Our generation has rejected the us-versus-them approach to cultural engagement, so what’s next?
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put it this way: “Today, among urban Americans and Europeans, ‘evangelical Christian’ is sometimes a synonym for ‘rube.’ In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.”
In the country some call a “Christian” nation, Americans increasingly disapprove of evangelical Christianity. As an example, the Human Rights Campaign reports an approval rating of 42 percent for evangelicals, 11 percent lower than approval of the gay community.
For better or worse, this represents a seismic shift in American culture.
In 1992, James Davison Hunter popularized the now-common term “culture wars” in his aptly named book, Culture Wars, largely drawing from the sociological work of Peter Berger—who coined another jargon term: “secularization.”
In his book, Hunter outlines five areas in America—family, education, media/arts, law and politics—that divide society into religious and secular. The issues that represented the fiercest battles were, not surprisingly, sexual issues such as abortion and, oddly, issues of science and origins of humanity.
Hunter observed the institutionalization of the culture wars through special-purpose organizations, denominations, political parties and government. Meaning, the two “sides” organized, with groups like the Moral Majority on the right and the American Civil Liberties Union on the left—institutional heirs, so to speak, of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.
Unwittingly or not, American Christianity gained the perception of being synonymous with efforts to claim America for Jesus.
Over time, the opposing moral sides became their own reality; the culture wars grew larger than the individuals and organizations involved and just became an assumed fact within American public life.
And, despite the movement’s original purpose, American evangelicalism took a visible post in the war.
“The culture wars were about fundamentalism, and unfortunately, evangelicalism got swept up into fundamentalism,” says Gregory Alan Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City and author of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism. “The project that Carl Henry and Billy Graham were about was not what ‘evangelicalism’ ending up meaning by the late 1980s and early 1990s.”
By then, being an evangelical Christian—and in some circles a Christian of any stripe—became synonymous with something other than the central confessions of the Church. Christianity in the public sphere meant something more like “social conservative,” “pro-Israel” or “family values.” So the perceived goal of the Christianity community—and surely the actual goal of some—was a return to the America of the 1950s, a purported golden age of public morality.
By now, many Christians are aware of a well-documented study by Pew Research Center published earlier this summer, which found that Christians are declining, “both as a share of the U.S. population and in total number.” The study found that during a seven-year period, the number of self-identifying Christians fell by nearly 8 percent, solidifying a cultural assumption and confirming similar studies.
If there was a culture war, the winner wasn’t Christianity.
“I think we are in a really interesting transitional period for culture in general, but for the Church in particular,” says Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and author most recently of The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth. “The pendulum has swung on so many cultural issues. The tactics that the Church attempted to use in the ’80s and ’90s didn’t succeed necessarily in transforming the culture and cementing the Church’s place as a beacon in this culture.
“They weren’t effective then and they’re going to be even less effective now because of the way the public sympathies are not with the Church when it comes to orthodox, traditional understandings of certain beliefs.”
Cosper says the Church in the new century wants to set a different tone. He says the defining reactions for many in the Church today are to “the previous 20 years” and to 9/11. Believers in the new millennium, he thinks, are trying to figure out how to process a shattered sense of security and safety.
“I think the Church is looking for a way forward, and I don’t know that anyone has necessarily articulated terribly clearly what to do,” he says.
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