The Religious Revival That Could Save America

An interview with Charles Murray.

According to prominent political scientist Charles Murray, the American republic is unlikely to survive without another Great Awakening — or, at the very least, a revival of the religious values that the Founders depended on to undergird their experiment. Murray is not a religious man — he is an agnostic — but he can read history, and he knows how nations die. Murray’s latest book Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class came out this year, following on the heels of the prescient Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 in 2012. (Murray’s considerable infamy comes from the 1994 book he co-authored with psychologist Richard J. Hernstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.)

In a recent interview, I asked Murray what the social implications of the dramatic rise in “nones” — those who identify with no religious tradition — in the United States over the last several decades would be. Murray first noted that the decline of religious practice in America is somewhat exaggerated, as many Americans who identified as culturally Christian simply ceased doing so as Christian orthodoxy became less popular, contributing significantly to the sudden precipitous decline. But that said, Murray believes that the implications of the loss of religious values will have profound implications for American life.

“The Founders were not really super orthodox,” he observed. “They were all nominally Christians, but they wouldn’t pass the litmus test for a lot of evangelicals today. But they were absolutely, emphatically agreed that you cannot have a free society with a constitution such as the one they had created unless you are trying to govern a religious people. If you do not have religion as the controlling force, then the kinds of laws we have could not possibly work.” Without religion, Murray told me, there was simply no “intrinsic motivation” for people to behave morally — and no definition for what constitutes moral behavior in the first place.

The current experiment that the West has embarked on, in Murray’s view, has an expiration date: “I cannot believe that the secularization of society is going to continue indefinitely. We have never had an advanced culture, in the history of the world, that is as secular as contemporary Europe. I would say that it is the test case, the canary in the coalmine. And so Sam Harris, who I like and respect, will say that as a secular humanist society, they’ll do just fine and they’ll do just fine over the long term. My own sense is [that they won’t.] You cannot have a free society, a society that allows lots of individual autonomy, without some outside force that leads people to control the self. And I think the increasing Muslim minorities in those countries are probably going to accelerate the exposure of the degeneracy.”

Murray is right: Increasingly, it is Muslim leaders pushing back against the LGBT agenda in places like the United Kingdom, while the servile Church of England cowers or collaborates. The difficulty that the diversity-oriented progressives have leveling accusations at Muslim immigrants that they would happily smear Christians with is, in Murray’s view, “indicative of the lack of confidence, the hollowness of the new upper class in England. That is over the long term. Highly secular societies are going to break down. Then I think you are looking a future in which there is a kind of resurgence of religiosity, but it could take a couple of forms. I am very unhappy with the prospect of a religiosity that is authoritarian . . . as Christian theology has been perverted in the past . . . as [Islamic] theology has been perverted, and is being perverted.”

In short, Murray believes that the West “could go either way. If you could have a resurgence of what used to be known as a religious Great Awakening — we’ve had three of them at least, maybe four — those had very good effects. Those [could] change the behavior of the population in very positive ways. And that’s going to be great if that happens. If you have a new upper class that joins in a resurgence of the Judeo-Christian traditions, the United States could be great. But if you end up with authoritarians of any theological stripe, we’re in trouble. But I think a sort of steady state secularism is the least probably of the alternatives.”

When I asked Murray if he thought the American republic would collapse in the face of the growing polarization and new class divisions he described so vividly in Coming Apart, his analysis was blunt and grim: “If you’re talking about the American experiment, yes, it already has. In practice there are still large swathes of the country which are living a very traditional American life. I’m in one of them. I’m in a small town in Maryland. Last week, a house . . . with four apartments burned down. I won’t go through all the things that the community immediately did, but they are all the classic things of taking care of neighbors, of making things right — and I don’t live in an atypical small town. Small towns all over the country are like that. But as far as any constitutional limits on the authority of government, the idea of the federal government as the Founders saw [it], that’s as dead as a doornail.”

In Murray’s view, electing Republicans and getting more originalist justices appointed isn’t a viable solution: “I don’t care how many Supreme Court justices we get like Gorsuch and so forth. There are certain things where you can’t roll back the clock because to do so would require declaring about 97% of what the federal government does unconstitutional. That ain’t going to happen. So I think America is showing what post-America looks like, where you have people who call themselves conservatives who believe things that would horrify the Founders. Where [our] ideals are basically, we’re gonna be a rich, powerful country and you’ll still have Americans say USA, USA at sports events and so forth. But to the sense of the American Way of Life, which was something that was in common use until fifty years ago, well, it will be meaningless or already is meaningless.”

Murray believes that America has transformed itself so thoroughly that there is very little hope of recovery. “America right now is, in my view, just another rich, powerful country,” he told me. “Very like rich, powerful countries that have existed throughout history. And what made us special is diminishing so rapidly that it probably won’t survive the lifetimes of my children. I think I’ve now revealed my inner pessimism.” Murray had hoped that the example of Europe’s economic woes as well as their struggles with mass migration would “lead to a revival of a passion for traditional values — and that hasn’t happened.”

Unlike many others, Murray does not see Donald Trump’s election as a harbinger of better days. Like most conservatives, he is a fan of the judicial appointments and attempts to cut back on regulation. In fact, the Trump Administration has done things that he isn’t sure Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have attempted. “Having said that,” he noted, “I will also say that character matters — and to have Donald Trump as the exemplar or as the hero does not bode well for what was at the core of the American Founding: the character of the American people, which was what, in the eyes of the Founders, made the [American] Experiment possible.”

In short, Murray told me, America is “like the cartoon where the coyote is chasing the roadrunner and runs off the edge of the cliff and continues running without a problem for a while and then suddenly realizes where he is. He goes crashing to the ground. We have run off the edge of the cliff and we’re still running great. It’s not going to last very long. Decades.”

When I asked Murray what the solution to all of this is, his answer was prompt and simple: “Oh, do what I did. I live in traditional America — and that’s open. It’s much more open now than it ever was before. I write books calling on hundreds of technical sources — no problem sitting out here in a small town in Maryland. I’ve got my Internet. I can drive into D.C. when I want to associate with others who are my professional colleagues, and I come back out here and live in my small town, which is run just as Alexis de Tocqueville described in the 1830s. There are all sorts of places like that around. It’s really easy to live in traditional America, and that’s true no matter what your ethnicity is, no matter what your economic status is. What we need and cannot control is the emergence of a charismatic person devoted to the original American Founding, who is going to attract support in the way that Ronald Reagan did, in the way that FDR did on the Left, and can get elected president and bring to the presidency his or her enormous attractiveness as a leader. To start to restore some of the institutions, because such a leader can make a huge change in the milieu, a huge change in what is considered fashionable among the people around the country — it could result in different kinds of movies being made, different kinds of television being made, different kinds of news reporting being done.”

But with all that said, Murray admitted, “you can’t manufacture great people, male or female, just because you need it. You can hope that the occasion gives rise to them. But it is a hope, not a plan.”

In the meantime, the agnostic scholar will be living in traditional America, hoping — dare I say praying? — for a religious revival that could save the United States of America.


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