Onward, Christian Soldiers: Are Evangelicals Winning the Culture War?
Onward, Christian soldiers! marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal master, leads his armies on:
forward into battle till the fight is won!
At the name of Jesus, Satan’s armies flee:
on then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Like a mighty army moves the church of God…
I grew up in a fundamentalist Church of Christ located just outside of Seattle, WA, in the 1970s. During our services, I can well remember lustily belting out this classic 19th century hymn. As a kid, of course, I didn’t take the time to analyze its thoroughly martial aspects, nor evaluate the elements of spiritual warfare — and ultimate victory — the church would inevitably enjoy some day. None of my friends did, either; we lacked the critical thinking capacity to question what we were being taught. It was all true, because the Bible said so, our parents said so, and the pastor reinforced it too. Looking back on it now, it was more akin to indoctrination of defenseless children than anything else.
Back then, all I knew is that we, the church of God, were part of a “mighty army” moving forward to inevitable victory.
Our church did a fantastic job at brainwashing us kids into accepting wholeheartedly that mentality, too. As far back as my Sunday School experiences in the early 1970s, before classes we’d all sing songs like “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” We’d shout out “YES SIR!” at the top of our lungs after each stanza, complete with an energetic military salute. We’d even add all the motions to each verse: “I may never march in the infantry” (as we marched in place), “ride in the cavalry” (riding horse motions) “shoot the artillery” (clapping simulating shooting a cannon) or “fly o’er the enemy” (spreading our arms like airplanes), “But I’m in the Lord’s army — (shouting and saluting) YES SIR!”
Once again, we never thought about the martial implications of the song — it was just…fun. We loved it.
At the time, it sure seemed like we evangelicals were indeed winning the culture war. Back in those heady days, when I was around 10 years old and enthusiastically singing those martial songs in church and Sunday School, Newsweek magazine had dubbed the year 1976 “The year of the evangelical.” The newly-discovered evangelical voting bloc had just elected a self-confessed Christian president, Jimmy Carter, to the highest office in the land. And just four years later they would coalesce, together with the assistance of Christian Right movements like Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority, to help elect another evangelical Christian to the White House: Ronald Reagan.
But the Christians I hung around with in church certainly didn’t see our vision as establishing some form of a theocratic kingdom on earth, although we voted Republican, and grew alarmed at the messages of fear spread by evangelicals like Dr James Dobson on his “Focus on the Family” radio show. We knew we’d need to be vigilant and watch out for the rise of “secular humanism” in society, whatever that was. Dobson advised his listeners to flood the telephone and fax lines of their state representatives any time a controversial bill was up for a vote — and we did.
But what exactly were the contours of the culture war? As a kid, I recall vividly heeding the warnings of our beloved Pastor David as he thundered from the pulpit about the moral decline of America. In his sermons, he’d spout the line that I can still remember decades later: “In America today, we are seeing faceless politicians and voiceless preachers everywhere!” Maybe that was the cause of the decay. I wasn’t sure, but it sure concerned me even as a young kid.
So who exactly was to blame for the moral rot that had set in and was apparently dooming us all? That is, unless somebody courageously took a stand for decency and integrity, and the truths of the Bible. All we knew was that we, the Lord’s Army, had to do something to stop the encroachment of “secular humanism” in all its nefarious guises. Clearly, America needed to return to its Christian roots — back to a day when America was a Christian nation, and before those “godless atheists kicked God out of public schools and the public square.”
But whatever secular humanism was (and I had no clue as a kid), the message was clear: we instinctively grasped that the church was fighting a desperate battle — a culture war for the hearts, souls and minds of Americans. But back then, despite the warnings from our leaders about America’s moral decline, it looked like we were well on our way to winning that war. Things were looking up for the church. Victory was surely just around the corner.
But what would victory look like, anyway?
Christian Missions and Evangelism
If you’d have asked them back in those days, most evangelical Christians would have probably interpreted “Christian victory” as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ worldwide. We were going to win the war not by establishing a theocracy, but through traditional avenues like conversionism, proselytization, evangelism and foreign missions until the entire world converted to Christ. And it was working! Wasn’t it?
