Why Abandon Culture Wars?

The culture war model has failed.

For the last few decades, the primary model that the US church has used to engage with participatory democracy has been picking sides—joining one coalition of glorious-but-fallen people in their efforts to overpower, marginalize, and demonize another group of glorious-but-fallen people. A wide range of factors has led to the culture war model becoming the evangelical norm. For now, I want to touch on three big problems with the culture war model: It is bad witness, bad discipleship, and bad citizenship.

Bad witness

In the culture war model, politics and partisan competition are about more than just policy. Policy preferences are tied to—or even serve as proxies for—affiliation with a specific set of cultural tribes (what the New Testament calls “peoples”).

One of the most radical aspects of Jesus’ salvation is that it is for all people—regardless of nation or tribe. We are all familiar with the fact that Jesus’ followers included men and women, Jews and Gentiles, freeborn Roman citizens and slaves. But even within one of those tribes, cultural and political factions existed, and the church transcended them: Pharisees, Sadducees, zealots, tax collectors, centurions, and accommodationists all joined the ranks of Jesus’ followers, humbling themselves before one another as they were grafted together into what the Apostle Paul describes as members of a new body.

In contrast, the culture war model encourages Christians to treat people on the other side of cultural divides as pariahs. It claims that moral virtue requires one to adopt our perspective on the best way to manage the state. Under the influence of the culture war framework, we don’t behave in ways that indicate that Christ came to heal all things—we behave in ways that indicate that Christ came to command us to adopt a specific set of policy priorities and a specific set of strategies for achieving them. We don’t behave in ways that indicate that Christ calls all people to repentance—we behave in ways that indicate that Christ affirms our fallen logic and calls people who don’t agree with us to get out of the way.

Bad discipleship

When we think that joining a team and winning is the most important thing we can do in the public square, we don’t just send a confusing message to the non-Christians who look at our behavior as a way to decipher the meaning of our faith. We also begin pulling our own moral compasses off-center.

Scripture tells us that we only see the world “through a glass dimly,” like looking in a dusty mirror or through a smudged window. We won’t see clearly until Christ returns and makes us perfect. Until then, we must rely on the witness and correction of others in the church if we want to get a clearer look at the world around us. Each gathering of Christ’s body is akin to a gathering of people who each have specific parts of their vision blinded out, sharing what they see so that they can all follow the author and perfecter of their faith more closely together than they ever could alone.

But the culture war model reverses that dynamic. Rather than relying on Christians from across our biggest cultural divides for teaching, correcting, and training in righteousness—rather than learning to see our own political tribes through the glass of other members of the body of Christ—we instead use our surrounding culture as a lens through which we view and ultimately judge our church.

The culture war model makes it too easy to curse people who don’t share our impulses, when we should instead be practicing the discipline of skepticism toward our own impulses. And it sets us up to tolerate sin in ourselves if it is a sin that is common to people who share our political commitments.

In the language of the New Testament, this is called “conforming to the patterns of the world,” and it’s not a praiseworthy behavior.

Bad citizenship

Ultimately, the culture war paradigm is not just destructive to Christians or to the church—it is also destructive to the country.

One of the glories of the American system of government is that it was designed to function best when people critique one another and listen to those critiques attentively. Totalitarian impulses are meant to be stymied by rigorous, good-faith discussion. And while this can make our system slow to enact changes that would promote the common good, it also makes it harder to implement bad ideas quickly or impulsively.

Totalitarian impulses are meant to be stymied by rigorous, good-faith discussion.

But for our governmental processes to really function that way, citizens—and, by extension, the legislators and executives we hire to do the day-to-day work of government—must view our political opponents as legitimate members of the governing body. We have to believe that it is valid for government of the people, by the people, and for the people to include people whose perspectives and interests we don’t share.

The culture war framework rejects that notion. It forces citizens into a zero-sum relationship with one another. When we read the phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the culture war framework encourages us to ask, “Which people?” When that question is in the back (or even front) of our mind, it is impossible for us to steward our governing institutions in the intended manner.

Christians believe that we aren’t living in this country by accident. We believe that God intended us to be part of the body politic, part of the great committee that hires elected officials and decides together whether to re-hire them or lay them off and let another candidate try out their job. And if that’s the case—if God put us here and now on purpose—then failing to execute the responsibilities of citizenship in a healthy and constructive manner is rejecting a responsibility entrusted to us by the God of all things.

One day, Jesus will return to earth and call all people to lay their crowns and glories at his feet. The gifts he’s given us now he will demand back. We can’t play games with our crowns. We can’t treat them like baubles or trinkets that can be tossed around, mistreated, and even handed off to others, and then still expect them to be worth laying at his feet.

The crown of participatory democracy he has entrusted us with must be handled with care.

Learn to live differently

Are you ready to practice politics differently? Are you ready to live a life that recognizes that there is no man or woman, Jew or Greek, liberal or conservative? Do you want your church community to be a place where people from both sides of those divides are seen to be on equal footing, living together, loving one another, and working in concert for the shalom and the tikkun of the land into which God has carried you?

If so, we want to help.

Following Jesus shouldn’t turn us into political triumphalists, partisan loyalists, or ideological extremists. Christians for Social Action is partnering with The Center for Christian Civics to equip Christians to trust each other and serve our neighbors—even across deep partisan divides. Sign up to receive reflections, recommended reading, and news about our latest resources here.

Rick Barry serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Civics, where he equips the church to think, speak and act differently in the public square. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

You may also want to read