What Happened To The Culture Wars?

harry-potter-groupYesterday I came across an article about Russell Simmons on Salon’s website, and it occurred to me how dramatically the Culture Wars have changed in the past few years. For most of my life this type of missive against a sexually explicit video would have come from a conservative organization like Focus On The Family or the American Family Association. But if you peruse conservative websites, you won’t find Simmons’ video mentioned, aside from a brief blurb on Fox News.

I know that a lot of people will say that race changes the dynamic of the controversy, and that’s true. But it had me thinking: what happened to the constant barrage of conservative outrage against media that offends their sensibilities? Why are liberals nowadays so much more effective at communicating their outrage at the scandal of the week?

Think about it. One of the predominant narratives since the 50’s has been the tension between conservatives and media that they feel mocks and insults their worldview. The examples are countless: Elvis’s hips; The Beatles saying they were more popular than Jesus (rock music in general has been a constant source of consternation), as well as movies like The Last Temptation Of Christ and Dennis Franz’s scandalous butt shot on NYPD Blue. The last big cultural firestorm I can recall was the supernatural dangers of Harry Potter.

I’m sure that readers can think of much better examples that I’ve listed, and that’s the point: for decades, conservatives had a 24/7 outrage machine going. Liberal outrages tended to be more short-lived, and most of them could be neutralized with accusations of political correctness. Just to confirm my hunch, I checked out the above websites (as well as the Family Research Council and World Magazine). I couldn’t find any recent articles about an offending musician or TV show. That’s amazing!

I figured this puzzle warranted some thought, so here are my current theories:

1. For conservatives, the Culture Wars have shifted to more substantive terrain.

I know that sounds strange, but if you look at the websites above, you’ll see that (for the most part) they’ve moved beyond the trivial. They’re focused on questions that impact our lives at a deeper level: gay marriage, gay rights within the Boy Scouts, and religious expression. Even though I disagree with their position on these issues, they’re a big jump from warnings about which movies to avoid or whether the Dixie Chicks have betrayed America. 

2. The Wars have shifted because Conservatives no longer assume America shares its values.

I’ll admit I’m iffy on this one. Certainly conservatives still speak as if they do assume this. The Tea Party’s rhetoric is founded on it. But I think that Al Mohler’s post-election column hits closer to what’s really going on in the conservative psyche. It doesn’t seem as though they truly believe that that they have a Moral Majority anymore. As a result, their activism has been focused on a big-picture attempt to plead their case for a conservative worldview. Whereas it used to be enough to accuse TV shows of promoting the “homosexual agenda, ” nowadays support for gays is so widespread that they have to backtrack and try to justify their animosity towards gays. Focusing on the big stuff means letting the little battles go.

3. Big Media is more in tune with their values.

Back in the 2000’s I noticed that most of the flash points in pop culture revolved around the behavior of young women. The age of misbehaving rock stars was over, and it had been replaced by gossipy outrage over Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsey Lohan. Even then the scale of controversy was trending down. Whereas conservatives used to worry about Led Zeppelin spreading Satanism, now they were worried about Paris Hilton’s blase materialism.

Perhaps it’s a temporary phase, but we seem to have arrived at an era of Domesticated Media: Rock is dead, rappers stopped singing about killing cops, and the biggest movies are superhero movies that affirm traditional story lines of masculine heroism, responsibility, and good vs evil.

When celebrities do get in trouble, it’s usually because of a poorly thought out tweet, and they always apologize profusely. Liberals scorn Anthony Weiner’s sexual misadventures as zealously as they do, if not moreso. Whereas drug addiction used to be glamorized, now shows like Celebrity Rehab show addiction in all its pathetic, camera-hungry glory.

4. Media fragmentation isn’t conducive to conservative outrage.

A few months ago a Facebook friend of mine posted a petition trying to get network TV to  clean up its prime time shows. It was the kind of thing conservatives used to love getting behind. Instead her fellow conservatives gently dismissed her efforts, pointing out that sex and violence are so widespread that getting four channels to fall in line meant nothing if a thousand more channels were broadcasting salacious fare at the same time.  The difference was that my friend was a homeschooling mom who never subscribed to cable. She’s still living in an Old Media world. Nowadays the audience for any one show is smaller, and the cultural influence of those shows is also smaller.

Same goes for music. Beyonce is probably the biggest star of the moment, but her influence pales in comparison to Madonna or Nirvana’s.

