The return of the culture wars

Here’s something you often hear as you get older: “I remember the last time it was popular.” Fashions once considered outdated are coming back in style. Movements appear and subside, then reappear. A benefit of age is the wisdom and perspective you bring to the present moment. History doesn’t always repeat itself or move in predictable cyclical patterns, but the more you study it and the longer you live, the more you see how the present and the past rhyme.

I have to get old, because since I turned 40 last year, I’ve said many times, “I remember the last time it was popular. More recently, I said this about online debates about the appropriate posture for Christians seeking to engage in culture at this time. I see the resurgence of a religious neo-right – a return of the culture war mentality among many young evangelicals who believe the need of the hour is for the church to jump into the fray of hardline politics and be more bolder and stronger in opposing left-wing tendencies that are harmful to society.

I say “religious neo-right” because it’s not exactly the return of the Jerry Falwell era, and there are crucial differences that distinguish today’s thirst for culture from that of my generation. parents and grandparents. We will soon discuss some of these distinctions.

My History with the Religious Right

But this resurgence piqued my interest because I came of age in the 1990s. My parents were on the religious right. They closely followed state and national politics and got involved in local elections, with my father serving two terms on the city council. I remember the night of the 1994 midterm reviews and the Gingrich-led ‘Contract with America’. During those crucial teenage years, Rush was on the radio, Jerry Falwell was sending out videos filled with right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories, Southern Baptists were boycotting Disney because of the leftist agenda of Disney. company, men were gathering in Washington, DC, for Promise Keepers, and Bill Clinton’s character flaws were on full display (and worthy of our disgust).

Fighting for the soul of the country – the culture war mentality – was the show of loyalty. The churches were asleep and the Christians listless. It was time to wake up. The moment was urgent. As Carman sang in 1992, “The only way this nation can even hope to last this decade is to put God back in America!”

Historians debate the heyday of the religious right. Was it in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment? The 1990s when Bill Clinton was impeached? Or the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, when voters clearly disapproved of same-sex marriage? Be that as it may, the “moral majority” exerted a considerable influence on politics and culture during these decades.

An apolitical counterpoint

At the same time as many pastors and church leaders sought to make their beliefs known in the public square, a counter-movement was occurring, notably in the rise of mega-churches and the “church growth movement”. Evangelism was at the forefront of these congregations. Focusing on politics made it harder to reach people with varying philosophical and political commitments. The political posturing was divisive and counterproductive; even worse, it diverted attention from the main mission of the church to win people to Jesus.

Another counter-movement also existed: the religious left, although it was never as large or influential as the religious right. Leaders of this group often chastised white evangelicals for their political idolatry, but too often the religious left was just a mirror image of the kind of engagement they so despised – the only difference being political priorities and positions aligned to the left rather than the right. . As the Emerging Churches movement took off in the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of the leaders who moved away from right-wing political postures ended up walking shoulder to shoulder with left-wing supporters.

When the emerging church conversation was at its height and evangelicals were cheering the war in Iraq, I was a student at an evangelical college in Eastern Europe. My perspective on American politics had changed significantly, not away from an underlying conservative political philosophy (which I continue to espouse), but due to my encounters with global Christianity, a broader spectrum of reading, familiarity with different churches seeking to be faithful in various contexts, and seeing America’s culture wars from the outside. Much of the attention the American church has given to politics seemed wildly misplaced and misguided, out of step with churches in many other parts of the world.

So I turned to stronger distinctions that would help the church maintain its focus on discipleship and evangelism: (1) distinguish between the church as an institution and Christians as believers and (2) prioritize the mission of the church over the implications of Christians. live their faith. I tried to understand the cultural and historical reasons why many black Christians and white Christians who share denominational unity could be so divided on political priorities. I deplored the intrusion of political debates into all spheres of life.

Centrality and Mission of the Gospel

The gospel-centered movement that arose in the late 2000s and 2010s was, in part, a response to the emerging church movement, whose aversion to institutions and authority prevented it to build structures that could support its growth. Look at the founding documents of The Gospel Coalition (written in 2006) and you’ll get insight into the challenges facing the Church in this time, including the effects of postmodernism on how we interpret scripture.

