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The Sky Is Red

And night is falling over fragmented America

A reader writes:

One aspect I find interesting is that you have clearly felt in your bones the same things Trump supporters seem to feel. However, your intuition of the moment is more religious than political in nature, thus (I think) it produced a reaction towards the BenOp as opposed to the search for the right candidate. Whether one looks to conspiracy theorists, Trump/Sanders supporters, preppers, BenOp supporters, or any number of other groups, it seems almost everyone can tell an apocalypse of some sort is coming, though everyone is reacting differently and using different language. The last two years at church, when people will say something like, “God will judge us,” I am quick to say, “He already is – this is what judgment looks like. It is not normally volcanoes and lightning bolts, flashing in an instant. It can go on for decades, and we are experiencing it already.” I think there are many common threads running through, even causing, these strains of reaction from people that may not have much in common. But all can see that the sky is red.

The reader sent that yesterday evening, and it was the first thing on my mind this morning. All can see that the sky is red. 

Last night, at bedtime, I finished reading Mary Eberstadt’s excellent book How The West Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, which I had been meaning to get to for a long time, but finally made time for as part of my Benedict Option book research. It’s stunning. Her basic thesis is that religious belief and family formation are intimately connected — hardly a controversial claim.

She says, however, that most social scientists think that the causal process goes in only one direction: having a deep commitment to religion compels one to have bigger families. While that is undoubtedly true, Eberstadt argues that the causation process goes both ways. Having big families, and growing up in a familial context, makes one more predisposed to religion.

This is not an iron law of social determinism, she’s quick to say. Some people grow up in irreligious families, or broken families, and find their way to faith; others grow up in religious families, even in strong families, and never believe, or lose their belief. Still, as a general matter, the connection between religiosity and family formation is undeniable — and Eberstadt’s contribution is to make an argument that not only does religion cause family formation, but family formation causes religion.

Her argument is not a theological one, but one made from interpreting social science data. To me, here’s the most moving part. She’s trying to get the reader to separate his views about whether or not traditional Christian sexual morality is harsh and overly burdensome, and whether or not it is a good thing that it has been greatly loosened over the last century. She wants the reader to focus on the effect this loosening has had:


The point is that out-of-wedlock births institutionalized on today’s scale work against the churches in a different way. Once again, at stake here are some fundamental issues of religious anthropology, or how people come to understand, believe, and practice religion in the first place — or not. And one thing that the experience of illegitimacy does is to pit a great many people’s actual experience of the world — say, of growing up with an absent or delinquent father — against the very foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition: to repeat, the notion that God can be understood as a benevolent, protecting male parent. How can that relationship between creature and creator be understood when the very word “father” may be associated more with negative than with positive characteristics?

Similarly, how can the story of the Holy Family be understood in a world where a family is increasingly said to be whatever anyone in possession of voluntary associations wants it to be? It was one thing, say, for children to understand the figure of the adoptive father Joseph at a time when most came from traditional homes, and Joseph was easily grasped as someone “like” one’s own father. But to ask children who do not have such protectors to understand what it is like to have one, and to encourage them to build their lives and souls around a concept that some will find elusive or even incredible is a very different conceptual challenge — and one that, to repeat, has not been faced by Christian leaders of the past, because it did not exist in the past on anything like today’s scale. Once again, the realities of today’s intentionally created and often fractured family life potentially impede grasping Christianity or finding it appealing, often in subtle and unexpected ways.

A couple of weeks ago, standing at the Divine Liturgy in the Wichita cathedral, I was thinking of a question a professor in the audience asked a panel the day before, about how he can talk persuasively to his college students about sexuality. They have no basis for understanding why the traditional Christian model is right, and the others are flawed, he said.

In the liturgy, it struck me that Christian spirituality is hard to understand absent the traditional model of sexuality. Mary is our model: she was the passive and willing recipient of action proposed by God the Father, an action that generated new life within her — a Life that saved humanity, Christians believe. God proposed, and Mary, by saying yes, made herself entirely receptive to His will. The Holy Spirit’s action, and Mary’s total surrender to it, even though doing so was likely to get her killed in her culture, resulted in new life. This is how spiritual fertility works, and we understand that by analogy to the traditional family.

