Christ, Culture, and the Culture Wars

Ryan T. Anderson

“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply. Love—-caritas—-will always prove necessary, even in the most just society.”
—Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

The Dutch Calvinist philosopher and statesman Abraham Kuyper wrote that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” This includes our family, friends, studies, hobbies, professions, communities, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and, of course, Christ’s Church. All these things together, what we value and the ways we express that value, constitute culture. Christ claims dominion over it all, for He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).

Some Christians question whether the members of Christ’s body should be concerned with secular life—-politics, for example. The danger, they argue, is that Christians will neglect the good of the Church and make politics the central Christian issue, effectively placing their eschatological hope in the state. As a member of Christ’s body, the Church, shouldn’t a Christian be concerned only with the Church’s good?

Even the many Christians who agree that they should engage the larger culture disagree on how best to do so. Should they be concerned with the entire secular realm, Kuyper’s “whole domain of our human existence”? Or should they fight what many call the culture wars: that is, work to enact legislation designed to promote certain cultural goods, such as marriage, and to protect against certain cultural evils, such as abortion, pornography, and indecency on television and radio? Should they focus on local issues: their families, friends, neighbors, parent-teacher associations, recreational leagues, and local governments? Or should they be concerned primarily with what happens at the national and international levels in Washington, D.C. and at the United Nations and its affiliates in New York?

The answer, of course, is that Christians should be concerned with all these things, both with the Church and with the culture, each in appropriate ways.

The quotation from Kuyper should not be misconstrued to imply either that everything we do must be explicitly Christian to be valuable or that every earthly authority should be explicitly Christian. The Church has her rightful autonomy: She is independent from the state. She is concerned with preaching the Gospel, teaching truths about God and man, guiding Christ’s flock, administering the sacraments, performing works of charity.

The secular realm, likewise, is rightfully autonomous from the Church. The secular realm is not necessarily profane: It is the place where God’s providence meets and mixes with our world, and it offers healthy and valuable goods. While those who are responsible for the Church’s administration are endowed with gifts appropriate to that task, they are not uniquely suited for the crucial tasks of civil society. Those tasks fall to the secular realm, and the gifts appropriate to their completion fall to laypeople. Someone—-sometimes at the civic level, sometimes at the state—-must organize traffic patterns, make music and art, run libraries, and provide systems of justice and defense. None of these tasks fall properly to the Church, though neither are they completed in total independence from Christ and His Church, for Christ purifies our reason and enlightens our consciences, enabling us to make prudential judgments. The secular realm, the world of state and civil life, should be neither overvalued nor undervalued. It is not the place where all the real, important work gets done—-the Church’s work of teaching and sanctifying is real and infinitely important—-but neither is it dismissible.

Christians should both place their hope in the world to come and recognize that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We should never aspire to realize the fully present Kingdom of God here on earth, for we have no final fulfillment, no lasting city, apart from the Heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 13:14). However, Christ calls us to be salt and light, to bring our fallen world out of darkness and toward new things. Christ redeemed all of human life—-including civic life. Thus Christians should care about culture. For it is not only the sacred things, worship and witness, that count. As St. Paul tells us, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Our families, sports, art, music, drama, film, jobs, neighborhoods, and nations, so far as they are true, honorable, and just, all matter.

But do the culture wars matter?

Public policy is the citizen’s tool for collectively promoting certain ideals, and the law is a teacher that points towards true human fulfillment and away from illusory enticement. It teaches by protecting particular goods and reinforcing or redirecting citizens’ values. But it is not the only, or even primary, teacher. Some goods are best promoted by the more traditional cultural expressions: art, music, books, plays, operas, magazines, movies, TV, fashion. More than mere expressions of taste, these mediums not only display but also shape our values, our goals, and our culture.

This is why the market matters. Though it, too, enjoys autonomy from the state and the Church, it cannot function devoid of value.1 These values are brought to the market by consumers and producers. The market acts not only as the expression of our consumer preferences, but also as their shaper. Thus Christians should think carefully about the kinds of goods they choose to consume and produce. Wherever rational agents make choices—-in the market, in government, in civic life, in the Church—-they express and shape values. So the market, despite talk of impersonal forces and invisible hands, responds to and forms our choices, and therefore the values those choices express.

Public policy also shapes our values, whether on the local, national, or international level. This is true of decisions made by the neighborhood PTA, of laws enacted in Washington, D.C., and of resolutions passed at the United Nations. Precisely because I care about Fred’s academic achievement, Sue’s grief at her mother’s passing, and Jen’s athletic victory, I am concerned with the PTA decision, the D.C. bill, and the UN charter, for these affect Fred, Sue, and Jen. Our love for specific human beings, the subjects of expressed and actualized values and goods, motivates our concern for the public policy that affects their lives.

Two examples, drawn from work I’ve undertaken over the past several years, may help to clarify.

Consider abortion. Christ’s grace helps purify our intellects to conclude that the fetus is a full, though immature, human being and that all human beings possess profound, inherent, and equal dignity. Christ illuminates our consciences to know that protecting unborn human life is imperative. He also transforms our mere philanthropy into charity motivated by supernatural love for God’s “image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26) and Christ’s presence in “the least of these” (Mt. 25:40).

