Special Report

Irrepressible Culture Wars, Past and Present

Many young evangelicals today shun conflict -- a posture at odds with evangelical history.

By 6.7.12

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A new generation of evangelical elites is imploring evangelicals to step back from the culture wars. Mostly they want to escape polarizing strong stances on same-sex marriage and abortion, and perhaps also contentious church-state issues, like the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. 

Purportedly the evangelical church is failing to reach young, upwardly mobile professionals because evangelicals, who now broadly comprise perhaps one third of all Americans, are seen as reactionary and hateful. On their college campuses, at their coffee shops, and in their yoga classes, among other venues, some outspoken hip young evangelicals want a new public image for their faith.

One such prominent voice is Jonathan Merritt, a progressive Southern Baptist and son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president. His new book, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, has earned him many recent bookings on cable talk shows. 

A popular young evangelical blogger echoing Merritt's theme is Rachel Evans, who conveniently grew up in the Tennessee small town famous for the Scopes Monkey Trial. Her 2010 book was Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. "We are tired of the culture wars," she explained in a recent interview. "We are tired of politics." Lamenting the church's preoccupation with "shame and guilt," she urged evangelicals to reconsider their opposition to same-sex unions. 

Other young evangelicals complaining about culture wears don't go so far and remain faithful to historic church teachings while still yearning for new emphases that they think would earn evangelicals a helpfully upbeat persona.

Most of these young evangelicals, and many of their older supporters, often seem to forget that culture wars are not new for Americans or its churches. America has had dozens of them, all of them with intense religious involvement. And some of them have exemplified some of religion's finest moments in shaping America. Across several decades, the Civil Rights Movement, led primarily by clergy, was intensely gut wrenching and sometimes precipitated violence. Some churches, black and white, lost members over it. The push for women's rights of the 1960s and 1970s that closely followed was also deeply controversial and was at least initially often rooted in faith before secular feminists took the fore.

Prohibition was one of America's most intense culture wars, pitting mostly Anglo Protestant small town and rural America against more ethnic and Catholic urbanites. Churches were its chief champions. Women's Suffrage, closely aligned with Prohibition, and nearly as divisive, was also touted by many Protestant churches and leaders, such as the Methodist suffragist Anna Howard Shaw. And during Reconstruction and afterwards, many northern church activists tried to help southern black freedmen, often amid violence, with even many northerners preferring to avoid the struggle.

Early in the republic, frontier evangelical religion aligned with Thomas Jefferson against the Federalist Party and its East Coast supporters in the established churches. Some feared the transition from Federalist to Jeffersonian rule might lead to war. Later in the mid-19th century, many Protestants mobilized against Catholic immigrant influence through the Know Nothing movement. They prompted Abraham Lincoln's famous retort that he preferred the purity of Russian czarist tyranny to hypocritical democracy in America that disputed the citizenship of Catholics. Lincoln's own eventual Republican Party was partly the creation of northern evangelical revivalists, many of them abolitionists, and all of them steadfast against slavery's expansion. Lincoln's 1860 election, of course, transitioned the slavery issue from a culture war to a Civil War.

Last year, David Goldfield of the University of North Carolina wrote America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, in which he argued that anti-slavery northern evangelicals, with their ostensible refusal to compromise, ensured the Civil War and over 600,000 dead. He specifically faulted the Second Great Awakening, which ostensibly made politics not about compromise but matters of good and evil, worthy of sacrificing human life. Goldfield clearly intended his argument also to reflect on today's evangelical political activism.

Recently I visited central New York to visit the home of William Seward, abolitionist, Republican Party founder, and most famously Lincoln's secretary of state. Central and western New York in the early 19th century was called the "burned over" district, having boiled over with revivalism and social reforms, including abolitionism. Seward's home in Auburn, New York, also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Mrs. Seward was especially a fervent abolitionist, having been raised a Quaker. Sometimes she chided her politically pragmatic husband, an Episcopalian, for not being sufficiently zealous. 

But Seward's anti-slavery speeches as a U.S. Senator about "irrepressible conflict" and a "higher law" helped to inflame the nation. Seward had been influenced toward abolitionism by the religious college he attended, headed by a Presbyterian clergy. The Sewards were close to freed slave and abolitionist leader Harriett Tubman, who bought land from the Sewards and built her home down the street. Besides religious influences, the Sewards' anti-slavery stance was reinforced early in their marriage when they visited Virginia, witnessing young slave boys chained together and herded like cattle, later crying themselves to sleep when locked in a barn.

Seward's own Episcopal Church never formally divided over slavery. But America's then largest denominations, the Methodists and Baptists, both split over slavery in the 1840s, foreshadowing the nation's split. Originally themselves anti-slavery, southern Methodists and Baptists over time accommodated to their local culture. Methodism's founding bishop, Francis Asbury, was anti-slavery but stopped talking about it lest he lose access to southern audiences, black and white. 

Today's culture wars over marriage, abortion, and domestic religious freedom seem terribly tame compared to the supreme culture war over slavery that concluded with Civil War. Even before the war, abolitionists, including Seward, often risked mobs and lynching, even in the north. In the interest of social harmony, should they have relented?

Evangelical Left icon Jim Wallis, who often appeals to young evangelicals with his message of supposed post-partisanship, likes to compare himself to 19th century evangelicals such as evangelist Charles Finney. Wallis often recounts that Finney, at his revivals, enlisted converts into the abolitionist cause. Unmentioned by Wallis is that Finney mailed abolitionist tracts into the South, where they were often gathered into bonfires and fomented rallies against intrusive northern preachers. Finney did not foster social harmony. He and other evangelicals of their era were the ultimate culture warriors.

The non-confrontational, therapeutic evangelicalism that some young evangelicals, and their older mentors, seemingly advocate today as they denounce culture war is at odds with much of evangelical history, which has always thrived on conflict. No less important, it's also at odds with much of American history, dating to the 17th century New England Puritan divines, who envisioned a righteous nation. Even supposed secularists of today often walk in that tradition as they demand contentious social reforms, including, in their view, same sex marriage.

Hoping evangelicals and other serious religious believers in America will en masse shun social controversy as they retreat to quiet cafes to read the New York Times is not realistic. The antebellum Methodists and Baptists who abandoned earlier convictions to accommodate their culture's acceptance of slavery purchased only a temporary peace. Today's evangelicals who hope they can delete marriage, abortion, and religious freedom from their political menu might be similarly outflanked by irrepressible historical tides rooted in four centuries of American religion.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.