The Book Stop Blog is featuring excerpts from chapter one of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars by Jonathan Merritt.
The preacher was not and is not alone in his approach to faith, politics, and culture. A conflict is raging, and the spoils are the rights to control and shape our nation and its policies. Unlike traditional military conflicts, this skirmish produces no physical casualties, but often results in the deaths of characters and reputations. Untrusting eyes stare across battle lines, with progressives crouched on one side and traditionalists on the other.
Constituencies are mobilized, opinions are polarized, and divisions run deep.
Turn on the television and you’ll lay witness to raging war in stereo and Technicolor. One needs Tylenol to absorb the pounding pundits. Behar busts on O’Reilly, O’Reilly screams about Matthews, Matthews gripes about Hannity, Hannity fumes at Maddow, and Maddow can’t stop giving that same, tired stump speech about Limbaugh. It’s maddening.
They will occasionally stop to do an interview or two, but their guests are just as abrasive. Whether it’s a politician insulting an opponent or a “strategist” shouting talking points, the noise blurs together into one angry mess. Worst of all, nobody seems to be saying anything!
Turning the television off won’t solve the problem. Radio fills with the same nonsense, just louder. And if you mute the radio, you’re still assaulted by billboards, bumper stickers, and yard signs waving their collective hands and imploring you to choose a side.
Welcome to America’s culture war.
The term “culture war” originated in the 1960s, but James Davison Hunter popularized the term in his 1992 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. According to Hunter, the passionate fights to shape the nation’s stance and policy on contentious political issues are not disconnected, but part of a larger conflict rooted in our moral imaginations:
America is in the midst of a culture war that has had and will continue to have reverberations not only within public policy but within the lives of ordinary Americans everywhere. I define cultural conflict very simply as political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding. The end to which these hostilities tend is the domination of one cultural and moral ethos over all others.1
In other words, Bill O’Reilly shouting about immigration and Al Franken whining about “lying liars” aren’t secluded opinions piercing America’s airwaves but the crossfire of two field officers from camps with radically different systems of moral thought. Abortion clinic protestors and anti-war dem- onstrators aren’t isolated pockets of resistance to individual issues, but rather the manifestations of conflicting cultural values.
Like a fish caught in a gill net, the Christian community has become enmeshed in this struggle. News shows feature pastors as pundits who offer opinions on everything from health care to tax reform, constitutional law to American history. Religious practitioners garner a seat at the table, and their massive followings cement them there.
As a senior in high school, I was unaware of the war going on around me—a war in which I was unwittingly entangled. This was the world in which I was raised, the only one I’d ever known. When I met Dr. Falwell in IHOP that day, I was in the presence of a five-star general of the culture wars. A staunch traditionalist and valiant conservative, he had served on the front lines for more than two decades when we met. Dr. Falwell and other Christian leaders like him were constructing a politico-religious machine long before I ordered the blueberry pancakes. And masses were following them into the fray.
During my formative years, others warned me that modernist liberals sought to obliterate all notions of God and destroy our precious way of life. Our family, our faith, our entire nation was locked in a struggle that Christians could not afford to lose. I responded by hunkering down in the cultural trenches. I consumed a steady diet of conservative writers like Ann Coulter and trained myself to combat the slander of godless liberals. I took my cues from vetted figures in the Religious Right, my trusted guides in the cultural conflict.
Such entrenchment was necessary if I hoped to honor our Lord by fighting off His political enemies. I never considered otherwise. After all, if one walked into a Southern evangelical church during the 1980s or ’90s, being greeted with both a handshake and a Christian Coalition voter’s guide wasn’t the slightest bit abnormal.2 In the conservative vortex where I spent my incubator years, fighting the culture wars was a Christian’s duty.
Excerpted from A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars by Jonathan Merritt © 2012. Published by FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group. Used by permission.