Ross Douthat hits a home run:

But as religious conservatives have climbed the educational ladder, American churches seem to be having trouble reaching the people left behind. This is bad news for both Christianity and the country. The reinforcing bonds of strong families and strong religious communities have been crucial to working-class prosperity in America. Yet today, no religious body seems equipped to play the kind of stabilizing role in the lives of the “moderately educated middle” (let alone among high school dropouts) that the early-20th-century Catholic Church played among the ethnic working class.

As a result, the long-running culture war arguments about how to structure family life (Should marriage be reserved for heterosexuals? Is abstinence or “safe sex” the most responsible way to navigate the premarital landscape?) look increasingly irrelevant further down the educational ladder, where sex and child-rearing often take place in the absence of any social structures at all.

This, in turn, may be remembered as the great tragedy of the culture war: While college-educated Americans battle over what marriage should mean, much of the country may be abandoning the institution entirely.

Of course, those arguments aren’t irrelevant to the lower classes, as  Ross himself pointed out a few months back.

But the most interesting bit of Ross’s piece is about the new shape of the culture wars:

In part, these shifts may be a testament to the upward mobility of religious believers. America’s college-educated population probably looks more conservative and (relatively speaking) more religious because religious conservatives have become better educated. Evangelical Christians, in particular, are now one of America’s best-educated demographics, as likely to enroll their children in an S.A.T. prep course as they are to ship them off to Bible camp.

This means that a culture war that’s often seen as a clash between liberal elites and a conservative middle America looks more and more like a conflict within the educated class — pitting Wheaton and Baylor against Brown and Bard, Redeemer Presbyterian Church against the 92nd Street Y, C. S. Lewis devotees against the Philip Pullman fan club.

I suspect Ross is right that improving attitudes toward marriage among the educated class is due to the rise of the educated evangelical.

But I think Ross is wrong when he suggests that the culture war is between Wheaton and Brown, at least when it comes to marriage.  Young, college-educated evangelicals are far more open to gay marriage than our parents.  We may be rosy about marriage, but we also don’t care much who enters it.

Gabe Lyons, who has been dubbed as the leading voice of the younger evangelicals, mentions marriage only six times in his book The Next Christians, and none of those are to commend it or to say that “the next Christians” want to think especially hard about it.

At the same time, while statistically having a college degree may put someone in an elite class, it does not make one an “elite.”*  Ross seems to assume the rise of college degrees among evangelicals is a sign that we are on the same level as the “elites” that have been so often criticized.  In reality, though, most graduates from Christian colleges may be well educated, but they hardly have the same advantages that come from being in an environment that fosters and establishes elites.  The environment isn’t everything, of course, but it clearly gives those who maximize it a leg up on the rest of us.

If the culture war is still going on among the college educated, then, it’s not evangelicals who are leading the way.  A friend sent me a note reporting from Princeton’s Love and Fidelity Conference reporting that it was overrun with Catholics and Mormons, but had few evangelicals.   I suspect that’s indicative both of evangelicalism’s lack of representation at Princeton and younger evangelical’s disinterest in the marriage debates.

The central problem, though, that Ross highlights deserves more thought.  But I’ll save that for tomorrow.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matthew Anderson, Nathan Maphet. Nathan Maphet said: RT @mattleeanderson: A few reflections in response to Douthat's @NYTimes column today: […]


  2. I think you have this exactly right. I didn’t find all of Ross’s generalizations completely persuasive, particularly the idea that evangelicals have enough upward mobility to make this a war between elites.

    But I think he’s correct that the family breakdown will hit hardest from the middle class down, and that’s something everyone should be concerned about.


  3. Thanks, David, for the kind words. I agree that his main point (family breakdown hitting the lower class) is something that we all should be very concerned about. I also think there’s an interesting angle here about evangelicalism’s mostly suburban, upper-middle class ethos restricting its ability to reach the lower classes. That troubles me.



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  5. While I agree that evangelicals have become more educated I disagree that young Christians have become more liberal. Some of the liberal attitudes seen are a result to counter the excesses of the previous evangelical extremism but I and many other younger Christians have become more conservative as evangelicalism is declining. I disagree and oppose non-discrimination, relativism, multiculturalism, equality, progression, tolerance, diversity, human rights and democracy due to it’s weaking and destruction of the West. Europe, America and other Western countries are falling in Caucasian birthrates, importing millions of immigrations to destabilize the native population (as they have done in Britain for example), fake data and lies abound in global warming/global cooling/climate change (environmentalism), there is a never ending quest for the obliteration of the differences between the sexes and income inequality, blind eye to the cause and definition of Islamic terrorism around the world (the recent Somali Muslim terrorist that almost blew up a Christmas tree and much more), affirmative action and other examples. First they stated that America was a melting pot and all of the sudden America is a multicultural nation. Please keep in mind that I’m mixed raced, not American and not living in any Western country. I should be ecstatic at liberalism but I dislike it. I am sadden at what America has become. New York City, San Francisco and other formerly first world cities look really bad.


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