To do nothing when you can’t do anything is surely frustrating; to do something when you can is admirable; to do nothing when you can do something is shameful.
- Ed Vitagliano
“The culture war has been lost. Now what?”
That statement was included in a recently forwarded blog from theologian Michael Horton, the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. Generally speaking, I’m a pretty big fan of Horton.
The July 1 blog was insightful and addressed the disgraceful U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, that legalized same sex “marriage” on June 26.
Horton laid out a well-crafted explanation of how the homosexual movement succeeded in changing our culture’s perspective on same sex “marriage.” Horton also pointed to an excellent article in The Atlantic that explained this process in detail.
While I agreed with 95% of what Horton said in this blog, the assertion that the “culture war has been lost” was disappointing. The sentiment has been repeated enough times in the evangelical community that I thought I would address it.
Here’s what I believe concerning the nature of culture wars:
- Culture wars are a part of human nature. They are not a new phenomenon. Some pundits seem to believe that these cultural struggles began with the advent of the sexual revolution in America. They did not. They have always existed.
From Cain and Abel to the philosophical battle between Epicureans and Stoics (Acts 17:18) to battles over abortion, people have always disagreed about fundamental truths.
As a result of this peculiar fact of human nature, there is an ebb and flow to every civilization because seemingly new ideas and new ways of looking at the world are constantly springing into existence. Even when one particular view is firmly entrenched, someone will eventually challenge it.
In fact, such divisions within cultures are normal, according to Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. In her book, One Nation, Two Cultures, Himmelfarb even goes so far as to suggest that all civilized societies contain such internal divisions as a normal feature of public life.
- Culture wars aren’t limited to Christian nations. While America in 2015 has very few Epicureans or Stoics, we do have our own divide between liberal and conservative, religious and secular, progressive and traditionalist, etc. These aren’t always divisions between those who wish to be faithful to God’s truth and those who don’t.
Culture wars occur in societies that aren’t even Christian – and by “Christian” I mean at least in the sense that the faith has been dominant in influencing values and morality. Whether it was the struggle in ancient Athens between the forces of democracy and oligarchy, or the reforms of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in republican Rome, men have fought internally about far more than just religion.
- Culture wars never end. While they might not be evident every single day in any given nation, culture wars are perennial. And as long as a society stays alive, the pendulum inevitably seems to swing back in the other direction.
So that leaves us with two germane questions. First, should Christians be involved in these battles? I have argued recently (as well as countless times over the last 20 years) that the answer is yes.
So let me skip to the second question and address Horton’s assertion: Is it true that “the culture war has been lost”? Should Christians move on?
Answer: No. Absolutely not. Furthermore, I would say that to capitulate at this point could have catastrophic consequences for future generations – and is, in fact, a betrayal of those generations.
The fact is that cultures often change dramatically in a relatively short period of time. This is demonstrated by the very article that Horton cites from The Atlantic. Writer Molly Ball notes that the very first challenge of the ban on gay “marriage” in the 1970s, by homosexual couple Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, used the same essential arguments as those that succeeded before the Supreme Court this year:
The plaintiffs’ arguments in Obergefell were strikingly similar to those Baker made back in the 1970s. And the Constitution has not changed since Baker made his challenge. … But the high court’s view of the legitimacy and constitutionality of same-sex marriage changed radically: In the span of 43 years, the notion had gone from ridiculous to constitutionally mandated. How did that happen?
Without getting caught up in the details, let’s just put it simply: The culture changed in four decades. Four decades. Which leads me to ask: What makes Michael Horton think it can’t change back? Is it impossible to conceive of such a radical recalibration in America?
Let me present a few brief history lessons. Russia changed from (1) a Czarist regime to (2) a monarchy with a constitution to (3) a communist dictatorship to (4) a democratically free Russia – in less than a century.
In Germany there occurred a similar process: From (1) rule by an emperor to (2) a democracy to (3) Nazi totalitarianism under Adolf Hitler to (4) a nation cleaved in two by communism to (5) reunification under a constitutional republic – within less than a century.
Do we really want to tell Christians the culture war is over and they’d better adjust to the new reality?
Is that what we should’ve told slaves following the Dred Scott decision in 1857, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that black people could not be considered American citizens?
