Resources

Cultural War as Religious War

By P. Andrew Sandlin
July 31, 1999
And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you. Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house. He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad. — Mt. 12:25-30s

Whenever raging secularists bent on imposing their own godless, humanistic agenda on the Western world encounter Chalcedon's commitment to a Biblical dominion commission, they recoil in horror, linking the religious war in which we are engaged to the jihad of Islamic fundamentalists. Several years ago, an interviewer from National Public Radio inquired of me, "What is the difference between Chalcedon's view and that of the Islamic jihad?" Well, let me count the ways. Preeminently, we deplore revolutionary violence of any kind, and rely instead on the preaching of the gospel and the peaceful application of God's law-word by individuals, families, churches, and so on. The forcible imposition of religious belief is a characteristic of pagan and secular states like ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; revolutionary France and Russia; and the United States since roughly 1962. Men who have given up hope in the power of the regenerating Spirit of God rely on revolution, coercion, torture, murder, and so forth. Most secular humanists are procedural materialists — man is a material, plastic being, to be reshaped by an enlightened, political elite. While some sectors of the Christian church have operated this way in the past, this is not the evangelistic program of Biblical Christianity; and Chalcedon deplores it without reservation. In the terminology of our Vision Statement, "Biblical law cannot be imposed; it must be embraced."

It is proper, though, to speak of a religious war. Social conservatives often speak of the "cultural war" of the West, but what they actually denote (or what they should denote) is a religious war, because culture is simply the externalization of a society's religion, as Henry Van Til has pointed out. The great religious war is not the clash of arms, of Army sharpshooters, heat-seeking missiles, and stealth bombers. St. Paul declares that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal (2 Cor. 10:4); rather, we employ the ethical weapons of covenant faithfulness, Biblical law, the gospel, faithful child rearing, and so on. It is the battle of religion, theology, ethics, and ideas; and it is this religious war, initiated in Genesis 3 by Satan himself desiring to subvert the plan of God, that rages relentlessly in Western societies.

Social conservatives, most of whom are either mildly Christian or blandly secular, are concluding that they are losing this war. For example, in his controversial letter of February 16, 1999 (available at www.freecongress.org), long-time conservative leader Paul Weyrich observes:

In looking at the long history of conservative politics, from the defeat of Robert Taft in 1952, to the nomination of Barry Goldwater, to the takeover of the Republican Party in 1994, I think it is fair to say that conservatives have learned to succeed in politics. That is, we got our people elected. But that did not result in the adoption of our agenda. The reason, I think, is that politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics. That's why I am in the process of rethinking what it is that we, who still believe in our traditional, Western, Judeo-Christian culture, can and should do under the circumstances.... ... Suffice it to say that the United States is very close to becoming a state totally dominated by an alien ideology, an ideology bitterly hostile to Western culture. Even now, for the first time in their lives, people have to be afraid of what they say. This has never been true in the history of our country. Yet today, if you say the "wrong thing," you suddenly have legal problems, political problems, you might even lose your job or be expelled from college. Certain topics are forbidden. You can't approach the truth about a lot of different subjects. If you do, you are immediately branded as "racist", "sexist", "homophobic", "insensitive", or "judgmental." ... If in Washington State and Colorado, after we have spent years talking about partial birth abortion, we can't by referendum pass a ban on it, we have to face some unpleasant facts. I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values.... I believe that we probably have lost the culture war. That doesn't mean the war is not going to continue, and that it isn't going to be fought on other fronts. But in terms of society in general, we have lost. This is why, even when we win in politics, our victories fail to translate into the kind of policies we believe are important.

Weyrich has accurately concluded after many years, and as Chalcedon has consistently noted, that political victories do not ordinarily translate into cultural or religious victories. In a constitutional democracy, over time politics simply reflects the culture from which it springs. It is a naive delusion to assume that political solutions are ultimate. Politics is simply a reflection of a culture, a society's religion. Weyrich has thus concluded, "I no longer believe that there is a moral majority. I do not believe that a majority of the Americans actually share our [socially conservative] values." He arrived at this altered understanding, no doubt, as a result of the recent failed Presidential impeachment, and the President's soaring popularity ratings, despite revelations of his immoral and criminal acts. Conservative scholar Paul Gottfried similarly observes that the conservative movement is not winning the cultural (i.e., religious) war:

