If you have been at all interested in religion or politics in the past two decades or so, you have no doubt heard of the “culture war”. The concept of a culture war came with the rise of the Religious Right into politics a few decades ago, and has become much bigger today—it is frequently referenced on talk radio and Fox News and other sources. It is the belief that you have a clearly-defined war going on in American politics over the culture that makes up our great nation. Like all wars, it comes full of propaganda and euphemism. If a liberal discusses the culture war, he will talk about the debate between progressives and freethinkers on the one side and the superstitious and backward on the other. If a conservative discusses it, it will be referred to as a debate between lovers of freedom and Christians on the one side, and the godless liberals on the other.
It is a definition which—thanks to the power of Confirmation Bias—can really distort your view of the world. You begin reading blogs and articles and papers which tend to be on “your side” of this debate…and before long you view the world through a near-conspiratorial set of eyes. You begin to picture everyone around you as trying to tear down the fabric of society: you look at Obama and either see the pinnacle of civil rights achievement being hampered by corrupt Republicans, or you see Obama as a useless talker with no birth certificate whose goal is to turn us into a socialist state.
Of course, this kind of war has been ongoing ever since politics came about. It is the natural result of a two-party system. Ever since Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, we have seen that the men who appeal to the emotions and prejudices of the crowd (like Antony) tend to win the crowd’s affections. Jefferson—one of the men responsible for founding this great nation—was notorious for using the press for horrible bits of propaganda. Yellow journalism has been a part of politics ever since the printing press, and will continue long after blogging becomes a fading memory to whatever future technology carries our news.
But the really disturbing thing that has happened since the Religious Right came along is the intermingling of politics into Christianity. For example, if you go to one of the most popular Christian news websites today (I won’t say which), do you know what you find? Of their seven main articles right now, two deal directly with church or theology news; the other five deal with American politics—the Obamas, gay marriage, and other “culture war” issues. About two-thirds of all blog posts are about politics. Their “News” section has only three categories: Politics, News/Politics Discussions, and Hot Topics. Their “hot topics” list for most discussed articles…are all about politics.
In other words, according to this site, the vast majority of relevant news for Christians is political in nature. The political “culture war” has captured Christianity. Once a purely political debate, the liberals have gone after attracting mainline denominations, while the conservatives are trying to pull in the evangelical vote. And so, courting Christians is a major political strategy.
Now I know what many of you will say: it is good for us to be socially minded. Why not try to change the world for the better? Why not try to use Christian principles to make ‘heaven on earth’, or as close as we can get?
I understand the desire, I truly do. But there is a major problem with the culture war—which a bit of history will help you understand.
Rewind back to early Christianity. The Roman Empire is a massive empire, one with a great deal in common with modern America in terms of power and influence. Morally, though, it is far worse than modern America. You think we have a culture war today? Just compare ourselves to early Rome. In America, we are concerned about our freedom of religion because religious symbols are being removed from government property; in Rome, you were forced to worship the Emperor and the Roman gods (and if you wanted to worship yours too, then that was fine). In America, we rightly complain about abortion; in Rome, causing toddlers to overdose on heroin or be left on a mountain to die was commonplace, and totally legal if the father made the decision. In America, we worry about homosexuals getting the same tax breaks and legal status as married people; in Rome, homosexuality was totally fine and commonplace, as long as the person doing the penetrating was of a higher social class. In America, we worry about divorce; in Rome, you did not have to divorce because men could simply have as many mistresses as they wanted, and their wives had no personal rights. In America, we talk about the poor and mistreated; in the Roman Empire, a third of all citizens were slaves and almost all of the money was in the hands of less than 1% of 1% of the population. In America, we complain about the lack of quality politicians; in Rome, the Senators either inherited their posts or were appointed by the Emperor—the common man had no voice.
So then here comes Jesus. He preaches a radical Gospel. He includes women in His ministry. He talks about seeing the world through God’s eyes. So surely, being a part of this massively godless society, He preached a lot about changing the Empire, right? Surely He wanted to revolutionize the moral fabric of the culture? Surely the New Testament is full of verses where Jesus or Paul or Peter or early Christian teachers encouraged Christians to talk to their patrons, to use their influence, to seek out positions of power to change society, right?
