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Sarah Lindsay

Culture War Addendum

School of Athens
Raphael, The School of Athens, 1511 | image via Wikimedia commons

I want to make a brief addendum to my two culture war posts last week (here and here if you missed them). In those posts, I looked at how the culture war mentality creates a dichotomy between culture and church that prevents the church from either engaging productively with or acknowledging its dependence on culture.

But today I want to sketch a deeper background to the culture wars. I want to look at the nostalgia, and specifically the nostalgia for a particular version of western culture, that underlies the culture war ideology.

This may seem initially counter-intuitive: isn’t the culture war a fight against culture? In some ways, yes; but it’s also a fight against how, in the view of some, modern culture has shifted away from the values of traditional western society.

From this point of view, the culture wars aren’t about church against culture at all, but about who gets to define and shape (western) culture — with a vision of culture rooted in the (nostalgically imagined) past.

This becomes evident when we consider what the culture wars don’t normally attack or even criticize: democracy. Capitalism. Individualism. Rationalism. These are the values of post-Enlightenment western culture, but they certainly aren’t expressly biblical values.1

This defense of western culture has two broad results. First, it is the precondition that makes self-examination so difficult for the church. The culture war isn’t particularly interested in interrogating the church’s relationship to democracy, capitalism, rationalism or individualism, because those are viewed as western values almost equivalent to Christianity itself.

Second, it reinforces the elevation of western culture as the greatest culture. Because Christianity largely developed within western culture, the two become more or less synonymous. And if Christianity is the greatest religion, western culture must (to follow the logic) be the greatest culture.

These are all broad claims that deserve to be teased out in greater detail. But my point here is that the evangelical culture war meshes easily with a slightly different version of the culture war: not an explicitly evangelical or Christian one, but a war to defend western culture against perceived threats (such as multiculturalism, political correctness, feminism — insert a bogeyman du jour).

For the record, I understand why it is difficult to disentangle Christianity from western culture; after all, for the centuries from Constantine onward Christianity has had a significant influence on western culture. And as Christianity becomes a less dominant social force, a sense of crisis and nostalgia is understandable.

But we must be careful that our faithfulness to Christianity is not confused with faithfulness to western culture. Christianity has and will continue to thrive in a variety of cultures, and no culture ever fully aligns with the values of Christianity.

culture war# #western culture

  1. Capitalism didn’t exist for the writers of the Old or New Testament. In first-century Rome, democracy was a failed Greek experiment that was rejected by Plato and Aristotle themselves. While western culture has always valued rational thought, Enlightenment rationalism elevates this approach above all other ways of understanding the world. Similarly with individualism: western culture sees pendulum swings between individual and communal focuses, but the Enlightenment elevates the individual.