Militant for Justice, Not for ‘Culture War’

The problem of the “culture war” is dividing evangelicals, especially in the rising generation, into two camps. This conflict is going to determine the future direction of evangelical political engagement. My problem is that I’m on both sides.

One camp says we should pull back from politics. Because of the culture war, political struggle has become an act of enmity toward the neighbors we’re supposed to be loving and serving. What appears to be a fight for justice is really, functionally, an effort to conquer people and subjugate them to our will, imposing Christianity upon them by force.

The other camp mostly agrees that politics today is defined by a power struggle between Christians and non-Christians. However, they say we have no choice but to fight for justice. That’s part of what it means to be the “church militant” and answer the call to defend the weak and the helpless. How many babies should we allow to die so we can feel like we’re being nice to the abortionists? We need to love our enemies, but we still need to fight them. At some level that means we just have to accept the culture war and ensure that our side wins.

The one thing these camps agree on is that we have to make a stark choice. We can fight for justice in politics, or we can build civic solidarity with our unbelieving neighbors. We can’t do both.

Not me. I say we can have our cake and eat it, too!

Fighting for Justice, Not Imposing Christianity by Force

We have a moral imperative to be the church militant and fight for justice; we also have a moral imperative not to impose Christianity on people by force. God did not create a chaotic universe. Therefore, a way to do both at the same time must exist. Our job is to find it.

I am a political guy and always have been. Politics affects every aspect of human life. The things we say and do in politics are the most important single factor controlling what people throughout society perceive to be just and unjust. That’s why we have such an important responsibility both to be involved in politics and also to keep our involvement faithful to real justice.

However, I have also come to realize how dangerous it is when political people like myself start to view everything in society as merely “downstream” from politics. Church, family, the economy, and other social spheres also have an effect on every aspect of human life, just as much as politics does. We have to preserve the integrity of these other spheres rather than merely subordinating them to politics.

In every society and every era, one evil has always been the most deadly temptation in politics. From the Old Testament to the New, from the prophets to the parables, Scripture rings out with condemnation of this vice. Political philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Locke all focus their energies on denouncing it. James Madison identified it as the key danger that the U. S. Constitution was designed to counteract.

This evil? Taking the desires of one faction or social subgroup and identifying them as the will of the whole nation, or as the common good of the polity. When we talk about the culture war and its dangers, this is the real issue. Taking a hard and sober look at the rhetoric of the past, I think it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that American evangelicals have very often spoken and acted as though our views represented the public will simply as such, or that whatever policies we favored had to be identical with the general good. That must stop.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers worked out. But here are three concrete steps I think we can take to fight for justice in politics without imposing Christianity on people by force:

1. Detach moral victory from religious victory.

The way the issues are presented to people now, if you vote for justice on issues like life or marriage, you’re effectively voting in favor of putting Christians in charge of society. We need to clearly demonstrate that a vote for these issues is not a vote for neo-Constantinism. We can do this by identifying our positions on these issues as representing the basic moral values of human civilization in general, rather than as exclusively Christian commitments. That will not only be true (which is a considerable recommendation by itself) and bring our support for these policies into alignment with humane treatment of our neighbors. It is also the only way we might actually hope to win the battle on those issues. Constantine doesn’t poll well these days.

2. Deinstitutionalize enmity.

The festering of the culture war over the last generation has deeply ingrained into our politics a default assumption that moral disagreement implies radical hostility. We can’t disagree about justice without becoming mortal enemies. We have to bend over backward to demonstrate that we do not view our neighbors as enemies simply because they disagree with us.

Of course, we can’t always avoid enmity. It takes two willing parties to make peace, but only one willing party to make a war. When the mayors of Boston and Chicago announce—in flagrant violation of the law—that Chick-fil-A is not welcome to build restaurants in their cities because it supports marriage, they have made themselves Chick-fil-A’s enemies. There is nothing Chick-fil-A can do about that. (God bless New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for rebuking his peers on this! He had nothing to gain and much to lose by doing so.) But it’s clear, at least to anyone who looks at the facts without prejudice, that the enmity comes from the mayors’ side. That’s what matters.

3. Prioritize religious liberty for all.

American evangelicals have always been this country’s strongest and most grateful supporters of religious liberty. Let’s reclaim that role. If we’re looking for moral issues to fight for, you can’t find a better one. And it’s a timely issue! If you don’t think your right to worship and live out your faith is endangered today, you’re not reading the news.