I can recall vividly as a young kid when a missionary, home on furlough from some foreign mission field, would come to speak in our church. These presentations would take place usually at a Sunday evening service, followed by an “ice cream social.” That was my favorite part.
But even as I eagerly awaited the idea of making myself sick on ice cream, during the presentation me and my friends would sit enraptured as the missionaries would show slides (literal slides, in a carousel!) of pictures of the country where they had been serving. At a time when most of us hadn’t even traveled out of our home state, we were amazed as the pictures flashed across the screen of far-away and exotic places like Africa, China, or South America. As the missionaries shared their stories of how the gospel was impacting those poor unfortunates in faraway lands, it sure seemed like the good news was making a tremendous impact all over the world. Both in America and around the world, the good news of the gospel was surely spreading like a tide. Secular humanism didn’t stand a chance against this onslaught of love.
Decades later, at the conservative Christian Bible college I attended in Portland, OR, they emphasized, and championed, this same mentality. In the Fall Term they’d hold “Missions Week,” in which all classes and activities were canceled; every student was required to attend an entire week’s worth of lectures by missionaries, go to workshops, and spend hours strolling through booths set up by missions agencies. Attendance was mandatory, and you had to sign in prior to each activity or run the risk of getting into disciplinary trouble.
I can vividly recall the feeling that those Christians who were involved in specifically foreign missions were on the front lines of the war; they were “first-class Christians” who were at the top of God’s tier in terms of ministry vocations. Although I never became a missionary myself, I felt good about myself whenever I participated in missions trips abroad. I was helping to win the war for Jesus, in my own small way!
Going back to my experiences in church as a kid, there was a darker side to all of this “winning the war for God” stuff, though. It was around the same time that I and my friends were belting out all those martial songs, when I was 9 or 10, that our church showed the end-times apocalyptic movie “A Thief in the Night” at a Sunday evening service. Not only did that movie terrify and traumatize me as a kid, instilling the very real fear that I’d be left behind in the event of the rapture, it accomplished one other thing: I knew that I didn’t want to miss the rapture and have to face the 7-year Tribulation.
Looking back on it now, with the vantage point of hindsight, I suppose the message I internalized was this: once Christ returned to take his own home to heaven, all divine spiritual and physical protection was gone. If you missed the Rapture due to your lack of faith, you were on your own — it was too late. The demonic forces of Satan, operating through the evil leadership of the Beast and the Antichrist, would then be in charge of the world. Chaos, plagues, famine, war and pestilence would cover the earth; anyone not taking the Mark of the Beast faced execution at the guillotine. And though we were told Christ would return with his armies and win the final battle of Armageddon, that was cold comfort to the unfortunates left behind to face the Tribulation.
As a result of all of this, after seeing the film I went to our pastor and asked how I could become a Christian. I didn’t want that fate befalling me! His answer to my query: “To become a Christian, all you need is to pray the sinner’s prayer, and then get baptized.” Once I completed that simple transaction, I’d be in the club and my worries and problems would certainly be laid to rest. Wouldn’t they?
Unfortunately for me, things weren’t quite that simple. Our Church of Christ taught a doctrine called “baptismal regeneration.” Briefly, the belief is that in order to become a Christian, part of the equation was that one must undergo full immersion water baptism. The ritual could only be done by a qualified person according to the Trinitarian formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
And just like that, a few weeks after I’d approached the pastor with my anxiety-driven query about the path to salvation, the deed was done. I was baptized by my father one Sunday evening in the church baptistry. In terms of that culture war, I had clearly enlisted in the Lord’s Army that I had been singing about for so many years. I was on the winning side for sure. Life was good — for a short time.
However, following my baptism, I naively thought my trauma and anxiety around this scary issue of “missing the Rapture and facing the Tribulation” would all be dissolved, now that I was definitely a loyal foot soldier in the Lord’s Army. But what I discovered was that the “good news” of the gospel was anything but; it actually introduced a brand-new problem that caught me completely unawares, and led to years of anxiety and religious trauma.