5. Media fragmentation makes it easier to ignore the unwanted noise.

Epistemic closure is a bane of our times. It’s a big reason why it’s so difficult for the Left to engage the Right; each side consumes its own news and entertainment, so a person can easily get by without ever being exposed to the ideas and values of the other side. Services like Netflix mean that my homeschooling friend has the capacity to just bring up the latest family-friendly offering for her kids any time she wants to. No one is stuck having to choose between the network options.

In terms of the culture wars, this means that conservatives are often only exposed to controversial media when a sympathetic news source writes an article about it.  The more organizations like Focus On The Family emphasize politics and advice columns, the less controversial media they are exposed to.

6. The scattershot nature of the web is much more conducive to liberal outrage.

To me the biggest contrast between liberal and conservative activism is their attention span. Liberals get revved up for presidential elections while conservatives keep their energy up for off-year elections, too. Liberals are prone for small-scale squabbles within their ranks, while conservatives find it easier to ignore shortcomings and close ranks for a common cause. Evangelicals ignore Glenn Beck’s Mormonism because he’s rallying the troops, so to say. They don’t care if he’s going to hell; he’s useful for their needs.

Liberals, on the other hand, parse whether Caitlin Moran is feminist enough, or whether the Newsroom communicates liberal ideas effectively. I’m not debating the merits of these dialogues. My point is that both of these were quick but testy discussions that garnered the desired results (i.e. apologies and promises to behave better and write more effectively). Then liberals are on to the next internal debate.

I think a lot of this happens because modern media is ADD by nature. Controversies rarely last more than four days, let alone a week, and celebrities are so conditioned to the “offend-apologize-pray for forgiveness cycle” that it’s an extremely effective means of getting your message out when you’re upset (provided your target self-identifies as liberal.) Conservatives don’t have this apology culture because they’re willing to forgive the most flagrant transgressions.

7. Conservatives have decided that it doesn’t matter  if they lose the Culture Wars.

Conservatives are predisposed in long term battles. They’re still fighting to shut down Obamacare; they’re still trying to turn the clock back against gay acceptance. They’re still fighting to get Roe V Wade overturned or gutted to the point where an abortion is impossible to acquire. They lose these internet scuffles or ignore them outright, so the liberal tendency towards the short-term infighting plays into their hands. Conservatives know they are faced with a demographic crisis, so they focus on redistricting to neutralize minority growth and having more kids so they can groom future true believers. Even though there are many passionate holdouts, many conservatives shifted their focus from fighting gay acceptance to persuading the faithful to stay strong.

From the conservative point of view, who cares what policies Obama advocates if they can stop them cold? Who cares about the growing minority population when they can rig state elections so they stay in power and make it harder for minorities to vote? Focus on the Family doesn’t need to heap scorn on Beyonce because they’re fighting a bigger fight. And while liberals fuss over whether Caitlin Moran is a true feminist, conservatives are learning that the Legislative Wars matter more than the Culture Wars.

Chaos Isn’t Always Bad

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This is Part 2 of my response to Alastair Roberts’ post regarding the state of progressive evangelicalism. I’m going to focus on point 3. Roberts states:

“The question that we need to ask ourselves is how the progressive evangelical movement is being formed in the absence of progressive evangelical churches. My suggestion is that, given the lack of progressive evangelical churches, the progressive evangelical movement that is forming online is primarily formed of highly disaffected people from evangelical contexts, people who are often isolated and alienated in their own communities, but who find common identity online.”

For the most part, I think he’s right about this. Last year I posted my own thoughts about how Liberal Christianity in general is dying off. While I still feel the same overall about Liberal Christianity in general, I am much more optimistic now than I was when I wrote that post.

The reason why is that the longterm trends on the evangelical Left have been towards increased order and consensus. I have been involved in sharing the Gospel for about twenty years. For most of those years, people who rejected the Gospel did so for personal reasons. Online I found a lot of the same theological reasons, but digging a little under the surface almost always personal issues: either they a bad experience with a church or parents, felt rejection based on sexual orientation, or they were content with their current belief system.

In 2005, I saw a dramatic shift. Political reasons for rejecting the Gospel took center stage. While the personal issues were still prominent, I saw more and more nonchristians who remained so explicitly because they equated Christianity with Republican politics. The catalyst was the re-election of George W. Bush and the evangelical church’s willingness to be identified with the administration’s politics.

