Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She’s also a research fellow to Hoover Institution, and was executive editor of the National Interest Magazine. She was a member of the policy planning staff, the United States State Department, a speech writer for Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and a special assistant to Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. A four year Telluride Scholar at Cornell University, she graduated Magna Cum Laude. She has written widely for magazines and newspapers among them First Things, Policy Review, The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary. Her latest book and the catalyst for our conversation today for Thinking in Public is How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization published by Templeton Press.
Mary Eberstadt, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Eberstadt: Thank you very much, Dr. Mohler. Thank you for having me.
Mohler: I’ll just tell you at the onset I think your book is really important and extremely timely. And we’ve talked about some of these things and patterns and ideas before. But I want to tell you how much I appreciate the fact that now at book length you’re making an argument that on the one hand should have been made some time ago. But, on the other hand, could only be written now with the experience of the last twenty or thirty years in terms of both demography and well the experience of the family. Can you tell the story of how you came to write this book?
Eberstadt: Well, yes, I think the question of how the West lost God, that is how religion came to occupy a diminished place in many Western lives, is a very interesting question. To me it appears as a giant jigsaw puzzle. And it was especially the experience of going to Europe and seeing how empty many European churches are, seeing the fall off in attendance that is so sharp as you know in many places. There’s no one in the pews under the age of 60. Just to shoot a couple more numbers, something like 1 in 10 people in Great Britain go to church monthly at this point. That’s monthly, not even weekly. So, there’s been a fall-off in attendance, and we know from survey data that are all in the book there’s been a fall-off in religious belief. It is sharper in Western Europe than it is in the United States. But you see the same trends here with the rise of people professing no religious affiliation at all, especially people in their twenties. And of course some of these culture war issues that we’ve been immersed in are also by extension religious issues.
So the question is: what’s going on? And I got interested enough in this question to start doing research. And what I found, Dr. Mohler, was that the prevailing explanations for secularization really don’t hold up upon inspection. There’s several reasons that have been put forth by conventional sociologists for why Christianity is in decline. Some, for example, are following Karl Marx, say that religion was always the opiate of the people; it was something that the poor classes did; it was something whose need would expire if people became better educated and more prosperous.
Now the problem with this explanation which is very widely accepted both in popular form and in academic form is that it is completely refuted by the facts. So, for example, in the United States today quite the opposite of what Marx said holds. In other words, it is not the lower classes that are populating the churches. In fact the upper third of the socioeconomic ladder is more likely to be found in church than the bottom third, and is more likely to profess religious belief. And you see this across the country. You see this also with the Mormons and you see it in other parts of history as well. And that’s what I get into in the book. You see, for example, in Victorian England this same pattern of painting of the better off and better educated as being more likely to be practicing Christianity. So, just for starters, the whole idea that Christianity is something for those who are, what was the saying Dr. Mohler, you’ll know, easy to command, easily led.
Mohler: The Washington Post, infamous about twenty years ago. Yes, easily led for sure.
Eberstadt: Yes, uneducated and easy to command. This stereotype which is very prevalent in our society does not conform to the empirical facts. So that was one thing that got me interested in this question. If the stereotype doesn’t hold, and if what we think about the decline of Christianity across the West is actually coming from some other place, what is that place? And that’s what I get into in the book. Because I think there’s a piece of this puzzle that has been overlooked all along, and that is the family and the relationship between the strength of the family and the strength of the churches.
Mohler: Absolutely. I think it’s important for our listener’s to know that we were citing a rather infamous statement made by a reporter for the Washington Post about twenty years ago in which he made a very dismissive comment about American evangelicals which could have been generalized to American Christians; just suggesting that somehow that Marx had made the point that religion is the opiate of the masses. But as you have pointed out, not only in the United States but even more so in Europe, it is the persons who are most highly educated who are more likely to be in church than the people who are least educated and also least economically advantaged often are not.