It’s also great for evangelization. The more people feel secure that their rights as citizens are protected regardless of whether they’re Christians, the more open they will be to the gospel. As J. Gresham Machen once put it, freedom of religion is the foundation of effective evangelization because “persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument.”

But it’s also the best way to defuse the culture war. Religious liberty means liberty for all. Let’s prove, with words and deeds, that we value our neighbors’ religious liberty as much as our own. We want America to be a place where people of all faiths are on equal civic footing and can all live in accordance with their consciences. That, more than anything else, will show our neighbors that they have nothing to fear from us.

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  • John S

    Good article, good list. Glad you included liberty. I’m all for justice, but freedom is just as important if not moreso. For #2 could you just say ‘love’? Not just in treating them with kindness and graciousness, but isn’t it love to confront someone with the truth?

    And I agree #1 is the way go. Although we should not be ashamed of Christ. Issues like homosexual marriage can be addressed on the basis of self-evident truth, of what is natural and normal, and statistics that show it does not promote a more stable and healthy society. Even while we (or at least I) can support their liberty to live however they want. And a simple ultrasound can be a powerful and non-religious argument that abortion is murder.

    • Greg Forster

      Yes, on my point 2 basically I’m confronting the question “how can we love our neighbors by confronting them with the truth, but in a way that keeps the love part front and center?” The challenge is that enmity has been institutionalized. You are assumed to be promoting enmity even if you don’t say or do anything that justifies that assumption. So merely avoiding hate is not enough. We must bend over backwards and take the initiative, be the ones who go the extra mile to deinstitutionalize enmity.

  • dwainlove

    I agree with some of this article, however I do not agree that freedom of religion is the foundation of effective evangelization. We have more freedom than any country on earth and I don’t think the church is growing at all here. By church I mean regenerated, reborn by the Spirit of God. It seems to me the Church flourishes in places where there is little or no freedom.

    • Greg Forster

      That is a good point. What I meant to say is that our support for religious liberty is foundational to effective evangelization. Regardless of whether or not the society we live in actually provides religious liberty, the gospel message must be delivered by people who do support religious liberty. As Machen says, we must put down our clubs. Whether they put down theirs is another matter entirely.

      • R.J.

        Thanks for your clarification on this… this was my biggest issue with the article.

        While I don’t think Christians losing their religious freedoms is necessarily a bad thing… “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” We try to build up fences to block the persecution. I don’t want to be persecuted for my beliefs, but I understand that I should expect to be.

        I don’t know the extent of J. Gresham Machen’s quote, but either he’s(she’s?) off base, or the quote is being misapplied to a nation’s legal stance on the freedom of religion, and I suspect, is meant to be applied on the personal level… in how Christians act in their own practice of evangelism.

        Re: enmity…In the face of hostility on a personal level or at the level of the mayors, how we respond as Christians is our opportunity to shine light in the darkness. What if we continued to show love, true love, in the face of such opposition? That is the proper response… how Jesus acted when about to be taken away, not how Peter acted. We as Christians, with the goal of protecting Jesus, act as Peter. That is the wrong model, IMO.

        Thanks for the post!

  • Caleb W

    You are absolutely right that the “Culture War” is dividing Christians. I think, however, that this article is more an example of the root of that division, rather than a complete analysis. Christianity, or more specifically, American evangelicalism, has largely (there are always exceptions) hitched its wagon to the American right, culturally and politically. The fact that, for you, the “two sides” are detachment from politics, or engagement on the right (correct me if I am wrong on that, but that is what it sounds like) demonstrates the point. Christians who find themselves on the left are totally alienated. Just peruse Christian blogs and you will find copious references to: RC Sproul Jr., Thomas Sowell, Francis Schaeffer, Dinesh D’Souza (okay, maybe not anymore), etc. All decidedly on the right. Though I do think that this is partly because evangelicals have accepted the stereotypes of left v right in America. American Christians also ought to be ashamed at the slander (yes, slander) and vitriol that they have directed at certain individuals on the left.

    I do commend you for arguing that Christians ought not to assume that their views represent the public will or the general good. Sadly, I don’t think you’ll be heard on that point. And I wonder about the wisdom/accuracy of assuming that evangelicals do or ought to have, as a group, a set of political views. This is a widely held assumption, yes. And it is part of the reason why those more in the centre or on the political left find themselves alienated in the church.

    • Joe


      You will start to see more evangelicals shift to the left when the left turns on abortion and gay marriage. Most of us are single issue voters.

