Why the culture wars rage on

A sign protesting a recent North Carolina law restricting transgender bathroom access is seen in the bathroom stalls at the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina on May 3, 2016. Photo couresty of REUTERS/Jonathan Drake/File photo *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-WAX-COLUMN, originally transmitted on May 24, 2016.

(RNS) In an essay railing against liberals who offer accommodations to those who dissent from the new moral orthodoxy, Mark Tushnet, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, declares: “The culture wars are over,” and “we won.”

But declaring an end to the culture wars seems premature. Time magazine’s cover story last week described transgender rights and bathroom access as the latest flare-up of the culture wars. Different states are debating the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. And churches are mired in debate as well. The United Methodist Church just postponed its never-ending debate over homosexuality, and also took a pro-life turn by withdrawing from a religious coalition of abortion-rights advocates.

Why do the culture wars rage on?

Perhaps it would be helpful to take a step back and look at some of the underlying foundational worldview issues that lead people to the positions they hold. Today’s battlegrounds are only part of the story. The real differences lurk below the surface, and they concern issues related to human autonomy and the definition of freedom.

In 1992, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Kennedy’s definition of liberty captures the perspective of many Americans today, one that narrows freedom to the individual’s decision to define oneself and create meaning in the world. The culture wars are, in large part, a continual battle over the truth or falsehood of Kennedy’s statement when applied to moral issues.

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, describes the mentality of many in American society this way: “No longer do we think we have the power merely to discover moral reality and truth – we think we have the power to actually create it.

Quoting from C.S. Lewis, he continues: “We now believe that there is no ‘external cosmic order … to which we must conform’ but that truth can be ‘constructed according to the individual’s will.’ We have moved from the ancient understanding that we should ‘conform the soul to reality’ all the way into an age where we ‘subdue reality to our (soul’s) wishes.’”

“Subduing reality to our wishes.” Lewis’ words in 1943 help us understand why today’s new understanding of human autonomy — the idea that the individual is tasked with creating the self and must be the sole determiner of one’s future — is contested.

This vision of human autonomy is behind today’s battles over transgender rights. In 1984, English scholar Oliver O’Donovan wrote about sex-reassignment surgeries and foresaw the culture clash between people who say our nature is something we are to receive and those who believe our nature is malleable and can be repurposed or redefined.

“We cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits,” O’Donovan wrote. “Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature — to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given.”

Thirty-two years later, we’re mired in debates over gender and sex, because some in our society view freedom as flourishing within the bodily form that we’ve received, and others view freedom as overcoming and redefining the body. In either case, the debate concerns receiving versus creating moral reality and truth.

For this reason, in his recent apostolic exhortation Pope Francis opposed contemporary gender ideology that assumes human identity is “the choice of the individual.”

“Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift,” he said.

Likewise, battles over life and death — either at the beginning of life (abortion) or end of life (euthanasia) — rage on because human autonomy demands that we decide when human life begins (rather than science or religion) and also take control of when it ends.

And yet, uncomfortable realities confront us: After every abortion, there is a dead body that must be disposed of. What does the rise of sex-selection abortion say about our value system? And what kind of society says the solution to “unwanted children” is to do away with them rather than to want them?

Some philosophers argue for labeling our era as “late-modern” rather than “postmodern,” because we are living through an intensification of modernity’s emphasis on the individual self as the measure of all things, the supreme arbiter of truth and morality, or what Keller calls “the sovereign self.” I suspect the great English writer G.K. Chesterton would have agreed.

In 1935, Chesterton foresaw this turning of modernity toward a late-modern philosophy that enthrones the self above all else. He critiqued modern writers in his day for their failure to consider the things “they receive from the real world that exists already; from the past, from the parent, from patriotic tradition, or the moral philosophy of mankind. They only talk about making things, as if they could make themselves as well as everything else. They are always talking about making a religion, and cannot get into their heads the very notion of receiving a revelation.”

Religious groups fight this same battle, with some who see religion as something constructed by humanity, and others who see religion as something received, as divine revelation. Usually, the leaders who most loudly call for churches to change or update their doctrines are least likely to affirm the revelatory authority of Christian Scriptures.

