It seems that – at least among evangelicals – the concept of a culture war is a popular discussion topic these days. There are books imploring Christians to move beyond the culture wars, while there are other writers saying that the essence of being an evangelical is being at war with the culture. Of course, all of this begs the question of whether or not there really is a culture war to begin with. With all the debates over abortion, homosexual rights, sex/cursing on television (violence is apparently okay), national healthcare, and the like, it would appear we have two different cultures that are at war with each other. However, I think the answer is more of a “no” than a “yes.”
In the strictest sense of the word “culture,” there isn’t a culture war mostly because Christianity isn’t a culture. There is no Christian language, no Christian food, no Christian style of dressing up, no Christian nation or borders; there is nothing distinct about Christians that would make them a culture. Even one of the most unified groups within Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox, still hold cultural differences; it’s found in their liturgy, the language of the liturgy, and even some of the practices. Thus, one can’t even say there is a culture within a very unified Christianity, because ultimately Christianity reflects the culture.
If Christianity isn’t a culture, then it’s impossible to have a culture war involving Christian beliefs against secular beliefs. Christianity simply isn’t a culture, this is why there are distinctions between Christians who grew up in Southeast Asia and Christians who grew up in the Southeastern United States. These differences, or distinctions, aren’t wrong or bad, they simply reflect different cultures.
At the same time, something does seem to be going on. But something has always been going on. One of the most famous writings in all of Christian literature is St. Augustine’s City of God. In the book he defends Christianity and explains how Christians are not the cause of Rome’s demise; in other words, just a few centuries after Christ’s death, Christians are engaged in a “culture war.” We can go back even further to the Epistle to Diognetus in which the anonymous author (probably Justin Martyr) defends Christians within the Roman cultural context, arguing that they’re not out to subvert the culture, but to redeem it. Even in Christianity’s foundation, we see Paul saying that we are citizens of Heaven and even Jesus saying that we are in the world, but not of the world. We can go back even further and see that the Israelites developed their own culture contrary to the cultures surrounding them (or at least they were supposed to; what brought on the judgment of God was that they adopted the cultural mores of the surrounding cultures). Even Noah was a “culture warrior” of sorts in that he went against the grain of his time.
So does the above prove that we are, in fact, involved in a “culture war?” Not really, instead what we’re involved in is what early Christians called “The way of life” and “the way of death,” or the way of light and the way of darkness, or the City of God and the City of Man. There isn’t a cultural war, but there is a human war. There is a war against God, one in which humans have rebelled and thusly reap the consequences. Therefore, all cultures are fallen and have negative aspects to them; even the supposed mythic “Christian America” is full of flaws. Even if we follow the idealized version of this supposed Christian America, we see that the poor are not taken care of, it’s primarily composed of white, English-speaking people, and people who are not Christians are often looked down upon as inferior. Such elements to a culture run contrary to the central message of the Gospel.
Christians are not involved in a culture war, but they are called to sanctify the culture they find themselves in. What has sparked the controversy for Christians is they’ve chosen to go about this act of sanctification through a secular tool, which of course will always result in disaster. By attempting to legislate the culture into perfection, we’ve only alienated the culture more. This is not to say that some things shouldn’t be pursued through legislation; on issues of natural law, we should attempt to get the government to enact laws that reflect what is naturally right (e.g. abolition of slavery, working to end human trafficking, abolition of abortion, working to curb pollution, etc). Yet, as Christians we are called to change the world from the ground up, not from the top down. Thus, even when we are justified in pursuing legislation to change a government action, we are still best served by working with the populace on a grassroots level to help change their minds; even William Wilberforce saw this, and for all the effort he put into legislation he put three times the effort into public awareness campaigns.
In attempting to sanctify the culture, Christians then find themselves in a war, but it is not a “culture war.” To call it a culture war would indicate an “us vs. them” mentality, that it’s the Christians vs. the secularists. But as Paul stated, we don’t war against flesh and blood, but against the principalities of darkness. We therefore enter into a war, but not against our fellow humans – though they may be ensnared and enslaved by these principalities – instead we enter into a war against darkness itself. While most Christians would give this lip service, their actions speak otherwise and we do not truly live out this concept. We say we don’t war against the flesh, but then we condemn, marginalize, and mock all those who disagree with our positions.
Ultimately, Christianity is not a culture, but a way of life that can adapt itself to any culture. Thus, there is no culture war. But Christians are called to sanctify a culture – not through legislation (though it can act as a minor tool on natural law issues), but through bringing people to Christ by being Christ to people.