In his April 2009 farewell speech to the Focus on the Family staff, Dr. James Dobson surveyed what his more than thirty year defense of the Christian American family had accomplished. Far from triumphalist, he described the work of his mammoth organization on behalf of the unborn child and the dignity of the family as "a holding action." He seemed to concede defeat, but if so it was only for the present. "We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say that we have lost all those battles, but God is in control and we are not going to give up now, right?"
It does look bad on the culture front. Thirty-six years after Roe v. Wade, abortion is still legal. All manner of depravity is broadcast over the airwaves, taught and tolerated in the public schools, and pressed into our souls from every direction. It is more difficult than ever to raise godly or even just polite children without sealing one's family off from the world. Like Dobson, I do not think that the war is over. It cannot be. As God has not rescinded the cultural mandate to "take dominion over the earth" (Gen. 1:26), neither has Christ told his people to be anything other than salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13-14), taking captive every thought for him (II Cor. 10:5).
John Barber and David Brooks have separate responses to the state of the Christian culture war in the age of Obama.
In a conference address at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church this spring entitled "Have Christians Lost the Culture-War? ," John Barber challenged the way Christians assess success and failure in our efforts to transform culture by comparing it to our view of evangelism.
What is successful evangelism? Is it successful only when you share the gospel with someone and that person becomes a Christian? What if no one comes to Christ? Are we to say that we failed? Isaiah preached for nearly fifty years and hardly anyone responded positively. Was he a failure? I think of Bill Bright’s helpful definition of successful evangelism. Bright often said, “Successful evangelism is witnessing in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.” Now apply what Bright said in reference to the Great Commission to the cultural mandate, and let’s define the cultural mandate. “Successful Christian activism is laboring in culture in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.” You see, if we looked at evangelism the way some look at the culture-war, we’d look at all the people we’ve witnessed to, and see how few have come to Christ, and [following Dr. Dobson] say, “We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.” But no one who is biblically informed thinks this way regarding evangelism. So we ought not to think this way regarding the cultural mandate.
David Brooks, whether or not he thinks that these old battles (are they so old?) over abortion and the normalization of homosexuality are obsolete, is certainly convinced that we have missed one of the great battle fronts of the age. He has a point.
In "The Next Culture War" (New York Times, September 28, 2009), he writes:
[D]espite the country’s notorious materialism, there has always been a countervailing stream of sound economic values. The early settlers believed in Calvinist restraint. The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardship during their treks out west. Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed. Government was limited and did not protect people from the consequences of their actions, thus enforcing discipline and restraint. ...
Over the past few years, however, there clearly has been an erosion in the country’s financial values. This erosion has happened at a time when the country’s cultural monitors were busy with other things. They were off fighting a culture war about prayer in schools, ... and the theory of evolution. They were arguing about sex and the separation of church and state, oblivious to the large erosion of economic values happening under their feet.
He cites widespread and government sponsored gambling and the avarice it incites, scandalously huge executive compensation packages, supersized restaurant meals, a sharp rise in personal consumption as percentage of GDP, the explosion of personal debt (133% of national income vs 55% in 1960), and runaway government spending.
Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.
Brooks calls for a “moral revival” in the form of a “crusade for economic self-restraint.”
He sent the same message in his June 10, 2008 column, “The Great Seduction.”
The people who created this country built a moral structure around money. The Puritan legacy inhibited luxury and self-indulgence. Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance and frugality....The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal.
Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened. The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money.
Evangelical Christians have had to mount counter-offensives on seemingly innumerable fronts as the culture has been unraveling, hastened on by the ubiquitous and (yes) demonic efforts of the nihilistic left. We have rallied to the defense of babies in the womb. Murder is a bloody and obvious evil. We have stood against public acceptance of the horror and perversity of homosexuality alongside its wholesome and natural counterpart. Prompted by these conflicts, evangelicals have thought seriously about the nature of healthy family life and have developed helpful resources to support people in their marriages and child rearing.
But the seductions of wealth and comfort and self-indulgence were harder to discern, and they so went largely unopposed. The megachurches went as far as embracing them. Why should I not sit in my own theater-quality chair? Why should I not be entertained on Sunday morning the way I was on Saturday night? Why should I not enjoy a Starbucks coffee after or before church, and why should I not be able to buy it in the church lobby? But Christians in small churches too went heavily into debt and voted for governments that did the same, and also supersized their drinks.
The Institute for American Values has initiated the sort of moral reform movement that Brooks has advocated. Indeed, Brooks praises them for this in his 2008 column. David Blankenhorn, the institute's founder and president, has written Thrift: A Cyclopedia, as well as “There is No Paradox of Thrift” (The Weekly Standard, June, 15, 2009). You can learn about the organization's Thrift Initiative here: http://www.newthrift.org/.