Actually, that is not at all what happened. Jesus did not talk about changing society’s laws or morality. Frankly He didn’t talk about society much at all. All He really said about the government, during His entire ministry, was to pay your taxes. Paul and Peter weren’t any better; in their letters, they talk about praying for the Emperor and his kings, giving them honor and respect.
In fact, Jesus seems to view Rome as a distant afterthought, despite their horrible morality. When He does talk about them, it is with the same honor and respect that He shares for any of his closest followers.
Early Christians said the same. Tertullian forbid his readers from holding office in Rome—either as a judge or soldier or anything else—because it would make them act as members of society, rather than members of the Kingdom of God. The Letter to Mathetes says that Christians follow the laws of Roman society, and though they go above and beyond them personally, they make no big deal about it.
I cannot find anything at all in the New Testament or the early church fathers which even approximates the social activism and Evangelical rhetoric of modern American Christianity. Did early Christians accept these godless acts? Of course not. But they did not see changing society as their goal at all.
Why? If Rome’s morality was worse than America’s, why did Jesus and His apostles not focus on “fixing” society like we do today?
Let us be honest. We cannot change society in a fundamental way through laws or elections. We can’t. We have had conservative majorities and liberal majorities; in neither case does American become more or less Christian. Why? Because the raw material that a government works from—that is, mankind—is inherently flawed, inherently corrupt, inherently sinful.
The Pharisees spent centuries trying to legislate God’s laws into society, and got far closer to perfect than modern Americans ever could. Jesus did not praise them. He called them hypocrites and failures, and they angered Him to wrath.
They failed for the same reason we will fail: even if the spirit of our elected officials is willing, the flesh is weak.
We have a saying in engineering data analysis: garbage in, garbage out. No matter how good your analysis is, if your raw data is flawed, then your results are useless. The same is true in politics: garbage in, garbage out. No matter how hard we try, or how many people who speak like a Christian we elect, we cannot change society by rules or policy or laws. As long as the raw material (i.e., the people of the United States) is sinful, then the resulting society will have evil within it.
Does this mean we stop caring about society? No, not at all. It means that if we Christians truly want to change society for the better, then we need to have a strategy which is practical and which works. Namely, we must fix the raw material first, then worry about how to legislate it second. In other words, 99.999% of our effort and energy needs to be to growing closer to God personally, and spreading the Gospel in our daily lives (both through words and deeds). The other 0.001% of our time and energy can go to fixing the laws and legislation.
You want to end abortion? Don’t focus on trying to elect a pro-life Supreme Court. Instead, support crisis pregnancy centers which will counsel young women and give them the tools they need to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place, and make the right decision if an unintended pregnancy does happen.
You want to avoid gay marriage? Don’t call people names and be hateful to God’s creations. Instead, help put the focus in our country back on raising good, healthy families at home. Help fathers to take back their role as fathers, being engaged in raising their sons and daughters to be the people that they were designed to be. Be supportive of those struggling with homosexuality. Don’t treat homosexual sinners any different from heterosexual sinners; indeed, pray for those who struggle with any sexual sin.
You want to end the alleged liberal hatred toward Christians? Stop freaking out every time someone calls it the “holiday season” instead of Christmas, and instead pray for them and wish them a great holiday season. Stop worrying about whether the Ten Commandments are displayed outside a courthouse, and start trying to live the Ten Commandments in your life. (I am afraid to ask how many people who were angry over the Ten Commandments being removed from Alabama’s courthouse a few years ago could actually name the Ten Commandments.)
You want to fix the poor? Stop worrying about how to run welfare and start working at a homeless shelter. Help the less educated get skills that are marketable. Volunteer to teach them to manage debt and budgets wisely. Donate your food and clothing and money and time.
If you want to fix society, and you are focusing on politics and social activism, you are going about it backward. You have put the cart before the horse. Our job as Christians is to fix the raw materials of society; the Bible says that God will chose the leaders and put them in place to do their jobs.
If you spend an ounce of your energy on any other part of the “culture war”, then you are trying to do God’s job, instead of focusing on your own. You can’t educate the illiterate by simply handing them a summer reading list; you must teach them to read first. Likewise, we cannot fix society through policy and law until we fix the lawlessness in the souls of its people first. We must learn to read God’s word in our hearts before we can be expected to write it into the law-books.
And for that reason, I say: if this is a culture war, then count me as a conscientious objector. This is one draft I will be glad to dodge.