While some Washington beltway conservatives are proclaiming a conservative victory, we behold a country pushed to the left. A political and cultural war has been fought and largely won by the social left against gender stereotyping and the nuclear family. Gay/lesbian and abortion rights together with a powerful centralized administration enforcing them are taken for granted by most members of Congress. Opposition to quotas and to the media's bashing of white males increasingly has become restricted to the political fringe. Only extremists now call for a debate on further immigration which beltway conservatives avoid bringing up lest they seem insensitive. The only issue such conservatives risk discussing are tax cuts, military spending, and President Clinton's lust.1

Gottfried observes how the vanguard of the newer conservative movement (largely the neo-conservatives) are not the true heirs of Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver's decentralist conservative vision which is, in Gottfried's words, "full of nostalgia for hierarchical and premodern community." Conservatives, by and large, were opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were economically isolationists, protectionists, and almost nationalistic; they were often deeply imbued with Southern agrarian ideals (this was especially true of Weaver). In sharp contrast, the modern conservatives have made steady concessions to the welfare state, are the avant garde of the global economy, are embarrassed by the morality of the older Christian Right, and are confident that more tax cuts and freer trade will solve most of the country's problems. In the cultural war, according to Gottfried, these "neo-cons" are part of the disease, and not the cure. Many social conservatives have come to agree with Weyrich and Gottfried; and they see themselves, in the words of a recent U. S. News and World Report article, as "strangers in a strange land" (Feb. 22, 1999, 32-35).

The temper of the country is increasingly libertarian — both economically and morally, but especially morally. (Westerners increasingly prefer free markets and free sex, but they greatly prefer free sex to free markets; they can abide certain state intrusions into the economy, just not state intrusions into their sex lives.) Last year, Chalcedon's Contemporary Issues Series title The Future of the Conservative Movement tagged the problem — a year before Paul Weyrich and Co. perceived the loss of the cultural war. Conservatism loses, will always lose, must always lose, because it is the nature of conservatism to lose. Conservatism is not interested in a full-orbed Biblical Faith, but in restoring yesteryear's liberal gains. Most of today's conservatives are somewhat to the left of John F. Kennedy's liberalism; and, if things do not change in the next thirty to forty years, the conservatives of 2030 will hold positions quite to the left of Bill Clinton's present views. Conservatism denies the authority of Scripture and Biblical law, is horrified by a godly dominionist vision (the late Russell Kirk, father of modern conservatism, considered Rushdoony a "fifth-monarch" revolutionary2), and thus are destined eternally to ride in the caboose of progressive liberalism's great train of progress (i.e., moral degeneration).

Social conservatives are losing what they term the cultural war, in reality the religious war, because their religion is defective in precept and practice. They are using butter knives against sabers, pistols against AK47s, trench warfare against radar-guided missiles. By and large, the secular humanist agenda comprises what Abraham Kuyper called a "life system," what we call a "worldview." It is a comprehensive system springing from human autonomy. Conversely, social conservatism is at best a watered-down Christianity, and at many points simply an updated version of the humanistic Enlightenment. Until conservatism acknowledges and abandons its inherently defective, compromising position, it will continue to suffer defeats at the hands of epistemologically self-conscious secular humanists. Social conservatism must adopt a consistent, four-pronged approach if it expects to roll back the effects of cultural liberalism: Christianity, covenantalism, comprehensiveness, and conflict.

Christianity

The only peaceful, harmonious, lawful society is the Christian society. As Rushdoony observes in his classic The Foundations of Social Order, only orthodox Christianity, anchored in the great creeds of the church, creates a social order that avoids totalitarianism on the one hand and anarchy on the other (see also his masterly The One and the Many). Properly understood and practiced, Christianity generates a society held together by the truth of the Faith, but which recognizes individual differences and does not attempt to impose Christianity, or any other religious perspective, on anyone. Christianity produces a particular morality, because Christians practice Biblical morals. The great problem with secular conservatism is that it wants many of the benefits of Christianity while abandoning Christianity. This is the great error of many of the Enlightenment philosophers, potently refuted by the nihilist, Friedrich Nietzsche.3 We kill God, he asserts, and then expect Biblical morality. This is nonsense. The only way to maintain Biblical morality and a harmonious law-ordered society is to espouse and practice a consistent, orthodox Christianity. Some social conservatives are finally waking up to this fact. Belatedly, Robert Bork, to his own admission long uninterested in religion, has recently declared, "in an era of moral decline, a reversal [of the modern cultural evil] probably depends on a revival of biblical religion. I have not been religious for most of my life, and I come to this conclusion not out of piety, but through observation . . . The role of religion — traditional, biblical religion — is crucial to cultural health."4 An explicitly Christian approach to all of life — including politics5 — is the first step in taking the upper hand in the cultural war.

