The Culture War Is a Myth
If we’re not fighting to “conserve” Christianity, we may as well stay home.
Andrew Breitbart said, “Politics is downstream from culture.” And yet, strangely, he didn’t go on to become a painter or a playwright or an operatic tenor. He went into politics.
I’m sure Breitbart meant it at the time. At some level, though, he must have known the truth: culture is a function of politics. In the modern world, everything is.
Just take the most recent example. Shortly after Roe v. Wade was overturned, NPR helpfully compiled the reactions of sixty-four musicians, all of them negative. Taylor Swift said she was “absolutely terrified” by the ruling. Lukas Nelson wrote a new song about a girl who’s forced to carry the child of her own father, a self-righteous, church-going hypocrite.
“F—k the Supreme Court,” Lorde said during her set at Glastonbury Festival. Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong went a little further. “F—k America,” he told another crowd of Britishers. “I’m f—king renouncing my citizenship. (Like abortion, the F-word is now an integral part of our culture.)
It’s not just the artists, though, and it’s not just the left. These days, no frat party is complete without at least one dude in a Reagan/Bush tank top. A backwoods bonfire must have at least a dozen MAGA caps. Ten years ago, every bar in the country had sports on the TV. Now, half of them show cable news. Between Kanye’s strange foray into politics, Kim’s lobbying President Trump on prison reform, and Caitlyn Jenner’s run for governor, the Kardashians have replaced the Bushes as our most important Republican dynasty.
Elections are our national pastime. Protest songs are the new pop music. Every doctor is an activist. (She’d better be, if she wants a job.) Every reporter is a propagandist. (Ditto.)
This is what some folks call the Politicization of Everything, and it is hardly news to anyone. Conservative highbrows say it’s been going on since the French Revolution. So do a few progressives, for that matter. The late George Steiner said the Jacobins “abolished the millennial barrier between common life and the enormities of the historical. Past the hedge and gate of even the humblest garden march the bayonets of political ideology and historic conflict.”
The timeline doesn’t really matter, though. The point is that the Politicization of Everything has been going on much longer than most of us realize, and hardly any of us can escape it.
Let’s go back to the Roe example. Many of our comrades on the right saw the Supreme Court’s decision as a major victory in the Culture War. “At last,” they said, “our Judeo-Christian values are making a comeback against the Culture of Death!” And I wish it were true. Honestly, I do. But I’m not so sure.
First of all, the Court wasn’t making a judgment on the morality of abortion. Just the opposite. It just pointed out that the Constitution doesn’t explicitly endorse the practice. Infanticide is no longer seen as a positive good, like interstate commerce. It’s morally neutral, like alcohol. It’s certainly not seen as something evil, like slavery or excessive bail.
Secondly, Dobbs v. Jackson was an unpopular decision handed down by an unpopular court appointed by an unpopular president. It’s not going to turn the national tide on life issues. Again, I wish it would. But it won’t.
Thirdly, and most importantly, life issues were never really “cultural” to begin with. From the very beginning, our country’s debate over abortion debate has been deeply, scandalously political.
Through the 1960s, Catholics were the only solidly pro-life electorate in the country. Back then, a surprising number of evangelicals were in the pro-choice camp. In 1968, a symposium held by Christianity Today—the flagship of evangelicalism, founded by Billy Graham himself—argued that abortion is not sinful where matters of “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility are concerned.” When Roe was handed down in 1973, the Baptist Press—the official mouthpiece of the Southern Baptist Convention—declared: “Religious liberty, human equality, and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”
All of this began to change when Republican leaders realized they might coax Catholics away from the Democratic Party by turning the GOP against Roe. Paul Weyrich of the Heritage Foundation handled the political lobbying, while televangelist Jerry Falwell worked to change the hearts and minds of evangelical ministers.
They succeeded, and thank God for that. There is no bad reason to oppose the murder of children. I have no doubts that pro-life evangelicals are sincere in their convictions, either. They are certainly more sincere than my fellow Catholics, a plurality of whom support abortion rights. But, if anything, that’s our case in point. Generally speaking, Catholics chose their loyalty to the Democratic Party over their pro-life convictions—just as many evangelicals chose loyalty to the Republican Party over their pro-choice convictions.
Even today, the best indicator of one’s position on life issues is not religion, but party. Evangelicals are pro-life by a 63 to 33 margin; they are also Republicans by a 56 to 28 margin. Catholics are narrowly pro-choice, 48 to 47; they also tend to be Democrats, 44 to 37. Meanwhile, members of historically black Protestant churches (or black churches) are pro-choice 52 to 46; they’re also Democrats, 80 to 10.
What’s interesting is that black churches are officially pro-life—just like the Catholic Church. By supporting abortion rights, their members are breaking with official teaching—just like Catholics. The numbers don’t lie. Regardless of creed or color, most American Christians are taking their cues from politics, not religion.
This goes for progressive denominations, too. The so-called mainline Protestant churches, like the Episcopal Church, have been in the pocket of the Democratic Party for as long as I’ve been alive. As anyone who’s attended their services will tell you, their sermons are little more than stump-speeches for the progressive cause du jour.
