A Christian’s Guide to Cultural Marxism

If you Google the term “Cultural Marxism,” you will likely be told that it is a right-wing conspiracy theory. But pick a different search engine, or scroll for long enough, and you will find a more robust definition.

Cultural Marxism—for those new to the concept—is a worldview gaining immense popularity throughout the West. It refers to a collection of ideas rather than a collection of people. Cultural Marxism is a secular philosophy that views all of life as a power struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor.

The oppressor is usually an aspect of traditional western society such as the family, capitalism, democracy, or Christianity. The oppressed is anyone who is or who feels marginalised by these institutions, depending on the cultural and political debates of the moment.

“Cultural Marxism is a secular philosophy that views all of life as a power struggle.”

Several years ago, the oppressed group in focus was the members of the homosexual community who wanted to marry. Last year, it was schoolchildren who felt threatened by climate change, and biological men seeking to identify as women and compete in women’s sport. This year, it is ethnic minorities protesting police treatment.

What needs to be acknowledged up front is that this power dynamic in our culture is real, since even the most well-intentioned societies produce inequality that must be addressed.

And as followers of Jesus, we are called to care for all people, and to be particularly sensitive to those who are sidelined by society. Love for ‘the least of these’ is, after all, the example Jesus set for us.

“Even the most well-intentioned societies produce inequality.”

But if we are not discerning, our impulse for compassion will be recruited and used for harm. Jesus stood for the downtrodden—but he also stood for marriage, gender norms, private property, a God-given moral code, good pay for hard work, a faith lived out in public, and civil law and order.

Cultural Marxism, on the other hand, sees all of these divine norms as the problem. And Christians who uncritically accept the oppressed-oppressor narrative end up fighting against the very institutions that God has ordained for human safety and flourishing.

To better understand Cultural Marxism, we do well to trace its origins. To read about it in depth, see the Gospel Coalition’s brilliant exposé on the subject. For a potted version, read on.

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German political theorist who believed that workers were oppressed by capitalism and should rise up to overthrow it. He dreamed of a socialist or communist utopia—a classless society where all resources were shared.

“Cultural Marxism sees divine norms as the problem.”

Marx’s philosophy was trialled in Russia, China, and many other nations in the 20th century. Tragically, 100 million people lost their lives in the communist bloodbath that followed. What became clear through this experiment is that when a stable government is overthrown, bad actors will always rush in to take power—because power corrupts, and the human heart is evil.

In other words, Marxism is good in theory but terrible in practice because it fails to account for the moral complexity of humans. We are at times victims of the sin and oppression of others, as Marx saw. But we are also guilty of sin ourselves and prone to abuse power when given the opportunity.

Despite Marxism’s obvious failings, many of Marx’s followers continued to subscribe to his ideals. One of these was Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). He believed that Marxism failed because capitalist values were still too deeply embedded in every aspect of Western society.

A culture-wide revolution was needed, Gramsci argued, if Marxism were to succeed. This would involve a reshaping of sexual ethics, organised religion, mass media, academia, the legal system, and more.

“Marxism fails to account for the moral complexity of humans.”

According to Gramsci, “In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.” This dream came to be known as the “long march through the institutions.”

The doctrines of Cultural Marxism were further developed by a group of intellectuals in Germany known as The Frankfurt School—most prominent among them, Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, this group ended up scattered in universities across the Western world, most notably in New York and California.

Many of the seismic cultural shifts we have been experiencing over the last decade were being promoted by Frankfurt School academics as early as the 1960s. The sexual revolution, the redefinition of tolerance, radical sex education in schools, belief in gender as a social construct, the virtue of censorship, and Critical Theory can all be traced back to this group.

And as many have observed, however deliberate the campaign has been, this “long march through the institutions” is near complete.

“Cultural Marxism is a mood that defines our generation.”

Cultural Marxism today is not an organised group or a hidden society. It has its zealous prophets, to be sure. And ironically, they tend to be white, middle class, well educated, and able to cushion themselves from any chaos they might inspire—just like the Frankfurt School and Marx before them.

But more commonly, Cultural Marxism is a zeitgeist; a mood that defines our generation. Political correctness and our tendency to self-censor are some of the more obvious signs that Cultural Marxism has now gone thoroughly mainstream.

