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.
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.