Covenantalism

Christianity, however, does not vanquish cultural (i.e., religious) evil by politics, but by covenant. The covenant is God's gracious, solemn agreement with man, which includes His pledge to forgive and forget all of the sins of those who place faith in and cast themselves on the Lord Jesus Christ and His atoning death, as well as the pervasive bond between God and all of His creation, which binds it to His sovereign will and predestinating purposes. God pledges to man the gracious salvation effected in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, including protection and provision; man, in response, pledges faith and obedience.6 The unconverted stand in the covenant of creation, under God's jurisdiction, without the salvation of Jesus Christ. No man, however, stands outside a covenant relation to God; every man is subject to God and His Word and will.

Christians win the cultural war covenantally — by the gradual extension of the kingdom of God on the earth. This begins with the individual and moves outward to the family, the church, and the wider society and only finally and consequently altering the state and politics. The covenant advances by means of regeneration, not revolution. As God inspires men to declare the gospel and the entire law-word of God, an increasing number are converted, and they in turn reorder their individual lives, families, and churches in terms of the Word of God. As men are covenantally faithful, God blesses them (Dt. 28:1-14). As God blesses them, they are given greater areas of responsibility (Lk. 16:10), and subordinate larger areas of society to the will of Jesus Christ the King (Mt. 13:31-33).

A key aspect of covenantalism is training children, the godly covenant seed. This is an almost total blind spot among social conservatives, just as it is among many modern activist Christians, though the burgeoning of the Christian homeschooling movement is gradually restoring sight to those previously blind on this crucial issue. Samuel Blumenfeld grasps this point quite well:

[M]any conservative families have ceased to hope for miracles in Washington. So they go about their business quietly and purposefully. They homeschool their kids or build private schools, they build new churches, they create newsletters and magazines. They fight in court to protect their rights and freedoms. That's where the culture war is being fought and won in America: in the family. And that's why what goes on in Washington is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Obviously the homeschool movement is the grass roots answer to the conservatives' failure in Washington.7

Similarly, Paul Weyrich has, at least on this point, come around to see the more Biblical perspective, as expressed in his March 7, 1999 Washington Post opinion (page B7):

The bulk of cultural conservatives' energies should go elsewhere [than politics], into creating the parallel institutions we need. An excellent example of what can be achieved this way is the homeschooling movement. Had the parents of the million children now being homeschooled kept their kids in the public schools and fought the battles over values and standards in the curriculum, they would have lost. Those children would have received a poor education. Worse, they would have been inculcated with the "attitudes" required by political correctness, which is what most public schools now see as their main function. Instead, because they have been schooled at home, a million children have gotten good educations and learned the sound values inherent in our traditional culture. They provide solid hope for the future. Because cultural conservatives' new institutions will reflect sound values, they will work. They will work over the long term, and as they do that, other Americans will take notice. They will choose our ways, our traditional culture, over the culture of instant gratification and inevitable degradation that controls America's existing institutions. We will do to the politically correct and the other cultural radicals what they did to us: Over time, our traditional, Western, Judeo-Christian "counterculture" will again become the majority culture. Is this a call for "surrender" in the culture war? I don't think so. I see it as a call for a new Inchon landing.

This is essentially Chalcedon's vision to which some of the conservative faithful are finally waking up. We win religious battles over the long term by means of covenant faithfulness, and a leading aspect of covenant faithfulness is training a godly seed, thus ensuring intergenerational blessing and intergenerational kingdom extension. The modern conservative movement, bereft of orthodox Christianity and covenant theology, does not perceive the full significance of this critical point: we change society by covenant faithfulness, not by politics.