All of the campus missionaries I know agree that they too saw a dramatic shift around 2005. Suddenly they found themselves trying to assure students that their ministry wasn’t a stealth attempt to make young people become Republicans. The personal issues were still prominent, but for an increasing number students the main issue was conservative politics. Since then, the number of people who identify Republican politics with Christianity has increased.

Around the same time my pastor and I devised a series of “man on the street” interviews, where I asked people three questions:

“What is your opinion about Jesus?”

“What is your your opinion about evangelicals?”

“Are you familiar with our church, and if so, what do you know about it?”

The results were fascinating. We expected pushback from nonchristians and friendly discussions with other Christians. Instead we found almost all of the nonchristians were happy to share their thoughts. They enjoyed having a  dialogue with us.

The Christians, on the other hand, were full of anger. The few evangelicals we met were glad to share their feelings, but since they recognized us as fellow believers, they didn’t feel the need to elaborate.  But the other Christians were accusatory:

“Why are you doing this?” (asked as if we were firing them from their jobs)

“You people are ruining this country.”

“You’re destroying Christianity for the sake of winning elections.”

“You people don’t even believe in Jesus.”

Only a handful of Christians were willing to have their answers recorded. Some not only insisted that we turn our camera off, they also insisted we empty our pockets to prove that we weren’t secretly recording them anyway. They really wanted to respond to our questions, but they suspected if we recorded them, we would edit it dishonestly. No nonchristians suspected we were up to no good.

From my perspective, what we’e seeing now from Millennials is a smooth continuation of that pushback against evangelicals. In the eight years that have passed, many Millennials have come of age or moved beyond their conservative roots. And what I see now is a more coherent list of tenets Liberal Christians are willing to define themselves by, and voices that, while not authoritative, have found themselves with an audience willing to rally around them. Given how young many of these people are, the movement is coalescing ahead of schedule.

Granted, the movement is still in a state of chaos and uncertainty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most successful movements start in a disorganized fashion and slowly move towards structure and institutionalization. The Tea Party began with an obscure CNBC pundit named Rick Santelli ranting about the mortgage bailout. The Arab Spring began with a Tunisian  fruit seller named  Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire. The Civil Rights movement broke open nationwide when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Mundane beginnings can launch dramatic results.

It’s worth noting that none of these figures wound up becoming leaders in movements they sparked, and at first each of them defined themselves by what they were against (in the case of the Tea Party, they still define themselves that way.) I would argue that Liberal evangelicals treat conservatives as foils because they still wish to remain a part of the evangelical church. In order to change the church, liberals must engage it directly.

The reliance on online community may be temporary. For decades I used to point out that Atheism wouldn’t be able to compete with organized religion because religion offers community and fellowship. Lo and behold,  Atheist churches have begun to pop up, and people are going to them.

That said,  I do agree that the danger is that Liberal evangelicalism could disintegrate into a vague pantheistic spirituality. I’ve noticed a number of liberal evangelical bloggers have begun to shift in this direction. However, I don’t think this trend is irreversible. In spite of its reputation, evangelical Christianity as a whole is extremely flexible. It’s shocking to observe how susceptible it is to fads and charismatic figures, and many churches have reversed themselves on core doctrines in a very short amount of time. If the church can shift rightward in a short period of time, it is quite possible that it could shift leftward, especially if we reach a point where the number of Liberal evangelicals exceed the number of conservatives.

7 Good Questions

questionsAlastair Roberts has a very good post about progressive evangelicals. I’ll address his initial arguments in a second post, but I think his best contribution to the ongoing dialogue about the church can be found in the comments section. In response to a reader of his blog, Roberts offers seven questions for progressive evangelicals to answer, and I think they warrant serious consideration:

1. Are you a member of a church?

I’ll start off by saying that I may not be the best representative of progressive evangelicalism (readers of my blog know that I loathe the word “progressive,” but I’ll roll with it here for clarity’s sake.)

I have not fully embraced progressive theology, although I identify with the movement. My answer would be: technically I still am a member of an evangelical church. I have told the leadership of my church that I would go back in a heartbeat if the church reset its priorities, and I have asked them to keep me on their membership roles because I have not given up  on the possibility of returning. However, I am currently not attending a church because the transformations that have troubled me are not exclusive to my church.

That said, I agree with his underlying assumption: Christians should worship together within a church context. Despite arguments that the Bible never says anything about establishing the modern church as we know it, there is no better model for congregating together and worshipping together.

