The Culture War Is A Holy War

America in 2021

The title, I’m sure, will offend people in at least two different groups. The first will see it as an attempt to inflame an already simmering conflict within American culture. The second will see it as an attempt to make a very real and necessary conflict seem unsavory. To the first group, let me assure you that I have no such desire. I already think our public discourse in America has come off the rails, and the last thing I would want is to further toxify the conversation by raising passions further.

My response to the second group is a bit more complicated. The fact is that I do not know what might come of my attempt to reframe our present moment. Perhaps the ideal outcome would be that we would continue to see conversations about race, equality, justice, and the rest as critically important, while also admitting the need to adjust how we engage in them. But I’m getting ahead of myself. If I’m going to convince anyone of that, I first need to demonstrate that it’s true. So let me try to do that by way of two analogies.

The first analogy is that of marriage. I am not a marriage counselor, but I know several, and the message I get from them pretty consistently is that poor communication is behind many if not most of the problems married couples experience. That poor communication can take many forms, from hurt feelings to shouting matches, and from off-limits topics to stalemate arguments that become a test of wills. What’s needed in these situations is for each partner to accept that the other wants to make the marriage work, and to parlay that small step toward one other into a healthier environment where honest, patient, even vulnerable conversation can take place.

Politics As Religion

The second analogy concerns the title of this post. I think it is equally valid to view the current cultural-political climate in America as a kind of holy war. We usually see holy wars as fought over religious belief, and of course they are … usually. But what is religion if not a set of beliefs about ultimate reality1? And what can we say about a country that seems at times on the brink of civil war if not that perceive their sense of ultimate reality as under threat?

That last paragraph is a bit abstract, so let me try to bring this idea of ultimate reality down to earth. It is a truism that human beings all try to seek The Good, however we each define it. To the extent that’s true, The Good is just another phrase for ultimate reality. If The Good for you is your own wealth and happiness, that’s your ultimate reality; you’re a hedonist. If your notion of The Good is a more traditionally religious ideal like the glory of the God of the Bible, then you’re a Christian.

I submit that what we’re seeing in American culture is the replacement of traditionally religious notions of the good (which are more or less gone from the public sphere) with political ones. That can be tricky to see in part because one side of the political spectrum regularly clothes itself in religious language. But it’s easy to see past that once you realize that the religious language is used in service of political ends. “God bless America, and vote for me.” And if it’s true that political notions of the good reign today over religious ones, then it’s just as accurate to say that politics has become a replacement for religion. Call it the Church of American Folk Religion.

It’s important to note that, even though the political right is more prone to clothe itself in religious language, the left is no less susceptible to this. If the left has been marked by anything in the past few years, it’s an identity politics that defines “the good” as each individual’s right to be recognized for however they choose to define themselves. My only point here is that—good or bad—this is something that seems to have reached the status of a religious ideal.

How To Avoid A Holy War

We all seek our notion of The Good. But when we define The Good in political terms, we risk political disagreement becoming a holy war. The American Founding Fathers were able to put aside religious disagreement (at a time when such disagreements would often devolve into violence), to create a country where the political process replaced raw power with discourse—conversation, persuasion, and, yes, impassioned debate. That discourse intended to be carried out with the belief that the good they sought wasn’t identical with The Good (these were for the most part religious men, after all).

Can we emulate their example today?

  1. I’m paraphrasing Timothy Keller, a Christian pastor in New York City who has written extensively on modern forms of worship.