That problem was this disturbing question: how was I to know that I was indeed truly saved, a genuine born-again Christian? What if I’d been fooling myself, and the whole conversion thing wasn’t real? I reasoned that since my dad had baptized me, and not the pastor, perhaps that invalidated the formula. As I continued down that line of doubt, I started to realize that if I wasn’t a true believer, but instead a mere deluded hypocrite, what would happen if the Rapture occurred? I couldn’t face the possibility of being left behind and facing 7 years of the Tribulation alone in a post-apocalyptic hellscape world. I had to make sure.
As a result of all this over-thinking and anxiety, not only did I pray the sinner’s prayer thousands of times over the next few years, my internal doubts and anxiety around the entire issue drove me to get re-baptized again at the age of 13. When that second baptism proved to be a dismal failure, at 16 I gave up trying altogether, and walked away from the church for several years, only to come back to it in my early 20s. I ended getting baptized again, for the 3rd and final time, in my mid-20s when I was a youth pastor attending Bible College in Portland, OR. It seems that my initial enlistment in the Lord’s Army hadn’t been as effective as I had counted on as a kid of 10. I’ve always wondered: shouldn’t an all-powerful God have done a better job of making sure that all my doubts, fears and anxiety were laid to rest from the beginning?
Christian School Experiences
Going back to that time in my life, when I was around 10, another significant experience took place in my life: I switched from public school to a small Christian school located outside Seattle, WA. Of course, as a kid, I knew nothing back then of the history of the modern institution of Christian education, but that whole movement played a huge part in the Christian vision of winning the culture war and taking dominion. It turns out I was but a pawn in a much larger game, of which I was completely unaware at the time.
At the public school that I’d attended from kindergarten to the fourth grade, I’d been excelling academically, especially in reading and in creative writing, and had been put ahead several grades so I could be with kids who were reading and writing at a higher level. I had lots of friends and enjoyed playing sports. Overall, despite some of the problems in my home life, I was a fairly happy kid.
But I wanted to be with all my buddies from church, most of whom attended this little Christian school. Ironically, that Christian school experience proved to be more of a disaster than a success. Rather than excelling, academically and socially my life started moving backwards rather than forward. I experienced bullying for the first time in my life there, and the teachers and staff did little or nothing to curb it. That produced a huge amount of anxiety and trauma. As I struggled with doubts about my faith, bullying and social acceptance, as well as problems at home, inevitably I got into fights with my classmates. For punishment, I received several swats from the principal’s cricket bat-shaped paddle, which was also painful, embarrassing and traumatic.
As a matter of fact, I’d say now that academically, virtually all the students there must have suffered, since the teachers were largely unqualified outside their single educational areas. However, they were required to teach all subjects, most of which they were totally unfamiliar with, and had no business teaching. Such is the life of a teacher in a small private Christian school, unfortunately.
But one thing the tiny Christian school did emphasize, and that was the Bible. Every class day had a required Bible component, and we had weekly chapels on Thursday mornings. There, we’d sing many of those martial songs I already knew from growing up in church, and from Sunday School. Not only did every morning begin with the class reciting the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, with hands on hearts, following that we’d often dutifully repeat the pledge of allegiance to the Bible, too:
“I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s holy Word.
I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
I will hide its words in my heart,
That I might not sin against God.”
Thus, that Christian school seamlessly merged patriotism and fundamentalist Christianity together in one unbroken link; and again, as kids — we never even thought to question it. Being a Christian equaled being an American, as far as we were concerned. Together with our church, they were certainly doing a good job of indoctrinating an entire generation of kids, thus producing unquestioningly loyal foot soldiers who would one day go out into the world and carry the fight to the enemy.
But while we believed we were “taking a strong stand” against the encroaching evils out there in the secular world, the suspicion of “worldly” influences meant that we were unable to integrate our faith with wider influences of secular learning and knowledge. By walling ourselves off from the world, we struggled with religious scrupulosity and tended to become legalistic, ultra-conservative, and insecure.
No wonder my non-Christian friends thought I was weird. Who’d want to become a part of that?
