Christianity in America has reached a critical juncture, as evidenced by the wealth of recent conservative literature that engages in deep cultural and political introspection. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option calls for Christians to embed “within communities and institutions” dedicated to the “Great Tradition.” Published around the same time were scholar Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture and Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World. The former calls for the reclamation of truth, while the latter urges Christians to “live their faith vigorously, and even with hope, in a post-Christian public square.” And Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen’s more recent Why Liberalism Failed is in turn a bold attack on the ideological foundation of American politics.
Now another respected conservative intellectual has thrown his hat into the ring: biblical scholar Scott Hahn, with his more narrowly focused The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order. Its strength is its humility in scope, which offers a vision for how marriage, faithfully lived, can serve as an authentic source of renewal and preservation in America.
Why marriage? Because of the many-pronged assault of the sexual revolution upon this most ancient institution, which has left an impressive degree of wreckage in its wake. In 1969, then-California governor Ronald Reagan signed America’s first no-fault divorce legislation. Within 15 years, virtually every state in the Union had followed suit. From 1960 to 1980, the American divorce rate more than doubled. Today, children exposed to divorce are two to three times more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies. Adolescents with divorced parents are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school when compared to children from intact families. Adolescent girls with divorced parents are three times more likely to become teen mothers, while their male counterparts are twice as likely to spend time in prison.
Apart from our social and legal acceptance of divorce culture, other trends have also undermined marriage. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, more than 60 million children have died because of abortion. The ubiquity of pornography has undermined marriage, if not aggressively destroyed it. The widespread use of contraception has led many couples to forego marriage altogether, while also encouraging them to view sex as transactional, rather than unitive and procreative. And perhaps most importantly, an increasingly secularized public square has persuaded Americans to view marriage not as a covenant bond between man and woman before God, intended both for their own good and that of society, but a temporary arrangement between any persons based on personal preference and transitory sentiment.
Hahn recognizes all of this, and his answer is not to turn back the clock to some golden, pre-sexual revolution America when families were larger and happier. He labels such nostalgia “escapism.” We must rather “take the best, leave the rest” of early generations that better understand the intrinsic goodness of marriage. Through the course of his book, which melds biblical exegesis, historical analysis, socio-cultural commentary, and theological reflection, Hahn makes a compelling case that marriage is the first institution we should seek to affirm, support, and revitalize to rebuild American culture.
It would be difficult to read a Scott Hahn book and not walk away seeing Holy Scripture or Christian theology through fresh eyes, nourished from the mind of one of the greatest exegetes of our time. Though Hahn is a Catholic convert from evangelical Presybterianism, all readers regardless of religious affiliation will find much to contemplate in these pages. Those married will likely sense a deeper urgency to live out their callings as husbands and wives more faithfully, more eagerly, and more conscientiously. Singles, too, will be reminded of why they should seek out a culture that praises and supports marriage.
Given Hahn’s scholarly credentials, we should not be surprised that he starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden. In the creation account, everything God made is good, or, in mankind’s case, “very good.” Yet in that same narrative we are told of one thing in creation that is “not good”: loneliness. Even the first chapters of Genesis are an implicit rebuke to the atomization that defines our liberal, increasingly libertarian social order. Indeed, all of us are born helpless into families and communities upon whom we must rely—to think that the goal of human existence is to free ourselves from this state to pursue our own individual goods is to go against the most essential character of the natural order. And what is more basic to this society of individuals dependent upon one another than the family?
As Hahn the theologian notes, the family in its very composition serves as a type for the self-giving love present in the Trinity. In the family, children learn to consider “the needs of other individuals and the community ahead of themselves.” Parents in turn model this anti-individualist paradigm when, instead of “pursuing their own ends,” they seek the good of one another and others—children, neighbors, coworkers, the poor, etc. Hahn’s analysis of the family’s influence on larger society serves as a sucker punch to America’s gut: “all human societies eventually take on the form and structure of the families that comprise them. A disintegrating culture of marriage will lead to a disintegrating society.” Ain’t that the truth!
Moreover, as the family’s societal role declines, other institutions rise to take its place: civil authorities and profit-seeking corporations, both of whom seek to make individuals increasingly reliant upon them. While these play an important role in any well-functioning society, they cannot replace the family. We’ve learned recently, for example, that the socialization offered by Facebook is a double-edged sword, if not often fake and dehumanizing. Government and business, though positive goods, will always be much further removed and less stable—and consequently less personal, less faithful, and less merciful—than the family.
Yet many Americans do not know marriage as such an institution. They have suffered at the hands of neglectful parenting and messy divorces, or themselves have been the perpetrators of these societal ills. Even those attracted to the paradigm of marriage presented by Hahn may question whether its ideal can be realized. Marriage, Hahn argues, should be permanent, exclusive, and open to life. With current divorce rates, the likelihood of increased civil redefinition of marriage, and declining birth rates, even these three characteristics seem far removed from our current cultural moment.
This is why, Hahn argues, marriage requires divine assistance. As it was for Adam and Eve, ancient Israel, and historic Christianity, it is a covenantal relationship before God, on which God places an intimate and enduring role. Through God’s grace, marriage becomes a place where partners—and, God willing, their children—guide each other not only to worldly goods but heavenly rewards as well. Through God’s grace, marriage becomes a place where love, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, and even joyful suffering are fostered. God also communicates grace through the sacraments to effect the life of God in the family.
Stronger marriages accomplish more than inculcating virtue in the lives of spouses and children. They also help combat the individualist dogma of our current age, which Hahn censures for removing “any notion of the common good from politics, then begs individuals to act independent for the good of others and the community at large.” It is the family, properly functioning, that helps foster a conception of the common good that seeks the best for both the community and each member of that community. A well-functioning family, for example, must place goodness over freedom, even though it values both.
Hahn’s presentation of “the first society” is especially motivating because the application is so clear. Whether or not one is currently raising a family, one is a member of one. Viewing family life as a calling not only for one’s own sake and that of one’s children, but as one for all of society, means we all have a part to play. Moreover, as Hahn’s definition of family encompasses more than the modern development of the “nuclear family,” it means that our relationships with our grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, and many others are also important. Restoring the American family is a gargantuan task, but it starts individually with us. Through prayer, the support of our churches, and the grace of God, we might be able to turn the tide.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.