We should be optimistic about their future
Following heavy losses in the same-sex-marriage fight, traditionalists are anxious. “Conservatives have been routed, both in court and increasingly in the court of public opinion,” writes Rod Dreher in an elegiac piece on “sex after Christianity.” One can appreciate fully the efforts of those brave men and women who have not given up the battle and still suspect that Dreher and others who argue similarly are right. If they are, then religious believers not only in America but across the Western world are entering darker and more difficult times.
For one thing, surely the rewriting of laws and customs along radical new lines consistent with radical new dispensations has only just begun. How many Christian students, teachers, professors, counselors, priests, nuns, ministers, doctors, pharmacists, businessmen, and politicians of the future will run afoul of rules against ever-expanding definitions of “hate group” and “hate speech”? How many will be ostracized, or worse, in their schools and workplaces, as some already have been, for “extremism”? How many will see their children penalized for religious beliefs that seemed unremarkable in America until the day before yesterday?
Will the United States now go the way of Great Britain, where a couple was recently forbidden to adopt a child because they were practicing Christians and therefore on the wrong side of current right thinking? Will we follow Canada, where, as Mark Steyn reports, Catholic schools are required to include gay-straight alliances subversive of Catholic moral teaching? Father Raymond de Souza of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, recently commented that many young priests he knows think “the prospect of one of us spending some time in jail for teaching the faith is not a distant or unlikely proposition, it is a plausible reality to be prepared for.” Will men and women of the cloth in the United States someday say the same?
If that were the whole picture, despair would abound. But it isn’t. For 2,000 years, Christianity has weathered severe storms, surviving discrimination and outright persecution. Are we really and only now facing the Church’s terminal decline? Does the sexual revolution, alone among all cultural influences inimical to the Church throughout history, render the cross and all it stands for obsolete?
A contrarian case can be made that things aren’t as grim as they seem — or, conversely, that they aren’t nearly as invigorating as they seem to their adversaries. The case for cautious optimism shares many facts with the case for pessimism. In fact, the case for optimism is more or less the case for pessimism turned on its head and examined from a different angle.
For over a hundred years, sociology has broadcast the death of God — prematurely, it turns out, because sociologists have ignored the part played in religious belief by that great institution with which religion’s fate appears inextricably entwined: the family.
History shows that, in case after case, one pillar is only as strong as the other. Religion, and specifically Christianity, waxes and wanes according to the strength of marriage and family formation. Across the Western world, the first ten to 15 years after World War II saw a religion boom in conjunction with the Baby Boom. The decades since the 1960s, conversely, have seen rising out-of-wedlock childbearing and falling birthrates in conjunction with a religion bust. Family and faith are historically bound together in ways that intrinsically historicist sociology has wholly ignored. So one way of considering the future of Christianity is to ask another question: Is a revival of the natural family possible — and, with it, a revival of Christianity? The answer is and will continue to be yes.
Begin by meditating on an insight from the late Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Harvard’s sociology department and one of the seminal social thinkers of the mid 20th century. Sorokin wrote at a time when sociology was practiced not through finely granulated statistical analysis but rather with the broadest possible brush and the widest historical canvas imaginable.
In Man and Society in Calamity (1942), Sorokin dedicated his powers to a project broadly applicable to the present moment — in his case, to disentangling the ways in which historical catastrophes of various kinds, principally wars, famines, and pestilence, set countervailing social forces into motion. Reviewing wide swaths of human history, Sorokin spied a general rule: “The principal steps in the progress of mankind toward a spiritual religion and a noble code of ethics have been taken primarily under the impact of great catastrophes.” Calamity, as he saw it, is not only a possible inducement to religious revival but may even be its sine qua non.
Is the Western world today home to a calamity of sufficient dimensions to prove Sorokin’s rule once more? Since 2008, when the global financial crisis first burst into the consciousness of the mass of Western voters, followed by riots from London to Athens, from Barcelona to Paris and back, it has grown ever clearer that the welfare states of the West are overextended and ultimately unsustainable. Nor is this just a matter of euros and cents. The eventual civilizational implosion of the welfare state, one can argue, will be a game-changer for family decline.
Easier divorce and more widespread illegitimacy, along with related developments, have been taken more or less in stride for decades now, in the belief that the state can do what was once done by competent families: care for the young, tend to the sick and old, provide for the home. Family decline has so far been premised on Western affluence.
In the 1970s, sociologist David Popenoe predicted that one consequence of diminished Western affluence might be exactly the revival of the institution of the family. After all, he observed, families perform a function crucial to all societies, doing for free what would otherwise cost money to accomplish. “The importance of this family care-giving function,” he writes, “becomes clear when we consider what might happen if modern societies ever again fall into a serious economic depression.”
Could the post-welfare Western state end up imparting economic value to marriage, childbearing, and family ties, as the pre-industrial agricultural state did for many centuries? One needn’t imagine a full-scale crisis to see how the pressures of a shrinking and ageing Western population might make the family look like a grossly undervalued stock. As Stanley Kurtz observed presciently in “Demographics and the Culture War,” an article in Policy Review three years before the financial collapse of 2008:
It wouldn’t take a full-scale economic meltdown, or even a relative disparity in births between fundamentalists and secularists, to change modernity’s course. Chronic low-level economic stress in a rapidly aging world may be enough. There is good reason to worry about the fate of elderly boomers with fragile families, limited savings, and relatively few children to care for them. A younger generation of workers will soon feel the burden of paying for the care of this massive older generation. . . . Modernity itself may come in for criticism even as a new appreciation for the benefits of marriage and parenting might emerge.
