The Culture War Fallacy

Wielding influence and engaging the culture is important, but when our primary lens for interacting with the culture around us is one of warfare we quickly lose sight of our call as Christ followers to shape and serve the culture around us. Creating for change means participating in the culture, not just resisting the culture.

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Why is it that Christians tend to think of culture in terms of warfare, of fighting against whatever they don’t like in the culture around them? What if, instead of waging a culture war, there was a better way?

“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” – Madeleine L’Engle

A fist pounds on a pulpit. The decibel level rises, resulting in a crescendo of Amens and Preach It’s from the congregants. The air crackles with electricity. Those in attendance feel as if they are on the cusp of something great, something noble; they are in for the challenge of their lives. It’s clear they are the underdogs in this looming, colossal battle, but this confrontation is what they were made for.

Or is it?

No, it’s not a call to a spiritual battle of principalities and powers, of things unseen, spiritual warfare in the heavenlies, but a very flesh and blood challenge to prepare for a confrontation of epic proportions right here on earth. The enemy? Not rulers of darkness, but real, physical, human rulers in Washington. Those in government are the enemy. Even the culture at large is viewed as the opposition, and all of its supporting power structures.

Substitute some blue face paint, the sound of spears rattling, and William Wallace charging up and down the battle line and you have a similar dynamic to the classic Braveheart scene. It’s a parallel that’s all the more shocking for its familiarity and mundanity in everyday conservative American religious life.

(Read more Culture Change Fallacies: The Top-Down Fallacy, The Speak-Up Fallacy, and The Christian-Culture Fallacy)

A Holy War?

“We’re fighting a holy war,” Jerry Falwell, leader of the conservative political action group Moral Majority that arose in the late 1970s, and pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, thundered to his congregation. “What’s happened to America is that the wicked are bearing rule. We have to lead the nation back to the moral stance that made America great… we need to wield influence on those who govern us.” [1]

Wielding influence and engaging the culture is important, but when our primary lens for interacting with the culture around us is one of warfare we quickly lose sight of our call as Christ followers to shape and serve the culture around us. It’s important to make clear that standing up for what’s right and speaking truth to power, even mobilizing politically can all be good and useful ways to engage with culture, particularly in our uniquely American brand of democracy, for which we should be ever thankful.

Moral Majority or Love-Driven Minority?

However, as author and pastor Scott Sauls writes, “Historically, Christians have most influenced society not as some sort of ‘moral majority’ but as a life-giving, love-driven minority.” [2] Losing at the polls should not cause us to lose heart, for we have a long and storied history of speaking truth and love to power as a minority influence. “The good news for Christians is that our faith has never required that we hold positions of power. Christianity, more than any other faith, is uniquely fitted to navigate the complex challenges of being a minority view in a plural society. In fact, Christianity has never been more itself, more consistent with its roots in Jesus himself, than when it stands as a prophetic minority in a culture of pluralism.” [3]

There’s a difference between standing up for what’s right and standing up for our rights. Sauls offers this perceptive pastoral advice, “When the grace of Jesus sinks in, we will be among the least offended and most loving people in the world.” [4]

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. is our classic contemporary American example of dying to self while still standing up for what’s right:

“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’” [5]

The Christian Right… Not So Christian, Not So Right?

Unfortunately, in contrast for working for the shalom of the city, this culture war rhetoric was both instigated and reciprocated by evangelicals and Republicans alike. Even Republicans who were clearly religious in name only paid lip service to the battle cry against a culture quickly deteriorating from a second Jerusalem to a second Babylon, or even a second Sodom. All in the name of power, particularly across the Bible Belt in Southern states.

In God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right Daniel K. Williams writes, “Republicans quickly realized that they could win evangelical votes—and thus win the South—by adopting culture war rhetoric.” [6] The South’s burgeoning population growth only magnified evangelical influence, because while evangelicals are certainly represented throughout the United States, 52 percent of American evangelicals live in the South, even though the South only accounts for 31 percent of the national population. [7]

James Davison Hunter, the coiner of the “culture war” moniker in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America says that culture is not a “marginal concern”, and hence worth caring about, and even fighting for, because culture is “about systems of meaning that help make sense of the world,” and, “why things are good, true and beautiful, or why things are not. Why things are right and wrong.” Culture “provides the moral foundation of a political order.” [8] The good, true, and beautiful is worth fighting for. But when we neglect to create the good, true, and beautiful, and paint a vision of what the good life—a life lived for our Creator—looks like, and instead see culture merely as a battleground of political machinations then, though we may gain a short-term victory in the political arena, we have ceded ground on a larger, more important playing field. (Read: A Light So Lovely)

A Short-Sighted Culture War “Victory”

Hunter says that any political advantage evangelical conservatives may have gained will necessarily be short lived because secular liberals control all the major means of cultural production and influence—Hollywood, the academy, the media, all the “secular credentialing institutions of our society. [9] As Rod Dreher astutely observes, “Hunter believes that the total dominance progressives have in the culture-making institutions of our society means that their vision is going to win in the long run… it’s important that conservatives understand that because politics is downstream from culture, we are going to lose in politics, eventually. You only have to look at the polls on what Millennials believe—and don’t believe—to see that.” [10]

When we focus our efforts on political change in a culture war mentality then we may win some short-term victories, but absent the long, hard, grassroots, day-by-day cultural creation and influence that slowly changes hearts and minds then we give up our future. But when we create for change, we get political change thrown in too.

