All of the following things can be true:

There is no reason for American Christians to talk about ‘winning the culture war.’

In the first place, to the extent that there was any such thing, conservative Christians have plainly lost it and lost it in a rout. We are far past the point where we had any realistic chance of winning it.

Moreover, it was always a dubious concept to begin with in as much as it is still not at all clear to me that conservative Christians belonged to a culture that was in any kind of real way distinct from or at odds with the prevailing materialism of mainstream America. Indeed, the dominant liturgical movement of the past 40 years is almost entirely defined by a capitulation to the materialist, market-driven norms of upwardly mobile suburbanites, trends which have simply carried over into the present era.

To the extent that we ever were a counter culture, it was premised in an attempt to have most of materialist individuals while holding back select aspects of it via mostly ad hoc, biblicist ethical strictures, ethical strictures which often came accompanied by heretical teachings regarding the doctrine of God. Many of our peers have, unsurprisingly, found such argumentative approaches unpersuasive.

The response to this failure cannot be to double down on culture war rhetoric without first asking ourselves what kind of culture we even have in the first place. In particularly, we ought not speak of our children as soldiers in a culture war, for that is to apply chiefly militaristic language to something which is one of the clearest and most beautiful pictures of love that exists in nature.

Instead, we must, first, recognize the ways in which we have not been meaningfully different than the culture of death we rightly wish to oppose. Then we must repent of our complicity in these trends and seek to model an actually distinctive way of life characterized by a reverence for and acceptance of the givenness of things, including family and place, and a general indifference to most contemporary ideas of success and respectability.

Due to past issues, evangelicals must be very careful in how we talk about large families.

It is simply true that many evangelical churches in recent years have spoken about large families as a kind of trophy, an ecclesiastical merit badge of sorts. This is wrong for the reasons we have already covered.

Moreover, many have tended to talk about women as if their only valid vocations can be motherhood or missions. Many evangelical women have talked about these issues in their writing—off the top of my head I can think of Katelyn Beaty in A Woman’s Place, Joy Beth Smith in Party of One, and Gina Dalfonzo in One by One. Tish Warren has also talked about this informally as well.

This message, which is not the Christian understanding of sex or vocation, has left many women feeling squelched in their desire to do good work in God’s world using the gifts God has given them. It has created confusion, so much so that many women describe feeling as if they must choose between cultivating a talent they love deeply and pursuing that professionally in some capacity or being a Christian. The Christian teachings on gender and sexuality require no such choice. The Proverbs 31 woman is remarkably entrepreneurial. Both Jesus and Paul seem to receive financial support from women during their ministries. Lydia was able to support her local church in significant ways precisely because she was a successful merchant.

As Dorothy Sayers has argued in her many writings, people need vocational callings, they need good work to do. That work will often include home and family life, of course, but it will also often include additional things beyond that. Churches and individual Christians ought to be supportive of women pursuing such callings in the same way they support men in such callings, provided (for both men and women) that non-domestic vocational pursuits do not do harm to their domestic life as a family.

Family is the primary form of political life and Christianity has always taught that children are a necessary good in marriage, inextricably tied to the meaning of marriage itself.

The normal arc of life for most Christians (not all!) will include marrying and this necessarily means being open to children. This should not be a surprise to any of us. Families are the only naturally reproducing community. Families naturally reproduce themselves in ways that governments and churches, to name two other examples, do not. If you follow the logic here, then it is not wrong to note that families are the incubator of society and that families that successfully impart certain values to their children will naturally shape cultures across time. We still, after all, speak of New England as having certain tendencies it has inherited from the Puritans.

