(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join John Gorke as he examines the principles necessary to fight justly the culture war. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)

Peter_the_Hermit_Preaching_the_First_CrusadeThe Rev. Dr. Daniel M. Bell, Jr. may declare victory in at least one respect: He succeeded in getting a relatively sedentary homebody to consider afresh the perils of war. Dr. Bell’s book, Just War as Christian Discipleship, argues that to fight a just war requires more than a check list of “do’s” and “don’t’s,” but instead an orientation of character, a predisposition to do good. Virtue is as indispensible in war as valor; piety as indispensible as power. For a Christian going to war, the task is not to do as little evil as possible, but to actually accomplish some good. Dr. Bell laments, and rightly so, the lack of widespread literacy about the principles of just war. The average Christian in the pew, or for the purposes of this essay, the average conservative on the street, cannot explain what is meant by “legitimate authority,” “just cause,” “prior wrong,” “proportionality,” or “right intention.” There is reason to suspect that the average man knows nothing of these terms, or of the ideas designated by them, because the average man is under-motivated, academically speaking.

But perhaps just war is misunderstood because it is misapplied. Sure, in the days of St. Augustine, when military service was as common as food service (perhaps more so), a bishop could speak of war and be clearly understood by his audience. But today soldiers are scarce. We see war on television, but it is nothing compared to the violence to be seen at the cinema. A death filmed by a journalist looks rather tame compared to a death filmed by Quentin Tarantino. The realism of war is seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Even our military personnel may remain removed from the front lines, confined to a local base or an overseas desk, never needing to consider the lived experience of war at all. Yet today, war is all around us if we care to look. The empires of the future have arrived, and they are indeed empires of the mind. They wage war as fiercely as did Greece or Rome, with soldiers as loyal as those of Sparta. Empires of the mind wage war on the plains of culture, and these culture wars need the just war tradition more than anything else.

Being limited by the constraints of energy and attention, I shall limit myself to discussing simply “right intention” in the just culture war. Let me do so in a backwards fashion, by noting the appallingly shrill tone of a few fellow conservatives and what I fear is wrong with it. Should the reader be even more constrained by energy and attention than I, he may happily skip to the last paragraph to find where all this is going. But Ellis Island is more beautiful for having gotten there over the ocean, and I request patience on this voyage to my humble thesis.

Wisconsin BudgetI receive weekly electronic mailings from a certain conservative activist group. Knowing the man who sends them, and knowing he is a good man, I shall not reveal his name here. Yet, I will share the subject lines and content of his emails for they capture the problem I am attempting to diagnose. “Stop the repeal of the 1st Amendment!” cries a recent mailing. The email itself contains sentences such as: “That is why we need to act now. Help us stop Senate Democrats from repealing the 1st Amendment.” –or— “Harry Reid and his cronies are trying to take away your freedom of speech.” –or—“If you want to stop Harry Reid from taking away your individual freedoms sign our petition today!”

Being yelled at is exhausting, and this happens all too frequently in emails of this sort. Exclamatory sentences are important, but they are not all that is important. Nowhere in this particular email was the actual text of the proposed amendment cited. (For the record, S.J. Res. 19 seeks to amend the Constitution to allow “Congress [the] power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respects to Federal elections.”) The intent of the email, rather than to provide information, is to incite outrage, the way a bee sting incites outrage.

This is a terrible strategy in the culture wars for two reasons. First: Always inciting outrage has the same effect as always crying wolf. Eventually the outrage subsides to leave only annoyance. To the exhausted ear, the gentleman sending these emails becomes like the man yelling to himself on the bus. That is to say, he becomes a warning about the fragility of human sanity. Second: The tone in which we speak of our enemies determines our success in turning them into allies. Speaking of Mr. Harry Reid as a sort of monster ensures he will find nothing appealing about the conservative position. Mr. Reid strikes me, at worst, as a man wore down by fatigue and as a man abused by his own mistaken political philosophy. Doing wrong is its own punishment, and Mr. Reid looks like a man for whom life is punishing.

