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.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador 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 and Austin. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Such a great post, man. I wonder if this is part of why (forgive the overgeneralizations) evangelicals are “winning” on abortion but “losing” on gay marriage– with the former, we have at least done some of the hard work to actually create something of a “culture of life,” while on the latter the best we have is Focus on the [Nuclear] Family, a mixed bag at best.

    Also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGGMqOdRJtA

    • jakemeador

      I’m using “Focus on the (Nuclear) Family” in the future. Good line.

      And yes, while abortion and SSM both flow out of the same instincts w/r/t sex ethics, I think a) the horror of abortion is far more apparent and b) the response has been far more effective. Save folks like Nancy Pearcey, Wilson, and maybe a few others I’m forgetting I can’t think of many “pro-family” folks who are dealing with the broader cultural reasons for the family’s decline. But now I’m just going to start sounding like Christopher Lasch. :)

      • Perhaps someday you can address “the family’s decline” narrative. That gets a lot of air-time. I am skeptical what it is or even if it is. Nuclear-familyism had a very high peak in the post-war mid-century, as an almost entirely new economic form, and rapidly crumbled after that [a strong argument can be made it crumbled as the massive state subsidy declined]. But current divorce rates have declined, marriages are more stable, at least for the demographic with economic stability. Out of wedlock births have declined. So is there a Decline Of Family? Or does the notion of family adapt to economic reality, and it is not ascension or decline so much as evolution? I can go back along my family tree for several generations – crossing oceans – only occasionally would I find, for a brief period, anything resembling a “nuclear family”. And I doubt my analysis is rare; life is not for the faint-of-heart, people seem to build the ‘families’ they can, from whatever or whom ever is available. Why is a particular model of Family the “Christian” one? The families in Scripture seem to much more closely resemble my family history than the nuclear-family it seems is endorsed by Christian radio and a myriad Christian authors.

        • hoosier_bob

          The “nuclear family” is an entirely unbiblical concept that was concocted by Freudian social theorists. No biblical understanding of family treats it as a self-contained, inward-facing institution that’s centered around the parents’ mutual expression of heterosexual desire.

      • Abortion also differs from SSM in that there is a technological solution. Opposing or preventing abortions does not necessarily prevent anyone from doing something they want to do. The underlying ethical roots may be commingled but the issues are very different in function.

  • steve burdan

    really good! though is the church supposed to burn a lot of time, talent and treasure having a running battle with world culture? what would the end-point look like? or success? more converts? winning arguments? as with Augustine, and in OT, there seems to be two systems/cities/peoples living side by side with regular overlap on any number of issues. with Great Commission, it seems the primary goal, the ordering principal and top priority is making disciples within church community. Paul in Athens met culture on their own ground only to focus on “infecting” it with the Gospel… just some thoughts…

  • This is entirely true. I feel the same when I see kids my age ready to trot out the party line on evolution, but that don’t know who Martin Luther is (yes, they exist). Their only conception of “the enemy” in the culture wars is the professor in God’s Not Dead.

  • Very good post, a lot of truth in there. But you overlook one real problem with the Culture War narrative: it is all about opposition. It is defined nearly entirely by the litany of things one may be against, one believes are evils. Frankly, as one gets older, that itself gets to be a drag; the concept of the battling crusader becomes much less attractive. I would much rather hang out with people who are FOR something, advocates are much more fun than those-who-oppose [aka “warriors”]. People are also much more willing to hear you out when you talk about something you believe is beautiful or smart or beneficial than when you want to tell them about something you think is horrible – and that they need you to tell them because they couldn’t realize that on their own.

  • marquito

    Great post and comments. The question I have is, what were the folks from that previous generation fighting for/against? When we consider that they (the “true” culture warriors) failed to “provide their people with the educational, spiritual and institutional resources”, we then need to ask, what were they then fighting over? Fatigue also comes from fighting the wrong war. When you simply want to be right and self-justify, that quickly gets old and tired.

  • Paul

    I think you need to explain what you mean by “culture wars.” Do you mean what most people mean by culture wars: the battle over American identity, the us/them game of electoral politics that has caused many conservative Christians to pretty much adopt wholesale the Republican platform as more-or-less “Christian” (and made it increasingly difficult to support any policy proposal made by the other side)? If so, then no, I don’t think Christians need to be cranking out more and better culture warriors. If, on the other hand, you mean it in the sense of “thoughtful/robust/winsome/thoroughgoing Christianity” vs. “everything else,” and you mean “war” not in the sense of striving for electoral and political power (the destinty of the American nation) but in the sense of articulating and living out and inviting others into a Christian life, then ok, I’m closer to going along.

    But even then, I’d rather aim for JDH’s idea of faithful presence than culture warrior. The great beauty of orthodox Christianity, in my view, is that it can be incarnated and expressed in all sorts of historically-contingent cultures and subcultures.The paleo-Confederate/reformed Protestant (yet very much American evangelicalized…after all, Wilson did create his own denomination) version that you see in Moscow might not be the form of Christian community that takes root in, say, an African American neighborhood in Chicago. Yet the latter might still be faithfully and distinctively Christian (or at least faithfully striving towards that aim, which is all we can really do) and (gasp) vote Democrat! I guess what I’m saying is that if you allow for the fact that faithful Christians might line up on the other side as you when it comes to electoral politics, then using and embracing the culture war language (as it is typically understood) becomes a problem. It means you might be shooting at those on your side.

    • hoosier_bob

      I agree completely. I travel extensively for work, and have the pleasure of worshiping with Christians all over the world. As Ross Dothat has noted on several occasions, the so-called Culture War is probably better viewed as class warfare, just in the social realm rather than in the economic realm.

  • hoosier_bob

    I see no interest in these kinds of issues among college-educated white-collar professionals. That was the implicit message that was being sent by Wal-Mart, Lilly, Roche, Cummins, Anthem, and Dow when they opposed the original versions of the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA statutes.

    Poll numbers obviously don’t tell the whole story, especially when the top 15% of wage earners control about 75% of the nation’s wealth and when opposition to gay rights tends to correlate negatively with income.

    I’ve been in the professional world since finishing my PhD in 2002. I’ve worked for five different high-tech companies during that time, and every single one of them named support for same-sex civil marriage as a corporate value. In the world that I inhabit every day, this issue was settled a very long time ago (even if it just hit Main Street of Smallville USA last week).