(Read: Culture Change Happens Slowly, Then All At Once)

The Paradoxical Way to Win the “Culture War”

Creation and warfare do not go hand-in-hand. We cannot simultaneously lean into our calling to create for change while adopting a militant attitude of hostile resistance to culture. A combative, war-like approach to culture also implies a fear-based approach to culture, and that is not our charge as Christ-followers and culture-shapers.

Makoto Fujimura writes that “A culture of fear has never produced great culture. We do not create great art in response to fear and anxiety; we create great art by loving culture, loving the materials and stories from which to create art. We create great art by having faith to love our neighbors as ourselves and even love our enemies.” [11]

This is not to say that creating for change is not a “battle strategy” in its own right, but no more than MLK Jr’s strategy of passive resistance was a strategy that affected the war but was not itself war-like. Just like many paradoxes of the Christian life—we die to live, we go last to go first, we give up everything to get even more—we can win the cultural battle by not fighting the cultural battle, at least not on the enemy’s terms. When we create for change, we get political change too.

In many respects, the more confrontational elements of cultural engagement like passing new laws, enacting new regulations, and the like, should be a foregone conclusion if the proper groundwork has already been laid. Yes, that tip of the iceberg political maneuvering will be controversial, even downright nasty, politics often is, but a large segment of the population should be clamoring for that change already, and then it’s the politician’s job to give it to them.

Unfortunately, we often get this backward. We “elect the right people into office” in order to jam new laws down the throats of our fellow Americans who run the gamut from oblivious to unengaged to actively hostile to what we believe, and then we wonder why these new laws tend to ignite a powder keg of controversy and are often swiftly remanded and counterattacked in the next election cycle when “the wrong people get elected to office.”

We Are Fighting on Two Levels…

The worst part is that we are fighting this culture war on two levels, one that we realize, and one that we don’t. Guess which one actually matters? We are fighting a pitched battle of politics and public posturing while we steadily give up ground in the culture around us because of our lack of participation in creating for change. If we are not defining what is good, true, and beautiful in a winsome and compelling way by creating goods, services, ideas, institutions, and other “nouns” that are fit for public consumption then someone else is, and if the other side controls the story, then even if we win the pitched battle, we will still eventually lose the war.

This is why political victories for “our side” are often Pyrrhic. Does it feel sometimes like politics is a whipsaw from one election cycle to the next? We elect “the right person” into office and then four years later, “the wrong person” gets elected to office. We pass an important law, then the other side passes a countermanding law. Back and forth it goes. In some respects, this is a testament to our democracy, but in other respects, it’s a critique of our short-sighted, top-down approach to cultural change.

However, in a perverse sort of way, sometimes we fight so hard we get what we want, and it ends up sowing the seeds of our destruction. We may “win” the short-term cultural battle on a particular issue, and in the most anti-Shalom, human-centric way possible we quickly charge across “enemy” lines and attempt to control our opposition. But as we will see in future articles, when we neglect our Creator’s charge to create for change, and to help usher in Shalom, then even when we seem to get our way, we soon discover it’s a mirage that evaporates, ever eluding our grasp.

Get Your Culture Change Score

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[1] Eileen Oginitz, “Evangelicals Seek Political Clout” Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1980.

[2] Scott Sauls From Weakness to Strength: 8 Vulnerabilities That Can Bring Out the Best in Your Leadership David C Cook, October 1, 2017

[3] Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, TN: B& H, 2015), 33–56

[4] Scott Sauls Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides Tyndale House Publishers, March 1, 2015, Introduction, xx

[5] Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Loving Your Enemies essay

[6] Daniel K. Williams God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right Oxford University Press, June 12, 2012, p 7

[7] E. J. Dionne, Jr., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 54.

[8] Jason Willick The Man Who Discovered ‘Culture Wars’ WSJ May 25, 2018, Last accessed August 10, 2019

[9] Ibid

[10] Rod Dreher Culture Wars: Where Are We Now? The American Conservative, May 29, 2018, Last accessed August 10, 2019

[11] Makoto Fujimura Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life IVP Books, 2017 chapter 17

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Joel Ohman

Joel Ohman is a serial tech entrepreneur, author, and the chief creator at Created for Change. You can connect with Joel at or via LinkedIn.