2. Do you identify with the teaching position of your church?

Yes and no. Whenever I look at an evangelical church’s faith statement (which can be found on most church websites), I find myself agreeing with all of their points except for two. While I agree with the evangelical position that the Bible is divinely inspired, I know from experience that most evangelicals equate divine inspiration with creationism, patriarchy, and so on.

In a sense it’s like reading the Constitution. Both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg read the Constitution and agree with it, but they interpret its meaning in radically different ways.

The second issue I disagree with is eschatology. To be fair, many evangelical churches leave eschatology (i.e. how they interpret the book of Revelation and End Times theology) out of their faith statements, and many more consider it a minor point. That’s a big reason why I have no problem with churches who subscribe to premillennialism, provided their position doesn’t spill over into political nonsense like trying to guess who the Antichrist is or using the End Times as an argument against global warming.

3. Has the vast majority of your spiritual formation occurred within this movement?

I assume that Roberts is asking whether my spiritual formation took place within traditional evangelicalism.  And the bottom line is yes, almost all of my formation took place within an evangelical context. As my ongoing autobiographical series illustrates, even when I attended  mainline churches, my spiritual formation took place through conservative evangelical organizations. But I’ve never experienced the before-and-after transformation that most progressive evangelicals experience. I never left conservative evangelicalism behind because I’ve always been a progressive evangelical.

4. Who are the leading figures in your movement and where did their primary spiritual formation occur?

That’s difficult to answer, and I think this illustrates Roberts’ strongest point in his original post. Progressive evangelicalism lacks leaders, and the nature of American progressivism in general is that it loathes leaders. (The Occupy Wall Street movement is classic example of a progressive movement that failed because it took pains not to establish structure or leadership.)

My list of leading figures are a hodgepodge of authors and theologians: Augustine, Luther, John Wesley, Reinhold Neibuhr, Dallas Willard,  John Stott, Karen Armstrong, Peter Enns, and Elaine Pagels. Obviously many of these people espouse theologies that are diametrically opposed to one other, and this illustrates my own theological quirks.

5. Did you move to your current church context or community from a different theological context?

No. My flirtations with the Methodist and Episcopalian churches were made within an evangelical context.

6. Do most of your peers in your context share your theological persuasions?

No, and that’s my eternal predicament. I can find enough common ground with evangelicals of any persuasion that I can comfortably converse and worship with them, and if we never diverge from our common ground, people can and do assume I am “one of them.” But the areas I disagree on are drastic. I’ve often thought that I was born a hundred years too late. Back in the early 1900’s  there was a large socialist and civil rights movement within the evangelical church, and had I lived at that time I would likely have found many more kindred spirits.

7. To what extent does your experience mirror that of your peers who share your position?

My biography has very little in common with the progressives I’ve encountered online. I’m on their side regarding the changes they want to see take place within the church as well as their political positions, but I’ve lived my whole life knowing that I would have to suppress a large number of my core beliefs no matter what church I choose to worship with. Liberal churches loathe exclusivism and my passion for the great Commission, while conservatives loathe feminism, evolution, and a historical reading of scripture.

Are Liberal Churches Dying?

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It’s funny that I started this blog with the intention of focusing on conservative Christianity, but the hot topics in the blogosphere have led me towards more critiques of liberal Christianity. Recently Ross Douthat, Scott Mcknight, and Tony Jones engaged in an interesting discussion about the future of liberal Christianity. I highly recommend reading each of these articles (including Ross’s initial post, which I did not link to), but I tend to side with Ross’s take more than the others. I admit that I’m a bit of a latecomer to this dialogue, but since it’s an ongoing issue I’ll chime in anyway.

All of them agree that the liberal church is dying – at least its current form. I agree. I live near Penn State, which is a small town with a population that doubles in size when college is in session. The surrounding boroughs have a population of  40,000, and the university currently has approximately 42,000 students. There nothing but farmland and Amish for miles around us – the nearest city is Harrisburg, which is ninety miles away. (This gives you a good idea why the Cult of Paterno has been able to fester unchecked for so long. It’s essentially a giant compound of JoePa indoctrination.)

But enough about Penn State. I’ve spent most of my energy being one of the lone voices willing to recognize the rotten core of Paterno, the university, (and even the community) that I’m burned out on the topic. Maybe another day I’ll tackle it here.

My point of raising demographics here is that, due to the well-educated population (our county almost always the lone county in the middle of the state goes blue in Presidential elections) the town has the potential to be a hotbed of liberal Christianity. The future leaders of the left-wing side of the faith, so to say. It isn’t.