Sadly, the notion of victory by covenant has been neglected not only by social conservatives, but by Christians as well. Conservative politics, deeper-life sanctification, and crusade evangelism are three typical right-wing tactics of Christian conservatives' "Spirit-filled" "instant gratification." Intergenerational covenant faithfulness they find boring, unattractive, and laborious. God declares to His covenant people in Deuteronomy, though, that long-term cultural victory is the reward of long-term (intergenerational) covenant faithfulness. But the church, and not only social conservatives, has not recognized this intergenerational responsibility, and has paid the price for its omission:

That doctrine [of covenant succession] presupposes that the family, as biblically described, is by divine appointment the fundamental principle of organization of human life.... It must be plainly stated that the promise made to the children of the covenant is not that of a special status of privilege, but is precisely the promise of the gospel, eternal life in heaven.... Further, it is emphatically clear from Deuteronomy to Proverbs to Ephesians that nurture, not evangelism, is the paradigm of child-rearing in the covenant home, a nurture which presupposes a heart, however young, set free or soon to be set free from the native blindness and opposition to the truth into which the fall has cast all mankind from conception.... Currently the church ... is hemorrhaging its children into the world. Christian evangelism will never make a decisive difference in our culture when it amounts merely to an effort to replace losses due to widespread desertion from our camp. The gospel will always fail to command attention and carry conviction when large numbers of those who grew up under its influence are observed abandoning it for the world.8

These are deeply convicting words, and they pinpoint the failure not only of the church, but also conservatives in the wider society. Political victories are the long-term corollary of covenant faithfulness; they are also possible without covenant faithfulness, as Weyrich has noted, but when they do occur this way, as they have the last fifteen years, these victories are inept as a means of cultural transformation. The cultural transformation by means of covenant faithfulness precedes — and does not flow from — political victories.

Comprehensiveness

The older American conservative movement was committed to privilege, hierarchy, and morality (see Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind). Essentially it was a reactionary movement, opposing the latest
egalitarian fads of the Left. It did not have what Kuyper termed a "life-system" of its own, and its distrust of "sophisters" meant that it often turned out to be little more than the "Know-Nothing Party." For the most part, it did not recognize, as Kuyper had, the great danger that the Enlightenment posed to the Faith. For the Enlightenment, knowledge was an essentially "neutral," "objective" affair,9 and every area of thought and life was rapidly driven into a separate, secularized category to be governed by human reason alone. The conservative answer for this was not to put forth a consistently Christian and Biblical response, but to damn the Enlightenment liberals — and go back into their safe conservative enclaves, leaving cultural transformation to the liberal activists; i. e., conservatives by their very nature were not "activists." Conservatives did not grasp that only comprehensive worldviews can vanquish other comprehensive worldviews. This was paralleled by the retreat of the church: three sermonic points, two humorous anecdotes, and four tearful versus of "Amazing Grace" were thought to suffice against the secularist complex of rationalism, scientism, and, more recently, postmodernism. This was a fatal mistake by both social conservatives and Christians. Christians are to retake territories forfeited to Satan and his disciples; they must work hard in deducing Biblical answers on issues as diverse as elective abortion, coercive wealth redistribution, racial and social quotas, artistic license and freedom of speech, international trade, biomedical ethics, and much, much more. The Bible does have the answers to these and all other modern problems — either explicitly or implicitly. The Christian church's calling is to deduce them, develop them, and implement them. Anything less than a distinctly Biblical answer to these and related problems will reinvent the manifold errors of recent conservatism which relied on weak trusses like natural law theory; pious sentimentalism; and simple, knee-jerk reactions. The Bible has the answers to all of man's problems, and until conservatives wake up and accept this, they can expect cultural defeat and marginalization.

Conservatives of recent date have been more committed to politics as the instrument of social change. Weyrich is quite correct in acknowledging that conservatives have lately been deluded by the idea that politics offers ultimate solutions. This is why so many of them house themselves in the Washington, D. C. area. Because liberals believe that social change is virtually impossible apart from politics, naive conservatives tag along by presuming that, if they are to expect a conservative social change, it must be accomplished by political instrumentality. This is wrong. Godly social change is the effect of regeneration and covenant faithfulness. And covenant faithfulness requires intergenerational faithfulness: training covenant children in the Faith, and to be leaders in the prime areas of cultural reclamation—church, arts, education, military, technology, media sciences, economics, and on down the line. The message of Christianity is comprehensive, and Christians will reclaim culture when they restore and implement this comprehensive message—and not until then.

