Wheaton College President Emeritus Duane Litfin on the Challenge Evangelical Christians Face in the Ferocious American Culture War

Duane Litfin is Wheaton College President Emeritus and author of numerous articles and books, including, most recently, Paul’s Theology of Preaching (IV Press).


We live in a time of shifting sand. The avalanche of social, political and legal changes we’ve experienced has left many believers reeling. They are troubled by what they see but also befuddled about how to respond. Amid much wringing of the hands they hear some calling for a circling of the wagons; others insist we must “take America back”; still others counsel “engagement” with the culture, often on its own terms. Confused by their times, many Christians remain uncertain about “what Israel should do.”

This last phrase is drawn from 1 Chronicles 12:32. The historical setting of this passage was also a time of shifting sand. King Saul had become unstable and was all but finished; yet he was still powerful and dangerous. The young upstart David appeared to be the future, but he was scarcely a sure thing. Israel’s tribes faced a ticklish decision. Each had to decide where their loyalties should lie.

This is the challenge many evangelical Christians face in our own generation. Crafting a wise and godly response to what’s taking place around us requires that we understand our times. To gain that understanding, however, we must be willing to look beyond our society’s presenting symptoms to underlying causes. Only then can we make sense of our current cultural predicament.

The Backstory

Thoughtful accounts of how we’ve gotten to our present plight are many and varied, from Charles Taylor’s massive A Secular Age, to Rod Dreher’s thumbnail sketch (“The Roots of the Crisis”) in The Benedict Option. Yet the story we need most won’t be found in any of these books. It’s a little-appreciated technical narrative told by law professor Steven D. Smith in a very different kind of book: The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom (Harvard, 2014).

Smith is the co-director of the University of San Diego’s Institute of Religion and Law. His book was not written either for or about evangelical Christians, and it does no special pleading on our behalf. It’s a book about the law. More specifically, it is a detailed chronicle of American jurisprudence on the subject of religious freedom, from the founding of the nation to the present. Smith’s careful analysis deserves in-depth attention, but we will settle here for only the briefest summary of one of the book’s key insights.

The tale we’re after begins in December of 1791, when Americans approved ten new amendments to the Constitution they had ratified just two years earlier. The first enumerated right in these amendments—preceding even the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly—was America’s so-called “first freedom,” the freedom of religion. Thus the Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins with these striking words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Surprising to many today, this wording was originally designed as not much more than a jurisdictional limitation, stipulating that the federal government (“Congress”) must keep its hands off religion. With no federal laws for the judicial branch to adjudicate or the executive branch to execute, America’s new central government was to leave religion alone. Religious matters were to be left to the states or local jurisdictions.

Yet it was inevitable that complications would arise. The interplay of intricate questions surrounding the freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of worship, and the relation of church and government led early on to the development of what Smith calls the “American settlement”: a distinctive and uniquely valuable approach, says Smith, to the challenge of religion in American society.

This “settlement” was designed to accommodate two contending interpretations of America, both of which were in play from the beginning. Smith calls these the “providential” and “secular” interpretations. The providential interpretation recognizes vertical premises such as the “self-evident” claim of the Declaration of Independence that all humans are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. The secular interpretation prefers a horizontal view of America that disallows any such vertical tethers.

The important point for our purposes is that under this arrangement both of these interpretations played significant roles in shaping the nation’s law, government, policies and public education. The idea was that both options could and should be openly contested in American society. The genius of the American settlement, says Smith:

was that instead of officially elevating one or the other of those interpretations to the status of constitutional orthodoxy and condemning the other as constitutional heresy, the American approach left the matter open for We the People to reflect on and debate and negotiate on an ongoing basis.

By this means, says Smith, America long managed to avoid the “basic blunder—namely, of officially preferring one among competing faiths or would-be orthodoxies—that in earlier centuries had produced civil havoc and often war in European societies.”

So it was, so to speak, for the first two-thirds of American history. Now fast-forward to the middle of the 20th century.

Roughly 70 years ago, argues Smith, America’s Supreme Court abandoned the wisdom of the American settlement. It committed the “basic blunder” of granting official preference to “one among competing faiths or would-be orthodoxies.” Beginning with a series of decisions from the late 1940s into the 1960s, the Court declared the secular interpretation of America to be the nation’s official dogma. Though still widespread at popular and ceremonial levels, providential ideas—such as the claim that the source of our human rights is God rather than the state, or that man’s law is but a mask of God’s law—would no longer be permitted any official role in America’s law, government or public education. The nation went officially horizontal, creating at the core of American society a massive, ever-expanding governmental dead zone devoid of providential thinking or reasoning.

The Culture War

It doesn’t take much connecting of dots to recognize this mid-20th century shift as the root of today’s “culture wars.” In 1991, sociologist James Davison Hunter popularized this term in his aptly-subtitled book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. There he described the conflict 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. Let it be clear that the principles and ideals that mark these competing systems of moral understanding are by no means trifling but always have the character of ultimacy to them. They are not merely attitudes that can change on a whim but basic commitments and beliefs that provide a source of identity, purpose, and togetherness for the people who live by them.

As a sociologist, Hunter early on recognized that when the complexities of America’s culture wars are distilled to their essence, the underlying contest is between two “different systems of moral understanding.” Said Hunter, “The cleavages at the heart of the contemporary culture war are created by what I would like to call the impulse toward orthodoxy and the impulse toward progressivism.”

The orthodox impulse is oriented vertically toward some “external definable, and transcendent authority.” The impulse toward progressivism is oriented horizontally toward “a spirit of rationalism and subjectivism.” Hunter’s orthodoxy thus parallels Smith’s providential interpretation of America, while his progressivism parallels Smith’s secular interpretation. Says Hunter, the contest between these two worldviews and their respective social and political agendas is “cultural conflict at its deepest level.” It is a conflict over the very “meaning of America, who we have been in the past, who we are now, and perhaps most important, who we, as a nation, will aspire to become in the new millennium.”

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Source: Christianity Today