    • Greg Forster

      In the context of the “culture war,” the debate over whether to engage in politics is really a debate over whether to support the Right, because the Right is the only place that fights for justice on the issues identified as culture war issues. I fully share your concern that the Right has shaped us more than we have shaped the Right! Speaking as a member in good standing of both groups (I am both an evangelical and a conservative) I think that the Right has at least as much to learn from evangelicals as evangelicals do from the Right. The “culture war” attitude of the past has subordinated the church to the Right. That must stop. But not at the expense of failing to fight for justice.

      I wish I’d had space in this article to bring in other issues where evangelical public witness is more splintered. That’s a whole different story and the culture war isn’t as much of a factor. Short version, we do need to identify some shared values we can mobilize around. We can’t just say that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you mean well.

      • Caleb W

        Greg, your point is well taken. But I wonder about your definition of issues that are ‘culture wars’ issues.

        James Hunter’s book “Culture Wars: the Struggle to Define America”, which it seems to me is the book that brought the concept clearly into public discourse, suggests that abortion and gay marriage are not the only two issues in the so-called culture wars. What about gun politics, privacy, separation of church/state (prayer in public schools is but one example), drug policy, and I would add environmental issues. There are also gender issues, like the constant railing against feminism. Remember Jerry Falwell lumping ‘the feminists’ in his group of ‘secularists’ who brought on 9/11? And on one of the core issues that evangelicals like to talk about, let’s not forget the wide range of opinion on homosexuality, from ‘they have the liberty to do anything they want…except get married’ to ‘sodomy should be punishable by death.’ These people are all on the right, not always ‘fighting for justice’ but for a perverse kind of theocracy. I’m not accusing you of doing that, of course. But the logical conclusion of too much Christian political thinking in the past 40 years is not pretty.

        All of that to say, I don’t think that abortion and gay marriage are the only issues in the culture wars, though many American Christians seem to think that they are. And the extent to which they are fighting for justice on those issues is often questionable, as in the opinion of homosexuality. And being a ‘one issue voter’ may not be the best way to prevent abortions. There are many socio-economic factors behind abortion that the Christian right seems immune to considering.

        Matthew makes a good point – American Christians’ positions on war have often been appalling. They often think as Americans first, Christians second. It isn’t a ‘culture wars’ issue, I grant that. But it is another part of the package deal that is the political right that you are enabling when you support that side because they are willing to pander to you on abortion. Of course, the left also has a package deal that I do not entirely embrace, fear not. The left has its nuts as, for example, Mr. Hitchens so enjoyed pointing out on issues of free speech.

        • Greg Forster

          Well, as a convinced conservative on all the major issues, I obviously don’t mind that in addition to fighting abortion and supporting marriage, my Republican vote also “enables” the Right to prosecute wars (following exactly the same policies as the Democrats on that front, as far as I can tell) and to struggle – mostly in vain – against government’s ever-expanding chokehold on the economy. As they say in Silicon Valley, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature! But I support those policies for the same non-culture-war reasons I support life and marriage; because I think they’re just.

  • Matthew

    What about foreign policy?

    The Christian right is terribly inconsistent by somehow being both pro-life and pro-war.

    • Greg Forster

      Well, that’s an old debate. If you want my view, you can find it very effectively summarized in C.S. Lewis’s outstanding lecture “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” which is collected in The Weight of Glory.

      • Matthew

        While I have only found excerpts of his lecture, it seems as if he is arguing against pacifism. I not sure how that applies to the imperialistic foreign policy of the federal government.

        • Greg Forster

          You seemed to be suggesting that you can’t be pro-life and in favor of war (at all). Specific arguments against specific policies are a much more complicated matter.

          • Matthew

            Sorry, that is not what I intended. Maybe pro-any war would be a better way to say it.

            While I agree specifics are more complicated, I think it is clear that most if not all military action post WWII has been conducted without regard to any just war theory. And the federal government has murdered millions with no more justification than the murder of the unborn.

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  • Antwuan Malone

    Good article. There is a change of the political Christian guard for certain. I, too, think that we can “have our cake and eat it too.” Your article presents a formidable start to the conversation!

    The “christian” should not be attached and branded with any political party, in my opinion. The primary role of the church is directly to people, rather indirect influence through legislation.

    I’ve written several blogs myself about these topics. It’s great to see someone else carrying the baton as well.

    If you’re interested:

    • Greg Forster

      I don’t think it’s realistic to avoid partisan identity as a general matter, and I would definitely oppose laying down an ethical injunction against it. Part of what it means to be a good citizen is to be involved in partisan politics. Of course if you, as an individual, genuinely can’t decide between the parties then that’s one thing. Most of us don’t have that difficulty.

