You are addicted to your lost cause: The Psychology of Culture Wars


To understand my situation, you need to understand something about lost causes.

Lost causes in modern America. Yesterday I posted a response to Dr. Russell Moore’s article about Donald Trump. In it I detailed why I disagree with the idea of Christians taking part in a culture war to bring back American culture to its Christian roots. My general positions were that culture cannot be “won back” after it has evolved, the country was founded as a secular nation, and Christians should see themselves as natives of a different culture. 

Lost causes in the office. In my professional work, I’ve championed untold numbers of new ideas. Some of them were taken up by my organization, and some floundered. I became especially wedded to some of those unsuccessful ideas, and in the aftermath of my failure to promote them, I would often engage in a round of revisionist thinking.

“If we had done what I wanted to do,” I would say, “we would have been so successful.” We may have been, but the fact remains that our team didn’t agree, and my revisionism made me less aligned in mind and heart with the rest of the team members.

Lost causes in the Balkans. I live in a country of lost causes. Serbs celebrate their defeat at the battle of Kosovo field nearly 1000 years ago. Croats observe their oppression at the end of the Second World War. Bosnian Muslims continue to promote a unifying narrative of oppression and loss.

What is the common thread running through Dr. Moore’s culture war, my professional revisionism, and the story of ethnic division in the Balkans? It is the narrative of lost causes, and wherever it exists, it brings division and destruction.

The Lost Cause narrative defined

In defining this phenomenon, I am aware that the term “Lost Cause narrative” has been associated with the American Civil War for some time. While the idea does, I believe, accurately describe attitudes related to that war, I believe it is a much bigger concept, and is helpful when thinking about a wide range of issues, both around the world and in everyday life.

The Lost Cause Narrative is a disputed version of historical events supported by an individual or by a group, that is not universally accepted by other neighboring individuals or groups, which later comes to define the behavior of that individual or group.

Keep in mind that this is a working definition, and comes directly from my mind and what I believe is going on in the world. I’m not a college professor, though sometimes I wish I was. 🙂

There are a couple of elements to take note of here:

  • A version of historical events. The unifying thing, I think, is always bigger than just an idea. There is almost always some version of history attached to it. In my personal example, I usually had an idea that came from an understanding of past events that was different from that of my colleagues. I was not wrong, but in retrospect it is hard to say that my colleagues were wrong — we simply had a different understanding of how things had happened in the past. It didn’t mean that anyone was a liar or malicious in their intentions — it just meant that different people saw things differently, based on different experiences. 
  • Unity and purpose. The lost cause narrative is so powerful because it provides the individual with purpose, and it provides a group with a unifying dynamic. That is to say, for both the group and the individual, it provides a new identity — one of the most powerful forces in life. In a world full of mundane, fragmented, and unmotivated people, this provides a rare opportunity to become one who has found a purpose for life, and a community of sympathizers. The newly motivated group and person can now say, “I am” this, and “we are” this.

Lost causes are our addictions. 

I hope it is easier to see where I am going  with this by now. Lost causes are our addictions. Why?

The way to tell an addiction is to see what happens when the object of addiction is taken away. Take away his drink, and the alcoholic becomes irate. He has lost his balm, his companion, his savior.

In the same way, the lost cause provides adherents with ammunition and protection against a hostile world. Take it away, and adherents lose their saving identity. They lose the thing that separates them from all they see as mundane, purposeless, and ordinary.

But then, it goes a step further, doesn’t it. Those of us inside of our lost causes see ourselves as insiders. We see ourselves as enlightened — even, dare I say, righteous for our abstention from the status quo.

We see the rest of the world not as merely mundane, but as evil and oppressive. The lost cause is a way to claim that we are just, and that those opposed to us are not just different, but wrong.

With our lost causes we turn colleagues into opponents, and countrymen into oppressors

The world is better when we see it for what it is

I’ve made my case. Lost causes are dangerous because they are a drug, just as much as alcohol or meth. They offer purpose and rewards, and a respite from reality. Take them away, and a person is stripped of something they depended on to make the world seem right.

It is amazing that so much intelligent rambling is necessary to explain something is at its core nothing more than a grudge. Any mature adult would acknowledge the folly in holding grudges.

That is not to say that our grievances are trivial. People in lost causes may have been really hurt. But a grudge is more of a prison than any punishment we can afflict on our oppressor.

And in this present age, it is obvious that we, the “righteous” one, are in a prison of our own making.

It is high time we broke out.

3 thoughts on “You are addicted to your lost cause: The Psychology of Culture Wars

  1. Jonathan, good thoughts, but your definition of lost cause would seem to include the Great Commission (not universally accepted; defines the Church). Seems like most righteous causes would fit this definition.

    1. Thanks for commenting. It is great to hear feedback.

      I did think about such causes while I was writing this post. I wondered if someone would say something like what you just said.

      The conclusion I came to was that the Great Commission and other “righteous causes” are different from lost causes, if they are followed in service to Jesus.

      I recently wrote that followers of Jesus have a new value system, because they know that their king cannot be defeated. If that is true, then none of the King’s causes are actually lost causes because they have the support of the King of Kings.

      There is also the idea that lost causes offer a “respite from reality”, as I said in this post. I don’t believe that is true of truly Biblical causes like the Great Commission. It doesn’t shield us from reality, and most important, it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make us hostile toward those outside of the cause.

      Usually there are problems with lost causes, if we are completely honest. If we were to really dissect then we’d probably see that they aren’t the righteous causes we think they are.

      Perhaps I need to make it more clear in my definition that lost causes are based on a *contested* view of historical events, and that the lost causes promotes hostility toward outsiders.

      Thanks for the comment. Keep thinking!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.