And so we come back to the fevered frenzy of the culture wars and the symbolic defeats and victories that are, in one way or another, connected to new definitions of human autonomy and freedom. Some see the radical vision of autonomy as essential for human flourishing, while others see it as the road to death — death in the womb, death from pills prescribed by a physician, or the deadening of our bodies through gender-related hormones and surgeries that sterilize the healthy.

Is truth something we make or receive? That is what the debates are all about.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After”)

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Trevin Wax


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  • Though a good portion of this is right on, it misses the important issues:

    The reason that the culture wars continue on is threefold in nature: power, money, and dominion.

    Personally, I don’t think the majority of people give a crap about gay rights– unless someone gets them riled up and afraid. Any why do they do that? Power. Money. Dominion.

    The trans bathroom nuttiness is the perfect case in point. Trans people have existed forever. Trans people use public restrooms, and have done so forever. Trans people, like gay people, know how to behave in the larger culture; to not know can be life threatening, to put it mildly. They have known this forever. Though there may have been– MAY HAVE BEEN– a couple of documented cases of trans predators in public toilets–MAY HAVE BEEN, but I haven’t seen them yet– these amount to a tiny handful among the TRILLIONS OF TIMES all people have used use public toilets, or the BILLIONS OF TIMES trans people have.

    But we have the fear mongers and the political grifters out there, insisting that this is a problem that must be addressed. No evidence for it, of course. So why must it be addressed? Power. Money, and Dominion. The irony is that according Charlotte, NC, Chamber Of Commerce: North Carolina’s hate law has already cost Mecklenburg County $285 Million in lost revenues. But McCrory and his republican co-conspirators don’t really care, because it isn’t coming out of their pockets.

  • I think there is an important part of culture wars that is missed here. I see the difference less in what is received vs created but more if we have received all from God and his word already or not. To see God as continually revealing or has God spoken and we need to stop and stand firm where we are in this moment.

    The rehortic appears to me to be a call to something new or to the way it has always been. To stay where it has always been is to say we have received and understood the full revelation of God. Many who are pushing for change are reflecting on the churches past and urging us to not make the same mistakes again, to miss a God who is still revealing himself to us even today.

  • Well written and thought out opinion piece. The only gap in his argument is the diffrence between ‘liberty’ and ‘truth’, in this case moral truth. One of these the government had a duty to protect, and one of these falls to the church. When the Justice speeks of liberty he is quite right to allow all men the right to define themselves. Your personal truth about your morals is up to you and the religious affiliation you choose. Not the government. None of us would like to live in a nation where the answers to moral truths are decided by the government. Christianity is not a democracy, and you can’t have it both ways.

  • The basic answer to the question asked is this: we have culture wars because there is at least one group that wants to force its view of certain parts of reality on all others. And for as long as we have at least one group trying to force its views on others, we have a culture war. And as with stopping terrorism, the best way to stop culture wars is to not fight them–that is to not try to force one’s views on certain parts of reality on others.

    But there is another reason why there are culture wars. It is because they are meant to distract us from society’s structural problems that almost always benefit those with wealth and power. And for as long as we are mired in these culture wars, we will either ignore or not have the energy to review and perhaps change the systems that cause society’s structural problems.

    Finally, the definition of modern or modernism really doesn’t address the concerns of the other term ‘post modernism.’ These definitions revolve around the metanarratives used to interpret reality which are accepted or rejected. Modernism uses science and reason as its metanarrative. Thus, an extra emphasis on the self as defining reality would be more in line with post modernism because the latter rejects all metanarratives. That rejection, though having some valid concerns over the abuse of pre modernism and modernism, better enables the self to define his or her own reality than what can occur when and individual’s view of reality has to answer to a metanarrative.

  • “The real differences lurk below the surface, and they concern issues related to human autonomy and the definition of freedom.”

    Bingo! Christ described the house that was built on sand as opposed to solid rock. Calamity occurred only when storms came and put the structure to the test: the house on the sand collapsed. Likewise, our national “house” is built on the sand of polytheistic religious freedom.