      The two-party political system is a great and wonderful thing, one of the most important innovations in human history. It forces people to resolve most of their political disputes by compromise and coalition-building rather than mere brute force.

      One more thought: if identifying with a party and having strong civic solidarity with your neighbor are incompatible, there’s really no hope for civilization. We can only keep this whole democratic-republic thing going if we can identify as partisans without denying that our neighbors in the other party are good citizens.

      • Antwuan Malone

        I don’t have a problem with the partisan system. I have a problem with either of those parties being the unofficial “Christian” party.

  • Caleb T

    I agree with section 2, but the author seems to imply through the whole (it take two to make peace argument) that only the left is building enmity, and that Christians aren’t contributing to it as well. Yes, cities not welcoming Chick-Fil-A is building enmity, but the whole “support Chick-Fil-A” movement only escalated that and built even more enmity.

    A great editorial about it from World Magazine –

    “The 452,000 people supporting Chick-fil-A are delivering more than one message, and the message the homosexual community and its supporters see is “us versus you.” The event also sends a message of separatism and territorialism in the “reclaiming” of those restaurants that are being boycotted, a collective action easily seen as a shaking of the fist or a wagging of the finger.”

    • Greg Forster

      I agree completely. My first paragraph under point 2 was intended to confront people about fighting these battles with an “us versus them” mentality. In fact, what I argue here is that it’s not enough simply to avoid enmity, we have to be proactive in deinstitutionalizing it! But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that many of our neighbors are going to make themselves our enemies no matter what we do. The people on our side who fall into the trap of promoting enmity generally do so because they are overreacting against the opposite error, which is the idea that we can pacify our enemies if we’re just nice enough. No, we can’t.

  • Richard

    I recently preached a short series of sermons from Acts 19 and sought to show Paul’s ministry in Ephesus created cultural controversy. I attempted to show how this might provide some (not all) perspective for us today. I put together a few blog posts from those sermons.

  • Bryan H.


    Thanks for your post. I’ve been having lengthy email exchanges with a friend on the other side of the country. He is an atheist and a liberal (and a professor) and we are at odds in many ways; yet, we remain friends and are both thoughtful about our responses to one another. Your point about finding non-religious reasons for opposing certain issues (gay marriage specifically) is helpful but where I am having trouble with his is that most of the moral reasons I have seen or can think of aren’t as compelling as his single argument: who am I to use the public government to block someone else’s private liberty? That is, the level of harm done to LGBTA’s by oppressing their “natural” identity is deplorable and efforts to stop them from enjoying what heterosexual married people enjoy is simply not right. Even if they are irreligious, isn’t their liberty valid, at least until a compelling moral reasons against it can be shown? (These are some of his arguments and I while I could simply shoot at them with some of my own, I am mostly concerned with how to navigate this in a way that is intelligent on his terms, even if disagreeable to his moral sensibilities.) Thanks if you have the time.

    • Greg Forster

      The basic question is not gay marriage. That’s an important question, but it’s not the place to start. Liberalized divorce laws have taught us to think of marriage as an arbitrary piece of paper with no real meaning rather than as a permanent joining of two people into a single social unit. If marriage is an arbitrary piece of paper, well then of course the government can redefine it however it wants. But if it’s not, then it can’t. So I oppose gay marriage not because I want to use the law against gays, but because gay marriage further entrenches a wrong understanding of marriage itself. We have to reestablish marriage as a permanent bond creating a new social unit. Liberalized divorce laws are the real problem here; gay marriage is more a symptom of the problem. But you don’t solve the problem by encouraging the symptoms to get worse.

  • Caleb W

    Liberalized divorce laws have also helped women escape abusive relationships. They also try to teach us that a marriage relationship is not the right of a man to be with a woman for life, regardless of his treatment of her and their children.

    “Liberalized divorce laws have taught us to think of marriage as an arbitrary piece of paper with no real meaning…” You are assigning a lot of responsibility to one cause. I think that the situation is far more complicated than that. I think you also might be caricaturing the general cultural view of marriage. I acknowledge that it is not held in as high regard as, say, 50 years ago. But you’re not being fair.

    I also don’t see, in theory, why a homosexual marriage cannot be ‘a permanent bond creating a new social unit.’