Eberstadt: Yes. And so that’s one stereotype that I think goes straight out the window. And there are other ones that I get into in the book. For example, some people say, “Well, Christianity evolved because people needed it. It comforted them to believe in this whole idea of the Christian God. And if they become more rational they won’t need that superstitious comfort anymore.” So here we have another very familiar stereotype that does not hold up when you look at it a little more closely. If this theory were true, then what you would expect to see is that Christianity declines over time in accordance with education and rising material standards of living and so on. But this is not what you see. You do not see Christianity throughout history going on a straight downward trajectory. You do not see what conventional sociology predicts, in other words. What you see is that there are times when Christianity is strong, and times where it is weak. In Victorian England, again, there was a period of great religious revival. In the United States since it began there have been several periods of religious revival, including in the 1950’s, even in the memory of some people listening to this, there was a tremendous revival in the United States. So you see Christianity come and go in the world in a way that is not predicted, again, by conventional sociology. So what I try to do in the book is zero in on those places where Christianity is strong and ask what else is going on at the same time. Because, again, I think what you get back to is the relationship between the churches and the family.
Mohler: Well, that is a particular relationship you would think many people would have seen before. And they have to some extent. In your book as you marshal so much research, you point out that every one of the theorists of secularization has brought something to the conversation. And everyone’s looking at the same, rather indisputable facts or set of facts now. But the received tradition in terms of secularization theory had been that secularization leads to the breakdown of the family. You’re actually arguing that that is reversing the actual way that secularization happens.
Eberstadt: Yes, and that’s a critical point to zero in on, Dr. Mohler. Because in the conventional way of understanding these things, exactly as you say, the idea is that first you have some kind of religious change. Say, like, the fall off of attendance in mainline Protestantism, to take an example. Then you have family changes attendant on that, as people are left Christian, as fewer of them are observing Christians, you have changes in family structure. You have more divorce, you have more out of wedlock births, etc. That’s the way this relationship has conventionally been read. In other words, religion is in the driver’s seat, and religious change creates family change. And what I’m saying in the book is that there is another way of looking at this altogether, and that is the kind of family changes we see around us – more broken homes, more divorce, more out of wedlock birth, etc., more families not forming in the first place – these changes I argue are driving religious change. So when you look at those empty churches and you wonder about what’s going on in them, you don’t have to believe like the New Atheists are insisting that what’s going on is that people have come to their senses and abandoned God. No, what you can believe and what I think the evidence shows is that once people stop living in families, or stop living in effective families or competent families, they have fewer things driving them to church. They have transmission belt of belief and tradition that has been interrupted in such a way that many of them are no longer Christians. But this is a very different explanation for secularization than the prevailing one.
Mohler: So let’s talk about that for a moment. And I want to go back to an argument you make in your book, just to set the stage for this. You write, “Like the collapse of Christianity in many of the same places, the collapse of the natural family has reshaped the known world of just about every man, woman and child alive in the Western world today.” I think that’s an indisputable statement, and, yet, let’s go back to the fact that there are some people who question whether secularization is even taking place. And you address that very clearly in your book. And how is that anyone just to set the stage for this, how can anyone look at the world as it is today in the West and especially amongst the more highly educated; the closer you get to a college or university; the closer you to either Europe or for that matter to Canada, how can anyone now doubt that something like secularization is taking place?
Eberstadt: Well, I appreciate those who doubt it. Because what they want to say is that Christianity is more vibrant than it appears to be on the surface. And I think there is some truth to that. We’ve seen very dark periods of history since the beginning of Christianity that have been followed by great periods of revival. So, I appreciate that contrarians don’t want to write an end to the Christian story. That’s what’s good about what they do. Also, I believe they are right to point out, you know, when we look back in time, you and I, Dr. Mohler, and lots of other people, we think maybe that people were more religious and more observant than they were. I mean when we visit the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, for example, even if we just do it in our armchair, we have a tendency, “Oh, people were so religious;” that was some kind of golden age of Christianity.
