Defeated? Give Up the Fight? Evangelicals and the Culture Wars

Written by Jeff Wright Jr. on September 21, 2013

The culture wars are over.

Conservative Christians have lost the struggle to become America’s Moral Majority. The Bible Belt is collapsing. It’s time for evangelicals to shift our focus from harnessing political power to serving as religious examples.

These are the conclusions of Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist Convention’s recently-inaugurated president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Because of these new, or newly accepted, realities, Moore is calling Southern Baptists and the American evangelical movement as a whole to embrace a new way forward by shifting perspectives and priorities.

On perspective, evangelicals ought to see themselves, no longer as a moral majority, but as a “prophetic minority,” Moore explained in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. This minority status has been thrust upon us because conservative Christian values no longer define the mainstream of American culture. Since we can longer impose our will politically, we are left to influence the culture through our own moral example.

As far as priorities, Moore delivered a welcome exhortation during his inauguration speech Tuesday. “Satan ‘is more than happy to have a world in which there is no pornography, in which there is no abortion, in which there is no malaria, in which there is no trafficking, in which there is no poverty as long as there is no cross. We cannot be longing for Mayberry. We must have a voice that speaks to the conscience, a voice that is spattered with blood.’ The Kingdom of God, Moore said, is ‘not made up of the moral. The Kingdom of God is made up of the crucified.'”

Moore continued, “For too long we have assumed that the church is a means to an end to save America. America is important. But the end goal of the Gospel is not a Christian America. The end goal of the Gospel is redeemed from every tribe and tongue and nation and language dwelling in the New Jerusalem.”

I whole-heartedly agree. Christians are, indeed, first and foremost, subjects of the kingdom of God, as I encouraged readers to remember last week.

There is much to commend in Russell Moore’s recent comments upon American evangelicals and the kingdom of God. However, is he, along with others who have voiced similar views, correct in heralding the end of the culture wars? Is it, in fact, time to acknowledge defeat and leave the culture wars behind? The answers partly depend on what the “culture wars” are.

The WSJ piece states, “Mr. Moore is among the leaders of a new generation who think that evangelicals need to recognize that their values no longer define mainstream American culture the way they did 50 or even 20 years ago.” If establishing evangelical values as the defining values of mainstream American culture is what it means to fight the culture war, then, yes, that war is lost. America is not Mayberry, as Moore put it.

The entire project of “imposing values” through politics has long had it’s critics. The alleged exodus of younger generations from the church is often blamed on an overly-political church. Evangelicalism’s alignment with the Religious Right and the Republican Party is a customary theme within the memoirs of formerly-conservative twenty-somethings seeking to untangle their faith from politics. Voting for Obama let everyone know they’re not one of those Christians.

If the Religious Right sought to influence culture by imposing their values on the rest of the nation, former evangelicals prefer cultural accommodation as their means of influence. The world loves Jesus and would love the church too if we’d only embrace its values. Quitting the culture wars for post-evangelicals has often amounted to little more than changing teams with political victors still imposing values upon others.

Conservative Christians may have lost the struggle to become America’s Moral Majority. The Bible Belt may be collapsing. The evangelical movement ought to more self-consciously embrace a prophetic minority status while serving as a religious example. But that does not mean the culture wars are over.

Here is another way of viewing the evangelical movement’s present engagement in the culture wars. Sticking with a warfare or struggle motif, evangelicals could view the current state of affairs as a retreat rather than outright defeat. Even if we think the ultimate outcome eventually may be defeat, the struggle is not over. An intentional retreat is employed in order to withdraw from an untenable situation. It is used to delay engagement until a more advantageous time, create time to recover, survey the situation, and make plans. A retreat could also be used to lead an opponent into more favorable terrain.

Moore actually recognizes what this more favorable and necessary terrain is: religious liberty. According to the WSJ interview, “Mr. Moore thinks his most profound political task will be defending religious liberty from the assaults of a secular government.” Moore is right to perceive this as a most critical task. Conservative Christians may feel like they have been forced to regroup and focus on this core issue while libertarian Christians believe this is where the focus should lie anyway. Libertarian and conservative Christians would be wise to come together around the defense of religious liberty.

Defending religious liberty is a great help to the advance of Gospel ministry. Religious liberty serves as a shield to protect us as we use our freedom to live as a “prophetic minority” and “religious examples.” We may be engaged in a lost cause but it is not lost yet. In defending religious liberty against Obamacare, Moore says, “We are not going to go away or back down.” Call it what you want but the culture wars are not over.

Jeff Wright, Jr. is a grateful husband, blessed daddy, and long-suffering Redskins fan. He is a Prison Chaplain in the "city of lost souls" and is the co-creator of Evangelicals for Liberty. Jeff holds a ThM from Dallas Seminary, and is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Jeff is a civil liberties activist on behalf of the "sacred order of freemen" and minister of the "fellowship of twice-born sinners."