We orthodox Christians can laugh and pat ourselves on the back, but only at our own peril. My friend Rod Dreher has spent years chronicling the moral bankruptcy of “conservative” churches in these pages. The grotesque spectacle of the Jericho March is only one example of how subservient our leaders are to the Republican Party.
Even when we try to correct course, we go too far in the other direction. Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention elected Ed Litton as its president. Litton is theologically orthodox but, in the wake of the George Floyd riots, he ran on a promise to purge “systemic racism” from the SBC. Bewilderingly, Litton defended himself from critics by saying, “I’m very conservative…in my politics,” as if that made him the ideal pastor-in-chief for America’s second largest denomination.
Clearly, I’m a man of the right. I’m not going to hold Litton’s politics against him. Still, Christians across the political spectrum should be disturbed by such naked politicking in a church election. The clergy doesn’t exist to mediate on social issues. The clergy exists (do I have to say it?) to bring souls to Jesus Christ. True, many evangelical leaders are too quick in toeing the GOP line. Yet the answer isn’t a milquetoast centrism. The answer is Gospel radicalism.
I’m afraid things will get worse before they get better. Republicans still have the power to sway Christians on moral issues, and not always for the good.
In 2012, Mitt Romney’s support for traditional marriage was a huge draw for evangelicals and orthodox Catholics. In 2016, he was succeeded by Donald Trump, an open supporter of gay marriage—one of about three in a field of eighteen. Many conservatives (myself included) supported Trump regardless. We argued that conservatives wouldn’t take their moral cues from a thrice-married TV playboy.
Lo and behold, in 2021, Gallup found that a majority of Republicans now support same-sex marriage. We’re at 55 percent and counting, up from 40 percent in 2016. This fifteen-point spike is the largest in history, for either party. And it took place entirely during the Trump presidency.
Now, let’s say a charismatic leader won the hearts of conservative Christians in 2030s—the way Falwell did in the Seventies, and the way Trump did in the 2010s. Let’s say this new leader ticked all the boxes on important “Culture War” issues—except that he was pro-choice. And let’s say that current trends continue apace, so that about 70 percent of Americans are pro-choice in 2030.
How would we respond? Maybe the way we did in 2016. “He’s pretty much solid on every other issue. We’ll never get a pro-life candidate elected in this climate anyway. And he promises not to expand access to abortion…”
Would this leader be able to shift Republican opinion on abortion? If not, why?
It seems clear to me that the “Culture War” is just a smokescreen for factional power-plays. To be sure, there are truehearted warriors out there. Pat Buchanan, the founder of this magazine, is chief among them. But they are a minority, just as they were in 1992. Not that the rest of us are hypocrites, of course. I hope that goes without saying. No, it’s that we’re being duped by the GOP and its media flunkies. (The same thing is happening to liberals, by the way. Hence the bizarre number of earnestly pro-life Catholics who refuse to abandon the Democratic Party.)
Most of us spend one morning a week at church at best. Meanwhile, we spend eleven hours a day consuming media. Mammon has plugged himself directly into our frontal lobes. Our attention is constantly being drawn away from the City of God and towards the City of Man.
Yet all this predates the smartphone, and it will continue long after a President Hawley deports all Apple products back to the People’s Republic of California. King David knew the real problem—and the real answer. “Put not your trust in princes,” he warned, “nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”
Republican leaders have betrayed us on same-sex marriage. Even as we speak, they’re betraying us on transgenderism. Give it a few more years and they’ll betray us on abortion, too. But the only power they wield is the power we give them. So, cut them off.
But—ah! I can just hear some reader muttering the word retreatist under his breath. “How are we supposed to survive in the modern world without secular allies?” he asks. Well, that’s exactly my point. We don’t have any allies. We have a political class that panders to us during elections and then works assiduously to undermine our values once they’re in power.
Anyway, these aren’t the priorities of a Christian. Just the opposite. C.S. Lewis put it best:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.
It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in.” Aim at earth and you will get neither.
Granted, this is a strange argument to make in a political magazine. But the whole point of conservatism is that it that a good polity is grounded on something more than politics.
That’s what Burke meant when he said, “All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust, and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust to the one great Master, Author, and Founder of society.”
Get daily emails in your inbox
It’s what Adams meant when he warned, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
It’s what Kirk called the “true understanding of liberty”: the “freedom to live within the compass of God’s ordinances, not freedom to doubt and demolish.”
Western civilization was built by Christians. For the better part of two millennia, it was occupied almost solely by Christians. Its politics, philosophy, art, poetry, music, and architecture were all geared towards advancing the Christian faith. Christianity is the wellspring, the lifeblood, of the West. Of course, Republican elites will gladly pay lip service to Christians if that’s what it takes to stay in power. But what about us, the rank-and-file? If we’re not fighting to “conserve” Christianity, we may as well stay home. No, the Culture War isn’t over. It hasn’t even begun. There is no Culture War. There’s only the Great Commission. If we aim for Heaven, we might just get the White House thrown in. If we aim for the White House, we’ll get nothing—and we’ll deserve every bit of it.