Is that what we should’ve told black Americans in the South prior to the Civil Rights movement – that the culture war was over and Jim Crow was just the way it was?
Is that what we would say to unborn children, if they could understand our words? Should we say to them, “Well, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973, and the culture war is over”?
Horton concludes his blog this way: “It is time for the church to be the church, which does not mean culture wars or passive acquiescence to the powers, but God’s new society that seeks God’s pleasure and not the headlines of this fading evil age.”
How can Christians insist that the church being the church does not include battling the evils of a culture with everything we have, using every weapon at our disposal?
Yes, we live in a “fading evil age.” Yes, the Christian is not a permanent citizen of the temporal society in which he abides here on earth. Yes, Jesus Christ will one day destroy every rebel civilization and purge the earth of every stumbling block. I am not denying any of this.
But there are Christians today who imply that it wasn’t a “kingdom issue” that black people remained in chains in 1850 America or that blacks were denied a place at the counter in the local diner in 1950 America. (I actually heard a well-known Christian commentator say that very thing in an interview on American Family Radio. Full disclosure: It was not Michael Horton.)
If issues like slavery or Jim Crow were worthy battles for Christian engagement, then why shouldn’t they have been considered “culture wars”? And if they were culture wars, well, where should we draw the line? Where would Michael Horton draw the line? Yes, we should fight sexual trafficking; no we shouldn’t fight same sex “marriage”?
Horton mentions in his blog his 1994 book titled Beyond Culture Wars: Is America a Mission Field or Battlefield? (I immediately ordered it because, as I said, I’m actually a Michael Horton fan. The book sounds provocative, and I look forward to reading it and seeing what he has to say, although I have already read some of his articles on this subject.)
Let me respond to the book’s title: Of course America is a mission field. All nations are. They will remain mission fields until the Lord returns.
But America is also a battlefield. These two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. Spiritual warfare is a hallmark of the Christian life. Everywhere Christians go – and wherever they live – they are to challenge the false gods that hold sway over the hearts and minds of the people who exist in the spiritual darkness outside the kingdom.
Paul says: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ … ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, NASB).
Some will insist that I have undermined my own argument by citing this passage because it contains a reference to “weapons … of the flesh.” They will assert that anything other than the gospel is a fleshly weapon. Thus all votes, all legislation, all court rulings, all boycotts, etc., are carnal imitations of divinely approved activities.
But Paul is not making a distinction between spiritual and secular action; he is making a distinction between activities empowered by the flesh and activities empowered by the Spirit of God – i.e., those that are “divinely powerful.”
My contention is that, just as there can be a fleshly gospel sermon, powerlessly preached in a sanctuary on Sunday morning, there can be a divinely powerful vote cast or a divinely powerful constitutional amendment passed (think Amendments 13, 14, and 15, following the end of the Civil War).
What makes an action carnal? When it is a fleshly desire designed by a fleshly mind performed by fleshly actions. These are instruments and weapons of flesh. For example, the end results of the homosexual movement, culminating in Obergefell and who knows what else – these were accomplished by such carnal weapons. They have been “raised up against the knowledge of God.”
What makes an action divinely powerful? The will of God expressed through an obedient church by the power of the Holy Spirit is such an action. It might be something as simple as handing a cup of cool water to a thirsty stranger, or as courageous as marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for civil rights, or as risky as facing fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in order to stop injustice.
In other words, it doesn’t have to be “religious” to be “spiritual,” and just because it isn’t outwardly religious doesn’t mean it’s “fleshly.”
Yes, it might seem impossible to imagine a scenario in which America could return to its Judeo-Christian values.
But if you were a kulak (an independent farmer) in the Soviet Union in 1918 whose land was seized and resistant neighbors executed as enemies of the communist state, it might have seemed impossible to believe your grandchildren might someday be free. Yet you held out against tyranny. Maybe it was just in your heart and mind, maybe only in the whispers of the bedroom. But you fought the best you could.
True, they didn’t engage in what we frequently do, here in a free America – voting, protesting, with maybe a boycott or two thrown in for good measure.
But that only makes Christian inaction here more disgraceful, not less. To do nothing when you can’t do anything is surely frustrating; to do something when you can is admirable; to do nothing when you can do something is shameful.