The Smoke & Mirrors of Culture War



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.

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11 Responses to The Smoke & Mirrors of Culture War

  1. Hi Zrim,

    Stimulating as always. I agree that the Kulturkampf is a matter of liberty because it’s about the civil kingdom. As to putting the accent on grace, might it be helpful here to distinguish between law and gospel as a corollary to the two kingdoms. The church is a kingdom of grace but the natural world or the civil kingdom isn’t a kingdom of grace but of law. To the degree the culture war is a civil matter then maybe an accent on law as the theoretical basis for civil life is appropriate.

    This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be gracious with other image bearers or even that culture war is necessarily a good thing.

    Further, it’s probably a poor metaphor and it’s roots aren’t promising. It is a term from the 90s, the 1890s and von Bismarck’s anti-Romanist policies. The term made a comeback in the 1960s in the USA in re the right/left arguments.

    I think we do have stake in re-asserting the existence of creational laws grounded in the nature of the Creator and in the nature of creation and in the creature. Since the 1960s there’s been a concerted effort by boomers to rid themselves of all creational boundaries. I don’t know that the church as such has a role in pushing back, except inasmuch as the boomer culture produces antinomianism in the church but we do have a role in pushing back in the civil sphere don’t we?

  2. Zrim says:

    Hi Scott,

    Re “the accent,” I quite agree. Where the spiritual sphere is about grace the civil sphere is about law. I want my sheriff to be all about law, not grace. And I have never computed believers asking judges to suspend justice against others who do them creational harm in the name of Jesus (i.e. Anabaptists).

    It is isn’t that Calvinists as hyphenated human beings ought not be found in culture war (whatever that means), rather what I wonder about is Calvinists as Calvinists doing so. Placing accent on grace doesn’t mean an absence of law, it means putting things into proper perspective.

    Certainly, we affirm creational norms. But I’d rather see the accent placed on “affirming them amongst ourselves” than understanding us to have any “stake in cultural push back.”

  3. I agree that we don’t participate in the culture war (if we do) as Calvinists per se or even as Christians but merely as image bearers.

    As a matter of prudence, perhaps Judo is wiser than Karate in re-affirming cultural norms?

  4. Zrim says:


    Fair enough. But you can have this skeptical image bearer’s seat at the culture wars. Though don’t be surprised to be served Kool-Aid when you order the Sam Adams.

    I’ll just be over here having the water, bread and wine and finding other less obnoxious ways to be involved in creation.

  5. Zrim says:

    ***Update on the image***

    This is from an artist who works with smoke. He claims this is an image of George Jetson.

    He should be commissioned by the culture warriors since both of them see things I am not so sure is really there.

  6. Zrim,

    What counts as “culture war”? As I say, I’m no fan of the “culture wars” as generally construed. I would rather talk about “asserting creational norms” or something like that.

  7. Zrim says:


    I wonder if being able to “pin down” what counts as culture war is as nebulous as defining evangelicalism (see, I can be relevant).

    But it could be that there is more a spirit of culture war than a law, as it were. And it could depend on who you ask. Since it’s a term coined by rightist culture it may simply be code for, “Our socio-political way of looking at the world over against those with whom we disagree, namely the progressive-liberals.” I find this to be similar to the term “political correctness.” Usually that is rightist code for, “Those who have progressive-liberal views,” when, in point of fact, political correctness, like sin, is an equal-opportunity affliction. I find that conservative types think they are immune to PCism. (But try telling them you are happy enough, for example, with states’ rights when it comes to choice- versus fetal-politics instead of federal moralism, and one has to take the second to the last seat of the bus, right in front of feminists. The front is reserved for natalists.) Those who actually use these terms affectionately tend to be rightists as either terms of derision against their opponents (i.e. political correctness) or terms of affirmation about certain efforts against the bad guys (i.e. culture wars).

    Again, I think what people really mean by these terms is, “People have different views, and I feel so desperate about the fact that I have to share the world with people I don’t understand or agree with I will conjure up special terms to villify them; that’s way easier.”

    What’s “asserting creational norms”? But I’ll see your preference and raise you a tweak: I would rather talk about the church affirming creational norms (i.e. we don’t marry homosexuals, condone fornication/adultery). The language of “asserting” still sounds like it hasn’t shaken off warriorism.

    Sorry for the ramble. But my Christmas vacation as a confessional Protestant amongts his extended Fundy family, who has just experienced its first family reunion with a gay family member and his partner, has been fraught with opportunity to think through some of this. Let’s just say that culture war seems wise and convenient to some until the inconvenient real world comes crashing in around them.

  8. sean says:


    I think you may be on to something as it regards the socio-political climate, maybe it’s just an American way of doing things. As an example, labor-management relations in America has seemed to always be adversarial. From Upton Sinclair to the UAW. Apparently in many other industrialized nations, this sort of relationship is simply not part of their culture. They find it terribly inefficient. The Japanese for example simply don’t tolerate that sort of dissension within their organizations. This has been noted with not a little curiosity and derision particularly in their car manufacturing plants in the south where the UAW has unilaterally failed to organize any of the workforce. Anyway, that’s just a long-winded way to say “hey, maybe that’s just us as Americans.”

    This is where Dr. Clark’s point about our egalitarian nature as americans and how that mitigates against membership and authority in the church rings true.

    I think pastors need to be aware of their cultural bent and be circumspect in not capitalizing upon that “american” spirit to establish populist appeal. Much akin to not flying the american flag during service or asking all the veterans, boy scouts and enlisted to come in dress over memorial day weekend.

  9. Zrim says:


    Also, the way we compartmentalize our private and public personas. Certainly, there is something to be said about how these things are different, etc.

    But I found it curious how my Fundy-cultural-warrior family behaved privately with “Adam” and Steve, yet maintain their public warriorism. It is unclear to me why Adam and Steve were allowed into the family picture privately but are torn to shreds when it comes to public considerations. By their private posture one would have no clue they are culture warriors devoted to the likes of Drs. Dobson and Kennedy. Why does that change when it comes to public posture?

  10. sean says:


    Maybe as it regards your family, it’s one public persona vs. the other. I mean the homosexual community puts on a militant political face, and so your/our fundy-culture-warrior returns the gesture, and so on and so forth. Everyone’s respective political base thrives best when they’re demonizing the other side. It just seems to be the way of politics, which is really all this culture-warrior stuff mounts to. You could argue the politicians are the ones who keep fomenting the outrage. Geez, Jackson and Sharpton as well as Fallwell and Robertson, made their entire careers playing on these notes.

    All of it’s abusive, unhelpful, and short-sighted. Works great in America generally, much less among a group of people with whom you also add religious fervor and indignation- now you’re cooking with grease.

  11. Zrim says:


    Quite agreed, it’s all very American in that way.

    The ironic thing is that “Adam” grew up in a fundy home. He mirrors back the fundamentalism in reverse (like most mirrors). In many ways, he is more fundy than the fundies. Of course, the first fundies would love to believe his anti-religion vitriol is a function of his “condition,” etc. (more demonizing) instead of considering that he is applying what he learned and fighting fundy fire with fundy fire; it’s all he really knows.

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