When The Culture War Trumps The Gospel

The German expression, Der Kulturkampf (The Culture War), originally referred to the attempt by Otto von Bismarck (1815–98), the German politician who created the modern, unified Germany, to suppress the Roman Catholic Church in Germany because he feared that Romanism in Germany would undermine his program of national unity. The phrase Culture War entered the bloodstream of American politics in 1992 when Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan invoked it during his speech on the floor of the Republican Convention. To be sure, much of what Buchanan predicted regarding the sexual revolution and abortion has come true. In 1992 no presidential candidate of any party could imagine coming out, as it were, in favor of same-sex marriage. Tipper Gore, the wife of the man who served as Bill Clinton’s Vice President, led a moral crusade against filthy lyrics in rock and roll. It was, as they say, a different time.

Were the culture war conducted on the basis of general revelation (natural law), it would have had one character. Natural revelation and/or natural law is universally accessible. After all, natural law and natural rights are a part of the American political creed. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is not a sectarian Presbyterian nor a sectarian Jewish conviction. It is an American conviction. It is essential to our agreement about how we are going to live together. That creed required neither Holy Scriptures of the Christians nor the Holy Qur’an of the Muslims. As envisioned in the 18th-century formation of the American Republic there was to be no federal church (there were state churches until about 1812). There was to be no religious test for voting and no religious test for holding public office. Natural law was thought to be sufficient.

The Cultural Revolution

Still, the underlying assumption for most of American history, until quite recently, was that, privately the USA was, in some sense, a “Christian nation.” According to Nathan Hatch and others, in the wake of the so-called Second Great Awakening, the USA was arguably a “Christian nation” for a significant portion of the 19th century. That consensus was under heavy assault among elites in the late-19th century. By the early 2oth century, Christianity was losing favored status.

Most Americans, however, probably did not really begin to experience the fallout from the loss of confidence in Christianity among social, economic, and political elites until the 1920s and then again in the 1960s. In truth, America has not been a Christian nation for more than a century but politicians routinely referred to America as a Christian nation into the 1980s. Thus, even though perceptive Christians were aware that elites had lost confidence in Christianity as the account of the truth, it seemed to many that Christianity could regain its place in culture and society again if we just put our minds to it. Hence Pat Buchanan’s speech and the various machinations of the Religious Right (including dalliances with Christian Reconstructionism and Theonomy) in the 1980s. The push to “take back America” for Jesus was was already losing.

Bill Clinton’s Southern Baptist piety and ethos was more in touch with mainstream American evangelicalism than G. H. W. Bush’s patrician Episcopalianism. Whatever was left of “Christian America” was slipping away during the Clinton Administrations as he, like Jimmy Swaggart, alternately denied (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky”) and confessed his sexual infidelities before hot lights of the television cameras. Americans themselves had conducted plenty of their own affairs by then and were too compromised to hold the adulterer-in-chief to any standard. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Swaggart, and Tammy Faye Bakker were America.

The Sexual Revolution

Formally, America has no national church but the arbiters of its national morality hold court in Washington, in the Supreme Court, which has issued an imprimatur on the sexual revolution and instituted two sacraments of the sexual revolution: abortion (Roe v Wade, Doe v. Bolton, 1973) and gay marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015). Those two signs and seals of the revolution tells us much about the failure if the religious Culture War. Roe confirmed heterosexual “liberation” from nature and Obergefell confirmed our rebellion against nature altogether. From 1976 (the year of our first “born again” president) to 2015, America became an immoral majority.

Yet, since Obergefell and its fallout (e.g., fines issued by Civil Rights Commissions), the call to conduct the culture war has become even more pressing even as the war faltered. Since the early 1990s, the generals of the culture war have lowered theological standards in order to draft more foot soldiers.

Blurry Vision

Christian-right advocates of the culture war have long sought to downplay doctrinal differences so as to foster a united front against the sexual revolutionaries, neo-Marxists, and other cultural “progressives.”  E. g., in 2012 there was pressure from religious and cultural conservatives not only to downplay differences between Christian denominations but even between Christianity and Mormonism. The Evangelical theologian Richard Mouw has been arguing for several years that the lines between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity are blurrier than we once thought.