Just war involves right intention as a criterion. That is to say: The restoration of peace is always the object desired. We leave home only to return. We remove our swords from their sheaths only to restore them to their sheaths. We criticize opponents only so that they might become allies. On my desk sits Blood, Sweat and Tears, a collection of Winston Churchill’s wartime addresses. In this volume one finds the gems of rhetoric for which the late prime minister is remembered, but also the gems of attitude by which the late prime minister ought to be imitated.

churchillMr. Churchill is well known for his oft-repeated warnings about the rising aggression of Herr Hitler. Slightly less well known are his repeated pleadings to the German people, and Herr Hitler himself, to rejoin the brotherhood of nations and re-assume the goals of progress and peace. Mr. Churchill may be forgiven for framing his invitations in the terms of “progress;” the point is that he offered invitations at all. What he thought in his head remains sealed by the stone of his grave. What he wrote with his hands is still open to our eyes. At the eleventh hour, Mr. Churchill still hoped the Germans would convert to the cause of peace. We, in America, are not yet in our own eleventh hour, yet any invitations to our opponents have long ceased to issue from our lips.

But invitations are not enough. Sincerity cannot be faked. “Right intention” is not a formula. Everything we say ought to intend the restoration of peace. Explicitly saying so would be a start, but we must not stop there. Dr. Bell insists that virtue must be developed before the war has begun, and I humbly suggest we conservatives in the culture ought to retrace our steps to develop the virtue of magnanimity, of being bigger than the battles we fight.

Take a lesson from a late opponent. Christopher Hitchens received the well wishes and prayers of many theistic thinkers, even as he went to his grave directing his full rhetorical magazine at their various religions. Why? Because Mr. Hitchens had the good sense to care more about the person he confronted than the ideas that person possessed. “I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Craig once,” said Mr. Hitchens before a debate with the well-known apologist, “my brothers and sisters in the unbelieving community take him very seriously. Very rigorous, very scholarly and very formidable…I say that without reserve.” He gave similar reverence to Francis Collins, Larry Taunton, and (to a lesser degree) John Lennox. Aside from Robert George’s friendship with Cornel West, who in the conservative camp can claim to be imitating this large-hearted approach to disagreement? If restoration of peace is truly our aim, this poverty of amicability across the aisle is truly a problem.

What may be the case, however, (and this would be far worse) is not a lack of motivation to act on ‘right intention’ but a lack of right intention at all. I recall a film in which a man broadcast baseball games over the radio, so as to be heard wherever the wayward fan might be found. This particular character took great delight when the team lost, though he expressed sorrow that they had done so. In other words, he lived a philosophy of reserved morbidity and expressed a philosophy of regret. He had “a gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things.” The man relishing in this backwards enjoyment speaks: “I am rather sorry the world is going to hell in a hand basket,” yet he thinks: “I am sure glad I get to witness it.”

warShould we relish too much in the false glory of finding what is wrong with the world, we may blind ourselves and our opponents to what is actually right with it. Being too eager to explain all things as outcomes of secularism, or of a rising antagonism toward life, we run the risk of drawing our pistols against ghosts. We waste our ammunition on apparitions. Sometimes, we may even catch a glimpse of ourselves in a mirror, and not recognizing the reflection, assume an intruder has come to do us harm. Even an intellect as sharp and a heart as wholesome as Mr. Rod Dreher has fallen victim to this temptation. I single him out not because he is an adherent to the rule of excessive cultural paranoia, but because he is so often the sobering exception to it. Yet, 800 Irish babies were found below the earth and the voice of Mr. Dreher sounded a prophetic protest above it. Fortunately, there was no “septic tank,” and the babies were not victims of a flagrant anti-life philosophy, but rather the beneficiaries of an astounding respect for it. The Dickensian conditions of an orphanage resulted in many lost lives among the young, and the poverty, which supplied those conditions, would not supply the graves for each and every child. No doubt these nuns did the best they could, with what they had, where they were. That was no holocaust, but a proper Christian burial. The example of the sisters is admirable, not abominable. Being too eager to see every dead body as a casualty of the culture of death, we may miss those times when the culture of life shines through. We run the risk of discovering Arlington Cemetery buried beneath the rubble of the world, and upon finding the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we might curse the cruelty of a grave without a name, rather than the honor of sacrifice without reward.