These new values are being enforced in more active ways, too. If your opinion fails to align with a narrow set of new ‘orthodox’ ideas, you will pay the price in some way or another—whether that’s your reputation, your relationships, or increasingly even your livelihood.

It is necessary to point out that people don’t need to understand the history of Cultural Marxism or own the label to openly promote its doctrines. But nor is it a conspiracy theory to describe these ideas as Cultural Marxism, since the label is proudly owned by many of its proponents, and its teachings have been in the public domain since their inception.

“If your opinion fails to align with a narrow set of new ‘orthodox’ ideas, you will pay the price.”

Today, the unmistakable cry of Cultural Marxism is that of victimhood. Put simply, the more oppressed groups you can claim membership to, the more your opinion counts and the more your demands must be met.

While seeming to promote equality, what Cultural Marxism actually inspires is a never-ending grievance between sexes, races, and other fixed descriptors that divide us. And this is a necessary component of the Cultural Marxist philosophy, since the West’s institutions will only be supplanted if enough anger can be rallied to the cause.

To this end, minority groups often find themselves being used for political advantage by those who claim to care about them the most. Radical groups hijacking the George Floyd protests is only the latest, ugly example of this.

“The unmistakable cry of Cultural Marxism is that of victimhood.”

Always, Cultural Marxist solutions are political ones. And it can only be this way, since Marxism is an atheistic worldview that only deals with a materialistic universe. To Marxists, the state is God.

This is why Christians must tread with caution. Jesus has sent us as salt and light into our culture. Most of the culture-shaping actions he calls us to actually don’t involve government at all—like intercession, care, financial generosity, friendship, community service, and civil debate, to name just a few.

Yes, Christians are called to be politically engaged as well. But according to Jeremiah 29:7, we are to “work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile, praying to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” Our voice should be for reform and renewal, not merely joining the chorus for radical overthrow.

“To Marxists, the state is God.”

But the greatest tool we have been given is the gospel. The truth is that intolerance and oppression and bigotry aren’t some great evil ‘out there’—rather, they are sins found in each of us. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

God’s ultimate and eternal solution to these evils is for every individual to be set free from their sin and reconciled to the One in whose image we have all been made. Only on this foundation can we build a truly just society where competing tribes no longer struggle for power—but instead, where each person puts the needs of others before their own.

This side of eternity we won’t achieve utopia. But the closer our culture aligns to the ways of God, the more we will see the vision of Amos 5:24 fulfilled: “Let justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

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When Religion and Politics Collide

“You’re entitled to your beliefs, but keep them out of politics.” So goes conventional wisdom. The public square is religiously neutral. Religion and politics shouldn’t mix.

The separation of church and state—an important principle of democracy—is the phrase most often used to justify such an idea. But it surprises many to learn that the original motivation for the separation of church and state was to prevent political overreach into religious life—not the other way around.

The reality is, everyone’s beliefs influence their politics. This goes for the Atheist as much as it does for the Christian. Who we vote for, and even whether we think voting matters, in some way arises out of our beliefs about the culture we live in. Ideas have consequences.

Hence, the “secular state”—the idea of a religiously neutral public square—is a myth, an impossible dream of the Enlightenment. Politics and religion (or irreligion, as we’re increasingly seeing in Western nations) will forever be mixing.

“The reality is, everyone’s beliefs influence their politics. This goes for the Atheist as much as it does for the Christian.”

I’ve felt settled about this question for some time. The question that has remained unanswered for me for years is how two different Christians, both deeply admired by me as people with mature faith and strong biblical convictions, could end up on opposite ends of the political spectrum: left (“progressive”) and right (“conservative”).

In Center Church, Timothy Keller recasts Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, discussing how Christian movements have engaged culture through time. And while he barely mentions politics, he has shed buckets of light for me on this subject. Below is a combination of his insights on Christian cultural engagement with my thoughts on Christian political allegiance.


Mapping over Niebuhr’s original categories, he uses the titles Relevance, Transformationist, Two Kingdoms and Counterculturalist to describe the various camps. (I commend Centre Church to you if you’re curious about where he locates various theological traditions. I have borrowed his categories and descriptions, but have reinterpreted the questions he asks).