In the Reformed world there has long been pressure on the orthodox confessionalists to ignore in-house theological problems such as the Federal Vision movement in the interests of conserving energy of the church in order to focus on pressing cultural issues. Now there appears to be emerging an alliance between culturally and theologically conservative Baptists and open advocates of the Federal Vision theology, not necessarily to join forces theologically but to become co-belligerents (Francis Schaeffer’s term) in the culture war. When these odd bed fellows are queried about the marriage, they reply: the Federal Vision is not an essential issue. To use language that was very popular just a few years ago: they are arguing that the Federal Vision theology is not a gospel issue. Some of these same conservatives have claimed  “complementarianism is a gospel issue.” Still other theologically conservative Christians, on the other side of the social spectrum, argue that sins against social justice are a “gospel issue.”

The gospel is a gospel issue and the Reformed Churches have considered the Federal Vision and rejected it as contrary to the gospel. Doctrine that teaches that Christians are “in by baptism” and that they “stay in by works” or that they are elect, regenerated, united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of baptism and that they retain these benefits by way of cooperation with grace, or who say that there is a final justification or salvation to be obtained by or through good works have contradicted the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a powerful movement afoot, some of it behind the scenes (and some of it well-financed), to marginalize the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in order to facilitate alliances in the culture war. The tragedy of this strategy is that it is unnecessary. Just as the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement was unnecessary to make cultural common cause and just as the blurring of Christian teaching viz. the Mormons is unnecessary to make cultural common cause, so it is unnecessary to marginalize the gospel of free salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone in order to pursue a cultural agenda.

Calvin wrote that Christians live in a “twofold kingdom.” One sphere is sacred (the visible church) and the other sphere is secular. Both are under the providence of God. The sacred/ecclesiastical sphere, however, is under the special (saving) providence of God. The general/secular sphere is under the general providence of God. All we need to do is to distinguish the sphere in which we are operating. In the cultural sphere (and even in the Culture War) we we have all the resources we need in God’s general revelation, his moral law. As long as we realize that the cultural sphere is a secular sphere, we need not marginalize the gospel in order to cooperate with others of whatever religion. Conservative evangelicals should be able to make common cultural cause with Mormons, moderate Muslims, and even Episcopalians in the interests of opposing the public funding of the LGBTQIA recruitment program currently occurring in public libraries across the USA.

Many American evangelical conservatives are completely unaware, however, of Calvin’s distinction. They are also unaware of the historic Christian use of natural law. Some are downright suspicious of it. Another problem is that there seem to be a remarkable number of American evangelicals who are simply not American in their political creed. They want to return to the status quo ante the founding of the Republic. They want a state-church. Remarkably, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary (and the Constitution notwithstanding) they seem to believe that it can be done. This aspect of the culture war is like sixteenth-century pining for a renewal of the Crusades. Despite all the evidence that suggested that the Crusades were a failure and that there was no chance to get the band back together, European Christians continued to harbor hope that one more great Crusade might organized  to “take back the Holy Lands” for Jesus. So too, the “take back America” ethos seems to have deep roots among conservative evangelicals. They want a return to glory, a return to a place of influence and prominence in the culture.

The greatest irony in all of this, however, is that the thing that some conservative evangelicals seem willing to marginalize for the sake of the culture war is the very thing, the only thing, that will produce lasting cultural renewal and change. Natural law will provide a bulwark against Drag Queens recruiting children but it cannot change the hearts of those who feel the need to dress like Drag Queens. The law cannot change the hearts of those fathers who sexually abused their children, driving them into the arms of the LGBTQIA revolution. Only the gospel can do that. The law convicts. The law norms. The law restrains but it does not change hearts and minds. The law cannot make a man righteous before God and empower him to live a consecrated life of obedience and devotion. The gospel can and does.

This is why it so terribly important to get the gospel right and to get it out. It is counter-intuitive, but the gospel of free salvation in Christ is just what a collapsing culture needs. Of course any culture needs the law but it needs the real law, not the watered down version of the self-help gurus and the mega-church ministers. Americans need to know again that they are sinners and that God is a righteous judge, whose justice is immutable and must be satisfied either by one’s self or by another on one’s behalf. Christianity says that Christ is he who satisfied it on behalf of his elect. The law will curb the sexual revolution but what will overturn the social-sexual revolution is a Holy Spirit-ual revolution: new life granted through the preaching of the holy gospel and confirmed by the use of the holy sacraments. Thus, only the real gospel will do. The Federal Vision is no gospel. It is ultimately just another self-help program dressed in Christian clothing. It is really just more law.