    The formation of our national government correspondingly marked the abandonment of state governments acknowledging the exclusivity of God. Consequently, our courts now have no exclusive recourse to the Word of God for the basis of their decisions. Our legislators are likewise adrift. A housing collapse is inevitable as seen in the form of culture wars.

    The solution is to recognize the errors of those who laid the sand foundation; men like Leland, Jefferson, and Madison. We must rebuild our house on The Rock.

  • The ‘culture war’ in the US is a class war, between the educated, largely urban-coastal upper middle class and the working class. The Trump phenomenon is evidence of that.

    The working class currently has little prospect of upward mobility; they are economically insecure and socially marginalized. That promotes social conservatism. When you’re living on the edge, seeing middle class life slipping away, hanging on by the fingernails you cannot afford to assume risk.

    The worst of it is the vicious circle. They support the policies that undermine their prospects for social and economic improvement because they are economically insecure and socially marginalized.

  • In argument it’s handy to have a nice clean dichotomy: revealed/received vs. self-created. While the author makes a well-reasoned explanation of this dichotomy, in fact the reality is never so neat. The revealed/received was often self-created originally and or at least re-interpreted over time. Even the God revealed truth has been re-interpreted, often again and again. The culture wars are the process humanity uses to effect this evolution; it’s the means used to establish consensus.

    This sort of debate is nothing new. Consider the definition of when a human life begins. At birth? At quickening? At the time the fetus shows heartbeat? At the time the fetus shows human shape? At the moment of viability outside the womb? At conception? These are not options we’ve come up with recently to argue over; they have all, excepting the last, been at one time or another the consensus definition. For most of human history we were satisfied with marking the beginning of life at the birth of a baby, but as additional information became available we found it necessary to adjusted the definition. At each stage the argument involved scientific discoveries (or what passed for such in that period) as well as Bible study and theological reflection. Regarding the Bible, this meant the re-interpretation of older revealed truth, the discovery of new truths never recogniized before, or simply reading into the Bible what we wanted to find.

    The sad thing with this is that, as others have pointed out, the normal process of establishing consensus has often been used by those more interested in power, money, or dominion to do things other than establish truth for our time.

  • Your complaint is called The Constitution of the United States. We don’t need theocracy, which is your solution.

  • It’s true that many blue-collar Americans vote against their own self-interest, but that’s because they hate the “other” (African Americans, LGBT Americans, Hispanic Americans, Women Americans, Liberal Americans, etc.) more than they love themselves, and the “Gay Obsessed Party” has been playing on their hatred since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of 1968.

  • Oh, yes, everything would be magically perfect if we were all forced to share your peculiar “beliefs.”

    Try Russia. They have a State Church.

  • The reality is that cultural wars is based on human’s interaction with nature that now allows many otherwise unsustainable births and deaths to occur. We have interferred with nature to the extent that we can prolong life far beyond possibilities in the past. Natural selection may be a Darwinian theory but we have proven that we can thwart it for many years. The real question is, should we? This is not a scriptural issue it is a moral issue that did not exist in the Biblical world. People experienced Life and Death.
    As far as the beginning of life the Bible covers both aspects, David lamenting the loss of his unborn child and the Biblical laws that proscribe punishment for killing a pregnant woman and the lack of punishment for harming a fetus. If I indeed believed in God making all of the choices in my life I would refuse all modern medicine as some religious groups do. Therefore since I believe in the intervention of modern medicine is a Gift from God, I also accept that He has offered me the freedom to choose. This is the essence of free will.
    Anyone who accepts free will has the responsibility to teach their children the shape they believe and parameters of free will. For my household it’s “Your right to choose ends at my nose” so keep your edicts off of my person. If this were accepted by everyone, rape, incest, power plays and greed would all be placed in a different perspective. Ethical behavior requires choices that protect the integrity of all humans.
    The best take away from Biblical truths are “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and the Biblical teachings to leave some produce in the vinyards and fields so the poor will have something to eat. These remind us that caring for all living creatures is our responsibility as the ‘caretakers of the Garden’ that we call our world.

