a lot of smoke and mirrors.
In terms of time line, Hart grounds his critique in the 1990s. Some would likely trace culture war back to the upheaval of the sixties. But the term actually caught fire in the nineties. In 1991 James Davison Hunter published Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, and in 1992 Pat Buchanan employed the term in his famous “culture war speech” at the Republican National Convention. My own father, a textbook Baby Boomer who was a SDS leader on the campus of Michigan State University turned executive and closet liberal in the 80s, never had the term in his vocabulary. I certainly don’t remember it growing up in the 80s. I do recall, however, the term being fashionable in the early 90s upon my own conversion into broad evangelicalism and nurtured in the local fundamentalist economy. Culture war was all the religio-rage in the early 90s the way peace must have been in the late 60s.
Punditry during the 2008 presidential campaign speculated that the McCain-Palin ticket ignited a return of culture war and the values voter. This time it included the things marked out by Hunter (abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, homosexuality, censorship issues) but appended a sort of intellectual war that pitted Joe Six-pack against those who had the audacity to write books. Perhaps. Most intriguing, though, was that the hypothesis seemed to assume that culture war had gone AWOL under a George W. Bush administration. But I am not sure it ever went away. Even today some confessionally Reformed, who otherwise take to task evangelicals and Romanists for their kingdom confusion, argue that Christians ought to some extent be involved in “defending creational norms.” Well, if that is true, I am not so sure why the evangelicals and Romanists are guilty. To maintain at once that evangelicals and Romanists confuse the kingdoms but also that Reformed Christians have a burden to defend creational norms borders on saying they can’t do it because they are them, but we can because we are us.
But it has always seemed to me that Reformation theology and piety is a brutally materialistic one. It has a profoundly high view of creation. As such, it has a disdain for the world-flight spirituality of Gnosticism. In a word, it expects believers to be neck-deep in creation. There are many ways to be involved in creation. But I am not so sure that culture war is as legitimate a way to be involved as many seem to easily assume. It would seem that a doctrine of liberty should be liberal enough to afford fellow believers to participate in culture war if their consciences so dictate. But it is also true that not all that is permissible is profitable; not all that is lawful is wise. True enough, Christians are at war, but not a worldly one. So why the sympathy for a term and phenomenon that sounds so, well, worldly and shot through with power? Why the sympathy for a thing that interprets everything through a two-dimensional political lens preoccupied with either taking rights away from certain people or making sure rights are ensured for others? Short hand for the biblical witness, if Calvinism places its accent on grace, why do we think it is beyond question as to why Calvinists as Calvinists should be found in the ranks of projects that necessarily place their accent on law? What is it in Calvinism that attracts adherents to worldly and law-laden warfare? How is culture war consonant with minding one’s own business and not being a distraction from holding out the gospel?
Since its contemporary origins swirl around a neo-con agenda, it could very well be that culture war is a hunt for things that don’t exist based upon intelligence that is closer to ignorance.
By the way, if you can figure out what the smoke is in this image you may be a better culture warrior than you think.