    I appreciate you taking the time to answer questions and you are thoughtful in your response. But I do worry when you assign so much blame to divorce laws and talk about reestablishing marriage as a ‘permanent bond’. What kind of divorce laws would you say are permissable in a pluralist society?

    • Greg Forster

      I really don’t think it’s fair to suggest that opposition to no-fault divorce somehow involves me in support for abusive marriages. I’m in favor of permitting with-fault divorce, just not no-fault divorce! Surely it’s possible to imagine a policy other than extreme libertarianism and extreme atavism?

      Your last question is a difficult one, and I won’t be able to do it justice in a blog comment. Unfortunately, I don’t have to. Opposition to the current “anything goes” policy is so radical that there’s really no question of my being in a position to negotiate the details of exactly what policy I’d want. It’s more a matter of identifying even a small battle that our side might be able to win.

  • A. Hayes

    I appreciate the spirit of this, but I have some questions/issues in regards to the idea of “religious liberty.”

    For example, it is possible that at some point, one might have a worldview conflict, where the idea of “liberty” is actually a destructive force, as groups can take advantage of liberty to destroy it. A good example of this would be certain forms of Islam, where the concept of liberty is completely foreign to the “faith-politic” that is represented. Of course this isn’t all of Islam, but it is present nonetheless, and maximized religious liberty can actually be dangerous in this regard. The entire idea of religious liberty comes from a specific worldview (a combo of post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment thought), and there are certain worldviews that are simply incompatible with this. One can also think of certain neo-pagan groups that want to engage in certain “sacrificial acts” that are an abomination. Obviously religious liberty cannot apply here.

    In regards to your point about Constantine (and the system associated with him), the modern chauvinist argument against him is NOT accurate, and thankfully scholars such as Reformed figure Peter Leithart (author of Defending Constantine) and others have started to remedy this. If Christians are supposed to be for truth and against error, should we simply just keep going along with what the world things about the early church, even though it is wrong?

    I’m not saying I have all the answers to this, but I’m trying to think out loud here…

    • Greg Forster

      You’re right that religious liberty does not and cannot mean liberty for anything that happens to be classified (even accurately) as “religion.” In my comments I was assuming that we’re talking about religious liberty as understood by, for example, George Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport. Religious liberty presupposes that those who exercise it are “demeaning themselves as good citizens.” Of course this in turn presupposes we have a shared understanding across religious lines of what it means to be a “good citizen,” and how we sustain that is a complex challenge.

      I appreciate your desire to see more nuance on how we handle Constantine. I’ll work on it.

  • David WL

    The central problem with this argument is that it ignores the central truth of Paul’s evangelical message: Romans 1:16-17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

    The word for “righteousness” is also “justice” (dikaiosune). God’s justice –the coming rule of his “salvation”–will never come about any earthly system of justice.

    Who’s justice? What kind of justice? Established by what system of philosophy? Colossians 2:8: “8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

    God’s justice/righteousness will only come about through faithful response to God’s gracious activity in Jesus Christ.

    Of course, we have the further question of how we then act as Christians in the world, in response to worldly problems and exigencies. But there is no Christian system of “justice.” There are only Christians acting justly, through the sanctifying power of the Spirit of Christ (Galatians 5:16ff.).

    • Greg Forster

      I’d be curious to hear how you reconcile this theology with Romans 13:1-7 and other passages that affirm the moral integrity of politics in God’s design, and its continuing integrity (though in a different way) even after the fall.

  • EricP

    “We can do this by identifying our positions on these issues as representing the basic moral values of human civilization in general, rather than as exclusively Christian commitments. ”

    If the real reason for our position is Biblical, then these arguments are smokescreens. Are we willing to fight the battle, and if we lose, not retreat to “the Bible says so”?

    • Greg Forster

      You’ve put your finger on an important point! But I would challenge your premise that there’s a conflict between supporting these policies because they represent the basic moral values necessary to human civilization and supporting them because they’re biblical. I do not want us to say we’re supporting them for one reason when we’re “really” supporting them for another. I want us to support them for both reasons, and make sure we identify both.

      Note the word “exclusively” in the sentence you quoted. What I oppose is identifying these commitments as exclusively Christian. They are not.

  • EricP

    When we engage in politics, are we trying to get non-Christians to act like Christians? Would we be better off focusing on evangelism, change their hearts, and their behavior would follow?

    • Greg Forster

      No, I don’t think we should ever use politics to try to get people to behave “like Christians.” But we must use politics to try to get people to behave in accordance with basic decency and civilized behavior.

      Martin Luther King: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important also.”

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