On Purity and Complicity in the Culture Wars

I have recently realized how averse I am to narratives of the culture war that exonerate Christians from any complicity in their formation and perpetuation.

One prominent way to establish purity is by declaring the ‘aggressor’ is entirely on the other side, and that one’s own response is purely defensive and reactionary. This narrative secures the purity of the movement; yet it does so precisely by minimizing or ignoring both the complicated history of how our current cultural conflicts emerged, and the entanglement of our own “side” in the fundamental ideologies and presumptions that manifest in the practices we resist.

Acknowledging the significance of past generations behavior for our own time is a deeply conservative disposition, or so it seems to me. It rests upon the premise that our lives are somehow enmeshed and dependent upon the lives of our forbearers, that the world we live in is in part an inheritance we have received.

Yet within the purity narrative and its naming of an aggressor, such a history becomes weaponized. Naming the complicity of one’s own community with injustice breaks the narrative and introduces suspicions that one is not a part of the ‘right side.’ This is understandable: social movements rarely have time or energy for critical self-reflection, as it tends to diminish the energy and enthusiasm for the cause. As long as our past remains righteous, our work can go on unhindered.

But let me make this perhaps a little more clear by listing a few options for how we can understand our own society, and the culture wars that continue to grip it:

Option one: offer a dehistoricized, purely theoretical account of our cause and our ends. Such an idealism need not account for history, our own or anyone else’s. All that matters is that our arguments are true, and theirs are false.

Option two: Offer a historicized account of our position in which we are exonerated from wrongdoing and the other side are unrighteous aggressors. Or, if we do manage to acknowledge our complicity, we describe it as ‘mistakes’ or ‘tactical errors’ or other forms of softening the wrong we are responsible for.

Option three: Provide a historicized account that attempts to be honest about one’s own community’s failures, thereby inviting the suspicion that one is secretly playing for the other team. Something like this happened, I think, when The Advocate wondered whether they had gotten the Matthew Shepherd story wrong. It has its conservative manifestations as well, though.

Option three point one: I’d add that such an honesty about a community’s failures is compatible with maintaining its theoretical ideals and aspirations. However, it adds a degree of chastening that makes triumphal denunciations of the ‘other side’ more difficult.

Option four: Become a reactionary and argue that one’s own community is inescapably complicit in the ideologies that have led to the practices they resist. Set up an alternative community somewhere, where you grow beets and raise chickens.

This is an impressionistic characterization, and deliberately so. I have offered my own account of the history of our culture wars elsewhere, and will do so again someday, if asked.