The town’s church population can be summarized as follows: two Catholic Churches (one of which is the “main” Catholic church in town, while the second church is more contemporary.) We have about five main evangelical churches comprising different denominations. The relationship between them is very friendly, and collectively they’re big enough to collaborate and have as big an impact on the community as the Catholic Churches. There’s also a lot of mainline churches of varying sizes, and on the outskirts you’ll find more overly fundamentalistic churches (they even advertise themselves as being fundamentalists!). These churches tend to have much less cultural influence on the community than their Catholic and evangelical counterparts.

Among all these churches, you’ll find only four that recognize homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. I think that the homosexuality question is a good barometer for the theological tone of the community. In my view you have to look where the young people are attending to gauge the future of the faith. They will be the ones raising new families in church and becoming the next generation of pastors and leaders.

Despite all of the talk about evangelicals growing tired of the politicization of Christianity and the rigid stance against environmentalism and homosexuality many churches take, young people aren’t flocking to the liberal churches. They’re flocking to the evangelical churches.

I’ve attended about half of the churches in town at some point over the years. Most recently I’ve begun attending the Episcopal Church. The evangelical churches are young. Everywhere you look you see teenagers, college students, young couples. There are older members of course, but the energy within these churches is in their youth. One of the Baptist churches in town  has huge branch campuses attended almost exclusively by teens and college students. The church I recently left had an average age of 40, meaning you had a steady stream of couples having kids and raising them in the church. The next generation of Christians.

The mainline churches, on the other hand, are old. The Episcopal Church is full of friendly elderly people and almost no one under 40 in sight. So you have a strange paradox of gray-haired Christians eagerly embracing both liberal theology and liberal politics, and young, dynamic churches boning up on Creationism and revving up for the culture wars.

If you’re young and a liberal Christian in this town, you’re invisible. You probably don’t attend church, and you probably aren’t inclined to seek one out.

Part of the problem is that the liberal churches generally don’t advertise themselves. They advertise their food drives and soup kitchens, but the conservative churches do their share of that, too. In fact, the right-wing churches are the biggest advertisers for the liberal churches, although the advertising is universally derogatory. I didn’t realize that the local Episcopal Church respected homosexuals and had a environmental committee until I heard evangelicals grumble about the Episcopals’ godless embrace of both causes.

But the bottom line here is that it’s not just a question of attendance numbers. It’s also a question of bringing in and nurturing the next generation of Christians. The liberal churches are depending on their longtime members to keep things going. When they leave this realm, the church may leave it, too. The evangelical churches are growing even as we speak, and given the transient dynamic of a college town, they’re sending of dedicated Christians already conditioned to attend and volunteer to become the future of the church. Liberal Christianity is dying, and one of the reasons it’s dying is that it hasn’t attempted to reach young people.

Progressive or Liberal?

 

I decided to open my blog with a recent conversation I had regarding political labels. A friend of mine was frustrated at how quickly liberals flinch at being call liberals. This was a hotter topica few years ago,when “progressive” became a popular alternative to the dreaded L-word, but time gives us the luxury of seeing how things played out. In my opinion, it did not play out well.First, a little background. A few decades ago conservatives like Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh helped turn the word liberal into a slur. Their efforts were so successful that now when people hear the word, even moderates envision unamerican malcontents.And so we’re left with a political climate where it’s safer to come out as gay than to admit that you’re a liberal.  Even our local liberal rag takes pains to scrub the L-word from its pages and relabel itself as “progressive.”The underlying problem of all of this label-changing is that too many liberals have embraced the conservative argument that liberalism can only succeed if people don’t fully realize that they are supporting liberal causes or candidates. Throughout Obama’s first term, Democrats have taken pains to identify their policies as pro-Republican. They felt safer operating under the guise of conservative policies and feared admitting that  their legislation reflected liberal ideology.

The end result is that too many liberals have embraced the meme that conservatism is the norm in our country, and that leaves liberals working within the margins of society while trying to reassure people that they’re not really liberals, they’re progressives. I say that we should reclaim the word “liberal.” let’s not forget that there was a time when the word “conservative’ was just as much of a political liability as the L-word is now.

Sure, there will be short-term consequences, but we shouldn’t live in fear of offending  people. It will take time, but people respond to the courage of ones’ convictions, and once we reclaim the label, more people will see that liberalism really isn’t that radical, and many moderates will realize just how liberal they are. That’s why I proudly call myself a liberal.