It’s not only sexuality, though; it’s sexuality bound by a holy covenant. Yes, new life is always a sacred thing, which is why Christians believe abortion is wrong. But the ideal, the one most fitted to our created nature, is welcoming new life into a stable family covenant of one man and one woman. Eberstadt’s book cites much social science research showing that kids who grow up in a stable two-parent family are much more likely to thrive as children and as adults than those who grow up otherwise, even controlling for income. And, it appears, they stand a greater chance of embracing the Christian faith, not only because their parents may have taught it to them, but because the family’s form made them subtly but unmistakably receptive to the Christian story.

Reading this in Eberstadt, I couldn’t help thinking back to that sad dinner conversation I had a few years ago with some Evangelical college professors, who shared their concern that few of their students would ever be able to form stable families. Why? I asked.

“Because they’ve never seen what that’s like,” one of the men said. Nodding all around the table.

“But this is a Christian college,” I responded, struggling to grasp the point. “The kids who come here come out of Christian homes.”

Yes, said one professor, but that just goes to show you how deep this problem is.

Eberstadt doesn’t bring this up explicitly, only strongly implies it towards the end, but reading her book, it is impossible to avoid taking the next step. That is, she argues that religious life and familism are inseparable; the more family you have, the more God, and vice versa. What’s the next step? That once you separate sex and sexuality from God — that is, the God of the Bible — you set yourself up to lose faith. 

The sociologist Philip Rieff, in his 1966 classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic, linked the ongoing collapse of Christianity in the West to the collapse of the traditional Christian sexual ethic. As I recall, he did not explicitly say why this is so, only that the Sexual Revolution is a revolution that strikes at the heart of the social meaning of Christianity — and, he said, so many pastors and theologians don’t understand this. Remember, Rieff was a secular Jew and a professional sociologist. He didn’t have a dog in the religious fight. He simply interpreted the data that was in front of him. As I wrote in my “Sex After Christianity” essay a couple of years ago:

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.

It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.

What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.

Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.

Now, with that in mind, take a look at this news:

Church isn’t the only institution Millennials are avoiding or abandoning in droves, new research by The Barna Group has found.

The institution of marriage is increasingly shunned by younger Americans who in turn view sexuality as unconnected to matrimony, Barna found in “What Americans Believe About Sex,” a survey released Jan. 14.

The research explores generational attitudes about sex and marriage and, its authors concede, leaves families and churches with some pretty tough challenges in addressing cultural trends on sexuality, marriage and faith.

Christians, unsurprisingly, are generally more traditional than non-believers, the survey finds:

But even that is changing, said Joe Beam, an internationally acclaimed inspirational speaker, best-selling author and founder of Marriage Helper, Inc.

Beam told BNG that he routinely comes across Christian adults who share the sexuality values expressed in the Barna poll.

Beam said he regularly meets with groups of college-age adults and he teaches a course on sexuality at a Christian college. He finds their attitudes about sex revealing.

“They have the idea that sex is a way to get some relief, some sexual fulfilment, and if you like the person you can have some kind of sex with them,” he said. “Many of them have had sex with more than one partner.”

Many define sex only as intercourse, which itself is viewed as a bonding activity, Beam said.

As a result, he added, sex is viewed by many young people as a stress-relieving, feel-good activity that is not limited to marriage.

Many students tell him they’ve had sex already with multiple partners.

“And these are Christians,” Beam added.

And those attitudes are not limited to young Christians or young people in general. Beam said he regularly speaks at “Bible-based” churches where such views of sex are prevalent.

During a recent visit to a Bible-belt church, Beam said a group of adult women told him it’s OK to sleep with a man on the third date.

They told him that, he said, “with no reservations.”

Likewise, older adult men expressed their belief that using pornography, both alone and during sex, is “OK and healthy.”

Whole thing here.

The point is that the church is by no means immune to the revolutionary changes afoot in the broader culture. Many churches avoid talking about any of this, for fear of giving offense. Others — like the Greek Orthodox parish that knowingly communes an former priest-monk who left the priesthood and married a man — give tacit approval. The point is, in light of Eberstadt’s work, churches and parishes within churches that have lost an understanding of the integral connection between sexuality, fertility, family formation, and divine reality, are setting themselves up to lose God. It is no surprise that people, especially younger people, see that connection not as metaphysically real, but nominal — and if it’s nominal, then we can redefine it however we want to.