“The main factor determining the political allegiance of a thinking Christian is best framed eschatologically, hinging on one’s belief about the kingdom of God.”

So what does determine a Christian’s political allegiance? For example, to pick a very emotive and current topic, why are some Christians right now upset with Tony Abbott for not accepting more Syrian refugees, while others want him to address the same crisis by taking a tougher stance against Islamic State?

The discovery I made surprised me. Of course countless factors influence someone’s political allegiance. Even the word “political” I am using to refer mostly to moral-political issues. Nevertheless, with all these caveats in place, I’m going to suggest that the main factor determining the political allegiance of a thinking Christian, even if they aren’t particularly conscious of it, is best framed eschatologically, hinging on one’s belief about the kingdom of God. Let’s call this one’s theology of cultural virtue. Namely, is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign, and therefore inherently good? I contend that answering yes to this question will tend to land a Christian’s allegiance on the left of politics, while answering no will tend to land them on the right.

Why? Well, to bring it back down out of the clouds, look at it this way: the left tends to emphasise inherent goodness in people, and so believes that social ills must mainly relate to a lack of equality or opportunity; while the right tends to emphasise the inherent fallenness in people, believing that social ills must mainly relate to a lack of restraint on evil. It is remarkable how much these simple unspoken convictions seem to animate opinions across the political spectrum. In your mind, apply this to immigration, gender roles, abortion, welfare, drugs, same-sex marriage, crime and punishment, and the size of government (to name just a few) and see if you don’t agree.

“If you just can’t understand why another Christian has such different political convictions to you, it’s probably not because they’re a nasty or suspect person.”

Beliefs also influence a Christian’s level of engagement with the culture: what we might call one’s theology of cultural change. This too, surprisingly, is an eschatological question. Namely, does the advance of God’s kingdom involve seeking to change the culture? Christians who answer yes to this will place much greater value on living out their faith in the public square than those who answer no.

While I must be quick to concede (as Keller does) that categories and diagrams are bound to limitation and caricature, there is still immense value in a framework that helps us think about our political allegiance and public engagement as Christians. Let me give three concrete applications.

Understanding | If you’re a Christian but just can’t understand why another Christian has such different political convictions to you, it probably has a lot less to do with them being a nasty, suspect person than it has to do with their theology of cultural virtue. Neither of you might have framed the situation in these terms, but underneath it all, they answer the question, is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign and therefore inherently good? differently to you. So discuss that. No need to hold them suspiciously at arm’s length.

It is remarkable how much the left’s emphasis on inherent human goodness and the right’s emphasis on inherent human fallenness seems to animate opinions across the political spectrum.

Persuasion | If to the question of is the culture already included in God’s kingdom reign and therefore inherently good? you answer yes, then know the Scriptures that teach the kingdom’s “now-ness”, and use these to persuade your friends who don’t. If you answer no, know the Scriptures that teach the kingdom’s “not-yetness”, and use them to persuade your friends who do. Likewise, if to the question of does the advance of God’s kingdom involve seeking to change the culture? you answer yes, then know where the Bible compels Christians to influence culture, and use those passages to persuade your friends who think otherwise. If you answer no, know where the Bible compels Christians to remain distinct from culture, and use those passages to persuade your friends who believe differently. Ultimately this is going to have a lot more traction than “you should vote left/right like me” (which is a crude but often accurate summary of my social media newsfeed).

Balance | And with that last point, I’ve given the game away. As you can see, it’s also my conviction that Scripture holds both of these questions in a yes-no tension. To cite just a few examples, by virtue of the fall from a once-perfect creation, people are a complex mixture of goodness and fallenness, carrying both the dignity of the Imago Dei (James 3:9) and the depravity of sin and rebellion (Romans 1:21). The kingdom is both now (Luke 17:21) and not yet (Matthew 7:21)—and advancing it involves both influencing the culture (Matthew 5:16) and remaining unstained by it (James 1:27). Maybe we need to call some of our Christian friends back to a more balanced position. Maybe we need to find a more balanced position ourselves.

How exactly we live these realities out is the question that remains for us. But one thing is certain: religion and politics will always be mixing, because what we believe—religious or otherwise—affects how we live. Ideas have consequences. How could it be any other way?