Want to Understand the Culture Wars? Start Here…

Even if you don’t share ILYBYGTH’s obsessive fascination with America’s culture wars, you probably noticed a few of its recent battles. Can a baker refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Can cheerleaders at a public school cheer for Jesus? As a recent article reminds us, if we really want to understand these fights, we need to look beyond Bibles and bakeshops. The behind-the-scenes power of legal activist groups has always fueled these culture-war battles.


The culture-war trenches. But not the culture-war Pentagon.

It has been this way from the very beginning. Back in 1925, the furious creation/evolution fight in Tennessee would never have happened if it weren’t for the influence of the American Civil Liberties Union. Sure, proto-creationists had passed a sweeping anti-evolution law. And, yes, plenty of people had noticed the goings-on in state legislatures. (I flesh out the full context in my book about educational conservatism.) But only when the ACLU offered to sponsor a legal challenge did the Scopes Trial actually gain momentum.

In our century it has been the same. SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember the case from Kountze, Texas. Starting in 2012, cheerleaders at the high school began displaying huge banners with Christian Biblical messages. It’s easy to see how such outright religious preaching at a public school might ruffle feathers. But it was only when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation intervened that the case became a national sensation.

This sort of legal activism has not been limited to the liberal side. As Daniel Bennett describes at Religion & Politics, the conservative religious Alliance Defending Freedom has scored impressive legal victories over the past decade. As Professor Bennett notes, ADF has repeatedly made its case at the US Supreme Court, in favor of the right of bakers to discriminate against homosexual weddings or in favor of the right of religious schools to receive tax money.

adf logo

A culture-war army of well-dressed lawyers…

These days, as Bennett describes, ADF employs forty full-time attorneys, sniffing out ways to project the power of conservative religious values in the public square. ADF takes in tens of millions of dollars per year to stake out the legal rights of conservative Christians in a secularizing society.

Headlines talk about creationism, public prayer, and transgender issues. Time and time again, it has been the Alliance Defending Freedom who has pushed these cases into the limelight, defending the rights of radical creationist scientists, anti-transgender pastors, or Christian prayer leaders at public town meetings.

Cheerleaders and bakers matter, of course. In order to understand how these cases move from local controversies to national symbols, though, we need to recognize the influence of legal activist groups.

Leave a comment


  1. Dan

     /  September 24, 2017

    It’s hard to miss their influence if you’ve been paying attention to them and their networks at all in the past 5-10 years. They are international and have been part of punitive legislation criminalizing homosexuality in Russia, Central America, Africa, and probably every other region around the globe.

    The ADF is a controlling presence in the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) and continues to use many of its member institutions to generate test cases. Along with the judicial activism, they write model legislation and lobby it.

    On the grassroots level, ADF finances and promotes culture warring films like God is Not Dead and nurtures student activist groups on non-religious college campuses. They also work with homeschooling networks and homophobic dominionist screamers like Kevin Swanson, an Iowa pastor who called for the stoning of gay people at a Ted Cruz rally the ADF organized.

    The ADF’s legal fellowship program has long used Christian Reconstructionist materials and has historical, organizational ties to the CR tradition and movement, but they also achieved enough separation from those muted sources in the 90s and 00s to be regarded as mainstream within movement evangelicalism and conservatism.

    Their past and current president are astonishingly unvarnished hatemongers with paranoid visions. It’s a fringe gone mainstream.

    ADF interfaces with Islamophobia through some of the main clearinghouses of international counterjihad reaction, like the Gatestone Institute. Major funders on the Christian/Nationalist right support ADF and other anti-gay, anti-Muslim projects. Gatestone has been active in Canada’s right, the Dutch right (Wilders), and has now helped the German AfD neo-nazis into the federal parliament. When these people say they are out to save their nation, religion, and civilization from secular liberalism and radical Islam they really do mean it. They are acting globally, on multiple fronts.

  2. Agellius

     /  September 25, 2017

    God bless ’em. : )

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