Tom Gilson

“Do We Want to Win the Culture Wars?”

In my most recent BreakPoint column I ask, Do we really want to win the culture wars?

James Chastek, who blogs at Just Thomism (and whom I found via First Things) asked last month, “Do you even want to win the culture war?” He suggests that if we did win, then,

This would mean that belief in Christ would be policed and encouraged in the same way that our current cultural beliefs are: by manipulation of the levers of power to control spoils, intimidate dissent, and coin new taboo words and thoughtcrimes that can immediately condemn without argument and persuade without reason.

I’m not sure he’s looking at the complete picture of the culture war, which I’ll come back to in a moment, but his question does spark some thought. His conclusion intersects with a thesis that was new to me when I read it last month in Rodney Stark’s 2011 book “The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion.”
Stark suggests that the most damaging split in the history of Christianity was neither the Great Schism of the 11th century, nor the Protestant Reformation of the 16th. It was the 4th- to 6th-century split between the Church of Piety and the Church of Power. Both Churches—of Piety and of Power—were in the Roman Catholic line (for this is about the European side of church history); it is the line we all share, until the 16th century

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12 thoughts on ““Do We Want to Win the Culture Wars?”

  1. Suppose you won the culture wars and passed strict laws against abortion and gay marriage. What would you do after that? Do you have further goals, or would you be ready to step down? Maybe you’d step down since you weren’t after power for power’s sake, right?

    I suspect that the two big issues of abortion and gay marriage are crowding out everything else at the moment, but if you really want to win the culture wars, you’ve got to think beyond those issues.

  2. A war consists of battles. Abortion and “gay marriage” are two current major battles in the culture war.

    The culture war will extend well beyond our lifetime. While it can be useful to think beyond the current battles, it can also become detrimental to try to think too far ahead – trying to see things we cannot see or trying to imagine a scenario that involves too many contingencies.

    The ultimate goal of the culture war is that all things be conformed to Christ. That is very much different, however, from all things being conformed to church.

    I cannot imagine any scenario in which faith in Christ would be required by governmental authority. We win as lambs, not as lions.

    Because we live in a democracy, we have a responsibility to help shape public policy that saints in New Testament times did not have.

  3. John Moore, you have made an excellent point about power for power’s sake, but it’s a sword that cuts both ways. I hope and pray that this where God’s Grace comes in.

  4. John Moore, that’s an interesting question. I didn’t talk so much in my article about what victory was, but I did talk about what it wasn’t: the institution of the Church of Power. When there was a Church of Power, Stark says, there was a prophetic counter-movement within the Church of Piety standing against its abuses and excesses. I’d like to think that I would remain on the prophetic side. Any one of us is subject to any kind of temptation.

    But do not think, please, that I envision anything like a theocracy. I hope I was clear on that in the article. Victory in these battles would look a lot more like finally reaching an effective voting majority who agree that the weak and innocent need to be protected, that religious liberty must be preserved, that gay marriage insurgency is not doing either of those any good, etc.

    No one dreams this would mean the end of vigorous opposition from those who disagree. No one dreams it would mean the beginning of thought control. (It might mean the end of it in some institutions–read Greg Lukianoff on the university. Lukianoff is very much a liberal, by the way.)

    So life would go on in our democracies, people in power would be subject to the temptations of power, and the rest of us would have a responsibility to keep them in check.

  5. John Moore, when envisioning traditionalists winning the culture war, I don’t think of strict laws being passed. Marriage stays as is. Roe vs Wade would be undone. Winning would look more like the defense and preservation of the Judeo Christian values our founders intended.

  6. Crucial point, Ethan. With regard to marriage, especially, there’s an insurgency in our culture, plying the manipulative tactic of making us look like we’re the aggressors, when the opposite is the case.

  7. Win the hearts and minds of the culture and everything follows from that. Culture is a reflection of what people value. Gaining political power for the sake of passing laws the culture doesn’t really want isn’t the answer. You’ll just get more rebellion that way. Get them to value the unborn and Roe will either be undone, or will rarely be taken advantage of.

  8. Winning hearts and minds – that’s a good point. So now I’m just wondering whether government power is an effective way to win those hearts and minds. Maybe it is, or maybe not.

  9. I don’t really understand why it matters so much to you to be the status quo rather than the change agent in regard to gay marriage. What advantage do you believe this gives you?

  10. It certainly matters in the court of public opinion when labels are attached to groups. (aggressors vs defenders)(pro traditional marriage vs anti gay marriage)

  11. OS @#10:

    For one thing, telling the true account is better than accepting a lie. For another thing, the Christians-as-aggressors theme plays into Kirk’s/Madsen’s/Pill’s old and all-too-effective “portray gays as victims” strategy.

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