Resources On The Federal Vision Theology

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  1. Dr. Clark,
    What are the big distinctions between the FV and the confessional Lutheran position? Is it that the FV emphasizes works and the Book of Concord emphasizes grace and has no room for a final justification (e.g., Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article IV: “It does not, however, mean that faith accepts righteousness and salvation only at the beginning, and then delegates this function to works, as if works should henceforth preserve faith, the righteousness that has been received, and salvation…Paul ascribes to faith not only our entry into grace but also our present state of grace and our hope of sharing the glory of God (Rom. 5:2). In other words, he attributes to faith alone the beginning ,the middle, and the end of everything.” -Tappert, 556.)? Aren’t the FV and the confessional Lutheran positions similar, though, in regard to baptism and perseverance?

  2. Doug Wilson has a new book concerning the collapse of American culture. Could you review that in light of your above comments

    • Thomas, were you talking about Empires of Dirt 2016, Rules for Reformers 2014 or a more recent title?
      (In light of the FV fiasco, his Papa, Don’t Pope 2015 might leave something to be desired in the credibility dept.)
      Thank you.

  3. “Natural revelation and/or natural law is universally accessible.”

    What would you make of the Canons of Dordt 3rd & 4th Head Article 3.4 on the Inadequacy of the Light of Nature re. civil matters? While there is something to be said for it, in the end it is unreliable for civil society?

    “To be sure, there is left in man after the fall, some light of nature, whereby he retains some notions about God,1 about natural things, and about the difference between what is honourable and shameful, and shows some regard for virtue and outward order. But so far is he from arriving at the saving knowledge of God and true conversion through this light of nature that he does not even use it properly in natural and civil matters. Rather, what-ever this light may be, man wholly pollutes it in various ways and suppresses it by his wickedness. In doing so, he renders him-self without excuse before God.”

    Thank you.

  4. Thunderbolts in the left hand and lightening in the right hand!
    Count me in on that monologue Dr. Clark.

  5. The cultural Marxists, SJWs, and feminists within the NAPARC churches, particularly the PCA, engage in arguably much more Kulturkampf than the federal visionists and theonomists and are much greater in number, yet only the “right wing” Kulturkampferen receive condemnation. Why is that? I think the leftwing Kulturkampferen distort the gospel just as much with their new form of liberation theology. Compared to the federal visionists, the cultural Marxist faction within the PCA is huge. Andy Webb recently said that it took the whole lineup of a Ligonier conference to get the Nashville Statement approved last GA, and then it only passed 60-40 with Greg Johnson reminding everyone on Twitter that all the old men would be gone soon.

    • Walt,

      I can’t speak for or even about who is critical of the theonomic left but they have certainly received their share of criticism here, on the Heidelblog. There is, after all, an entire resource page devoted to analyzing the so-called “social justice” movement.

      Resources On The Social Gospel And Social Justice

      At the moment, however, my argument is with those on the cultural and religious right, who are seeking to suppress criticism of the self-described Federal Vision theology, in the interests of creating a common front in the culture war. They do so at the expense of the gospel.

  6. Thanks. Do you think the Levarite Law was a natural law? It seems God executed Judah’s sons for breaking it.

    You and I have disagreed over natural law. Many Reformed Christians don’t believe in it. I think this rejection of natural law comes from Hume’s “ought/is” distinction: you can’t derive ought from is. According to this distinction, it’s a matter of indifference whether I ask my wife to deal with a home invader instead of doing it myself, though I am larger, stronger and more violent as a man.

    If we’re to make America natural again, how can we derive natural law from human nature and physiology and sex differences when we think males can now become female? To what extent is natural law “law” as opposed to “suggestion,” or “preference?”

    • Walt,

      I don’t think you quite understand what natural law is. A law is natural when it is grounded in creation, in the nature of things. The antiquity of a law or practice does not make it natural or necessary. A natural law is a necessary law. E.g., Levirate (NB: the spelling) marriage. For readers who don’t know what that is:

      The custom among the Jews and some other nations, by which the brother or next of kin to a deceased man was bound under certain circumstances to marry the widow (OED, s.v., Levirate.