Protecting the unborn goes well beyond outlawing abortion, though it includes that. It also includes providing the living and earning conditions that allow women to welcome their children in life, and fostering a culture where women have the support of men to raise children with fathers. But often overlooked is how the law, in this case Roe v. Wade, functions as a teacher. Besides a constitutional “right” to abortion, Roe v. Wade created the cultural milieu and intellectual climate wherein cloning and embryo destruction, euthanasia and infanticide are all so-called live options. Thirty years ago, it was beyond the pale to create new human beings only to destroy them in the embryonic or fetal stages or to kill “defective” newborns and adults. Roe fostered a culture in which many people regard such options as perfectly legitimate. A virtuous society would not fathom considering these to be choices. As John Courtney Murray reminds us, “only a virtuous people can be free.”

Of course, all the blame doesn’t lie with Roe; the law isn’t the only teacher. Media and works of art glamorize extramarital sex, promote abortion as empowering, and dehumanize the unborn. That is to say, the products of the market have also taught.

Also consider the equally controversial question of marriage. Christ’s teaching helps correct our intellectual grasp of the good of marriage and elevate our concern for the causes and effects of the dissolution of the human family: pre-marital sex, adultery, fatherlessness, divorce, single-parent childbearing and rearing. Christians should engage the culture to foster and protect the good of spouses and children. They should also foster and protect an understanding of chastity as normal and virtuous.

Law, public policy, and media have all contributed to the erosion of marriage and the family. Consider the widespread distribution of contraception outside of marriage, which helped to detach sex from procreation and, more disastrously, sex from marriage. More recently, the legal introduction of no-fault divorce eviscerated the marital norm of permanence. Now same-sex marriage threatens to detach gender, sex, babies, and moms and dads from marriage. Law teaches. Consider the recent events in Boston and San Francisco, where Catholic Charities is under attack for maintaining that children deserve both mothers and fathers and refusing to place children for adoption with same-sex partners.

But it is certainly not just the law and public policy that have wreaked these changes. Consider our sources of entertainment: Friends, Beverly Hills 90210, Sex in the City, Married with Children, Desperate Housewives, even a sitcom about polygamy, HBO’s Big Love. The media, rather than presenting faithful marriage, chaste courtship, and authentic family life, instead glamorize fornication, exalt single-mother families, normalize one-night stands, and present every alternative family arrangement as equally good for spouses and children. This flies in the face of all social scientific evidence about spousal and child well-being. It also flies in the face of right reason and Christ’s teaching. Once again, we see the market shaping values—-teaching. Christians should be at the fore in creating and promoting media that send a pro-family message, precisely for the good of children, spouses, and society at large.2

So why should Christians care about these issues? Why do Christians care about these issues? It is not because they adhere blindly to an ideology or desire to wield partisan power. They care because they love their neighbors and the authentic goods that perfect human life. The way that these goods are presented in the culture shapes the way that we understand, respond to, and participate in them. Reinforced by our religious convictions, we can debate these issues using public reasons: reasons that point to intelligible goods, that are accessible to all rational people of good will in a pluralistic society.

There remains the danger I referenced before: We must resist the temptation to instrumentalize the propositions, philosophy, organizational capacities, and structures of the faith for the sake of a social cause. While faith informs our cultural engagement, subjugating the former to the latter destroys both. It renders our faith insincere and cuts us off from the grace needed to initiate and sustain our efforts to transform culture.

Given the vast array of cultural goods and societal needs, it is important, too, to remember Paul’s discussion of the diversity and multiplicity of gifts within the Body of Christ. Limited by time and space, each of us has a unique call from Christ, a vocation, to follow a distinctive path in heeding the above considerations. God calls some to be completely devoted to Church ministry, others to service in the civic realm, and still others to volunteer with associations like the local recreation league or the community theater. He calls some to prepare academic papers about politics and ethics, others to write screenplays, compose albums, or design clothes. The ways to promote goods are endless.

We should recognize the unique and autonomous roles of the Church, the state, politics, economics, civic life, and the arts. None of these realms has a monopoly on our time and attention. But while the institutional Church does not claim such a monopoly, Christ does. He is sovereign over Church, state, polity, economy, and culture, each in its own way. He reveals to us the truth about God and about ourselves and charges us, the Church, His mystical body, with transmitting this teaching to the world. For, to borrow from John Paul II, the Church imposes nothing; she merely proposes, and the truth of what she proposes imposes itself.

This, then, is a Christian approach to culture and the culture wars. We must evangelize our cultures. We must proclaim the truth about God and man as it applies to individuals and to societies, for much of Christ’s preaching was aimed at showing how we should live in community. Christ came to redeem all of reality, and Christians should extend His work in sanctifying it all. Everything done here below, regardless of the sphere, aims at and participates in that value, good, and goal—-that Person.

Ryan T. Anderson is a Junior Fellow at First Things and the Assistant Director of the Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ. He is a 2004 graduate of Princeton University.

1. [A complete discussion of the relation of the market to the state and the Church is not possible given the space restraints of this article. Likewise, a discussion of the compatibility of market economics with Christian revelation and right reason is beyond the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, the point stands: Though the market should enjoy a certain degree of autonomy, it too needs to be shaped by values.]

2. [I use bioethics and marriage as my examples because those are the issues I know best given my vocation over the past two years. Other issues could include living wages, fair prices, environmental protection, torture, the ten commandments, just war, Intelligent Design, and immigration. While some matters (like the taking of innocent human life in abortion or embryo-destructive research) involve intrinsic evils which the just society can never tolerate, others (like immigration policy) require prudent discernment and creativity for their just political resolution. On solutions to the latter issues alone is fully rational disagreement possible. Additionally, the law cannot prohibit every form of immoral conduct, but needs to be concerned with injustice and with vices that cause the most serious harm to the common good of society. Where these lines should be drawn is a matter for political prudence.]