Tantalizing evidence from the crash of 2008 shows just the sort of unintended consequences of economic adversity mentioned by Kurtz. Consider divorce. An economic crisis turns divorce, always expensive, into a luxury item. According to figures from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the divorce rate in the U.S. dropped 24 percent in 2008 and 57 percent in 2009, following the housing collapse. The rates then began creeping back up in 2010, as the economy improved. Like other observers, the president of the AAML was certain that the drop was in response to harder times.
Another inadvertent consequence of the economic crisis has been the return of many adult children to the homes of their parents. Though undertaken for financial reasons, might not the movement of the “boomerang generation” back to the nest also have the effect of reinforcing family bonds? Hard times, in short, have a way of driving people back to what’s most elemental.
This leads to another reason for cautious optimism about the future of family and faith: People learn. Marriage rates and childbearing among relatively affluent, educated American women, for example, are on the uptick (even as marriage continues to implode further down the socioeconomic ladder). Two can live more cheaply than one, as Robert J. Samuelson reflected in a recent column on the relationship between personal wealth and family structure, and it’s reasonable to think that more people will come to realize as much. One reason better-off women are a little more inclined toward children and traditional family may be that they have learned from the past, particularly from the tolls associated with alternative structures. If more people learn the same lesson, the natural family — and, with it, the churches — might enjoy a recovery.
Current, historically low rates of natural-family formation and their attendant problems are not longstanding. Single motherhood, for example, cheered by feminists in the name of “liberation” less than a generation ago, is now widely seen for what it really is: an inhumanly difficult task for almost any woman, let alone poorer women, who are more likely to be unmarried. Likewise, “Career first” is now a slogan that many educated younger women reject, including many feminists. Maybe future generations will be more kindly disposed to the idea that more is merrier than were their forebears in the 20th and early 21st centuries. It’s possible to imagine a turnaround of family-formation rates across the West both because the economics of subsidizing familial decline will have become untenable and because the social cost of alternatives to traditional families will have become more obvious to many people than it is today.
There’s another reason not to write the obituary for Christianity and the traditional family quite yet: demography. As Phillip Longman and Eric Kaufmann have independently documented, and as Jonathan Last energetically explores in his riveting book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, believers have babies, and nonbelievers don’t. And among believers, the most religious have the most babies. Over time, as those who look at the numbers agree, this simple fact will tilt Western populations toward religious belief. Sociologist Rodney Stark argues that Christianity grew from a small sect to a world religion precisely because the Church’s prizing of marriage, its banning of infanticide and abortion, and its overall attentiveness to the family contributed to a demographic advantage for believers. All those conditions still obtain.
Consider one more fact in support of traditionalists. In Family and Civilization (1947), Carle Zimmerman, another Harvard sociologist, demonstrated that throughout history the family has followed a pattern: It grows stronger after a period of decay has incurred mounting social costs. Zimmerman argued that family strength is cyclical and that the problems resulting from periods of weak and atomized families lead to counter-cycles of strong family formation.
Finally, there remains on the side of contrarianism what might be called Christianity’s secret weapon. Throughout history, men and women have been drawn to the Church precisely because of the traditional moral code that so many people today love to hate. The pagans, the early Christians were instructed, could have it all: their idols, their infanticide, their contraception, their abortions, their sexual libertinism; the Christians couldn’t. And on the list went. From the beginning, these “no”s were fundamental teachings of Christianity (and in many cases, also of Judaism), but they were not only prohibitions. They were also teachings that drew many people in, fallen but serious human beings who recognized the teachings as somehow true. And such remains the case, as the legions of Western converts down to this very day go to show, sometimes in some pretty sophisticated places.
As a caution against the notion that anything ever is inevitable, let us consider the last boomlet of faith across the West, during the years immediately following World War II. So pervasive was religious practice in the United States then that Will Herberg, the foremost sociologist of religion in America during the mid 20th century, could observe in his classic book Protestant, Catholic, Jew that the village atheist or freethinker was a disappearing figure, that agnosticism was in decline, and that “the pervasiveness of religious identification may safely be put down as a significant feature of the America that has emerged in the past quarter of a century.”
Those words were written only decades ago. Religion ebbs and flows in the world in ways not dreamed of by sociologists. Belief does not simply enter and leave the earth as a unidirectional force, like a comet. Christianity in particular engages with that other spiral, the one of family, in a delicate, profound dynamic of mutual dependence.
None of which is to say that Western believers today can count on seeing brighter days for either institution in their lifetimes. In the short run, to reverse John Maynard Keynes, we’re all dead. As for the long run, though, several signs point the way not just to hope but to likely revival. Therein lies a limited but real case for optimism about the twinned futures of family and faith.
– Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This essay is adapted from her new book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.