In 2010, the American Prospect wrote that the nation had entered a “Forever Culture War.” About a dozen years and who knows how many culture skirmishes later, that seems true. From Disney to The Last Temptation of Christ to Target and back to Disney again, our nation’s political lines follow a fairly parallel set of cultural lines in which entertainment products become unwitting players in the battle for dominance.
This can feel like a product of our era, but it’s not. Culture wars have long been an unfortunate part of the Christian tradition. And why not? The Bible tells Christians to make disciples and yeah, sure, we’re gonna get to that. But if we’re busy making disciples, who’s going to fight the culture war? A “war” sounds way more urgent than making disciples, so we tend to put the latter on the back burner and get busy with our torches and pitchforks on the former.
It’s important to define terms here when we talk about “culture wars.” Obviously, Christians can and sadly have been on the wrong side of some vitally important social issues in history, from slavery to Jim Crow to women’s rights. But that’s not really what this piece is about. For the purposes of this article, a “culture war” isn’t about basic human rights and dignity. It’s about the trivial cultural artifacts that stand in for the arts and entertainment.
But here’s the funny thing: a lot of these culture wars — which can seem like a decisive moment for the fate of the nation at the time — end up looking pretty stupid, if not downright forgettable, in the rearview mirror. Be honest now. Was Starbucks’ “Happy Holidays” really that big of a deal? And that’s just an obvious example. Here are a few culture war battles that were of enormous importance to Christians at the time …and now are barely remembered.
One of the oldest culture wars in Church history took place in 1633, when the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for daring to teach that it was the sun, not the earth, that was at the universe’s center. By observing the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus through a telescope, Galileo had become convinced that Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism was indeed correct and all the planets revolved around the sun.
The Church wasn’t a fan of the theory, since that seemed to run against the biblical notion of humanity as uniquely special among creation. In 1633, the Roman Inquisition found Galileo guilty of heresy and sentenced him to house arrest, where he remained until his death. Eventually, of course, Galileo was proved correct, the Church apologized to scientists, and religion and science have enjoyed a peaceful relationship with zero tension ever since.
Playing cards first arrived in Europe in the late 1300s and the Church banned them almost instantly, though with little success. Cards (and their colleague in sin: dice) were associated with gambling, and many Christian leaders at the time figured it was best if people just stayed away from them altogether rather than tempt fate with even the most innocent of games. The Smithsonian writes, “In 1423, St. Bernardino of Siena preached against the ‘vices of gaming in general and playing cars in particular'” and when one man protested that he made his living painting playing cards, he was told to take up painting sacred art instead.
This general distrust in cards and dice continued for centuries and was prevalent in some Puritan groups in the U.S., who saw cards as both a slippery slope to gambling and a waste of time that could be better spent in prayer and service.
Christians had opposed rock and roll pretty much since its inception, objecting to Elvis Presley’s thrusting hips and rollicking vibrato. But their ire reached a whole new level with the Beatles, as many Christian leaders saw Beatlemania as direct competition. When John Lennon off-handedly remarked that he felt like the band had become “more popular than Jesus,” the South flew into an uproar, literally shoveling the Fab Four’s albums into woodchippers.
Missed in this firestorm was the fact that Lennon was bemoaning his celebrity, not celebrating it. Also forgotten was the fact that this same interview sparked another backlash. Lennon sharply denounced racial segregation in the U.S., which led to the KKK “crucifying” Beatles albums on burning crosses.
If we’re being blunt, sometimes it just seems like some Christians want an excuse to be suspicious and fearful of anything that gets popular. That certainly seemed to be the case with Pokémon upon the first wave of its enormous success in the 1990s. When the video game and its follow-up playing card spin-off first made U.S. landfall, Christians took objection to everything from some Pokémon’s lightly spooky power sets to to the game’s “evolutionary” (gasp!) functions.
The terror got so intense that the Vatican even got involved. In 2000, the Pope investigated the game and, ultimately, deemed it harmless fun and gave the little guys his “full blessing.”
In the mid-90s, one issue that proved enormously popular with many Christians was getting angry at companies that opted for “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The idea is that such companies were capitulating to some sort of atheist project by being too scared of “the woke libs” (or, as they called them at the time, “the PC police.”) This served as the reason for Christian boycotts of places like Starbucks, Radio Shack, Home Depot and, maybe most ridiculously, PetSmart.
“PetSmart has ignored the pleas of its shoppers and AFA for years,” said AFA President Tim Wildmon in 2014. “As consumers, let’s tell PetSmart that we won’t be doing any Christmas shopping for Fido and Fluffy in its stores this year.”
The boycott appears to be over or, at least, whittled down to a pretty low ebb, since PetSmart is sticking to its “holiday” marketing as of 2021 and nobody seems to care much anymore. Looks like PetSmart won this round.
To end on a good note, there was at least one culture war in recent history that Christians ended up on the right side of. In the late 1970s, Nestlé was accused of using duplicitous and misleading marketing of its infant formula to young mothers in developing nations, and some physicians suspect that misuse of that formula led to the death of around a million babies every year, according to the New York Times.
Christians in America got wind of the controversy and ended up leading a huge and diverse boycott of Nestlé’s products, urging the company to be more honest and transparent in its business practices. The boycott ran for years and was finally suspended in 1984, when Nestlé caved and conformed to WHO guidelines. It was a short-lived victory, since Nestlé was accused of resuming their practices just a few years later and remains a frequent source of controversy today for its business practices today. But watchdog groups maintain vigilance over the company, and it’s very unlikely that such groups would exist if the Church had not helped spearhead a campaign in the 70s and 80s.