To sum up: “Right intention” means holding to an ideal of peace, to an ideal of the finer things in life. It is a striking feature of J.R.R. Tolkien that the smallest and most vulnerable of Middle-Earth’s inhabitants rise to be the bravest knights and the boldest spies. Hobbits are not warriors by trade; they are plump homebodies who would sooner polish off another pint of ale than polish the edge of a sword. Yet to keep the ale and the cheese and the merriment of a family around the fireplace, these tiny hobbits will outlast even the fiercest man on the battlefield. Even in the midst of war these hobbits sing songs the night before battle. The shrillness of the weekly mailings I have written of above undermines this common sense principle. To speak amongst ourselves in the harsh tones of protest and anger actively undermines the values for which we started speaking in the first place.

To put it another way: if our home camp is nothing but a place of cultivated disease, it will soon cease to be a home camp worth fighting for. These weekly mailings needn’t be so over-the-top, nor so hard on the eyes. Our journalism need not strain itself to reach the apex of moral outrage. Children speak of small things in big and loud ways. Poets speak of big things in small and quiet ways. It is my humble suggestion that we take the latter as our example. Let us stop attempting to bother each other into a frenzy of political outrage. Let us instead stand atop our wagons and recite “St. Crispin’s Day” for all to hear. This may be antiquated and idealistic, but it is for love of the old world and of impossible aspirations that I became a conservative in the first place.

The culture wars are not going away. This is perhaps “the end of the beginning.” Yet, I hope this may be the beginning of the end for the sort of communication I have criticized here. I am a young conservative. Myself and my fellows in the Millennial camp found our political identity in the works of G.K. Chesterton, Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot and Roger Scruton. Theirs was a conservatism of beauty, of passion, of (dare I be cliché) love. I humbly suggest that the conservative principle of the culture wars ought to be this: that we engage our opponents as if they were lovable, despite all evidence to the contrary. For we must bear in mind the principle of Christianity and of the Cross: that we are lovable, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” originally was published here in July, 2014. Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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14 replies to this post
  1. In the best common good interests of all imaginative conservatives, might it not have been more accurate to entitle this good essay: “How should we fight the SUB-culture war?”

    We are not fighting a natural culture in its own natural ebbs and flows or breakthrough stages of human and creational evolution. Real culture is organically un-predictably predictable. Known and unknown crisis prompts re-thinking of old and new history, acting as catalysts for turning-to and turning-around events.

    What we are enduring are massive assaults of verboten non-thinking, pseudo-politically correct camp-mongering and media prostituing, socially sick engineering as voyeur, rapier and rapist, and the universal primary life-forces of the human spirit’s movement, memory and meaning to be hyper-scrutinized, sequestered or silenced.

    An organic culture embodies, manifests and carries: the struggle to preserve and nurture the very culture of life and light itself, what is illuminating, what is truthfully and falsely revealing, what is wondrous and what is degenerate and hideous, championing the domain of ethics in its perpetual struggle to try do the right thing, learning the natural law of cause and effect, personal and public acts of repentance and the public heart’s need for some ‘good news,’, forgivness, self-sacrifice, edifying the sublime and ridiculous.

    “Everything is a Grace” is the common denominator of all chaotically creative life-growing culture, As this is neither embraced nor experienced in this decades-old dark age of sub-cultures of amoral deafness, blindness, banality-driven materialistic apathy, we are appallingly stuck with what is left: Is this a genuine culture or rather a malignant SUB-culture? Begin here.

  2. Sigh. Mr. Goerke, they want to put us in concentration camps! Maybe you want to be nice or persuasive, I just want to live and have my family unmolested. Sometimes that takes fighting.

    On the other hand, when talking to those liberals who can operate in good faith, then by all means. But they are a vanishing breed.

  3. Agreed in principle. One question. At what point do you put on a uniform, pick up a gun, war and kill. Does not history show zealots are bad enough, religious zealots being the worst, especially when reasoning is avoided and denied?

  4. Though the tone and much of what was written is more than welcomed, I am trying to figure out the identity of our enemy and what winning looks like. Why do we even say that we are in a culture war?