This is not a controversial point historically speaking. Althusius, a preeminent reformed political theorist of the early modern era, makes this very point in the opening pages of his Politica. This reality has led other Christians, such as St. Pope John Paul II, to call the family “the sanctuary of life.” Edith Schaeffer wrote beautifully of the family in precisely those terms when she spoke of how the family shapes people over time:

A family is a mobile—an artwork that takes years, even generations, to produce, but which is never finished. The artwork of this mobile called ‘family’ continues, and imagination, creativity, originality, talent, concern, love, compassion, excitement, determination, and time produce a diversity which is a challenge to any intelligent human being who has been given understanding of how to begin in the studio of life itself. …

A mobile is a moving, changing collection of objects constantly in motion, yet within the framework of a form. The framework of a family gives form, but as one starts with a man and woman, a mother and father, there is never any one day following when these two, plus the children that come through adoption or birth into the home, are either the same age or at the same point of growth. Every individual is growing, changing, developing or declining—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and psychologically. A family is a grouping of individuals who are affected each other intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically, psychologically. No two years, no two months, or no two days is there the exact same blend or mix within the family, as each individual is changing.

Without families, there can be no societies, for there can be no people. That is the historical understanding of most Christians throughout church history. This is worth noting because, while it is true that Christians should present this teaching very carefully and with a sharp eye for the many ways it has been wrongly explained in recent years, it is simply the case that historic Christian thought on society and the family is staunchly pro-natal and places an enormous importance on the role of the family in the shaping of cultures.

Indeed, I rather suspect that even if this teaching is presented carefully, it will still attract a great deal of criticism and scorn in our day. This is because the majority of our neighbors and peers support same-sex marriage and anyone who affirms same-sex marriage has, in a very important way, already rejected the Christian conception of society. In a Christian account of society, marriages and families are the most natural form of community and the state merely recognizes them and takes steps to aid them in the work they are already doing, independent of the government. But the government does not create marriage. Marriage exists prior to government in a Christian account of society.

In a relational, contractual model of marriage, which is the only marital theory that can even conceive of such a thing as ‘same-sex marriage’, the family is no longer first or natural, for a gay family can only be created by the state. This makes the government, not the family, primary in the way society is imagined. You cannot, after all, have a same-sex marriage unless the governmental decides to grant marital status to same-sex couples. You cannot have same-sex families unless the legal apparatus exists that will allow same-sex couples to have children since their relationship is naturally sterile.

Obviously you can think that it is a matter of justice that the government does have a legal category for couples of the same-sex involved in a romantic relationship and that it does facilitate the adoption of children (or provides support with the costs of surrogacy) for these couples so that all people have equal access to the good of family life. That is a separate debate.

I am merely noting that the simple act of saying that such a thing as same-sex marriages can exist at all is already to make the government rather than the natural family preeminent in your account of human societies and thus to reject the underlying imaginative vision of society that undergirds much Christian reflection on family and society. To the extent that the mainstream view today affirms the possibility of such a thing as a same-sex marriage, we have in that affirmation already left the Christian vision of society far behind.

Conclusion

We should dispense with all chatter about winning culture wars. In the first place, we lost. In the second place, we lost because we didn’t actually have a meaningfully distinct culture. And we won’t correct that problem by persisting with a broken concept.

Even so, there is a necessary conflict between the social vision of the Christian faith and the predominant vision of the contemporary west precisely because of how central the natural family is to the Christian conception of politics.

Certainly, there are bad ways of articulating this point. Even as we speak about the importance of the family, we must also recognize the ways in which celibate Christians remind us of the sufficiency of Christ and of the world to come. We must support such people in the difficult calling of celibacy, a calling which has never been easy and which, particularly in an atomized culture such as our own, can be wretchedly lonely.

Yet even after offering the good and necessary nuances and caveats to this discussion, we come back to the simple fact that the Christian message, the Gospel of Life, begins with a birth. And so, as John Paul II wrote, “Christmas also reveals the full meaning of every human birth, and the joy which accompanies the Birth of the Messiah is thus seen to be the foundation and fulfillment of joy at every child born into the world (cf. Jn 16:21).” The reality of new birth is central to how we understand the Gospel. And births happen within the context of families and the mutual love of husband and wife. If this truth is lost, then we will lose far more than a useful talking point when trying to convince people of the good of large families.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

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