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Social Conservatism’s Failure

I’ve been meaning to throw a few words into the interesting discussion going on among Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin, and others over Levin’s take on Charles Murray’s new book.  First, this excerpt from Levin’s review:

Rather, the cultural disaster Murray describes seems to be a failing of America’s moral (and therefore largely its religious) institutions. And although he does not put it this way, Coming Apart is a scathing indictment of American social conservatism.

Social conservatism serves two kinds of purposes in a liberal society: We might call them justice and order. In the cause of justice, it speaks up for the weak and the oppressed, defending them from abuse by the powerful, and vindicating basic human dignity. In the cause of order, it helps us combat our human failings and vices, and argues for self-discipline and responsibility. Think of abolition on the one hand and temperance on the other.

In our time, American social conservatism has much to be proud of as a movement for justice: Social conservatives devote themselves to the pro-life cause, to human rights, and to the plight of the poor abroad. But American social conservatism has almost entirely lost interest in the cause of order—in standing up for clean living, for self-discipline and restraint, for resisting temptation and meeting basic responsibilities. The institutions of American Christianity—some of which would actually stand a chance of being taken seriously by the emerging lower class—are falling down on the job, as their attention is directed to more exciting causes, in no small part because the welfare state has overtaken some of their key social functions.

The cultural revival essential to addressing the crisis Murray describes is barely imaginable as long as this remains the case.

At NRO, David French, a conservative Evangelical, reacts with a scathing critique of his own side. Excerpt:

During my years in the pews, I’ve witnessed a moral collapse — and a corresponding collapse in positive influence over the real lives not just of our fellow congregants but also of our fellow citizens in need.  Of course it’s difficult to present a compelling witness when our own practices and lifestyle are often indistinguishable from the larger culture, but the problems get more specific. Here are three:

1. We are more focused on meeting the material needs of the poor than their spiritual needs. Spend much time in the evangelical community, and you’ll soon learn that the old-fashioned Gospel-focused mission trip is largely a thing of the past. Now, you go build schools. Now, you go dig water wells. Now, you repair houses. These are worthy goals, all, but service projects by themselves don’t change hearts and minds, they often make (frequently) self-inflicted misery more bearable. Service must be accompanied by intentional, vocal evangelism and discipling.

His other two points are basically coming from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. He says that the market approach to church-as-therapeutic-institution that characterizes modern Evangelicalism is devastating: “We cannot build institutions when our focus is on building the self.”

Ross Douthat has a lot to say about this. From his first post :

As it happens, this is one of the themes of my forthcoming book — the extent to which the story of religion in America over the last two generations is a story, not of outright secularization, but of institutional decline. Contemporary Americans are as religiously-minded as ever, but the rise ofchurch-switching and do-it-yourself faith and the steady weakening of the traditional churches and communions has left the country without religious institutions capable of playing the kind of social role that Levin describes above. This organizational decline has been most pronounced within what’s often described as liberal Christianity — in the churches of the Protestant Mainline, and in the “Spirit of Vatican II” wing of the Catholic Church. But among more self-consciously conservative believers, too, constant church-shopping is commonplace (just ask Marco Rubio), national political causes often excite more interest than local social engagement, and the glue of confessional and denominational traditions is much weaker than in generations past. The vitality of American Christianity today is too often a vitality of individuals rather than institutions, or else of institutions that depend too heavily on a single personality for their strength and survival. We have plenty of celebrity pastors and authors and bloggers and television hosts, but the more corporate and communal forms of faith are growing weaker every day.

In a follow-up post just published, Ross talks about how so many churches today, on both the theological left and the right, come to think of themselves in factional and political terms. He recommends the excellent book “American Grace,” the in-depth sociological portrait of American religion published a couple of years ago. As AG authors Bob Putnam and David Campbell note, it appears that American churchgoers pick their churches/parishes more by political criteria rather than having their parishes determine their politics. You can see why this would make people hive themselves off into congregations where they aren’t likely to hear the part of the full Christian message that they need to hear, but don’t want to hear.

In that latest post, Ross muses that American Christianity might benefit from having more Ivy Leaguers go into the full-time ministry (remember, this entire discussion began with Yuval Levin’s assessment of Murray’s book, which itself is focused on the cultural chasm between white elites and the white working class). I’m skeptical of this. Remember Timothy Dalrymple’s much-remarked-upon essay about the moral cesspool at Princeton Theological Seminary when he studied there? I learned later that a new administration has apparently righted the ship at PTS, and besides, one place does not necessarily speak for the entire Ivy League. Still, this might be my own prejudice talking, but I can’t help doubting that the kind of Christianity that I imagine interests Ivy Leaguers is the kind of Christianity that could participate in the kind of moral and social revival Levin and the rest of us hope for. I could, of course, be wrong, and I welcome (seriously!) information from better informed readers who can counter my skepticism. It’s my impression that this kind of statement — from a female Episcopal priest commenting on her nomination, as well as the nomination of an openly gay male priest, to fill the spot left by retiring (gay) Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson — is the kind of thing that captivates the religious and moral imagination of most Ivy League Christians:

“It is significant that the church is growing in a diocese which has led the way in radical inclusion, and we should learn from this and apply the same values across the church,” she wrote. “When our church tries to avoid conflict by shying away from the work of social justice, we lose the possibility of offering a compelling narrative, and membership declines. New Hampshire is living by example in embracing the gifts of all people; this example is to be nurtured and strengthened.”

For the record, official TEC figures show that the diocese now has fewer baptized and attending members than when Bp Robinson was named in 2003. But whatever.

Anyway, back to the original question: Is Murray’s book a “scathing indictment” of social conservatism’s failure, because, as Yuval Levin writes, “American social conservatism has almost entirely lost interest in the cause of order—in standing up for clean living, for self-discipline and restraint, for resisting temptation and meeting basic responsibilities”? My gut tells me yes, probably. But I wonder too if there are ears to hear this message, which is radically countercultural. On the Religious Right (where, broadly, I find myself), our great failing has been to assume uncritically that the free market goes hand in glove with Christianity, and, relatedly, that the whole of social conservatism consists of being pro-life and holding the correct attitudes about sex.

Anyway, the point of this long and rambling post is really just to start a conversation about Yuval Levin’s observation, not settle any arguments.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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