There’s really no reason to believe that. But, I think what the evidence does show indisputably is that people are far less religious now and far less governed by Christian precepts than most people were in the past, including the immediate past. And that’s where I part company with the people who deny that secularization exists because I think if you look at attendance numbers, if you look at what people profess to believe, if you look at the way they live their lives, many more people now live in open defiance of Christian teaching, especially about the family. Then you see that there’s been a clear fall off in both belief and in the idea that not going to church will have consequences. Indisputably there’s evidence of secularization.
Mohler: Well, I agree with you, of course. And by the way, many of the people that you cite in your book and with whom you’re in conversation in your writings have also been guests on this program. So listeners to Thinking in Public have heard conversations with Peter Berger and Grace Davie and any number of others. But you know when it comes to your crediting them with believing that Christianity is more vibrant, I want to come back and say I think there are two issues there as well. I think one of them is that many of these sociologists operate out of an understanding of Christianity, specifically religion in general, that merely is about social function. And so they’re arguing that that social function hasn’t disappeared, that many people are still involved in explicitly, self-consciously religious belief and activities. And that isn’t going to go away. So you even have evolutionists who are completely secular in their outlook who say there’s a social function there. The other thing I want to point out. And you sight Charles Taylor who, I agree, is the most important theorist in terms of secularization and secularism in terms of the world today. And I think he makes the point that many don’t get. And your exactly right, as are the critics of secularization theory; there wasn’t ever a golden age. But what they’re looking at is piety and personal belief. But what Charles Taylor really helps us to see is that even where there were low levels of piety and perhaps not even any discernible markers of personal belief, the worldview was explicitly Christian because there was no other available worldview. And that is shockingly different now.
Eberstadt: Well, yes, it is. And so is just personal conscience in these matters. In other words, I think it makes a big difference why there’s somebody commits a big sin and then says, “Uh oh, I’m going to hell for that.” Or commits a big sin and says, “Uh oh, I hope I don’t get caught at that.” And in that kind of distinction I think we see the difference between our age where people seem more afraid of being caught then previous ages where they actually believed enough to think that there would be eternal consequences for certain things.
Mohler: But you also make the point in your book that there are many people that don’t even have a memory of the Christian moral code that had any binding authority on their conscience at all. So, they’re not even afraid of getting caught.
Eberstadt: Yes. And it’s important to figure out why they have no such memory. Again, to go back to the Middle Ages, in those times you could be illiterate, you could be a peasant, and you could understand things about Christianity because you have what I call familial literacy. In other words, the family is so central to Christianity in so many ways, and I would love to talk about just some of those way, that if you don’t understand the family you’re going to have more trouble understanding Christianity itself. And that I think is where we are right now, Dr. Mohler, is with this situation that a lot of people may be perfectly literate about book learning, but they are illiterate about family. Let me give you just some examples. If you grow up in a home as many of millions of kids do in the Western world today without a father figure, and we all know homes like this, we all are related to people with homes like this, then how are you supposed to understand the idea of God that has been handed down since Judaism and Christianity began, of God as an eternally loving Father. In other words, if you haven’t seen a father up close don’t you have a little more of a conceptual leap at understanding what’s mean by that idea? I think a lot of people do. And that’s just one example, but I think a very telling example of how the interruption of the natural family and rhythms of family in the Western world have also interrupted people’s understanding of Christianity itself. And that’s what a lot of the book is about.
Mohler: Your treatment of that specific issue set my mind to thinking and in a way that was chastening and humbling. I’m even more concerned than I was before reading your passage on that particular issue. Because it strikes me that something else is actually in effect there. Everything you say, but also, something that is perhaps even more sinister, and that is that if you do not have a father in the home, if you have no access to a positive understanding of a father, then actually it’s not that you have nothing, it’s that what you have is probably more negative than positive. And I think pastorally as well as theologically looking at the church today and its challenges that is a huge challenge. We’re speaking of God as Father, even the ability to speak about prayer in a biblical context leaves us in the position where many people not only have the absence but a very haunting absence of any ability to tie into that because, as you argue so clearly, their family context did not prepare them for understanding fatherhood, much less the fatherhood of God.
Eberstadt: Yes, and let’s consider a few other ways in which those same family changes have an impact on people’s ability to grasp the faith. If you look at the most secular region of the world right now it looks to be Scandinavia. In Scandinavia something like only 1 in 10 people even believes in hell anymore, just to give one snap shot. But what else is going on in Scandinavia? It is also one could argue the least familial and the most atomized of Western societies. In Scandinavia today almost half of all households are households of one person. That is to say people aren’t even living in families.
Mohler: They’re no longer even cohabitating.
Eberstadt: No. This is an enormous change on the world scene. And once again, if you have a religion as irreducibly familial as Christianity is, I think, you’re going to have more trouble understanding what’s meant by all of this if you are living of, by, and for yourself. In a world where very few women have babies, for example, also the case in Scandinavia, if you’ve never had a baby, if you’ve never held a baby, you might have a little more trouble understanding what is so all-fired important about a religion that starts with the birth of a baby that has the idea of a sacred infant right at its very core. And how the Holy family protects that baby at all costs, and flies to Egypt, etc. This whole story just might not make very much since to you if you are living in an apartment by yourself without sacrificing for other people. The whole sacrificial message of Christianity too, I think, makes more sense to people who live in families because to live in a family is to know you sacrifice day and night, or at least you’re supposed to sacrifice your time and your leisure and your money and other things for other people. The idea of a religion based on sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of one life for others, makes more sense to you if you live in a family. If you’re a rugged individualist and you’re on your own out there and you don’t have people to take care of who see why you should, then that part of the Christian message, again, falls on grounds that is a lot less fertile. So, in all of these ways, I think what we see is that a world in which families are weaker and more fractured and more atomized is necessarily going to be a world where Christianity is also weaker. But this is a very different reading of the weakness of today’s Christianity from the reading that you get from secular and conventional sociologists.
Mohler: This conversation with Mary Eberstadt raises so many issues. But it brings together so many concerns that thinking Christians ought to have at the forefront of our observation as we see the world around us. We’re seeing these two things indisputably to be true: the breakdown of the family, its radical definition in our times, and the decline of faith in terms of its cultural status, its binding authority. And for that matter, the beliefs and practices of the people who live around us. As Mary Eberstadt explains the fact that these two things are happening together is hardly a coincidence.
Mary Eberstadt’s new book How the West Really Lost God is really important for that central word in the title. In other words, how did this really happen. And, Mary, when I look at your book I want to say I think many of us had a sense that what you’re writing here is true. But I really want to credit you for writing the book that makes the thesis clear, and I think almost undeniable. Let me ask you: what has been the response to your book and to your presentation of this material in the world of social science?
Eberstadt: Well, in the world of social science there’s been some gratifying push back; that is the world of secular social science. Thank you for asking. The most gratifying response I get comes from pastors like you who say, “Yes, in my day to day life when I’m dealing with actual people, not with the theology books, this is what I find. I find what you say. I find that it’s family changes that make it harder for me to get the Christian message across in the first place.” And, so, I feel for those people. I hope that the book ratifies their efforts because as I argue in all kinds of ways the fracturing of the family has also fractured Christianity including because people in a time when millions are living in open defiance of the Christian code, people don’t like to be told that they’re wrong. And now days there are a lot more people who have resentment about the Christian moral code that can’t help saying, “No, this is wrong and this is wrong and this is wrong.” Christianity has said certain things are wrong since its very inception. But it’s only now that so many people, a certain critical mass of people, are living outside those rules that it becomes the social conflagration even to point to that code in the public square.
Mohler: A good bit of your argument is about what might be reduced to a chicken and egg question – which came first, secularization or the breakdown and redefinition of the family. In either case what we’re looking at is the indisputable fact that we’re living in a more secular age, and in an age in which the family itself is being radically redefined. I do believe that your argument about the family change coming first is really important. And those who are Christians operating out of a Christian worldview are basically those who should have the intuitions to know that already; in other words to know that the family is more basic to the society than the society is to the family. And you know Catholics would lean back on subsidiarity and evangelicals would lean into a similar notion that what is most properly basic is that which is most intimate beginning with marriage and the unit of the family. Somehow, however, we really didn’t see this. In a recent conversation on this program with David Hollinger of the University of California at Berkeley, historian that is reconsidering liberal Protestantism, he comes back and rightly says that before the theological issues emerged in full bloom, a demographic disaster happened to mainline Protestantism that is the birth rate fell precipitously long before the major theological revolutions took place. And that’s very consistent with your argument.
Eberstadt: Well, yes, if you look at the reasons why people say they don’t go to church today people don’t say, and again, I think it’s important to harp on this because the new atheists put this idea out there, “Well, the reason people don’t go to church is that people realize it’s all this superstitious ball of wax and has no meaning for their lives, and people have gotten smart enough to live without God, and they realize there are all these logical problems with the problem of evil,” or this or that. No, I submit that the reason people don’t go to church today looks a lot less like I have a problem with theodicy than, “Well, my mom’s just married her lesbian girlfriend, and I think that’s great and I don’t want to be part of an institution that says that’s wrong.”
Mohler: You know, people don’t even have to say that. You just observe it. And, again, you put it in the context of the church, rarely do people come up to you and say what you just articulated. But they’re patterns of life say it without having to articulate it.
Eberstadt: Yes, and it gives them a whole new barrier to religious belief. I’m not saying that’s an insurmountable barrier. You know, Christianity has dealt with a lot of problems in its 2,000 year history. And to study them is to have a humbling sense that the current problem which is sexual revolution isn’t really going do it in either. In other words, it’s not going to be the ultimate problem. There were a lot of other things that looked pretty bad in the past that Christianity managed to make the best of or even thrive in. But that is what we’re up against today, I think. And I don’t think that the case for pessimism is the stronger case. I think there’s a lot of room for optimism about this, but optimism has to start with being very clear about what we’re seeing out there. And what we’re seeing is not that people got smarter and better off and decided to jettison the idea of God; that’s what Nietzsche thought would happen, but that’s not how it’s gone down. What’s happened is that family changes have rocked the churches to their foundation.
Mohler: Well, they’ve also rocked the society which makes evangelism and reaching out to the culture all the more difficult. One of the observations that came to me in reading your book is the very chastening knowledge that the church is in a very uncomfortable position. Now we understand this immediately with the sexual revolution. We understand just as you said the church has to say that’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s wrong. It has no choice on biblical authority to do anything otherwise. But it struck me that the problem is even more diffuse than that in that there are so many people that look at the church and hear the church saying what the church must say, and that is hold up the natural family as one of God’s greatest gifts. And hold it up in a way that honors it, shows God’s glory in it, demonstrates human flourishing through it, and normalizes the natural family. And we want to say at the same time everyone’s welcome. That is a very difficult balance. I guess balance isn’t even the right word. It’s a very difficult challenge to take on, but inescapable as your book makes very clear, given the scale and scope of the breakdown of the family all around us.
Eberstadt: Yes, here’s another place where I think we have to look back somewhere in history to see our way out of this. It is very reminiscent of the end of the Roman Empire. And Christianity, as other scholars have pointed out, has a much stricter understanding of sexual morality than the Romans and others of the time. Christianity said, “No, the pagans can do this, the pagans can have infanticide, the pagans can have abortion, the pagans can have this, that, and the other thing, and the Christians can’t have that.” Now, on the one hand that put a lot of people in society off, it always has. But on the other hand, in a way that we need to keep sight of, it brought a lot of people in because that dignified of what human beings at their best can be about is something that has resonated with people across the world in all different places and times. So I think in order to see to get back to your question about how do we do this, how do we put out the you are all included message alongside this code that looks very strict by the standards of the day, one way of doing that is to look back in history and see how they did it then. And see what they had to work with because they were surely up against it even worse than we. They had the coliseum to contend with, and that’s not our problem.
Mohler: That’s a very important word, and we need to recognize that in the challenge of the fall of the Roman Empire or in what Peter Brown would have called “late antiquity.” Many of the theological resources that the Christian tradition draws most richly upon now such as the word of Augustine in the City of God was occasioned just by Christians at that critical turning point trying to figure out how do we maintain the faith when everything around us seems to be shaking. But I want to turn for just a moment in thinking about these things to just ask you where these trends appear to be headed. Because what we’re talking about here is not something that emerged out of a vacuum in terms of all these patterns, nor is there likely to be any immediate reversal. So, you offer two scenarios: one more pessimistic and one more hopeful. But both of them raise the question: what would precipitate anything changing the trajectories that you trace so well in your book?
Eberstadt: Yes, well there’s another elephant sitting in on this discussion that I’m able to get into the book a little more, and that is the modern welfare state, the gigantic state that has promised cradle to grave substitutes for the family in effect. In other words, The family used to do lots of things that a lot of families don’t do anymore, from taking care of the young to taking care of the old, to taking care of the sick and lots of things in between. And on the one hand the welfare state has grown bigger across the West because it had to do these things or people wanted it to do these things. More fatherless homes mean more people who have to be family substitutes, and that means the welfare state, etc. So, the welfare state has both bankrolled the factoring of the family, and also served as a family substitute. So, the biggest question hanging over the countries of the Western world I think is this: what is going to happen if and when the welfare state as we know it proves unsustainable?
Mohler: As it is right now, we might point out, in Scandinavia which by no coincidence is where you point out we find the greatest family dislocation and the greatest, highest levels of secularization.
Eberstadt: As it is across western Europe it is an unsustainable welfare state because, of course, it doesn’t have the demographic wherewithal to keep itself going. Not enough taxpayers have been born, and unemployment is too high. There are riots in places like Barcelona in the streets, in Athens, and other places. This is not picture postcard Europe anymore. This is a place with serious problems. And with dark crowds hanging over them that are headed our way. So, what’s going to happen to the dynamic between the family and the churches once the welfare state is radically revised? Well, that I think, Dr. Mohler, is the case for optimism in an odd and somewhat ironic way. Because we know that in times of adversity people pull back and they look to their more immediate, organic connections, connections of family. They look to their churches. We saw this after 9-11 when all of a sudden, and I’m sure you remember this as well, for many Sundays on end people were found in church following 9-11, who had never darkened the doorstep in the previous decade, say. There were people going to church who didn’t usually go to the church. And the reason is that adversity has a way of making people look to what’s nearer and dearer to them, and then in times of prosperity less so. If the welfare state proves unsustainable people are going to be forced back to their more organic, competent family connections because that’s the only institution that be imagined stepping into the vacuum left by the implosion of the welfare state. So that’s one way of looking at what’s going to be here 50-100 years from now that argues for religious renewal and not for religious decline.
Mohler: You know those same patterns are also discernible in terms of other research indicating not just with reference to the welfare state but of government in general, that where government is strongest religious belief tends to be weaker. And you can draw this parallel very clearly. Christopher Lasch and Peter Berger demonstrated that back in the 70’s speaking about the family as well. And that’s interesting now in retrospect after your book and very compelling thesis where Peter Berger and Christopher Lasch both said look, the family is now being surrounded by an army of experts, externally adjudicating it, and evaluating, and entering in from everything to Dr. Spock, the pediatrician, and on to educators and child welfare experts, and all the rest. And the point that they saw back in the 70’s was that what we call secularization is greatly accelerated by the encroachment of government into the life of the family. And I think we really, in some ways, had to wake for your book for the explanation of exactly why that is so.
Eberstadt: I thought of both Peter Berger and Christopher Lasch often in writing this book because, of course, everybody’s been after a different piece of the puzzle in all of this. I think it is fair to say looking at history that you see government on one side and family/church, I think they’re so indistinguishable sometimes that you can just say it that way, on the other side. And you do see that there’s a competition. There’s a competition for resources. There’s a competition for people’s loyalties. And that’s part of what’s been happening in secularization is the supplanting of those more elemental and organic loyalties with wider loyalties toward government.
Mohler: Well, I think expertise is a crucial issue here. And Christopher Lasch makes that so clear in one of his books where you know it depends, where you really demonstrate what it is that you believe, and where you think authority lies by whom you ask for advice. For instance, in raising children, it used to be that people turned to Christian authorities, Christian parents in particular, for that advice. And in some ways they still do. But it’s interesting that the authorities they ask are the ones that often come with a secular credential. They’re perhaps even more informed by and have instincts of which they’re not even aware that they’re more inclined to trust someone who appears on television as a pediatrician than an elder in their church.
Eberstadt: Or to get even more elemental about it, it used to be that a young mother with her first baby would have her own mother and any other number of aunts and cousins and other women, again the shrinking of the family has shrunk the authority of the family in this way too. And it has shrunk the ability of the family to serve as a transmission belt whether it’s for secular, sort of “homey” wisdom about how to raise a baby, or much more profound wisdom that’s been passed down for 2,000 years and now just ends with some people in the here and now because they don’t have anyone to pass it to, or because they never understood it in the first place because it was so badly communicated to them. Again, I think these sort of much more down to earth terms capture more of the empiricism of secularization than abstractions that don’t hold up under inspection
Mohler: You describe your thesis in terms of a very compelling metaphor and that is of the double helix. And as we have to come to a conclusion of this conversation I think it might be very helpful for you to describe that double helix of faith and family and how it works.
Eberstadt: Well, I don’t pretend to be a scientist here. But the double helix model is DNA, which I’m borrowing strictly for literary purpose, means that there are two spirals that go around and they’re connected by rods. And they need each other to reproduce. That’s the main meaning of the double helix. They’re even hard to disentangle. And they need each other to effectively reproduce. This is the situation I argue with the two institutions a family and church. They’re more closely tied than maybe has been understood in a lot of times and places. They need each other to reproduce, and one side is only as strong as the other. And so, for example, in times of decline like ours, we see family decline and religious decline going hand in hand. Conversely though to end on a note of optimism, when we see times of religious decline, these are also times of family decline. And to get back to one example that happened that was completely unforeseen, at the end of World War II, not only in the United States but across the western world, there was a religious boom that was much documented by sociologists of the time. Church attendance was up and Christianity was flourishing. At the same time what else was going on during those years? There was a baby boom, of course, also across the western world. So, the point once again is that the stronger and more vibrant the family is, the stronger and more vibrant the church is and vice versa. There’s nothing inevitable about the decline of Christianity contrary to what we’ve been told since Friedrich Nietzsche, but we do have to understand what’s going on in the places where we do see decline.
Mohler: Mary, I have to ask you as we come to an end here, what’s next, what’s your next topic or theme or field of research?
Eberstadt: Oh, thank you for asking. I’m fascinated and hoping to do some good by exploring these themes in other forms. That is the themes of what the shattering of the family and the shattering of the church has done to society. So, as soon as I have something that I can bother you with, Dr. Mohler, I will be in touch. Thank you for asking.
Mohler: Well, as always, I’ll look forward to seeing that as I commend right now to the listeners of this program Mary Eberstadt’s latest book How the West Really Lost God. Mary Eberstadt, thank you so much for joining me for Thinking in Public.
Eberstadt: Thank you for having me. It’s always such a pleasure.
Mohler: Mary Eberstadt use of that metaphor, the double helix, makes a great deal of sense because it gets right down to the molecular, indeed the genetic, level of the human being. If you come to understand that you cannot unravel that double helix without destroying the very organism. And when she makes the argument using that metaphor of the relationship between family structure and belief, that is in particular religious belief, specifically Christian belief, she makes an argument that should immediately make sense to us.
Now for thinking Christians we need to recognize that the Christian worldview underlines the fact that God has made us in such a way, both individually and in terms of our community, that all of the goods he has given us are to be received together. In fact, there’s the basic Christian moral principle that reminds us that the division of these goods leads to a weakening of the entire structure. So, if God has given us the good of family, the good of marriage, the good of parents and children, has given us the goods of community and the goods of, of course, church and the fellowship of the redeemed, and all of these things together, when you break them apart you don’t just weaken the thing that you’ve taken away from the whole. You weaken the whole. And so this metaphor of the double helix makes a great deal of sense, especially when we look at these two devastating trajectories taking place around us in terms of secularization on the one hand and the radical redefinition of the family on the other, we’ll recognize that there is no coincidence taking place here.
Furthermore, the importance of Mary Eberstadt’s work is to suggest not only that it’s an intellectual mistake, but that it’s a mistake of consequence if we get wrong the relationship between the two parts of this picture. The received tradition, the received wisdom in terms of secularization coming especially from the world of secular social science, but also from some Christians observing the same trajectories, their explanation is that secularization produced the breakdown of the family. But Mary Eberstadt comes back to say, no, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s not that there’s no truth in that previous theory. It’s just that a closer look at the evidence demonstrates not only that the family breakdown comes first but why the family breakdown will come first. This is where Christians looking at this pattern need to recognize once again that we should not be surprised by this. That indeed even following our theology that is laid out in the Scripture, the meta-narrative of the Bible, we come to understand that it is the most intimate that is at the beginning and the most social that comes after the family. You just look at Geneses 2, “It is not good, God declares, for man to be alone.” And so he creates the help mate for the man, and you have the man and the woman and then you have in the very same chapter that therefore a many shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh; that comes before the rest of human society. In other words, the family is not only pre-political, in some ways, it’s pre-sociological. It comes before the rest of society. So the trends we see in the larger society had to begin somewhere, and that is at the most basic level of society – marriage and the family.
Mary Eberstadt’s book is not merely a book that lays out the theory that she has so well discussed on this program. It is filled with data. It is filled with research. And an ongoing conversation with an entire community of people who have been looking at these same patterns and have been trying to understand what is taking place. I tremendously respect Mary Eberstadt’s respect for the researchers who come before us. She is engaged in a very respectful and positive, even constructive conversation, with those who have been looking at secularization and the breakdown of the family, and trying to figure out how these things are related. But in this book she does what no previous book has yet done. What no previous theorist has yet tied together in this way. The use of word “really” in her title, How the West Really Lost God, is the explanation that the losing of God, that is the secularization in the culture around us, really happened because something happened before that. And the something that happened was the breakdown of the family.
Readers of this book will be confronted with a very daunting set of statistics. And, furthermore, with a picture that can only be described as rather dark in considering the future. That’s what makes Mary Eberstadt’s hopefulness in this rather remarkable and very significant. She points rightly to the fact that sometimes when nothing else works people turn to what they really do intuitively know will work, in other words the family. So the breakdown of the welfare state, the exhaustion of government in terms of trying to meet the needs that it has supplanted in terms of family function, the running out of steam, not just in terms of budget but in terms of governmental will, well that might also lead to a recovery if fueled by nothing else than necessity of the reality of the family and the gift that God has given us in marriage and family prior to community.
We’re indebted to Mary Eberstadt for this research. I also want to point out as we think about this kind of book and a conversation of this quality we need to be thankful for certain institutions that exist in this country that often do not get much attention, especially from those who are very busy in life and thinking about other things. And that is the existence of what in America is called the Think Tank. Mary Eberstadt’s work is associated with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C. and the Hoover Institution in California. Both of these are representative of what Think Tanks can do, setting aside time and priority and resourcing for someone like Mary Eberstadt to do this work. And as thankful as we are for this work, we need to be thankful for the institutions that have also helped to make this possible.
Thanks again to Mary Eberstadt for thinking with me today. Before I close I want to invite you to join us on the campus of Southern Seminary on September 26 for one extraordinary day to commemorate the life and legacy of that evangelical titan of the 20th century, Dr. Carl F.H. Henry. Convened in partnership with the Beeson Divinity School, Fuller Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Union University, this one day event will feature addresses from some of evangelicalism’s most prominent theologians and the heirs of Carl Henry’s legacy. 100 years after his birth Henry’s vision for a confessional and global evangelicalism remains as timely as ever. For more information go to www.sbts.edu/events.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.