After all, if you’re an Evangelical, and you believe that the only thing that really matters is “accepting Jesus as your personal savior” — that is, achieving a subjective inner state — then why not sex before marriage? Why not gay families? Why not out-of-wedlock childbearing? Similarly, if you are Catholic or Orthodox, and you believe that simply being a “good person” and being a member of the church, and partaking in its rites, is sufficient, why shouldn’t a gay man civilly married to another man receive communion? What’s wrong with sex outside of marriage? And so forth. [UPDATE: Some of you are misreading the first line of this paragraph, assuming that I am saying that this is what Evangelicals believe. I’m not; I’m saying it’s a common contemporary distortion of Evangelical teaching, and is the Evangelical parallel to the Catholic/Orthodox distortion I cite in the next sentence. — RD]

The reason for this long, looooong digression is this: I believe that the collapse of the working classes, white and otherwise, is the most important political fact of our time. I don’t know that I would have said this before Trump’s rise, but I think it’s true now. That collapse has an economic base, definitely, but it is also a social collapse. Here is sociologist Brad Wilcox on Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which tracks the social decline of the white working class:

Thus, argues Mr. Murray in his elegiac book, the greatest source of inequality in America now is not economic; it is cultural.

He is particularly concerned with the ways in which working-class whites are losing touch with what he calls the four “founding virtues”—industriousness, honesty (including abiding by the law), marriage and religion, all of which have played a vital role in the life of the republic.

Consider what has happened with marriage. The destructive family revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s has gradually eased—at least in the nation’s most privileged precincts. In the past 20 years, divorce rates have come down, marital quality (self-reported happiness in marriage) has risen and nonmarital childbearing (out-of-wedlock births) is a rare occurrence among the white upper class. Marriage is not losing ground in America’s best neighborhoods.

But it’s a very different story in blue-collar America. Since the 1980s, divorce rates have risen, marital quality has fallen and nonmarital childbearing is skyrocketing among the white lower class. Less than 5% of white college-educated women have children outside of marriage, compared with approximately 40% of white women with just a high-school diploma. The bottom line is that a growing marriage divide now runs through the heart of white America.

Mr. Murray tells similar stories about crime, religion and work. Who would have guessed, for instance, that the white upper class is now much more likely to be found in church on any given Sunday than the white working class? Or that, just before the recession struck, white men in the 30-49 age bracket with a high-school diploma were about four times more likely to have simply stopped looking for work, compared with their college-educated peers? By Mr. Murray’s account, faith and industriousness are in increasingly short supply among working-class whites.

Mr. Murray’s sobering portrait is of a nation where millions of people are losing touch with the founding virtues that have long lent American lives purpose, direction and happiness. And his book shows that many of these findings are also applicable to poor and working-class African Americans and Latinos. Mr. Murray notes that “family, vocation, faith, and community” have a “direct and strong relationship to self-reported happiness.” Not surprisingly, he shows that since the 1970s happiness has plummeted in working-class and poor communities—but not in affluent communities.

This is all true, but as David Frum pointed out in his lengthy, hard-hitting pan of the book, Murray (a libertarian) seems not to have noticed that economic changes have driven this cultural collapse. This blog entry has already grown way too long, so I don’t want to quote Frum’s review at length. Let it suffice to say that Frum doesn’t fault Murray’s conclusion that the white working class (and the working class, period) is in sharp decline, but he does fault’s Murray’s failure to see that economic policies — especially those favored by libertarians — have a lot to do with it. And he faults Murray for deciding that upper-class Americans, the winners, should do nothing more than hector the lower-class losers to shape up.

Whatever else happens from Trump’s rise, it has been a great thing that the Trump phenomenon is a bitch-slap across the face of the GOP Establishment and its think-tank auxiliary. That said, the most the political class can do to address this problem is change the economic equation to make it more possible for the working classes to thrive. It cannot directly change morals and customs. As Russell Kirk said, political problems are ultimately spiritual problems. But as Mary Eberstadt points out in a different context, the causal connection runs both ways. What mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives, both committed to their own dogmas, don’t get is that economic and cultural structures cannot be separated; they rise or fall together.

The economy we have today makes it very hard to support the traditional family. The decline of the traditional family makes it very hard to form people capable of succeeding in the economy. The repudiation of age-old religious and cultural norms makes it hard not only to form a traditional family, but to hold beliefs necessary to form the kind of virtuous individuals who make strong families, and whose strong families make for resilient societies.

We live in a society unmoored from our past, our future, our God, and each other. And nobody really knows what to do about it. God knows our institutions do not. But I think most people sense, deep down, that this can’t last.

Red skies indeed. Night is falling. Time to shelter.



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