The Rushdoony Connection
It was not until late in 2019, decades after I’d left the church and Christianity far behind, that I came across the name of a certain RJ Rushdoony, dubbed “the father of Christian Reconstructionism.” As far back as the 1960s, among other activities, Rushdoony was a tireless advocate for Christian education — and specifically homeschooling. He traveled the length and breadth of America in the 70s and 80s, speaking to pastors, churches, home groups, business leaders, Christian colleges and seminaries advocating two aspects of his Reconstructionist vision: first, the withdrawal of Christian children from what he termed “statist education,” and second, the establishment of specifically Christian education nationwide. He also served as a key legal expert in multiple homeschooling court cases, advocating for the rights of parents to teach their children at home — despite lacking certain academic credentials. The Christian school and homeschooling movements would likely not exist as they do today without the efforts of Rushdoony.
Others, like attorney Michael Farris and other key influencers, would take up Rushdoony’s Reconstructionist vision and extend it much further. Originally part of the Concerned Women for America and Dr Jay Grimstead’s Coalition on Revival, Farris founded the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in 1983. Since its inception, the HSLDA has tirelessly fought for — and in most cases, won — legal battles for the rights of homeschoolers. They also provide homeschooling curriculum and advocate for its members to become active in the political arena, offering training for parents and students alike. Although you may struggle to find Rushdoony’s name specifically in homeschool curriculum or on websites, nonetheless his fingerprints are all over the movement today.
In 2000, Farris and others helped found Patrick Henry College (PHC) near Washington, DC, which is the first college in America specifically aimed at receiving homeschool graduates (roughly 75% of their student body). PHC has as its stated vision that they exist to train up godly men and women, inculcate them with a “biblical worldview,” and send them out to become specifically Christian leaders in high positions of influence in America. Many PHC students and graduates served as interns during the GW Bush administration, and now there are more inside the Trump administration also.
Although he died the year after PHC was founded, Rushdoony would surely be pleased with the work of Farris and others who have taken up his dominionist mantle. Reconstructionists are playing the long game: their vision is to train up generations of children in a homeschooling context, and release them to institutions like PHC and Bob Jones University (a major supplier of homeschooling curriculum via BJU Press materials). Places like these are viewed by many conservative Christian parents as little more than a homeschool extension campus. Ultimately, according to this scheme, these future leaders will “take dominion” over the world, establishing it and ordering it according to biblical principles — or, in the case of Rushdoony’s vision, according to biblical law.
Clearly not everyone involved in the homeschooling movement adheres to the Reconstructionist or dominionist agenda, but what many fail to realize is the connection the movement owes to men like Rushdoony. As a kid growing up in that fundamentalist church outside of Seattle, or attending Christian schools, I certainly had never heard his name — but I was part of a larger movement of which I was totally unaware, like a pawn on a chessboard. And although my parents raised us kids according to Bill Gothard’s teachings, I never knew that his “biblical patriarchy” agenda and Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschooling curriculum were part of Rushdoony’s dominionist vision, either. I just fervently believed that I was doing my part to help the church to win the culture war.
Are evangelicals today indeed “winning” the culture war that I, and so many others, was a part of decades ago? For people like Michael Farris and others in the Christian Right, they would most like answer a resounding “Yes!” And this is more acutely so, in the case of the evangelical-friendly Trump era. We are seeing the rise of Christian nationalism like never before, but this has been a very long time in the making.
What can you and I do about it? In my opinion, becoming educated about this movement is absolutely the most important aspect of it. Your average church-going evangelical, sitting in that church seat or pew in Anytown, USA, probably never heard of Rushdoony either. But they are being manipulated as pawns, like I was, by forces outside of their knowledge and control. For decades now, they have been recruited and used as loyal foot soldiers for the nationalist agenda of the Christian Right. And while this post isn’t about theology, or talking Christians out of their faith at all, it is essential that those garden-variety evangelicals wake up and start to understand what it is they are a part of today.
Catch my podcast featuring author Katherine Stewart, who wrote the very important work The Power Worshippers: The Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.
Follow me on Twitter @MindShift2018