The Culture War

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In browsing through the latest headlines—and skimming the articles underneath them—I get the impression that the culture wars are anything but cooling down. Despite reports to the contrary, the culture wars are not dead. If anything, they appear to be boiling over, to the extent that some factions want every aspect of life to be devoted to (or consumed by) these conflicts [1].

Front page of Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1992

These things tend to ebb and flow, and today’s clashes may take on some resemblance to those from a generation, a century, or a millennium ago. “Black Lives Matter” is not necessarily more widespread or disruptive than the race riots of the past. The “bathroom battles” are just the latest skirmish in a series of seemingly unchecked advances by the New Gnostics as they attempt to sing the body irrelevant [2]; and several of the previous “advances” were the precipitate of older fights concerning the nature of sex and marriage. And the various legal fights over the rights of conscience are themselves the result of the insistence that todays “culture war losers” should not only surrender but make reparations for past struggles.

The culture wars are are not anything new, or new to the last century or so, at any rate. Rather, they are just the latest face of an age-old conflict for the soul of civilization, and indeed for the much more important prizes of the souls of the people who make up society. In past centuries, this conflict played out more as a conflict between Church and state, or faith and reason, or between orthodoxy and heresy [3]. Indeed, there is a sense in which the current culture war is a conflict between Church and popular culture [4].


This “latest” conflict, the culture wars, is the obvious face of the age-old conflict, this time tailored for a generation (or a society) which has largely lost its religious literacy. To see that this is so, you need only contrast our culture war with, for example, the fight in early Christendom over the Arian heresy. The everyman of Alexandria was very interested in these matters of doctrine, so much so that St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of the times that

Men of yesterday and the day before, mere mechanics, off-hand dogmatists in theology, servants, too, and slaves that have been flogged, runaways from servile work, are solemn with us, and philosophize about things incomprehensible. Ask about pence, and the tradesman will discuss the generate and ingenerate; inquire the price of bread, and he will say, “Greater is the Father, and the Son is subject”; say that a bath would suit you, and he defines, “the Son is out of nothing.”

Today, one asks the price of cake and is told that marriage is between one man and one woman; but then the baker is promptly sued in court or fined by a “human rights” commission, and his (or her) business is destroyed. Or ask the price of coffee, and the barista implies in response that faithful Christians are bigots, and then bravely faces the applause [5].

C.S. Lewis warned his Christian readers against becoming more interested in arguing about God than in learning about Him and learning to love Him. Here is certainly some wisdom here for the Christian apologist—namely, that what is right is more important than who is right. But it can also be applied more broadly to the culture wars—since the “broader” culture wars are really just another aspect of the eternal struggle between the Church and the world. It is worth stepping back and asking, are the culture wars rally about the culture—or are they more about the war?

This is a question which people on all sides or in all factions of the culture wars should be asking themselves. The progressives of all stripes should remember that revolutions have a nasty tendency of eating their own. Any culture in which all people must at any arbitrary or unexpected time bend their knees to a cruel and capricious zeitgeist is a veritable dystopia. As Chesterton warned in The Thing, not knowing why we have a certain tradition or why we do things a certain way is not a sufficient reason for change:

FenceesAlong Road Photo by marius sebastian _ Unsplash
Why is that fence there?

[Consider a fence or gate erected across a road] The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Conservatives should keep in mind the principles outlined by Russell Kirk. This includes the principle that “the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” As Kirk noted,

The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

kirk old virtues
Bonus Kirk.

Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.

Prudence, prescription, and preservation of the permanent things are all important—they are the chief virtues of a conservative—but not all old ways of doing things are necessarily better for being older.

Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, at the Battle of Tours

Christians of good faith in particular should remember that our mission is to evangelize. While many people will strive to make themselves our enemies, we ultimately have one true enemy [6], however many his minions. Indeed, many of the devils would-be accomplices are more akin to his hostages than his allies (see Mark 3:22-27). If one side of the culture war seems to be fought with the final aim of persecuting Christians, and if many people seem sympathetic to this view, our response ought not to be punish to paynim. Our purpose is to evangelize, to share the joy of the gospel, and proselytism will follow from this. Yes, we must take a stand in the culture wars, but if we work to bring about the conversion of the culture, then the war will take care of itself.


[1] Some entire factions, and some people in every faction or “side” seem to want the culture-wars to be all-consuming, “scorched earth” affairs.

[2] And the Black Lives Matters and the New Gnostics have even met to declare that the biological race of one’s body is irrelevant, except when it isn’t.

[3] A note here: there need not be any conflict between these things, save only that orthodoxy and heresy are necessarily in contradiction of each other. Of course, there need not be an all-consuming culture war, either, but yet here it comes.

[4] Though the lines here have been more blurred than in previous iterations, to the extent tat many people who consider themselves to be well outside of the Church stand more-or-less on her “side” in the culture wars, and several people who apparently consider themselves to be “devout Catholics” seem to ask what the Church teaches only so that they can do the opposite.

[5] To be fair, faithful Christians faced everything from death to exile to fines and jail time and torture during the Arian crisis.

[6] On the other hand, that one enemy leads legions of lesser demons. And thought of differently, we have one true enemy who has two important collaborators, because the things which bring us to sin are the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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4 thoughts on “The Culture War”

  1. Avatar

    Think of a culture war as a high tide and low tide – twice a day. Now think progress as the erosion that occurs over aeons – sculpturing shorelines, toppling houses built too close, revealing lost history in the sands exposed, submerging atolls and raising others, creating deep harbors and silting over others. The only thing that doesn’t change is the ocean. We don’t know the final lay of the land that will be shaped in
    time, not that it matters, since we are not the One doing the shaping.

  2. Avatar

    “Today, one asks the price of cake and is told that marriage is between one man and one woman; but then the baker is promptly sued in court or fined by a “human rights” commission, and his (or her) business is destroyed. Or ask the price of coffee, and the barista implies in response that faithful Christians are bigots, and then bravely faces the applause.”

    I grew up on a horse farm and spent my youth shoveling this up off a stable floor.

    You want the baker to be able to discriminate? Fine. But remember this–the first amendment says the government cannot impede your right to worship. But the first amendment doesn’t stop individuals from discrimination. Maybe it is time to rethink the inclusion of religion within civil rights legislation. Since religion–like bigotry–is a choice. And I can’t wait to dust off my “No Catholics need apply” sign.

    (And the next time you want to vote on some citizen’s civil rights again I’d suggest you remember this–next time we may decide to vote on YOURS.)

    “Our purpose is to evangelize, to share the joy of the gospel, and proselytism will follow from this.”
    You might have a chance if you actually did try and share the joy of the gospel, but since all you “Christians” clearly enjoy condemning the actions of others far more than the spreading the love of the man you (allegedly) follow, I wouldn’t bet on your success.

    1. Avatar

      “But remember this–the first amendment says the government cannot impede your right to worship.”

      “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” – First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

      Americans possess a constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, not merely a right to “worship.” This is, to a significant extent, why the US Supreme Court just ruled unanimously in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor by vacating the lower court rulings against them as a violation of their free EXERCISE of religion, remanding their case with stipulations back to the Circuit Court.

      You might like to restrict the religious rights of Americans merely to the right to “worship,” but that is not the proper view of the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

      1. Avatar

        The first amendment only only restricts the power of the government. It does not restrict the power of other people to discriminate. The right of others to discriminate is only curbed by civil right legislation which precludes discrimination because of religion. And that language can be stripped away without violating the first amendment for the simple reason that the civil rights legislation are IN ADDITION TO the first amendment. Not because of.

        And, just so we are clear, “free exercise” does not mean TAX free.

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