  5. To fiddle while Rome is burning, even to perform Mozart as a virtuoso might, is a pretense promoting false peace. This essay is beautifully written but lacks the teeth of truth while gumming condescendingly against those who admittedly err by exaggeration. Christopher Hitchens was a very appealing fellow, but I heard he once tried to physically assault Fr. George Rutler while viciously slandering the Catholic Church and what of his work on Mother Theresa? It is ironic that this essay condemns shock worn warriors who err by exageration while providing a kind of Panglossian cover for those with one foot in the culture of death
    Just war indeed is a worthy topic, hyperbolic tag lines to incite anger is indeed crying wolf, but Dr. Bell’s thesis has been soaking in the cult of nice for a little too long to be of any real service to the Christian who acquiesces to the spiritual combat- indeed, no human persons are our enemies, but the powers and principalities prowling around the world seeking souls to devour- our Christian duty in observing those who are being oppressed and possessed by demons of the modern age is to speak the truth with charity, not point out what is good about them. It takes manly courage to speak the truth and it costs true disciples human respect.

    “They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
    saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
    when there is no peace.” Jerimiah 6:14

    • But false wars destroy any chance at a real peace.

      I’ve heard no precise definition for a culture war in general let alone the one some see us engaged in at the present. But the term itself suggests that we have a need to conquer. And I am trying my best to figure whom Christians in America need to conquer and subdue?

      • Curt, there is no one Christians have to conquer and subdue, that is an absurd thing to say- we are at war against the powers and principalities who manifest themselves in the kinds of ideological distortion lived out by modern man- your words are a great example, you are not the enemy but your tendency to misrepresent by your words such as suggesting that Christians want to “conquer and subdue” is representative of the falsehood we must battle. It is the lies we must battle not human persons. Before I commented here in the first place I thought you did half my work for my by welcoming much of Mr. Georke’s message. I understand why you can’t see what the real war is but that doesn’t warrant the kind of misrepresentation and ideological posturing you regularly articulate. We are born into war Curt, there will be no peace that is not the peace of Christ, we are all called to the combat: these facts do not depend on what you see.

        • Steven,
          If we are at war with powers and principalities, why call it a ‘culture war’?

          See, the terminology we use is important especially here because the wrong terminology can cause some to aim at the wrong targets. The wrong terminology can cause us to try to try to rule over those who are different. Please note that the word war suggests that we are seeking to conquer others. Heck, why else does one country invade another?

          And since the most recent talk about ‘culture war’ has revolved around the legal and societal acceptance of same-sex marriage, it is difficult to believe that many Christians who are talking about culture war believe that we were born into war.

          • Curt, the confusion of terms is the essence of unintelligibility. Here is how it works, war as in between nations can be reduced to a physical material struggle for land and power- I suppose if you insist, but the culture wars ought not to be- what is required for you to begin to understand is that the shadow, the image and the reality are all one thing- the shadow is the word, the image is the actual meaning of the word and the reality is the real thing to which the word and its meaning point. Culture is a word with a meaning- we can identify the shadows of culture, but its meaning is transcendent and its reality is either the City of God or the City of man- good culture is not about changing physical things or about gaining power over people, but about virtue and vice, so in the most real sense, the culture war is about principles, virtue and vice- not about human persons, how human persons are treated in a culture is the shadow of culture not the meaning nor the reality. Yes, Curt, your wrong terminology means that you are never talking about the same thing as your interlocutor. Same sex marriage is about morality, not about acceptance of persons- a Christian, modeled after Christ would never accept any sex acts outside of the marital bond, to say otherwise is to not know Christ.

          • Steve,
            I’ll try again since my last response was lost or blocked. Can’t say that I will be saying the same thing here.

            Again, the use of the phrase ‘culture war’ by conservative Christians, including some of the contributors to this blog, is what introduces the confusion. War is about conquest, our culture is the battleground, and the increased use of it correlates with our national debate about same-sex marriage. It doesn’t take a super-computer to figure out what is meant.

            Thus, trying to blame me for misunderstanding seems a bit odd. This is especially true with your stance on same-sex marriage in society. We should note that the NT view of society does not invite us to fight a war of personal moral values there. The NT Scriptures about Church discipline tell us this whether it is Jesus talking about what to do with those who do not respond to the Church discipline or it is Paul in I Cor 5 who says that judging those outside the Church is not in either his or the Church’s job description (vs 12).

            The point being is if you want to say we are fighting a war, then the let the Scriptures be your guide as to what weapons we are to use and where we should fight it. Certainly we can use the Sword of the Spirit as we evangelize. Here we can share with those who share our culture what God’s Word says. This is where we can be involved with personal morality in society. If you think that I have no regard for that, then you are mistaken.

