Ukraine teeters on the brink of war. A hundred thousand Russian troops surround her borders. The U.S. views this as an act of aggression. The Russians deny hostile intent and complain that their national security is being threatened.
Whether war will be averted or not, no one knows. It is entirely possible that it will have already begun by the time this article is published. What we can know is that this conflict has roots that reach back into the history of Ukraine and into the annals of East-West relationships.
Ukraine is and has been a divided nation. Each of its major regions has a unique history and a character shaped by long interaction with neighbors. There are language differences between east and west. In fact, while most Ukrainians can understand and speak Russian, most cannot speak Ukrainian. Such a conflict, rooted in differences in language, history, and values, might well be called a “culture war.”
Culture wars are fought on distinct fronts. In Ukraine, those fronts have been EU and NATO membership, relations with Russia, and conscription into the military. The culture wars here are fought on different fronts, frequently along the borders of sexuality. Issues of gender, same sex relationships and, above all, abortion, have seen heavy fighting.
Some Christians apparently believe that the outcome of one or other of these battles is what matters most. When, in 2016, I told a good friend that I was not going to vote for Donald Trump, he was shocked. Did I want that “baby-killer” – Hilary Clinton – to win? When I explained that I would not be voting for Mrs. Clinton either, he seemed to think that I had gone AWOL.
There have always been culture wars, and culture wars have always stemmed from conflicting beliefs about what people are and how they relate to the world around them. This was the case, as Steven D. Smith pointed out in Pagans and Christians in the City, in the culture wars of ancient Rome.
Peter Leithart, commenting on Smith’s work, writes that “the real fight isn’t between religion and secularism, but between two different kinds of religion.” He goes on to draw comparisons between ancient Rome and contemporary America, pointing out that pre-Christian Rome’s belief system led to views about sexuality with which early Christian converts could not agree. This gave rise to ongoing conflicts and misunderstandings.
Such battles have been, and will continue to be, fought along these fronts, but they won’t be won there. The key to ending the culture wars lies in engaging the belief systems behind them. Many culture warriors – on both sides of the front – are incapable of articulating these underlying beliefs.
This means that the best way for a Christian to end the battle on the abortion front is not to vote but to evangelize—to spread the good news about the God who made and redeemed us. Unless people experience a change of thinking on some basic issues – whether there is a God and what he is like, who humans are and what they were made for – mindsets will not change. A Supreme Court ruling may cause abortion to go underground but it will not make it go away.
This does not mean that voting is unimportant. Voting is both a great privilege and a serious responsibility. We should vote wisely, carefully, and conscientiously. What we should not do is vote naïvely, with the assumption that casting a ballot is the only thing we can do.
The culture wars will not be won in curtained voting booths or paneled courtrooms, but in people’s minds and hearts. Knowing and being able to explain what we believe in intelligent, persuasive, and respectful conversations is key.
(First published by Gannet.)