      The Israelites were allowed to do a variety of things that “were not so” (Jesus) in the beginning. Our Lord himself appealed to creation to norm polygamy:

      He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:8-9; ESV),

      Creation norms Moses. This is what theonomists can’t seem to understand: The Mosaic administration of the covenants was temporary. The civil laws were temporary. The religious laws were temporary. The civil laws were specific to Moses. As the Reformed Old Testament scholar (and theologian) Johannes Wollebius said in the early 17th century:

      I. As the ceremonial law was concerned with God, the political was concerned with the neighbor.

      II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.

      III. In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.

      JOHANNES WOLLEBIUS, Compendium theologiae christianae, 14.6 in Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John W. Beardslee III (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 84.

      Many Reformed Christians don’t believe natural law now but that is mainly because they are (1) ignorant of their own tradition; (2) influenced by foolish theories (e.g., theonomy/reconstructionism); (3) influenced by neo-Kuyperian hostility to historic Reformed theology; (4) influenced by Barth’s pernicious rejection of natural law. It amuses me to no end that theonomists are (usually ignorantly so) functional Barthians on natural law.

      For American civil life, the theonomic/Barthian/neo-Kuyperian rejection of natural law is moot. This country was founded on natural law: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

      I agree that it is a challenge to teach Americans to be Americans again. It is a challenge to teach Gnostic late-moderns that sex and gender are two distinct things, that sex is biological and gender is grammatical but I have this conversation with young people and it’s not that difficult. YouTube is a wonderful thing. We don’t even need to drive out to Ramona in the Spring. We can just pull up a video of a bull and cow (or a heifer). That’s nature.

      Insanity (which we may hope and pray is temporary) is no reason not to pursue sanity. Yes, there are a small number of noisy, insane people who deny nature but to them I say, “climb up the clock tower, identify as a bird, and jump off. What will happen? That’s nature.” Of course this is only a thought experiment. No one should actually climb a clock tower and jump. The point is that nature exists and it testifies to us of its reality constantly. So, we should do as Paul did in Romans 1 and 2 and make use of that testimony. Lots of pagans were insane (including Nero) when he wrote but that didn’t stop him from telling the truth.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    Many Reformed Christians don’t believe in natural law. I think this rejection of natural law comes from Hume’s “ought/is” distinction which has seeped into the churches: you can’t derive ought from is. According to this distinction, it’s a matter of indifference whether I ask my wife to deal with a home invader instead of doing it myself, though I am larger, stronger and more violent as a man.

    If we’re to make America natural again, how can we derive natural law from human nature and physiology and sex differences when we think males can now become female? To what extent is natural law “law” as opposed to “suggestion,” or “preference?” For example, Do you think the Levarite Law was a natural law? It seems God executed Judah’s sons for breaking it, but I can’t find it in Scripture and it was practiced everywhere in the ANE.

  8. My main concern with 2K theology now is that is primarily an “intra-American-Reformed-Church-” discussion.

    Living in South Africa, reading van Drunen’s books and attending his lecturers when he came to SA, reading oldlife.org, reading Heidelblog, and the Reformed Confession, interacting with WSC alumni like Pastor Jooste (Cape Town) and Pastor Heck (Heidelberg, Germany), I was convinced of 2K theology for the past 8 years, until I recently interacted with the very brutal reality of Fascism, Muslims who won’t bend Shariah Law to anyone for anything, Big Tech company-driven “communism”, and Chinese communists in my business life.

    Many a times I could only pray for all the death threats I received for rejecting the various “unwholesome” commercial agreements and partnerships (It is not that “easy” to walk away from those at the top!). The truth is I was “influenced” by 2K thinking in believing that a “good and reasonable” argument would make these groups “understanding” in terms of how to conduct business and commercial agreements, but alas, theirs is a “different gospel” and belief system. Death threats (for mere disagreement!) abound in these treacherous circles I unwittingly found myself in.