            But considering how the NT writers view society, nothing suggests that we should go beyond that regarding personal moral issues. And we should take note of that because going beyond that provides unnecessary stumbling blocks to those who would even listen to the Gospel as we Christians attempt to take some degree of control of society for the good of others. Sorry, but those others see right through that paternalism as we would try to exercise dominion over them.

            Perhaps you understand my point and perhaps not. But while you are justifying trying to take some measure of control over society rather than sharing it as an equal, not only are you ignoring the NT approach to interacting with society, the privileged position you want Christians to strive for drowns out our proclamation of the Gospel. And such is what really sabotages our efforts to not only share Christ, but to have a positive effect on what you claim you want to contribute to: the moral status of society.

          • “War is about conquest…”

            I’d suggest that is where your thinking is faulty, Curt. Wars can also be fought in self-defense — see Pearl Harbor, 9-11, etc. The response to an attack may indeed be to “conquer” the territory where the attack was generated, but that is done to stop more attacks.

            Evil exists. It is relentless, and it won’t cease until the end of the world. I understand the interpretation of the Gospels that requires Christian to allow themselves to be slaughtered wholesale and I can respect it. But I don’t agree with it.

            We’ve repeatedly seen the Left is not satisfied with leaving Christians alone to live our lives as we want. They aggressively attack us — whether it’s bankrupting bakers over cakes they could get virtually anywhere else in town, insisting our children embrace the new variety of alternative lifestyles, and demanding our speech be stifled and we be fired for even donating money to activities supporting traditional marriage. \

            That assault is being lead from inside our educational establishments, universities, media and government. Our attempting to “reconquer” those institutions is a legitimate way to protect ourselves from attacks. The real danger in the battle is becoming like those we oppose, but we can avoid that if we keep the two greatest commandments.


  6. I worked for a guy who wrote emails — indeed entire newsletters — like the ones described here. It is as exhausting (and other things) to write them as to read them. This is an excellent and mindful and helpful essay.

  7. Excellent and insightful, as Paul Hughes wrote, and an important reminder that a tone of perpetual outrage expressed IN CAPS is a “terrible strategy in the culture wars.”

    On the other hand, I’d challenge the notion that “the tone in which we speak of our enemies determines our success in turning them into allies.” While “tone” might well affect whether bystanders are drawn to our viewpoint, true “enemies ” listen to tone only insofar as it reveals our resolve to oppose them. There is evil in the world; it is a real thing.

  8. David,
    Your example kind of supports my statement. Yes, we fought the war after being attacked. But how did we fight the war? We fought to conquer.

    You might also want to define words like ‘left’ and ‘attack.’ I am both a Christian fundamentalist and belong to the political left. And there are many people who are said to be on the Left, such as the Democrats, who do not belong to us. Also, what you call ‘attack’ others would describe it as opposing Jim Crow practices. The denial of business services to a person because of the group they are in is a Jim Crow practice. And please realize that back during Jim Crow, some who supported it gave biblical reasons as an apologetic.

    You might want to also consider that for a business to be allowed to deny services to members of a group in a capitalist economic system creates the potential for that group to suffer a partial or full deprivation of those services.

    So please define the word ‘attack.’ Please do that but after considering how homosexuality was once criminalized, how some states legally allow–note the present tense–for the harassment and firing of people for their sexual orientation and guess which way the door of those laws swing, how homosexuals could be, and still are, beaten and even killed because of their sexual orientation, or be the subject of proposed Jim Crow type laws. See, those who have been actually attacked would question your use of the word. In addition, I find that my fellow religiously conservative Christians who take the stance that as a business, they have the right to deny services for same-sex weddings are shortsighted regarding how what they want fits into both a historical and our economic contexts.

    So please realize that yes, we see the pendulum swinging against our Biblical values and some have unfarily suffered because of that But realize two things: Christians were the first to push that pendulum and those from the LGBT community have a right not to be marginalized by society. And if we insist that they should be marginalized by society, realize what we are associating the Gospel with.

    It is one thing to preach Biblical values that oppose today’s unbiblical sexual values. But it is another to try to use society as a supplemental disciplinary arm of the Church. Martin Luther demanded that in response to Jewish refusal to believe the Gospel and see what that contributed to. For the Church’s strongest disciplinary method is excommunication. Please note what that implies for how the Church should influence society in terms of how society should those outside the Church.

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