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Why cultural conflict can’t be avoided

Christians, ethics, and the public square

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July 15, 2020

I’ve always found it interesting that standard advice for avoiding conflict in public conversations is to avoid any discussion of politics and religion. Having dedicated most of my adult life to both of these endeavors, I can understand why. These subjects are connected to human beings at their core. If our religion reflects our most deeply held beliefs and ultimate commitments, our politics are often the expression of those things. And so it is no wonder why people are often unable to calmly and dispassionately discuss either one. Because in speaking about politics and religion, we are—at least in a sense—speaking about ourselves. And when those ideas meet resistance, it registers with us on a deep and personal level. 

I thought about that a lot this week after seeing multiple conversations happening online about the “culture war.” For many of us, the culture war is mostly something we think of in the distant past—representing the political activism of the final decades of the 20th century. In those days, the culture war was at a fever pitch. While religious people of all kinds found their way into camps supporting the political left or right, it was religious conservatives who marshalled overwhelming numbers to support the Republican Party and vote for their candidates in elections spanning multiple presidencies. But following the millennium, the culture war seemed to fade into the background. There was less talk about the “Religious Right” or “Moral Majority,” and the political activism of religious conservatives was no longer as visible. And for some, that was a welcomed development.

A disagreement over ethics

But in recent years it seems talk of the culture war has been revived. That’s because the culture war itself never left; it just looked different for a time. Like politics and religion, the culture war is about more than a set of individual issues. Ultimately, it’s about a moral vision for American life. Today, the population of the United States is just north of 330 million people. That makes our nation the third most populous country in the world, behind only China and India, both of which boast populations of more than one billion people. The struggle stemming from disparate groups attempting to impose their own moral systems upon society is not unique to the United States. But in a nation as large as ours, there are a lot of groups with competing ideas. And the result of these groups and ideas coming into conflict is what we call the culture war.

To give a more precise definition: the culture war is a struggle over ethics. Each of us enter the public square every day with thoughts not just about what is right or wrong, but about the way we are supposed to live together. All of us have a moral system of ethics by which we live. Christians believe this is because God has placed within human beings an innate sense of the way in which he ordered the world (Rom. 1-3). But even those who do not consider themselves to be religious have a code of ethics they live by. And that’s because all of life is inherently moral. We don’t get to choose whether or not ethics matter to us. It’s in our nature. And everything we do has moral bearing.

Right now the culture war is raging around us on multiple fronts. Presently much of the focus is dedicated to the cause of racial justice. In many ways, this is a good thing that is long overdue. Our nation has a long and evil past of racist behavior. It would be foolish to assume that any single or even limited set of actions could rectify generations of oppression and injustice. From slavery to Jim Crow to lynch mobs to redlining, racial injustice in America is complex and multifaceted, and we must continue to combat it. In fact, the reckoning we are experiencing right now is a collective response to the systemic violation of the humanity of Black Americans. But even now we’re asking questions that are fundamentally moral, not only about the dignity of Black Americans but about those figures from history who denied their humanity by supporting slavery, segregation, and other forms of racial bigotry.

Christians, simply by following Jesus will always stand distinct from the world by confronting it with gospel-shaped morality.

Beyond issues of racial justice, the sexual revolution continues apace. Since 2015, same-sex couples in the United States have had the right to marry. And in only five years, the public debate over human sexuality has shifted from the definition of marriage to the definition of a person. Oddly enough, religious conservatives now find ourselves making arguments alongside radical feminists and other unlikely co-belligerents about the meaning of sex and gender. And again, this front of the culture war is yet another battle over ethics. Christians find themselves in the public square defending the goodness of God’s design for what it means to be male and female. And the stakes are incredibly high. More than a debate, the future consensus on this issue will have an incalculable impact on the lives of future generations of boys and girls.

Cancel the culture war?

There was something else about the conversations on the culture war that caught my attention. In multiple posts on social media, I noticed people calling for an end to the culture war. Some even denied that such a thing ever existed at all, and suggested we should simply stop talking about it and move on. This brings up an important point. There’s a reason we can’t “cancel” the culture war. This is because the culture war isn’t actually a thing we do, but a reflection of who we are. 

There were tragic excesses and missteps in the ways religious conservatives previously waged the culture war (attempting to draw a straight line between gospel Christianity and a specific political party being only the most obvious). But even if Christians abandoned all of that—if they chose not to participate in certain groups and avoid specific forms of social activism—doing so would not cancel the culture war. Nor would the culture war disappear if Christians withdrew from electoral politics altogether. And that’s because Christians, simply by following Jesus will always stand distinct from the world by confronting it with gospel-shaped morality.

When Jesus came to earth heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God, he was emphatic and clear. His kingdom is not of this world, but it is bound up with the future of this world (John 18:36; Rev. 11:15). Not only that, but his is a spiritual kingdom that is right now locked in a battle with the forces of darkness. Jesus, the apostle tells us, came to deliver us from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). And he is accomplishing his work right now—defeating the spiritual forces and pushing back the darkness—through the lives of his people in the world. This has everything to do with the culture war.

Jesus taught his disciples that his church is to be a city on a hill and the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13-16). There is supposed to be a bright contrast between the people of Christ and the rest of the world. This is what Augustine spoke of when he described mankind as comprised of two cities, the city of God and city of man. Again, that doesn’t mean that the ways the culture war has previously been engaged were necessarily right or righteous. But it does mean that, regardless of the strategy, the people of God are supposed to advance a unique moral vision for our common life—in America, and elsewhere. We do this, sometimes, in the least obvious but most important ways: by attending church, serving our communities, and raising families. And sometimes, in ways more overt: voting in elections, forming institutions, supporting various social causes, and even running or campaigning for political office.

But regardless of the nature of our social action, when the people of Christ are faithful to follow his commands, they will naturally find themselves in conflict with the world. We must take care, however, not to allow this conflict to cause confusion. Our opponents aren’t our enemies but our mission field (Eph. 6:12). We will continue to find ourselves in disagreements over policy and public morals, but we must never forget that all of our efforts in the civil arena are meant to reflect the redemption of Christ. As long as there is a mission field, there will be a culture war. And until Christ returns, let us endeavor to faithfully represent his kingdom and his reign in the public square as we strive to follow him.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author