    I only urge that my 2K brothers (I have now regrettably abandoned the position) comprehend this : 1) Muslim “nations” do not really care to budge to “natural law”, as witnessed by the persecution of many Christians over there; 2) Communists are not backing down on their China-led expansionism of their anti-God ideals and they will not listen to “argument” that derails them from their course; 3) Fascists (I primarily noticed this with an Italian I “almost” partnered with), don’t really live by any “law” except to protect and feed their own…

    I am still not sure what the “resolution” is. But perhaps arguing “2K” in China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia is WAY BETTER than arguing about it within countries, and within Churches already heavily influenced by the Christian faith and the biblical/natural law. I REFUSED to give the “theonomy”/Belgis-36 crowd (J. Frame, etc) an ear 10 years ago; but I now reconsidering…

    • Lesang (if I may),

      1. I’m not sure what you’re in the process of rejecting. You write as if “2K” is a fixed, known, set of conclusions. I doubt that is correct.
      2. I would prefer to speak as Calvin did of the “twofold government” (duplex regimen) in which God is said to govern two distinct spheres in which Christians have two distinct sets of responsibilities. To deny that there are two distinct spheres commits one necessarily to (among other things) some sort of state-church. I share Abraham Kuyper’s question: Where in history has that worked out well for the orthodox? Athanasius stood for orthodoxy despite the magistrate, not because of him.
      3. I don’t think that you have accounted properly for natural law as a response to totalitarian movements (e.g., Fascism). I’m an American. Were it not for natural law, there would be no United States. Natural law was essential to our response to tyranny.
      4. I don’t see how adopting the Islamic view of Mosque & state helps Christians respond to the threat posed by global Islamism. D. G. Hart is right. It was the Christians who gave us the blessed category of secular. It was the pagan Romans who insisted on a state-cult.
      5. The Israelite state-cult was divinely instituted and intentionally temporary. Where is the divine warrant for a Christian state-cult? Which apostle argued for it unambiguously? Natural law is entirely sufficient warrant for a civil-military response to totalitarian movements, whether Islamism, Communism, or Fascism.
      6. Who cares whether Muslim nations agree with civilized nations? International relations is a covenant of works. Civilized nations should arm themselves and fight to defend the civil-natural rights of their citizens when Islamist nations/groups violate that covenant (that covenant is essentially “leave us alone or die”). Christendom was at war with Islamism for 1,000 years. We had a respite of a few hundred years and, for a variety of reasons, that respite has ended. We are now back to the status quo ante. Now, post-Christendom, secular states have a duty to operate according to natural, including the duty to defend citizens against tyranny of all sorts.
  9. Dr. Clark, I would like to make the following submission, in a way that might perhaps be of help in this discussion about “Church” and “State”:

    I have been working on what I would like to personally name the “ACAPELLA” argument for Christians and/in Culture/politics.

    As I see it, especially with the rise of “Big Brother” tech from the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple, there is a close connection between “Power” and “Technology”. The best empires always prided themselves on some variation of this very intractable link… Therefore, to be “technological” is to be “powerful”, in the most natural sense…

    To me, if my premises are correct, inter alia the Gospel is “powerlessness and foolishness” to the world, “our weapons are not carnal”, etc; so 1) Christian Worship/culture should be ENTIRELY “acapella”, having implications for the REMOVAL of intruments and idolatry in Christian worship, a return to exclusive psalmody, etc; 2) Christians aught to interact PUBLICLY with “the world ” (“be at peace with all men”, etc) on this very basis of the “powerless/foolish” Gospel of grace, not “the law”; 3) Christians should work on their own private enterprises, with the aim of influencing the world through both the Gospel and their enterprising work (“live such good lives”, “a city of a hill”, “salt of the earth”, etc).

    At present, I am extremely unwilling to partner (in business) with a non-believer. I have seen too much and the world is getting much, much, much darker than most Christians are even remotely aware. As I see it, only the clear preaching of the Gospel, unardoned Worship, and working “quietly” with our own hands can see the Church through it all. If the Reformed Church “persists” in giving into to “carnal” ways of using intruments in the Church, “using (natural law) logic” in the public square (that the unregerate world is unwilling to “bend” to), and being “uneqully yoked” with the world, I fear that the worst is yet to come.

    [NB. I suspect that even “common grace” is mediated through the Church being the true salt of the earth.]

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