Changes in the Culture Wars

Don’t miss Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times (here) in which he comments on a changing social scene. I’ve written before about the confounding fact that college graduates tend to have lasting, stable marriages, while less educated Americans are frequently foundering. (See The Champions of Marriage, particularly.) Douthat notes the odd way this has fit into the convenient summary of culture wars: white-collar social liberals versus blue-collar cultural conservatives. The paradox was that “highly educated Americans live like Ozzie and Harriet despite being cultural liberals, while middle America hews to traditional values but has trouble living up to them.”

Douthat’s reading of the latest data (particularly from The National Marriage Project) suggests that the class divide is changing. The educated elite are growing more religious and more socially conservative, possibly because evangelicals are  better educated. (He says they are now among the nation’s best-educated sub-groups. That’s a shock.) Culture wars are becoming a battle between two camps in the elite–” 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.” (If you think Douthat doesn’t know the turf, consider that string of cultural shibboleths.)

But, he says, the less-educated are being left out of the discussion of what marriage means. For those who never made it through college, marriage is increasingly irrelevant. Evangelicals have moved up, but they have not managed to maintain a moral influence among the middle and lower classes in the way that the Catholic church did in the early twentieth century. (And, I would add, the way the Methodist and Baptist churches did in the 19th century.)

I think he’s right, and that’s a terrific challenge to all evangelicals.

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4 Responses to “Changes in the Culture Wars”

  1. Bill Reichert Says:

    I think there’s a fair amount of truth here, Tim. Perhaps it’s time to look back to the early Methodists in Britain, most of whom attended Oxford and Cambridge. They were all bright evangicals from middle-class backgrounds who set out to bring about a revival among the lower-classes of Britain in the 17th century. They didn’t ignore the middle and upper-classes, but it was the farmers and the new industrial working classes who were most affected. A wonderful account of these men is found in J.C. Ryle’s “Christian Leaders of the Seventeenth Century,” which, despite its dull title, is a terrific and inspiring account of what happened to an entire country touched by revival.

  2. PaulVK Says:

    I too thought it was a good piece, but I think our perception of this change reveals something about ourselves.

    1. Ozzie and Harriet are very much a minority expression of marriage in world history. Marriage has long been about class and property and seeing marital practices diverge along those lines should not be unexpected. How much of Ozzie and Harriet is Christian achievement is a worthwhile discussion.

    2. The Christian church has long struggled to bridge class differences as you noted in your review of the book on the history of women in your previous post. I agree with the previous commenter noting the Methodist movement. At the same time the storied “middle class” often thinks itself to be the savior of the world. My bet is on an emerging world Christianity to help seed movements that reach the poor. I’m a decidedly educated, middle class pastor but I see Pentecostal churches (with theologies I kvetch over) regularly outperforming me in doing some good basic rescue work among the social and economic classes referred to by Douthat.

    3. These changes will cause us to once again examine the relationship between Christianity and marriage. We should note that American “family values” image of marriage imbibes heavy dosages of an idolatrous view of romantic love where in real ways romantic enmeshment becomes one’s greatest good, which of course makes Christian resistance to same-sex marriage barring a part of the population from what the culture identifies as ultimate personal fulfillment. Part of the failure of marriage in American can be attributed to the fact that we have put more expectation on this institution than it can bear.

    Thanks for keeping up your blog. It is one of my “must read” blogs on my list. pvk

  3. Bill Reichert Says:

    “I think it’s 18th Century, though.”

    It is! I shouldn’t try to do that from memory. At least it was the 1700s…. 😉

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