Conflict

The Bible does not teach perfectionism—there will be no sinless perfection in the individual life, in the church, and in society, including the state, until one’s death or the eternal state. The course of history is the course of conflict between covenant-keeping and covenant-breaking. This is the antithesis between righteousness and unrighteousness. This conflict is not national, ethnic, economic, sexual, or generational—it is ethical. In Genesis 3 Satan initiated an unflagging assault on the kingdom of God as it manifests itself in the earth; and while he is destined to defeat in time and history, he will not desist until he is vanquished. Therefore, there can be no détente with evil in any realm of human existence.

Unfortunately, the history of twentieth-century conservatism is constant concessions to the liberal gains, not full-fledged conflict. Eschewing the objective standard of the Word of God, conservatism hinges on a revisionist view of the past (the recent past as a Golden Age to which we should return), a fulcrum whose position moves a little Left in every succeeding generation. Social conservatives, thus, do not mind losing the cultural, i.e., religious battle, just as long as they lose rather slowly. They have not privatized HEW (health, education, and welfare) as God requires, but for the most part, have offered smaller versions of the great welfare state. They have not opposed the bombing of innocent civilians, including Christians and children and churches, in Islamic countries, but, in flagrant violation of the Word of God, have supported the United States’ leagues with God-hating Islamic regimes {Jud. 2:2). They have not worked to train up an entire generation of godly dominionists, warriors for the Faith, ‘to assume leadership in every area of modern life, but have simply assured that their gifted children obtain diplomas from respected “neocon” institutions and entered the marketplace in collaboration with liberals’ cultural endeavors. This is an anti-Biblical agenda. Because of this, it is a losing agenda. For this reason, as long as conservatives employ this agenda, they will lose.

Christian conservatives are often intimidated into silence by rabid, secular religionists who claim that Christians socially involved beyond the four walls of the institutional church are interested in imposing their beliefs on everybody else. What the secularists really mean, of course, is “Get out of the way so we rabid secularists can impose our totalitarian religion by means of the power state in an effort to eviscerate every last vestige of your religion.” Most conservative Christians buy this poisonous bill of goods. They go meekly as lambs to the slaughter, and they get slaughtered—generation after generation.

Chalcedon frightens rabid secularists because we threaten their monopoly on virtually every area of modern life. We frighten conservatives because we expose their morally bankrupt movement.

Truth can be frightening.

Conclusion

Conservatives, therefore, have three choices: 1) They can join the liberal monopoly and enjoy temporary cultural prominence and success. 2) They can remain conservatives and continue to lose, year by year, issue by issue, generation by generation. Or. . . 3) They can join the Biblical program in articulating and maintaining a full-orbed Faith which will win out in the end. If they wish to remain cultural masochists, they can remain in the conservative camp. And they can keep on losing.

If they are really committed to victory, they must come over to an explicitly Biblical program, which Chalcedon endorses.


  1. Paul Gottfried, “After Three Decades, Has the Conservative Movement Triumphed? No,” Insight, March 22, 1999, 25.
  2. Russell Kirk, “Eliot and a Christian Culture,” This World, Winter, 1989, 15.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols [many editions], “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” sec. 5.
  4. Robert H. Bork, “Conservatism and the Culture,” The Intercollegiate Review, Vol. 34, No. 2 [Spring, 1999], 6.
  5. William O. Einwechter, ed.. Explicitly Christian Politics (Pittsburgh, 1997).
  6. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1852 edition), 97.
  7. Samuel L. Blumenfeld, “It’s the Culture, Stupid!”, Worldnetdaily.com, March 11, 1999.
  8. Robert S. Rayburn, “The Presbyterian Doctrines of Covenant Children, Covenant Nurture, and Covenant Succession,” Presbyterian, 22/2, 93, 97, 99, 109.
  9. Michael Kelley, The Impulse of Power (Minneapolis, 1998), 227, 256.

Topics: Dominion, Biblical Law, Christian Reconstruction, Culture , R. J. Rushdoony

P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

More by P. Andrew Sandlin