  • The culture wars continue because we evolved fom plankton eating fish. The culture wars will end as more people appreciate the value in dealing with the ambiguity of reality. For this we are the unique species. Young people inevedably challenge myths.

  • That’s one, rather unsympathetic, interpretation that I’d dispute. IMHO they aren’t by and large racists, or bad, or stupid people. They have reasonable fears, but their responses are IMHO uninformed and wrong-headed. Their marriages and families are coming apart–they thing that the remedy is a return to patriarchy and traditional codes of sexual conduct. Their neighborhoods and schools are threatened by disorder and violence–they think the solution is to get guns and keep minorities out. They’re mistaken on both counts, and there’s plenty of empirical evidence that they’re mistaken. Get the facts out and, I believe, they will change their views. I’m always amazed, and distressed, that there’s so little trust in people’s decency and rationality, and so little effort devoted to simply getting the facts out.

  • Russia’s rejection of the enforced atheism of the former Soviet Union, and their subsequent trend toward acknowledging God and their Christian roots should be applauded by all. Russians at the highest levels openly attribute atheism as the root cause of the former USSR’s collapse. They confess their sin. Sadly, we are following in the USSR’s tracks. We can only hope they learn from our colonial mistake of government allied exclusively to one Christian denomination with its fruit of enforced uniformity. May they instead promote non-sectarian Christianity and thus honor Christ.

  • “allow all men the right to define themselves.”

    Us women would like to have that right too. Is that okay with you?

  • Good comments. I think the answer is in the essay and all these comments, except Doug’s. (The fall of the Soviet Union was due to not enough Christianity? Really?)

    I have one addition: Diminishing privilege for straight, white people. That slow and minimal diminishment is wrongly but widely perceived as persecution.

  • Thanks for reading and the reply. I’d happily grant you that right! You are correct, of course. I’ve spent years researching womens rights, african americans, supported homosexuals, argued in favor of transsexuals using the bathroom of their choosing…. but when it comes to the language we use, I still find myself working with a genitive masculine vocabulary. Perhaps in part due to being raised with the Ol’ King James Bible… lol. Thanks for the correction, I will try to use more inclusive words in the fuiture.

    ‘Every battle of ideas is fought on the terrain of language.’ Zia Haider Rahman NYT

  • My, we have some very wordy and deep comments here today. Much of what is argued here is a matter of philosophy; and Philosophy is merely the Art of answering questions that don’t need to be asked. It is laughable, however, that some declare the “Culture Wars” as primarily a function/result of wealthy white privilege. Cultural clashes have been with us back to the beginning of recorded history (and undoubtedly, before). They will continue. What is amazing and silly, yet wholly predictable, is the utter self absorption of the American character, and the thought that some sociological reformation will bring them to and end. Jesus declared, “Think not that I came to bring peace, but a sword.”

  • We know the Russian government’s association with the Russian Orthodox Church has led to attacks on their LGBT citizens, demonstrating that church is a force for evil.

  • You’re welcome. It’s nice to receive a reasonable and respectful response to a reasonable and respectful question.

  • Allowing for a combination of Scripture — there is none “good” but the Father, for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. <== THAT is "good."

  • If trans people have been using the public toilets and locker rooms for all this time with no problems, then why is it an issue now? Why the push to put legislation on it?

  • You seem to be implying that is more than one reality. You say one group is trying to force its view of reality on someone else, but if there is only one reality then either one or both side of the argument are just wrong (contrary with actual reality). It is my opinion that the culture wars rage (as supported by the article) because we have a large portion of our society that believes they make up their own reality as their will defines it. The other side (for the most part) is left scratching their heads in incredulity and are just trying to maintain a sense of sanity.

  • it is because we are in the end of days and satan is very very busy…

    Always be a light that is .shininginthedark.

  • Matthew,
    This is about how we share society with others. Now tell me what freedom of religion can anyone have when the reality taught by some people’s religion is forced on all?