We ended our last post in this series by pointing to “strategies of retreat.” But, I think it best we first address the infamous conflagration known as “culture wars.” For it is concern about “culture wars” that spurs other forms of retreat.
In some of the responses to this series, I was surprised to see this discussion labelled as “culture war.” Why was I surprised? Well, I have done little in the past two posts but assess how I think Orthodox Christians would hear and react to Robert George’s article. If I am being labeled as a “culture warrior” for using an article by Robert George then I would tend to think a few things about those who would label me as such. Either someone has predetermined ideas about Robert George and so my use of his article denotes either my tacit agreement with or ignorance of his work. Or, they expose themselves as inattentive readers. I have seen evidence of both. But since this term has been brought into the discussion, I would like to look more deeply into the meaning of “culture war.”
What are the “Culture Wars”?
What are “culture wars”? What is a “culture warrior”? Like so many phrases there is a long history to unpack. I have always associated the term “culture warrior” with a particular type of Christian. My associations, to be clear, are based upon anecdotes and my specific experiences. What I have always denoted as a “culture warrior” is a Christian who is obsessed with particular moral issues and then the partisan politics necessary to enact and enshrine these in the laws of the land. The negative part here is underlined by “obsessed” and “particular”. Their obsession means that they have chosen specific issues, often sexual, and made them to be the issues confronting Christians. It is rare to see someone given the title “culture warrior” as a kind of accolade. In many circles to be a sophisticated, dedicated, and well-rounded Christian is to be above “culture war.” In some Orthodox circles engaging in “culture war” is seen as importing “Evangelicalism” into Orthodoxy.
In order to dig deeper, I am going to rely on the work of James Davison Hunter on culture war that was published in 1991. Culture Wars: The Struggle To Define America is careful, constructive, and best of all an illuminating discussion of a variety of aspects surrounding culture wars.
Culture War: The Battle for Meaning
According to Hunter, culture war is the product of competing visions of moral authority. It is what happens when people disagree about the good. How we see the good, how we pursue the good, and how we encourage or enact that good. Hunter claims that
The division of political consequence today are not theological and ecclesiastical in character but the result of differing worldviews. That is to say, they no longer revolve around specific doctrinal issues or styles of religious practice and organization but around our most fundamental and cherished assumptions about how to order our lives – our own lives and lives together in this society.1
For example, older alliances and disagreements between various groups have been turned upside down. It is no longer Roman Catholicism vs. Protestantism, as was evidenced at earlier points in our Republic. Now the challenges are the basic assumptions about how we discern what is good. This shows up in issues of “abortion, child care, funding of the arts, affirmative action and quotas, gay rights, values in public education, [and] multiculturalism.” And what is ultimately the conflict over these issues? What we consider to be the source of our moral authority. The culture war we experience is the result of differing bases of moral authority.
Hunter points to two “polarizing impulses” in American culture, the impulse toward orthodoxy and the impulse toward progressivism.2 The impulse toward orthodoxy shows itself in its commitment “to an external, definable, and transcendent authority.”3 This impulse is something which cuts across denominational and even religious boundaries. Protestants and Roman Catholics may come to agree about a particular moral issue but Protestants arrive there via the authority of Scripture and Catholics vis-à-vis the magisterium of the Church. In either case, there is an appeal to a transcendent and definable authority that exists outside of one’s subjective desires and is seen to be as true for the Apostle Paul as it is for a modern American citizen.
Cultural progressivism on the other hand sees moral authority as “defined by the spirit of the modern age, a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.”4 Hunter helps flesh this out by commenting that this progressive impulse tends to see truth as a “process” and therefore historic faiths need to “resymbolize” or update their positions according to contemporary assumptions. Ultimately moral authority resides in “personal experience or scientific rationality, or either of these in conversation with particular religious or cultural traditions.”5
Culture war, as illuminated by Hunter, is not just politics or the sparring of opinions. The conflict is much deeper. Hunter argues that “culture war emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on.”6 Further, this conflict is not just a clashing of ideas. In this contest over what the “good” is we begin to have a discussion about what it is for us to live and work together and therefore it begins to be a struggle over the meaning of America. Culture war is “cultural conflict about power – a struggle to achieve or maintain the power to define reality.”7
Retreating from the Conflict
Understanding culture war as the clashing of different approaches to moral authority can help refresh or reset our understanding. Instead of anecdotes and the antics of particular pastoral personalities, Hunter gives us a definition from which we can more adequately account for the serious cultural tensions and debates raging around us. This is important. It is important because it allows us to more deeply engage and understand what is at stake for the Church in the public sphere.
How do we approach moral issues? Is the Orthodox approach an orthodox impulse or a progressive impulse? Further, is the Church to engage with and contest with differing moral visions? Are Christians to advocate and pursue public policies? It is how we answer these questions that drive us to retreat or to engage.