Winning the Unwinnable Culture Wars

Jennifer Butler

The culture wars have dogged me at work and in my personal life for two decades. Christmas holidays have provided the occasion for some knock-down-drag-outs with my conservative relatives and in-laws. After some tearful fights I got better at “winning” those debates, or at least holding my own over the years, but found them profoundly dissatisfying.

My first strategy in these battles was: no compromises—fight to make sure my side won while staying ideologically pure. The culture wars began as I was coming of age. I was in high school during the eighties and was preoccupied with the prospect of nuclear Armageddon and surviving to adulthood. I decided to become an active Christian because Jesus had a lot to say about peace and justice. That conversion in a sense made me a “born-again Christian,” but in another way—with my focus on justice—made me a bit of an anomaly. I was a fish out of water in my private Christian prep school in Atlanta, growing up during the Reagan eighties when most Bible-belt Christians began wedding their faith to the Republican Party. My efforts to educate my private school classmates about the dangers of nuclear buildup proved fruitless.

So later when I went to seminary and found an ideological sanctuary in liberation and feminist theology, I was determined never to “go home” again. Finally I had the words to describe my faith and a community that shared my values! I felt safe. That worked for a while—that is, until I ended up in an interfaith marriage. I married an evangelical—after seven years of debating him, of course. Luckily he had a sense of humor and an ability to see through my need to be right. Neither one of us ever won outright, but somehow we found ourselves in each other. Our debates became a constant reminder to me that no one has all the answers, and neither side of an ideological battle is absolutely right.

My professional life has taken me to the epicenter of the culture wars. I’ve watched conservative-liberal battles in denominational meetings, at the U.N., and now in our nation’s capital and state legislatures. In the end, the culture wars’ deepest impact has been to shut down intelligent debate and thus progress on the significant issues of our time.

One day, in a U.N. lobby, I found myself leaving my liberal activist enclave (we were advocating for reproductive health services to be provided for youth) to go and talk to a Mormon conservative activist, who was about my age. Two camps kept vigil outside the assembly hall—feminists on one side, the Christian right on the other. The two groups were intensely aware of one another even as we made it a policy to ignore each other.

I sat on the floor with this Mormon woman, situated between the two camps, and as we talked I realized we weren’t as different as our ideologies insisted. I felt the eyes of my colleagues on my back, as I’m sure she did too. In that short moment we each tried to break through what we knew were our stereotypes of each other. We did a lot in five minutes until a senior organizer on the conservative side began to circle us nervously, so we broke up our conversation. Though our strategies differed, we both could agree that women and girls around the world were suffering, and we both wanted that to change. But neither side was about to let us have that conversation.

U.N. delegates eventually came to some agreement that particular week on issues of children’s rights. But I was brushing my teeth that night trying to figure out whether my side won or not when I suddenly reached a conclusion that would change my activism. I kept tallying up the score card—nothing added up. On issue after issue, both right and left declared victory to their constituents, in the press, and no doubt to their funders. Yet neither had finally won—government commitments to reproductive health were neither advanced nor retracted. The only winner: chaos and inaction, as the meeting degenerated into culture-war diatribes on a global scale. Nearly every battle I fought in those first five years of my tenure at the Presbyterian U.N. Office ended the same way.

In a polarized landscape, where paralysis rules the day, what does it mean to win? How does one advance justice, human rights, and the common good in a climate of partisanship?

The Culture Wars’ Demise?

I was even more discouraged at the role of religion in so many of these conflicts. The voice of intolerance was on the rise while more moderate and progressive voices were fading, leaving a vacuum in debate. My own faith tradition had much to contribute to civic discourse, but it only continued to lose its voice and prominence in American society.

I had nearly thrown in the towel when I heard about a new initiative around faith and public life. Forty faith leaders had gathered in Washington, D.C., after the 2004 elections to address the Christian right’s dominance of the values debate, a dominance that was bound to continue so long as others failed to assert an alternative vision. They vowed to develop stronger organizing strategies and coalitions around values shared by Catholics, evangelicals, mainliners, Muslims, and Jews. To realize these goals, the organizers created Faith in Public Life, a resource center for faith leaders seeking to reclaim the values debate.

Faith in Public Life launched in January 2006 and now provides media and organizing strategies for faith leaders, support for journalists and secular partners seeking to connect with faith leaders, and a Web hub for faith movements working for justice and the common good ( FPL’s “Mapping Faith” identified 3,000 faith organizations in all fifty states working for the common good. In red states or blue, faith organizations are combating poverty, speaking out for peace, and protecting the environment.

One is as likely to come across a religious group working for creation care in Oklahoma as in Oregon. Though culture war makes good fodder for talk shows, it misses the shared values that unite faithful Americans across regional and partisan differences. Religion is so often reported to be at the center of a polarized society, yet FPL’s map reveals that faith leaders are potentially at the heart of the solution.

Here is where I see some hope. First, moderate and progressive faith leaders are reasserting themselves in public life, offering the nation a different model for civic discourse on values. For instance, We Believe Ohio (, a coalition of hundreds of moderate and progressive clergy, reclaimed the Ohio values debate in 2006 by using new strategies. Muslims, Christians, and Jews spoke with an unapologetic voice of their faith while demonstrating tolerance and respect for pluralism and separation of church and state.

Second, diverse coalitions that include conservatives and liberals are uniting to address issues like the genocide in Darfur, the U.S. use of torture, climate change, poverty, AIDS, and sex trafficking. Conservative evangelicals in particular have gone out on a limb, ignoring threats and attacks from Christian right leaders. Through these efforts, new relationships are being forged and trust built to address issues that liberals and conservatives strongly disagree on, like abortion, family, and marriage. Evangelicals like Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan and Joel Hunter of Northland Church in Florida are preaching sermons that would knock the socks off any good liberal. Even as religion has polarized civic debates in recent decades, it now has the potential to pull people together.

In the past year I’ve caught a glimpse of the culture wars’ possible decline. The war is already ending when scores of leaders take walks across lobbies—despite the eyes on their backs. As my staff reaches out to unlikely allies, we have been surprised that there seems no limit to how far we might go. Perhaps these new alliances are helped because of a changing of the guard—a new generation sick of the culture wars and willing to try something new. One thing is clear: there’s no end to creative possibilities that emerge when one sits down with those who view things differently.

Jennifer Butler is a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister who has been the Executive Director of Faith in Public Life in Washington, D.C. since 2005. From 1996 to 2005 she served as the Presbyterian Church (USA) representative to the United Nations. She is the author of Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized (London: Pluto Press, 2006).