If you haven’t heard, the 1990s are back. Hair scrunchies, oversized blazers, earth tones, and chunky-soled shoes. Also, apparently, Disney boycotts and conspiracy theories about liberal pedophile sex cults.
I was in middle school and high school during the ’90s and enjoyed my fair share of both fashion blunders and culture wars. As a conservative coming of age during the Clinton presidency, I remember the feeling of constant siege while we fought to save America from the godless Left.
So as debates about critical race theory, “wokism,” and changing sexual mores ramp up again, I’m experiencing a bit of a time warp. I wonder, “Why do we love the culture wars so much? Why can’t we quit them?”
To be fair, Western culture was undergoing a radical shift in the ’90s, much as it is today. The former Soviet bloc collapsed, initiating a global realignment. An Oval Office scandal made “oral sex” such a common phrase that even I, sheltered as I was, knew what it meant (after looking it up in the dictionary).
It was understandably a time of increased political polarization, especially with the rise of conservative talk radio. Folks like Rush Limbaugh brought a kind of joyful exuberance to the fight—a confidence and swagger that somehow felt true and freeing. He warned against the “feminazis” while selling Snapple and Sleep Number beds. And even when he mocked the president’s daughter—a girl my own age—it felt legitimate in light of her parents’ obvious corruption.
So when the GOP recaptured Congress in 1994, it was like hope being restored. When Kenneth Starr led an investigation that eventually resulted in Clinton’s impeachment in 1998, I felt the thrill of justice. There are simply no culture wars like old-school culture wars.
Despite this pedigree, I find myself viewing current political clashes with a mixture of bemusement, frustration, and deep sadness. Because somewhere in the 2000s, after September 11 and before the election of Barack Obama, I grew up.
I married, started a family, and entered a life of ministry that included Christian publishing, Bible teaching, and local church work in rural communities. Those spaces brought more pressing concerns, and politics receded into the background. I convinced myself that, like my light-wash, high-waisted jeans, certain things were behind me—passed out of fashion, never to be seen again.
But here we are. And while the current clashes express themselves slightly differently, I recognize the basic outline. I also experience a kind of secondary discomfort when I hear talking heads on both the Right and the Left replicate my youthful certainty, self-assuredness, and audacity.
Over the years, I’ve tried to understand why I found the culture wars so deeply satisfying, even in middle and high school. I was a fervent Christian, wanted to please God, and was eager for affirmation. I got it in spades when I voiced certain opinions.
When I mocked liberals, the adults around me laughed. When I wrote papers about the deviancy of Hollywood and the music industry, I got high marks in my Christian school. And when I campaigned for conservative political candidates in college, I got extra credit.
In retrospect, I understand that my subculture was encouraging me toward combat. But like the fashion mistakes I made in those same years—the mile-high bangs and cropped bob—I know more was going on, too.
When a teenager experiments with fashion, they’re often trying to find themselves, longing to fit in, and dealing with the general angst of moving from childhood to adulthood. So I’m sympathetic to my younger self—both my lack of fashion sense and my political naiveté. But I don’t want to excuse the fact that I was drawn to the culture wars for a reason.
James 4 addresses our love of war and pinpoints its roots:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. (vv. 1–2)
These admonitions feel personal to me. As a young culture warrior, I was getting a hit of righteousness. I needed to know that I was a good person, and waging the culture wars was a great way to convince myself and those watching me. It was a way to convince God, too, I think.
But like any other drug, self-righteousness needs an ever-increasing supply. Every hit demands another. And when you’ve come to love the rush, you very quickly become addicted until the only thing you know how to do is fight.
This is where things get tricky for Christians who want to bear public witness. We should be reluctant warriors, only picking up arms when a just conflict calls us to protect others. (Social justice is one example.) It’s one thing to advocate for and defend our principles in the common square; it’s another thing entirely to enjoy the fight.
And too many of us love the battle. We delight in the pillaging and destruction of our ideological enemies. We love the war because of the rush of righteousness that accompanies it.
So I wonder if the way to break the cycle is to reassess our desires and needs. What if we didn’t need the feeling of superiority that comes from a sharp comment on Twitter? What if we could count on something other than our own works—political or otherwise—to know we are safe and loved?
When I think back on the girl I was in the 1990s, I see a young woman eager to please God. But I also see an immature young woman—someone who was too busy trying to please God to understand that he was already pleased with her in Christ. In the subsequent decades, I’ve done more than simply grow up. I’ve sobered up.
Somewhere in my early to mid-20s, I encountered an expression of the gospel that located God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness over my own. I’d always known I was a sinner—always known that others were, too. But I didn’t have any meaningful way of dealing with sin or understanding Christ’s work on my behalf. So the best I could do was to show my commitment to God by simply working harder, trying to do what was right, and reforming myself.
And if I could reform myself enough to overcome my sin, then other people should be able to as well. When they didn’t, at least to my thinking, I was entirely justified in condemning them and warring against them. By not understanding God’s grace at work in my own life, I couldn’t see it at work in the lives of others or even extend it to them in our debates.
I was blind to particular grace, which meant I was blind to common grace as well.
As the years have passed, I don’t know that I’ve become less conservative. I still hold policy positions and opinions that make my progressive friends squirm. But one thing has changed for me: I no longer need the fight. And I don’t need the fight because I don’t need to prove anything. Safe in the goodness of God and the righteousness of Christ, I’m free to work for goodness in the world around me. I’m free to love my neighbor as I love myself and struggle for their good, not my own.
So as a new set of culture wars rage, take a word of advice from an old veteran: Speak truth and speak love, but don’t think for one minute that holding a certain position or voting a certain way makes God love you any more or any less than he already does. Don’t think for one minute that he loves your neighbor any more or any less than he loves you. Don’t think for one minute that your righteousness originates anywhere except with him.
And having tasted the goodness of God, having experienced his unmerited grace, go into the world and share it with others.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.
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