The gospel-centered movement was also a response to the dominance of the church growth philosophy. Leaders decried overly pragmatic approaches in the church, shared concerns about the decline of serious doctrinal teaching, and sought to re-establish the priority of the gospel itself as a unifying force for evangelism and the revival of the church.

Evangelical centrality, by the nature of its spotlight on the fundamental message of Christianity, has run counter to the orientation of many churches influenced by the religious right. Political disagreements remained, but they were downgraded. The excesses of the moral majority political approach were exposed, and younger pastors turned away from this combative stance (although they sometimes replaced cultural combat with intramural theological combativeness – commonly seen as “caged Calvinism”. “).

The synergy manifested itself in the gospel-centered movement and mission conversations at the time because both rejected the politicization of the church so often seen on the religious right as well as the leftward theological drift of the religious right. Emerging Church and the Religious Left. This covenant made sense because the gospel and mission naturally go together, because the good news we are spreading is about the missionary heart of a God who seeks and saves the lost.

From Israel to Babylon

Meanwhile, the old guard of the religious right appears more like a caricature of its former glory, with increasingly bizarre views put forward by gray heads with undeserved cultural confidence. For many young pastors, the idea of ​​“taking back” the country from ungodly forces seemed like a lost cause. If older evangelicals saw America as a type of Israel – a country chosen by God for a special purpose in the world, younger evangelicals saw the country as a type of Babylon – a place where the true church will be, for the foreseeable future, a “moral minority”, prophetic from the margins.

The Israel/Babylon motif has shaped recent generational approaches to political engagement. The old religious right, thinking of America as a type of Israel, reacted to current events as a betrayal of Christian heritage and prioritized politics as a mechanism to effect change in society. Young evangelicals, viewing America as Babylon, have responded to current events with a sense of resignation and have prioritized pastoral help and guidance in a rapidly secularizing society.

But then, in the space of less than a decade, a series of convulsions reshaped the landscape. The Supreme Court’s decision redefining marriage for all 50 states in 2015, the rapid loss of political will to adopt conscience protections and ensure religious freedom, and then Donald Trump’s surprising victory in 2016 (prompted by a resurgent religious right and widespread white evangelism support) changed the environment. The push to accept gender theories that require some suspension of disbelief (not to mention the suppression of reality-defining discourse) has only heightened tensions.

Faithful to Babylon

The Israel/Babylon motive does not capture the concerns of the current moment. The neo-religious right agrees with the young evangelicals that we are in Babylon. The debate is about how the Church should respond to this environment. What does loyalty to Babylon look like?

The earlier sense of resignation, of being passive in the face of rapid political change, has been criticized by many young pastors and leaders who believe this cultural moment calls for rejecting the excesses of the old religious right. and the apolitical “above the fray” response so often displayed among leaders of church growth and gospel-centered movements. You can’t focus on discipleship, they say, without dealing with politics because faithfulness in the public square is part of discipleship. The overreaction to the problems of the religious right has led to a widespread failure to address political issues in discipleship, creating a vacuum that leaves the church vulnerable to all sorts of false ideologies.

History rhymes again, and so we are seeing the rise of a neo-religious right that seeks to recapture something of that movement’s focus on political priorities while connecting political thought to Christian discipleship. In future articles, I want to pay some attention to this new development, and then offer suggestions on how these resurgent culture warfare sensibilities can be properly channeled in ways that result in a stronger church, without the collateral damage often associated. in these kinds of battles. . More soon.


This is the first column in a series. If you would like my future articles emailed, along with a curated list of useful books, podcasts, and links I find online, enter your address.

1. The return of the culture wars
2. The tearing of condemnatory civility
3. Navigating the (new?) negative world
4. Didn’t I grow up in the negative world?
5. We need to complicate the negative world
6. Contextualizing Tim Keller
7. Encouragement and caution for culture warriors
8. Truthful witness in the public square
9. Five quick takes for new culture wars

Helen D. Jessen