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Fatigue from the Culture War That Never Was

April 7th, 2015 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

After the recent Indiana and Arkansas controversies, it’s no surprise that we’re once again hearing about culture fatigue.

Of course, given how long this rhetoric has been hanging around, it may be worth treating it with a bit more skepticism than we often do. After all, Richard John Neuhaus was still alive and wrote a response when a major anti-culture war manifesto was published almost 10 years ago and Newsweek (of course) said the evangelical right was in disarray way back in 2008.

There is good reason, then, to be a bit more skeptical of these culture war fatigue narratives than we often are. They’re still popping up on a regular basis (see this Molly Worthen piece that alludes to fatigue published in 2012 and this more recent Ruth Graham piece) and yet for all the noise the classic culture war issues keep popping up–Chick-fil-a in 2012, Hobby Lobby in 2014, the Indiana religious freedom law this year.

That said, on an anecdotal level anyone who has spent much time amongst younger evangelicals probably understands where these continued reports of fatigue from the culture wars are coming from.

In a recent post, Doug Wilson made a helpful distinction between two different types of people fatigued by the culture war–people tired from being on the right side vs people tired of being on the right side. And that’s a useful distinction so far as it goes–some folks understand the issues and need support, encouragement, etc to keep going. Others have long since forgotten what we’re actually arguing about or why it’s important. They need irenic voices to remind them of why these issues matter and what is actually at stake. Pastor Wilson’s post does a fine job of laying out the distinction and responding to both sides.

But there’s also a third group that I think may actually be larger than either of the two groups Pastor Wilson mentions in his post–the people who grew up being told about this culture war but who never actually lived in a distinctly Christian culture. As a child of midwestern fundamentalism I would class myself in that group and most of the people I’ve known around my age who talk about being burned out on the culture war tend to belong more to this group than either of those mentioned by Pastor Wilson.

The Shallow Distinctiveness of Evangelical Culture

Growing up I heard a great deal about being a distinctive people cut off from the world, about the world hating us, about being separate, etc. But the practical reality was that in most ways the people at my church looked no different than any other respectable, conservative midwestern group of people. The differences between us and our non-Christian neighbors were generally superficial, built around shallow differences like the “if you like this, you’ll like this” brand of CCM that had me listening to Kutless, 38th Parallel, and Thousand Foot Krutch (pictured above) while my non-Christian peers listened to Creed, Linkin Park, and Korn. (Before you say anything in the comments, I already know how bad my taste in music was as a teenager.)

Beyond those very tenuous “differences” more indicative of fundamentalist separatism’s dying gasps than anything else, the remaining differences were entirely intellectual. Non-Christians believed in evolution, we believed in young earth creationism. Non-Christians supported abortion, we were pro-life (although I don’t recall our fiercely schismatic church ever partnering with local right-to-life organizations). Non-Christians didn’t believe in the Bible, we did. And so on–lots of intellectual difference but those differences showed up in our daily life erratically, if at all.

Fighting a Culture War Without a Culture

Taken as a whole, then, you had young evangelicals being told about how different we are when in reality all the differences of note existed almost entirely in our heads and didn’t manifest themselves in significant ways beyond that. I could argue with my science teacher about evolution, sure, but that didn’t change anything about the rest of my life (besides making it harder to make friends, anyway). We were culture warriors fighting a “culture” war without any clear notion of what our culture was.

If you’re involved in a community like the ones that the Wilson family has helped to build in Moscow, then you really can speak of a culture war because there is a recognizable Christian culture existing parallel to the secular culture of the place, at times antagonistic and at other times merely semi-separate. The boundaries of it can sometimes be fairly permeable, actually, as anyone can frequent some of the businesses that Christ Church or Trinity members have established and enjoy the fruit of that unique Christian culture. (And Bucer’s really is fantastic.)

In a place like that,  you can point at specific physical institutions and say “these are the visible fruit of this alternative culture.” You can draw lines connecting certain beliefs to certain unique real-world results–here is a great coffee shop with friendly employees and awesome food, here is a classical Christian school, etc. But many younger evangelicals don’t have the luxury of being in a place with those kind of institutions.

We bid the geldings be fruitful.

What do you do as a young Christian when those institutions don’t exist and yet you go on being told about culture wars and being expected to do your part in them, even if “your part” appears to be little more than being an obnoxious twit in your Biology class or voting for the right people or even something more worthy, like participating in a March for Life event once a year? If that’s all you can do, burn out seems not only understandable, but predictable. How can you not feel burnt out if that’s all you can do?

Apart from a more robust understanding of culture (and education especially) and a recovery of the classic Protestant understanding of vocation, it’s hard to see how this culture war rhetoric can result in anything other than fatigue for the young people being asked to wage the war.

To be sure, most everything Pastor Wilson has said in his post is spot-on–but how can you fight that culture war without a culture that shapes and sustains you? (I suspect Wilson’s answer would be “You don’t–that’s why you need to build those cultural institutions in the first place.”) In his marvelous Abolition of Man CS Lewis, writing about a related but somewhat different issue said that “we castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

We might say the same of the brand of evangelicalism that fails to provide their people with the educational, spiritual, and institutional resources required to create and sustain culture and to fight the culture wars but then goes on demanding that they fight them anyway. Those battles are still worth fighting–but we shouldn’t be surprised when malnourished culture warriors decide they can’t carry on. We’ve sent them as lambs to slaughter. We shouldn’t be surprised when they give up.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).