For decades, the United States has largely dodged the secular tide that has engulfed Europe. Indeed, for much of the last half-century, religion has continued to play a notable role in the public and private life of this nation, even as the public power of Christianity in Europe, not to mention the private piety of its citizens, retreated in the face of this tide.
No more. The secular tide has crossed the Atlantic in full force. Religious attendance, religious affiliation, and religious arguments in public life are fast losing ground in the U.S., especially among younger Americans. The dramatic rise in the number of religious “nones” among young adults is but one sign of the secular times. According to the Pew Forum, a record 32 percent of today’s young adults (aged 18–29) report no affiliation.
What is the single factor most responsible for this rising secular tide? It’s not the Enlightenment, the growth of the welfare state, or urbanization, argues Mary Eberstadt in her powerful and provocative new book, How the West Really Lost God: It’s the shrinking presence and power of the traditional family in the lives of ordinary citizens.
Americans are forgoing or postponing marriage and parenthood in record numbers, divorce remains high, and cohabitation and illegitimacy keep climbing. Today, for reasons both cultural and economic — the sexual revolution and the eroding economic fortunes of men being two — marriage and conventional family life are much less likely first to anchor and then to guide adults’ lives and the lives of their children.
All this matters for the fortunes of religion in America, for at least three reasons. First, a large percentage of adults now spend substantial portions of their lives regularly engaged in behaviors — premarital sex, cohabitation, and nonmarital childbearing — that put their lives “on a collision course with certain fundamental teachings of the Christian faith.” At best, religious teachings about sex, marriage, parenthood, and divorce now seem quaintly outmoded; at worst, they seem downright offensive and insensitive to the complex realities of contemporary relationships and family life. Moreover, these tensions are amplified by pop-culture and media icons — think Bill Maher — who mock, attack, or otherwise seek to discredit the moral teachings of the Abrahamic faiths. Thus, one reason young adults today are more inclined to steer clear of the churches is that they find their teachings regarding sex, marriage, and family life antiquated or hateful.
Second, the fact that most Americans are postponing marriage or parenthood to their late twenties and thirties means that they take longer to arrive at the two milestones that have long pointed young adults in the direction of the nearest church. Of course, teens and young adults have often spent some time away from their religious tradition as prodigals, living apart from the religious community within which they were raised. But in previous decades, an early-twentysomething marriage, soon followed by the arrival of a baby, would bring many a young man and woman rushing back into the fold. Now, however, as men and women generally take a decade or more to start their own family after leaving their parents, these years unencumbered by family life mean that young adults feel freer to cultivate habits, views, and friends — and to find spouses — that diminish the odds they will return to the fold.
Third, the experience of marriage and parenthood makes particular virtues — e.g., sacrifice and fidelity — and values especially attractive and compelling. In many people, the birth of a child engenders a sense of love and wonder that leads them in supernatural directions. Likewise, writes Eberstadt, the “kinds of sacrifice of self that are often part of family life are fully consonant with the emphatic Judeo-Christian call to die to self and to care for the sick and weak”; these family-related sacrifices make faith more attractive and comprehensible to men and women who are striving and struggling to be good parents and spouses. But when marriage, parenthood, and family life no longer play a central role in people’s lives, the values and virtues associated with faith seem stranger, less necessary.
#page#For all these reasons, then, “family and faith are the invisible double helix of society — two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.” And, in today’s world, weak families mean that religion is not effectively reproducing.
If Eberstadt is right about the tight links between family and religion, and I am largely persuaded she is, then the short-term future of religion in the U.S., and the West more generally, is not bright. Marriage is likely to continue to lose ground as the central vehicle for bundling together sex, intimacy, property, mutual aid, and parenthood. More adults seem likely to postpone or forgo parenthood. The fundamental family factors that have often pushed people toward religious faith are petering out.
Accordingly, we should expect to see continued declines in mainstream religion in the U.S., especially in left-leaning religious traditions — such as Reform Judaism and the United Church of Christ — that have accommodated the family and sexual revolutions of the last half-century. What these traditions did not realize is that accommodating the values and virtues of cultural liberalism has undercut the family-centered values and virtues that have long lent vitality to their communities. Eberstadt points out that they “failed to protect their base: thriving families whose members would then go on to reproduce both literally and in the figurative sense of handing down their religion.”
But the long-term future of religion and family life in the West is less clear. After all, sustainable societies depend on strong families that have children, raise them well, and prepare them to be productive workers and responsible citizens. By contrast, when the family breaks down, or fails to form in the first place, states incur burdensome welfare and entitlement costs that are not sustainable over the long term, and nations see their growth rates stagnate. The current fiscal and financial travails of Europe and Japan, for instance, derive in part from the fallout of decades of below-replacement fertility in these regions, which has undercut economic growth and made public pensions for the elderly difficult to pay for.
Thus, particularly as fiscal and financial pressures mount, and as the state’s capacity to provide basic social welfare to its citizens slips, societies across the West — including the U.S. — may revisit their laissez-faire approach to marriage and family. By force of necessity, they may rediscover the power and beauty of the strong, stable, and child-rich family, otherwise known as the original department of health and human services. If they do, they are likely to also rediscover the beauty and power of religious faith, especially among those traditions that continue to celebrate the values and virtues of strong families.
Only time will tell whether what Matthew Arnold called the “Sea of Faith” will continue its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” from the West, pushed away by the declining cultural and practical power of strong families. Or perhaps the Sea of Faith will return, driven by a new tide of familism, uniquely suited to revive the functions and fortunes of the family for this century.
– Mr. Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is the author of Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives.