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.
Yuval Levin is the founding editor of National Affairs, a contributing editor to National Review and the Weekly Standard. He is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Previously he served in the White House under George W. Bush on his domestic policy staff. He has been identified as the most influential conservative intellectual of the Obama era. His new book is entitled The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.
Dr. Yuval Levin, welcome to Thinking in Public.
MOHLER: Dr. Levin, your new book The Fractured Republic has to be one of the best-timed books in terms of recent publishing history. Did you foresee it in that context or, quite frankly, has the 2016 context just been the right moment for your book to appear?
LEVIN: Well, I certainly didn’t foresee all the twists and turns of this year, no, but I think the kind of fracturing that’s on display in this election has been unfortunately visible for some time has been coming at us for a while. And so, the book really starts from the kind of intense frustration that’s so much on display this year and that has been easier to see than some of the specific political turns, obviously.
MOHLER: Your leading indictment in terms of the reason that America faces its contemporary and very urgent political crisis is what you identify as nostalgia—and by the way, today’s edition of the New York Times as we speak includes an important headline story by Neil Irwin on the challenges of running on economic nostalgia, perhaps he even was prompted to write that by your book.
LEVIN: Well, you know, it’s incredible when you listen to how our politicians talk to us and how people talk to one another in our political life how powerful that sense of nostalgia is and how much it distorts the way we think about the problems we have. And so election after election for quite a while now could easily be described as the two parties giving us a choice between going back to 1965 or going back to 1981. The Democrats want to rerun The Great Society and the Republicans want to rerun the Reagan Revolution. And you can see why; it’s not crazy. It’s just that’s a way to blind yourself to twenty-first century circumstances that really require attention. And so it seems to me that a good part of the frustration that voters feel is that their politicians are not talking to them realistically about the actual challenges that people face in their lives and also the actual strengths that our country has in the twenty-first century. Instead it is just these battles of which way do we go back, and we’re now looking at an election coming up this fall where really two seventy-year-old candidates are going to be yelling at each other about just how to go back. And that is a frustrating situation.
MOHLER: I think one of the unique strengths of your book is the fact that you diagnose that so well. And I was a child in the ‘60s, an adolescent in the ‘70s, a married adult in the in the ‘80s, and I think in my own lifetime I can understand as one born in the last years of the Eisenhower administration why there would be such a powerful pull of nostalgia. And one of the things I often do with students is that I present them with the 1960 party platforms of the Democrats and the Republicans and point out the fact that if you took the names of the parties and some rather minor particulars out, there’s some amazing agreement in terms of policy and understanding of the nation there. You trace the story of how America became such a fractured republic—trace that story for us. In other words take us back to, say, the Kennedy administration and move forward. How did it lead to this massive division in the American body politic?
LEVIN: Yeah, absolutely. As you say, it’s not hard to see why people miss mid-twentieth America. There is in fact a lot to miss about it. The America that came out of the Second World War, after the Depression, after the First World War and really also after a half-century of industrialization and growth of mass media—all of those forces had been pushing Americans together, had been pushing Americans to be more like one another and had been really consolidating the country so that the nation that came out of the Second World War was really an exceptionally consolidated, cohesive version of the United States. There was, as you suggest, an incredible kind of elite consensus in politics on a lot of issues—not on everything but on quite a few things. There was also a moral consensus that really did reign in that time. Church attendance was extremely high in the 1950’s and ‘60s. Marriages were strong, divorce rates were very low, birth rates were quite high—and so the things we miss, you know, were real. And people who talk about economic security or low inequality, that’s right too—stronger unions, job security, and stability. The trouble is that was all made possible by that kind of prewar and wartime consolidation. It was made possible by the global economy having been really decimated by the Second World War and the United States almost alone among the developed nations having come out of that war with a stronger economy than the one it came in with. And so we went into a period in the 1950’s and ‘60s where the United States had extraordinary economic advantages at the same time that it had a very consolidated culture. So missing that is not inexplicable.
The trouble is we can’t go back to it, and a politics of going back to it is not a politics that’s good at solving the problems we have. And the reason we can’t go back to it is that almost immediately after the Second World War, our country began to breakdown that consolidated, cohesive form of itself by liberalizing the culture first, by liberalizing the economy in the direction of a greater market orientation, by a kind of breakdown of that political consensus that had defined in part the ‘50s and early ‘60s. And so, in one realm after another, we began to see that consolidation, that cohesion, breaking down by choice, it has to be said. Americans thought that American life was too constricted, too consolidated, too conformist. If you look at the culture of the ‘50s it’s an obsession with conformism with wanting to liberalize out of that.
MOHLER: When you look at the two trends or trajectories you document in your book—individualism on the one hand and this consolidation on the other—I think many people would just say, well, there you have there the left and the right in American politics: the left with its moral individualism atomizing the culture and breaking down that consolidation. But I don’t think it’s as easy as that, and you don’t make the argument in such a facile way. There were conservatives and liberals who were aiding and abetting the breakdown of that consolidation.
LEVIN: Absolutely, individualism has really been the defining force of American life and it has not been limited by any means only to the political or cultural left. If you read the founding editorial of National Review, the great flagship of American conservatism, written by William F. Buckley for the first issue of the magazine in 1955, that argument is all about breaking down the constriction of a conformist society. It’s an extraordinarily libertarian piece of work, and even the struggle against communism was really a kind of struggle for individualism. The concern about communism was about its collectivization, its destruction of the individual. And more importantly than that, the right has wanted economic liberalization at the same time the left has wanted cultural liberalization. And so we’ve moved toward market economics at the same time that we’ve moved toward more liberal culture, and what you have in the nostalgia that we find today is you can see how each side of our politics misses half of the 1950’s and 60’s American life. The left misses the much more consolidated economy, the stronger labor unions, the stronger government. The right misses the stronger families, the stronger culture, and mediating institutions. And so the left bemoans the economic liberalization we’ve seen; the right bemoans the cultural liberalization. But of course those are two sides of the same coin. They’ve come together. And the kind of fragmentation or fracture that conservatives complain about actually is the liberalization and diversification of American life that liberals celebrate, and vice versa. And so it’s a very complex challenge. Our consolidated society has broken down, really I think it’s fair to say, because we wanted it to. It was a choice that the American people made and the challenges we face now are the price of that choice, of that decision. It may be worth the price, but we still have to pay the price, and have to think about the challenges we face, which are challenges of isolation, of family breakdown, of economic insecurity and dislocation. Those are the questions we have to confront now in our politics and a political life that just looks backward and says let’s rerun the Reagan revolution, let’s rerun The Great Society, is not doing us any favors in dealing with those problems.
MOHLER: I think you do an absolutely compelling job of making that allure of nostalgia very clear and, also, let’s just say, the limitations of nostalgia as an actual plan. You divide your book basically between diagnosis and then prognosis, or at least some proposals. I want to follow your own order and I do not want to rush to the proposals before dealing adequately with the diagnosis. When you look at the period of time you call “The Age of Frenzy” in the United States—and I look back to that time myself—it’s clear to me that it was the left that actually won a lot more of the victories that counted than the right; and I think especially in terms of that moral individualism or cultural libertarianism that you talk about—I think it was far more significant than conservatives recognized at the time.
LEVIN: I think that’s absolutely right. The cultural transformation that our country saw between about the mid ’60s and the mid ’70s is just absolutely stunning. The change you see in out-of-wedlock births and divorce rates and abortion in America, the change in attitude, the change in practice, was just absolutely astounding. And the scale of it was so large that it was very, very hard for people at the time to see. And so, we could certainly say that the left has liberalized the culture and the right has liberalized the economy—made it more market oriented—but without question, it seems to me, that the cultural transformation has been by far the more important and the more transformational. And it’s really left us with a kind of culture of expressive individualism that is dramatically different from what American life was like in the middle of the twentieth century.
MOHLER: When you look at that, it appears to me that, for instance, the expressive individualism that became so much a part of American culture—certainly one level in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but at a frenzied pace, to use your term, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—I think a lot of American social and even religious conservatives didn’t realize the extent to which they had inhaled that same air. And in many cases, we now see it in a generation of younger Americans who just take that as axiomatic. That’s the starting point in their worldview.
LEVIN: Yeah, I think that’s right. The basic assumption that the individual is the unit, that the individual is the way to understand all social and moral questions, is taken for granted by younger Americans now. And in fact, it is a very radical idea and is a huge transformation of how human beings in general and Americans in particular tended to think about the nature of our society, where we’ve tended in the past to see the family as the unit, the community as an important unit of society—all of the way we think about morality and culture now begins with the isolated individual. And that very beginning, that very assumption and starting point, just can’t help but shape the answers we give to a lot of moral and social questions that we ask of ourselves. And that transformation really happened in the late ‘60s and in the 1970s and you see it in just enormous changes across the face of American life. And it was represented in the way that Americans on the right and that religious conservatives, too, thought about their place in American society, thought about their own institutions. There was a kind of breakdown of cultural institutions even with more traditional communities that’s definitely extended since.
MOHLER: If you go back to the 1950s and ‘60s, I think of Will Herberg’s great book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, just establishing the cultural center in the United States with mainstream representations of the three great religious traditions that then provided the central circulatory system of the United States. But all that that was so solid in the 1950s, to quote Marx, has apparently “melted into air.” And you trace that at least in part in your book, especially the fact that liberal Protestantism, just to take one example, wasn’t a bystander to this process.
LEVIN: That’s right. A lot of the mainline liberal churches—that is, the mainline Protestant churches—wanted to be part of what was going on in the culture rather than trying to be a counterforce, a stabilizing counterforce, that said there were certain rules and principles that had to endure. These churches wanted to be a part of the change and so wanted to push along individualism, wanted to find ways to justify, to excuse changes in family structure, changes in ways that people thought about their responsibilities to one another and about their religious obligations. And what ends up happening when religious denominations try to play along with culture is that they erase themselves. They become indistinct from the culture and ultimately they weaken and the churches empty out. And again and again you see that in the course of mid-century American life where it is the more orthodox, the more conservative if you will in a theological sense, denominations and churches that hang tough and that keep their members and that grow, too. And the ones that just play along and let themselves get blown by the winds of the culture end up getting blown away.
MOHLER: You have a way of describing this that I think is brilliant, actually. On page 66 where you describe the mainline churches choosing, rather than being restraining forces in terms of this frenzied age of expressive individualism and moral change, you say that instead they decided to serve as accelerants, “adopting every fashionable trend and excusing every countercultural tendency in the 1960s.”
LEVIN: Yeah, it’s easy now from where we stand to criticize that—and I am critical of it—but I think that they also saw it as a way to be relevant, to try to keep up with the culture and so to keep, to retain their ability to deliver their core message. You can understand where that desire might come from but ultimately I think it’s just a mistake. And it certainly turned out if you look at the consequences to have been a mistake for those once very, very powerful and dominate mainline denominations. They really have been decimated by their unwillingness to stand against the tide.
MOHLER: Yeah, eventually they reached the point where they became so identified with the culture, they, like cultural Protestantism in nineteenth-century Europe, it became irrelevant simply because it became so identified with the culture you don’t need religion.
LEVIN: Yeah, and in a sense it faded into the larger society so that there wasn’t that much of a difference between going to church on Sunday and going to brunch on Sunday, and so the latter is easier. It seems to me that our traditional orthodox religions can really only survive in a liberal society by standing firm, by holding to what distinguishes them from that larger society. And by doing that they do a service to that larger society. They don’t become irrelevant. On the contrary, they allow for a kind of counterforce that strengthens the larger culture. But the desire to be relevant, the desire to speak the language of that changing culture, certainly exacts a very heavy price.
MOHLER: I think of the work of Richard John Neuhaus and Peter Berger back even in the mid-1980s when they began to say, look, even theological arguments aside—which is difficult for me as a theologian—but, they said, even theological arguments aside, this isn’t working. This is neither good for these denominations, who are collapsing, nor is it good for society in terms of the message they’re now preaching. And, of course in the case of Neuhaus, you had someone who was really on the left, and was, I guess to quote Irving Kristol, mugged by reality in one sense. But nonetheless, some of these things should have been visible, but they were largely denied.
I want to get to another issue in your book I think really, really important in your chapter “Age of Anxiety,” because you point us to the present and the polarization, the fracturing you describe in the present, and you talk about the fact that the left and the right, or conservatives and liberals, are now driven by completely different identifications of what the problem is. And so, for instance, on the left it’s income inequality that is the cause virtually of every problem. And on the right it’s all cultural, basically, rather than structural. So what has happened in the 2016 presidential race that would do anything other than confirm what you’re saying here?
LEVIN: Yeah, I think unfortunately this race has certainly confirmed the state of our politics, the sorry state of our politics. But part of what’s happened in these last few decades is the fragmentation of our culture, the breakdown of that very consolidated American society, has gradually turned from what you’d call diffusion, just a less centralized society, to polarization, to a society that’s concentrated at two ends rather than being concentrated at the middle. You see this in economics in terms of income inequality, of the middle class being squeezed at both directions and more concentration at the top and the bottom. You see this in politics in terms of much greater ideological polarization of the two parties than we’d seen in mid-century America. You see it also, though, in ways of life, in the ways that people at the upper and lower ends of our income and education scale actually live—family formations, church attendance, you see it in terms of the kinds of trends that people like Charles Murray have described for years where Americans at the top and the bottom just live different lives. They might as well live in different countries in a lot of ways. And this kind of polarization that’s broken us apart so profoundly clearly plays out in our politics. And so you do see, a lot of the time it seems like the politicians who offer us solutions on the left and right are just looking at two different countries. And so again, as you suggest, on the right the talk is always about cultural causes of the problems we face; on the left it’s always about economics. It should be so obvious that these things are connected, that they’re two sides of the same coin, that there’s no way to expect to be prosperous in a broken culture. But it’s also very hard to address cultural problems when people just don’t have the resources to meet their basic needs. And if we can’t see that these things are connected, then we really don’t have much of a shot at solving problems.
MOHLER: One of my current writing projects has to do with something that perplexes me akin to this, and that is that people on the upper ends of the spectrum economically and educationally and otherwise, whether they’re republicans or democrats, conservatives or liberals, they tend to live rather similar lives. And the same thing is true at the bottom rungs of the economy. So even though we do have this massive partisan divide, one of the things you actually document in your book is the fact that when you go higher in America’s educational attainment levels, you actually increase the likelihood of participation in a religious body. You raise the likelihood that children are born inside marriage and that marriages survive. I think that’s a very different reality that either liberals or conservatives would’ve predicted in the 1970s and ‘80s.
LEVIN: Absolutely. I think that’s quite right. And it’s a very difficult reality for people to get their arms around. But it suggests a number of things, good and bad. It does suggest that there is room for a kind of cultural revival. I mean if you think about what’s happened to Americans in the middle class and above, there was a kind of breakdown and some recovery—not exactly a return to where things were in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but a recovery of a way of life that is relatively stable and sustainable, whereas for people at the bottom there has not been that recovery, and they are dealing simply with the costs of a cultural revolution that they have not been able to escape. And neither left or right is really thinking concretely about how to help people out of this situation.
MOHLER: You hear the conversation in some circles between the culturalists and the structuralists when in reality I think certainly a theologically informed worldview, if nothing else, would point to the fact that you can’t have one without the other. At some point, these are not really clear distinctions.
LEVIN: I think that’s exactly right. There’s a way in which our free society is one whole society, and it’s a society that, whether for its free politics or its free economics, requires a kind of citizen that’s not simply produced by freedom, a citizen that’s produced by formative institutions, by family, by church and school, by community. And the sustaining of those institutions has to be our prime objective. And that just doesn’t fit quite neatly into either the agenda of the contemporary right or the contemporary left. And so it’s fallen between the cracks.
There can be no doubt that Yuval Levin rightly traces this fracturing of the society, and he traces it with both an historical review and an even more basic philosophical and ideological understanding. There was far more happening even at the time that Americans on either the right or the left seemed to understand. That’s easy to say from the year 2016 looking backward, but I think it’s also important to say. Reading a book like The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin, you come to understand that looking back to those decades, those crucial decades that he traces so well—the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—perhaps it’s true that those who were very active in America then and even a part of these crucial trends and events couldn’t actually know all that they represented it would mean. They couldn’t know then what we know now. And even as they were making decisions and promoting theories back then, we are still feeling that impact right now.
MOHLER: One of the most interesting accelerants in the midst of all of this fracturing has been the entire constellation of issues around sexuality and marriage, family, divorce, contraception, but in particular abortion and then LGBT issues. And those LGBT issues basically don’t even show up in your book, but the larger issue of the sexual revolution does. How is that now playing out in terms of the fracturing of our society?
LEVIN: It seems to me that the idea of liberation that has been so central to the cultural left for a such long time and that’s really played out in our culture for more than half a century, that idea ultimately points in the direction of the family. It points in the direction of breaking down the family as an institution that constrains our choices and our options. And so in a sense the sexual revolution is at the absolute center of where expressive individualism points. And so it’s not a surprise that a lot of our more contentious public issues, public debates, have really been about those questions of men and women and the family. And you have to say that that is a place where the force of individualism has really undercut the foundations of social order and social structure of society in ways that have presented enormous problems for just sustaining our institutions. We can argue about how certain economic debates have gone and how some cultural debates have gone, and they’ve been mixed, but ultimately the sexual revolution has just progressed and proceeded. And I do think that the radical character of what’s going on now makes it very difficult for a recovery to happen in any of the other realms without a functional family structure. At the very least, it’s very hard to see a way back.
MOHLER: In terms of the sexual revolution, one of the points you make in your book is I think incredibly well timed, and that is that the left now complains that the right is obsessed with sex. But as you write, religious conservatives today can seem obsessed with sex for the same reason that someone just poked in the eye can’t seem to change the subject. They’re being attacked on a particular front and are struggling to defend themselves. That’s a huge issue right now. I tell this anecdote often: I had one of the nation’s largest newspapers, a reporter, call me one morning very early and ask me two questions about homosexuality and then ask the third question, which is, “Why are you always talking about homosexuality?”
LEVIN: Yeah, exactly. It happens all the time. There’s a kind of caricature of religious people in America as just obsessed with these questions when really what’s going on is the larger culture is trying to use these issues as wedges to make it impossible for religious Americans to convey their larger message and to talk about the bigger truths of which this is just a part. And so as long as that’s the case, it is important to fight these defensive battles, especially struggles for religious liberty, for the very ability to have these conversations. But it’s obviously horrendously unfair for the larger culture to then say it’s religious conservatives who are obsessed with sex when in fact they’re being dragged into these fights that most of us would really like to avoid. But once you’re in it, you have to be in it.
MOHLER: Speaking of being in it, the very day we’re having this conversation the California General Assembly is considering legislation that’s likely to pass that will make it virtually impossible for a Christian liberal arts college to survive in California because it denies the religious liberty exemption to any program that isn’t training pastors. And so there’s almost no way to exaggerate the importance of what’s happening this day.
LEVIN: I think that the religious liberty fights that we’re so often engaged in now are absolutely essential for fighting for the future of our country and our communities. One of the arguments I make in the book is this: there is an opportunity that’s presented to us by fragmentation to conduct our part in the culture war by offering examples of what functional, successful communities look like, by offering attractive examples rather than by having these abstract struggles. But that’s only possible if we’re in fact permitted to live in the way we choose to live. That is, if we actually can allow our communities to live by what we take to be the truth and the right path. Without that freedom, there is really no chance for the kind of larger conversation about the deeper meaning of freedom that we need to have in our country to happen. And so there’s just about nothing more important than the struggle for religious liberty going on in our politics now. There’s a lot going on—it’s easy to be distracted by a lot of different kinds of issues—but if I were to point to one thing that absolutely deserves our undivided attention, it is the fight over religious liberty where there are decisions being made that just absolutely cannot be left to the kind of radical ways of thinking we see in the courts and we see in the culture. We’ve got to be engaged in that. We’ve got to be fighting for it. I think we can win there because we are fighting just an obvious kind of bullying mentality, but we have to be making the argument that that’s what’s going on.
MOHLER: I think the biggest challenge we face, and it’s one that you allude to in your book, is the fact that victors in terms of the current cultural moment, in particular those who are driving this kind of sexual revolution and moral revolution, they have now made it a sacred cause to make it virtually impossible for communities of opposition to exist even by choice.
LEVIN: Yeah, exactly. What we really see is an attack on the very core of what it is to be a free society. And there is a reason why the freedom of religion is the very first freedom that’s asserted in the Bill of Rights, the very first of our rights. And ultimately it’s very hard for any of the others to be exercised in a meaningful way if we don’t have the freedom to live by our convictions. And so that fight has got to be fought. We should not be too pessimistic about our options there. I do think that ultimately a lot of the public can be persuaded by the argument that we are fighting against a kind of aggressive bullying. We should understand that we are a minority in a lot of these fights but the people we’re fighting against are also minority. The larger society is neither radically liberal nor quite socially conservative. And in a sense we’re fighting for the hearts and minds of people who are not going to like being on the side of the bully. We just need to do a better job of making clear that that’s what’s going on here.
MOHLER: In terms of your proposals working toward the future—and you give very serious attention to that, which I appreciate; it’s not just a diagnosis, it’s also a suggestion of how we can move forward—you use one of the terms that I think is most essential to this kind of conversation and yet often missing, and that is “subsidiarity.” And as a Christian theologian, that’s not just an idea; for me it’s a core doctrinal issue in understanding even creation as we have been given it and are now stewards of it. I think you’ve got kind of a unique take on subsidiarity. So in terms of how you see that principle working out for the American future, spell that out a bit. Trace out how you make that argument.
LEVIN: Yeah, so if the moment we’re in is different from the moment we’re nostalgic for in that we are a much more divided, fractured, fragmented society, or you might say a much more diverse, dynamic society, then surely the kinds of solutions we need now are not centralized, top-down solutions. They’re going to be decentralized, bottom absolutions. That is, it’s much more likely that we’re going to solve our problems by empowering a diversity of problem solvers in our kind of society than by hoping that one problem solver in Washington will get it right. And so really central to public policy and to our thinking about our cultural and political challenges is understanding that solutions are much more likely to happen closer to the community, to the level of community, than to the level of the national government. What subsidiarity means is really, in practical terms, putting power as close to the level of the interpersonal community as is reasonably possible. That doesn’t always mean that all power should flow down—there are certain things that have to be done at the national level: national security and some other things really do belong on there. But it means that we should have a kind of default instinct that when a problem arises, we should think about solving it in terms of empowering people who see it face-to-face, eye-to-eye, people at the local level or at the state level if necessary, rather than first and foremost creating a new federal program. And I think that that’s not only useful as a practical matter, as a better way to solve problems—though it is that—it’s also better for us; it’s also better for the culture. It’s better for people’s moral lives because it draws us into a kind of sense of responsibility for one another and gives us the sense that we solve problems by working together with people we know, with people we live with, with people with whom we share the experience of life. As a human matter, it’s just a much more plausible way to think about how to address the kinds of challenges our country has than the overly centralized, top-down way that we’ve tended to think in Washington.
MOHLER: Absolutely. I would define subsidiarity primarily as the principle that it doesn’t start with power, but rather with responsibility, that the responsibility that will rightly fulfill and lead to human flourishing subsides at the most basic unit where it naturally can be exercised—I realize I probably just made that a little too technical for some listeners as well. But nonetheless, that would mean that, for instance, raising children would naturally subside as a responsibility in the family. And thus, subsidiarity says that once you get further and further from that unit, competence falls and human flourishing is diminished. So parents are in a much better position to raise children, to make the right decisions for those children, to nurture and feed those children, and to give those children moral guidance in the development of character than could any government bureaucracy at whatever level, no matter how well funded or staffed with experts. And that’s what seems to be so missing from the mentality even of many who consider themselves conservatives who have in many cases, I think, the right instincts, but they don’t understand what’s at stake. They don’t understand the principles at stake.
LEVIN: I think that’s right. There’s a failure to see that a lot of our problems really are a function of putting responsibility in the wrong place and therefore denying people the responsibility that can make us better people. We think about responsibility in the wrong way. We think about it as a burden, but in fact responsibility is necessary to our flourishing as human beings. It’s not possible to have freedom without responsibility. And when we deny the family responsibility for making educational choices, for example, when we deny the community the responsibility of caring for the poor and place that responsibility at a higher level where people are much less likely to have the kind of disposition, the kind of knowledge, the kind of access to the problem that it would take to really help, in a sense we hurt both. We make it impossible for policy-makers to actually do their job and we make it impossible for people in their families, in their communities, in those mediating institutions, to thrive.
MOHLER: I think back to a generation ago when Peter and Brigitte Berger wrote their book on the family. One of the things they pointed out is that by the time you reach the ‘70s and the ‘80s, with roots in the ‘60s, the American family had been, in their words, “surrounded by a core of experts.” And so you actually had experts supposedly with more knowledge about how to raise children than parents had, and it just leads to huge problems. And one of the things it leads to is that you’ve got people who actually believe themselves to be in a better position, even from Washington or Austin or any other political center, to raise children and to make these decisions. They’re in a better position and they are more enlightened than parents. And so you look at what’s going on even in California in terms of this issue with Christian colleges and universities. It’s kind of the same thing—we know what’s best and you’re going to have to toe the line.
LEVIN: I think so much of our political debates now really amount to that even though it’s not always clear to the combatants themselves that that’s what’s going on. There’s a kind of misplacement of capacity and ability and expertise and responsibility and just a complete loss of faith in both directions so that the elites who try to govern don’t have any faith in people’s ability to try to run their own lives. And therefore, in response, people don’t have any faith in the institutions to govern. And that’s an important part of what’s fractured our society.
MOHLER: I think you’re rightly identified as one of the most important public intellectuals in America today, and you in this book I think in a very candid, straightforward way identify yourself with the right in terms of policy proposals in the main and diagnosis of the problems. Commendably, you’re also trying to reach out to those who would be on the left who might be at least persuadable about the need to address some of these same issues and get over a parallel form of nostalgia. I want to press on you just a bit to ask you in terms of the argument on subsidiarity and the policy proposals you either make or point to—and I think you do both in a way in the book—just how conservative is this in the grand tradition of conservatism? In other words, how can we have subsidiarity in the middle without having it at the most basic level? I guess that’s a question I hope makes sense to one who tried to read your book very carefully. Because you basically say we can’t recover in a lot of ways from the moral revolution in the family. I’m just trying to figure out, how do we recover anything else if we can’t recover that?
LEVIN: I wouldn’t say we simply can’t recover. I think that the challenge is that we have to recover from where we are. We can’t recover by literally going backwards; we have to recover by rebuilding, by actually recovering. And so I think that means recognizing that in our kind of fragmented, fractured society the opportunity we have to recover is an opportunity to turn inward, to invest ourselves in our communities, not exclusively, but more than we have tended to, and to see that solutions can arise when we understand that what’s most important in our lives is what happens in our families and communities and that the rest of it is really about making room for the kind of flourishing that happens in those primary institutions. I think that’s very conservative, and in that sense I certainly approach these questions as a conservative, as I note in the book.
At least since Burke, conservatives have tended to think about society as consisting of these kind of concentric rings that begin with the family, and around it is a community and a broader religious community, and then broader sets of institutions that build up towards a national state. And each one of those is really there to protect the one before it so that ultimately we have these kinds of protective layers that create a layered society with a lot of institutions between the individual and the state. I think that is the conservative vision of society. Not all conservatives in America think this way. Some are more inclined to a kind of economic libertarianism than that. But I think the conservative tradition is very much rooted in that. It goes back to Burke, it goes back to Tocqueville, and there have been exponents of it since then in every generation. I think part of what I’m trying to do is offer a twenty-first century vision of that. In a sense what conservatives offer is the application of enduring principles to changing circumstances. And I think conservatives in contemporary America too often have not kept up with those changing circumstances and so have not seen how we can offer those enduring principles as solutions to contemporary problems. And so I think that’s what we need. I do have some hope that some people on the left may be open to this way of thinking, but there’s no question that on the whole, the modern left is much more interested in administrative centralization alongside cultural, radical individualism. And that seems to me to be the problem, not the solution.
MOHLER: I think your book is not only important, I will say I think it’s brilliant. I found it to be one of the most timely books I’ve read in a very long time. And one of the fun things is is that almost every book you cite I also would consider to be both important and rightly cited. And you do continue a conversation; I think that’s extremely important, and one you continue very well. The statement you just made in this conversation is to me clearer than at least the impression I got from your book in terms of this one very important principle. And I want to repeat what you just said because I think this is what’s missing from so much of the conversation. I too find my intellectual rootedness in the Burkean tradition and, as you said, it understands as a basic conservative principle that there are these concentric circles with the family at the very core in terms of forming society. And then you said every unit thereafter is to be protective of the one that came before. I think that’s one of the best stated principles of conservatism I’ve ever heard, and that I think underlines our problem because those concentric circles are now, in many ways I think, operating beyond the family in exactly the opposite function.
LEVIN: I think that’s right. And a lot of what happens begins at the top. That is, the federal government tries to invade the space between the individual and the state rather than protect the space. And that makes the rest of the kind of social vision that conservatives have tried to advance often practically impossible. And that is why a lot of the fight is about containing the overreaching of the federal government. But I think it’s important to see that that’s not about how much things cost and it’s not about the size of government exactly. It’s about a confusion about the role of government, the basic purpose of it, which to my mind is to protect the space in which people can thrive, and not to fill that space.
MOHLER: I appreciate so much the fact that your diagnosis and your analytical, critical work is so very candid, and I think absolutely on target. But you don’t end in despair. And I just have to think about the Lord’s word to and through the prophet Jeremiah in the midst of such a deep darkness, that what he needed to do was to buy a field and plant a tree. And I think you end in much the same way by saying we raise our children, we get married, we stay married, we create communities of very vibrant, moral meaning that we live out before the world. And if sometimes that means buying a plot of land and planting a tree, that’s just what we do.
LEVIN: Yeah, sometimes it seems like the least we can do, but it is a lot. And we need to make sure we do at least that much.
MOHLER: Yuval Levin, thank you so much for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
LEVIN: Thank you very much.
As I said in the beginning of my conversation with Yuval Levin, his book is one of the best timed in recent American publishing history. For example, some of the names that are now very much a part of headline news in America and especially, say, the 2016 U.S. presidential race, they don’t show up in the book, and yet I promise you they are there. They are there because of the diagnosis that Levin makes about, for instance, the primary problem of nostalgia driving both the left and the right in America. And there’s a sense in which that’s true, and it’s true in a way that not only helps us to understand the 2016 presidential race and the America it represents, it also helps us to understand some of the temptations in our own thinking. And I think that’s true for both the right and the left. And I think when conservatives in America think through many of these issues, we have to be very, very careful not to give ourselves to the wrong kind of nostalgia. The right kind of nostalgia reminds us of what is to be remembered well and preserved from the past. The wrong kind of nostalgia is an attempt to act like the intervening years haven’t happened and America hasn’t changed and somehow we can just rewind the clock. That is fundamentally implausible and unhelpful. But even as he makes that diagnosis, Yuval Levin points to the reality that during these crucial decades he traces so carefully, America has fundamentally changed. And this is something that is now more championed by the left in many ways than by the right, especially in social and moral terms, but in economic terms it’s a confused picture in terms of even what this means. There is a common sense that what Levin calls “the consolidation of America” during those post-war years has been lost, there is no doubt that there is the reality of income inequality. The question is, is that the product of the problem or is it itself the problem? These structural and cultural issues that divide the right and left defy any kind of easy solution. But as Levin makes very clear, there’s actually not a clean separation of those questions.
Two of the most helpful aspects of the book, I think, are first of all his understanding of what might be described as the plight or the predicament of conservatives in America, and by conservatives, not just political conservatives, but especially moral conservatives. And he rightly identifies the fact that most of these moral conservatives are going to be identified with some kind of theological worldview that compels by divine revelation and by force of authority that very conservative moral worldview. And even the use of conservative—as made necessarily now in our contemporary political moment—is a symptom of the problem. It simply would have been taken for granted by virtually everyone in society until very modern times. But this leads, of course, to a crisis of religious liberty. And that’s exactly what we’re facing, perhaps even a lot faster and more fiercely than had been anticipated even just a few years ago, perhaps even just a year ago when the Supreme Court handed down its Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
The second of the very important things I think Yuval Levin points to is subsidiarity as basic to any form of recovery, to any hope of recovery. And this is where many Christians simply fail to understand what should be a theological reflex to us because that doctrine of subsidiarity is not merely a stand alone principle, it’s something deeply rooted in a Christian biblical worldview, in a worldview that says that as God has given us the gift of creation, he has given us certain essentials, some of which are far more basic than others. And thus by the time you get to Genesis 2, you’ve got marriage and the gift of marriage as the uniting of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage. And then you have the gift of children. And even in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, you’ve got the necessity, the mandate, of welcoming children and of the family unit, of the mother and the father raising those children, and then of kinship, and then of community and those concentric circles we talked about. Most American liberals are absolutely convinced that somehow there are national answers to every basic need and every basic problem and that government exists in order to do what the family and the community are incompetent to do. And there’s a basic problem with that. But at the same time, many conservatives want to jump to the opposite of national solutions, basically buying into the same problem, which is itself a denial of the biblical worldview that points back to the fact that if we do not have a healthy family, we cannot have healthy communities, and if we do not have healthy communities, we cannot possibly have a healthy national government or national society.
Again I appreciate the fact that Yuval Levin is not just very keen when it comes to diagnosis, he is also hopeful when it comes to proposals. I think any fair-minded reader of the book would have to say these proposals perhaps come with a bit less specificity than his diagnosis of the problem. And that too probably points to the limitations of the problems on the policy arena when it comes to our contemporary cultural, political, and social moment. But at the same time, The Fractured Republic should be must-reading by both cultural liberals and conservatives in America. It’s one of the few books that honestly seeks to speak to both sides in this fractured republic, and yet to speak from a position of keen analysis and conviction. That’s a very rare gift these days, and it’s one of the reasons why I welcome the arrival of this book, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin.
Once again, I want to thank him for thinking with me today.
For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.
I’m Albert Mohler.