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The Culture Wars Are In-House Christian Debates
Note: I wrote this post two weeks before Roe vs. Wade was overturned by SCOTUS.
Tom Holland’s book Dominion points to precisely how thoroughly Christianized western civilization truly is. Our atheists are just as evangelical as any protestant sect. Our secularism is a rehearsal of medieval settlements between princes and bishops. Our conservatives and progressive parties are operating out of a Christian framework, whether it is being pro-family, preserving women’s autonomy, opposing racism, seeking economic mobility, or treating victims with sacral status, these are distinctly Christianized ideas.
Holland argues that the western culture wars are in effect in-house Christian debates about Christian values and trying to figure out how they play out in the present day. The problem is, he says, that only one side acknowledges the Christian currency that they are trading in. Holland concludes his book by pointing to the irony that the values of Christianity are now wielded by a secular culture as weapons against the church.
Let me give two examples, the sticky and emotive topics of abortion and LGBTI rights.
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Abortion: Child Sacrifice or Christian Feminism?
Let’s consider the difficult topic of abortion. Yes, Christians have historically opposed abortion and infanticide, quite unanimously in the early church. In rhetorical terms, the Old Testament even links child sacrifice to Moloch worship. However, Christianity has since its earliest days also been a pro-woman religion, in fact, Christianity was more popular with women and slaves than with any other group in ancient Rome, a fact which contributed to its derision by Roman elites. The idea that women should have agency and control over their own bodies is premised on the notion of women’s equality with men, a conviction borne of texts like Gen 1:27 (man and woman are both in the image of God) and Gal 3:28 (man and woman equal in Christ). As such, the abortion debate is a conflict between two Christian goods, a defense of the voiceless and vulnerable including infants in utero or post-birth, and the right of women rather than men to decide what happens to women’s bodies.
Homoeroticism: Pagan Sexuality or Outsiders Needing God’s Love?
Consider now the hairy topic of same-sex relationships. On the one hand, you could argue that many homoerotic sexual practices in the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world were part and parcel of the paganism of antiquity. Whether it was sacred male prostitutes in shrines or the so-called marriage between the emperor Nero and his male slave Sporus, pagans worshipped sex, worshipped through sex, the sex was exploitive and excessive, and it all seemed entirely unnatural and debauched to Jewish minds, and so also to Christians. Accordingly, when I see footage of a gay pride parade with rows of men in S&M bondage gear being whipped or gigantic penises paraded like phallic statues, it is hard not think that this would be something you’d see in a Greco-Roman religious festival.
But on the other hand, you could argue that union with Christ breaks down the binaries between gay and straight just as it does between male and female or between Jew and Greek. Also, you can note that LGBTI people have been marginalized, Jesus was on the side of the marginalized, Jesus himself was ascetic and celibate, praising those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom (Matt 19:12). Jesus presented a liberalized view of divorce in favour of women and maybe Paul only critiquing certain types of same-sex behaviour like pederasty or exploiting slaves. There is a Christianesque way of being pro-LGBTI.
It’s All an Intra-Christian Debate
Before anyone gets upset, take stock of what I’m saying. My point is not to say that all arguments and options are equally Christian or that they are equally persuasive in terms of their appeals to Scripture, philosophical coherence, or even their contribution to human good. My point is - and note this - everyone is trading in Christian currency, the conservatives might boast a bit too much about it, and the progressives might try to desperately deny it, but our moral reasoning has invariably and indubitably grown from Christian seeds that have grown and bloomed into various types of flowers from Constantinism to Marxism to Nuclear Disarmament to Feminism to the Hospice Movement to Environmental Ethics.
That said, you can and do get the infiltration of other streams of thought in some debates. For example, on the case for capitalist economics, some conservatives seem more Darwinian than Christian, advocating as they do for the survival of the fittest and every man for himself. And again, when it comes to gender identity, progressives can adopt a pervasively platonic anthropology when they argue that the body has nothing to do with determining one’s true self, in fact, the body might even be the enemy that your true self is imprisoned within. That’s Plato, not Christianity.
What does this mean?
Most of the time, most of our culture wars are arguments about trying to establish a hierarchy of rights based on the values bequeathed to us by our Christian ancestors. The culture wars are then different ways of prioritizing different Christian ideas. What counts for more, unborn babies, or women’s autonomy? Both are good, but which one trumps the other?
Also, sometimes when conservatives claim that they represent the Christian position (e.g., secularism is bad or big government is bad) they don’t. But also, sometimes when progressives claim that they represent the secular position (e.g., the rich should pay their fair share of taxes) more often than not they are plagiarizing something from the Apostles or Church Fathers.
If you want to read more on this, check out Tom Holland’s Dominion, or for an alternative view that paganism never really went away, check out Steven Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac.