How the West Really Lost God
July 22, 2013
Mary Eberstadt. How the West Really Lost God (West Conshohocken, Pa.: Templeton Press, 2013), x + 257 pp. $24.95 (cloth).
Conservative Protestants are suspicious of fake Christianity. Liberal Protestants or Roman Catholics may set the bar lower for church membership, but conservatives will not be fooled again. Whether you take cues from the Reformers who were wary of Roman Catholic affirmations of faith, revivalists like George Whitefield who feared Christians merely going through the motions, or fundamentalists who questioned Protestant modernist double-talk, if you identify yourself as a conservative Protestant you want something more from a professing Christian than mere assent to church teaching, church membership, or pious intentions.
What do you do then when someone professes faith at a stage of life where circumstances seem to favor settling down and putting matters right with the Lord? For instance, I know an elder of many years in a Reformed church who did not make a profession of faith, though he was born, baptized, and reared in Reformed Protestantism, until he was married and had children. The man not only served capably in his congregation but also reared children who went on to make credible professions themselves (with grandchildren also following parents and grandparents in the faith). Some conservative Protestants might be suspicious of this man's Christianity since it emerged from a time when faith was convenient. Instead of resulting from a personal quest directed by the work of the Spirit, affirmation of faith and church membership coincided with the demands of marriage and parenthood. Is it possible that God uses the rhythms of life to accomplish his purposes as much as the dramatic conversion experience? Conservative Protestant convictions about the supernatural origins of saving faith and Christian perseverance aside, the workings of family are sometimes even more discernibly effective in producing Christians than the immediate (and hidden) work of the Spirit.
Mary Eberstadt's book, How the West Really Lost God, is about the importance of families to the life and health of Christianity in Europe and North America. For those who want to reflect on the consequences of family atrophy for churches and Christian influence, this is a worthwhile read. At the same time, the book has more to say about theories of secularization in the West than about families or God. As such, the large sections of the book on secularization, though useful in their own right, take up space that Eberstadt could have spent on the theme that she herself thinks is so important for understanding Christianity's decline in the West - namely, family life and sexual relations.
The husk of the book is devoted to different accounts of secularization. Eberstadt first has to argue against secularization by noting the persistence of religion. For instance, some say that recent events (e.g. resurgent Islam) show that religion is hardly on the decline. Others argue that human nature, being constant, is always oriented to the transcendent. Another point against secularization is that religious beliefs wax and wane, thus making the contemporary West no different from earlier eras. Some Roman Catholics comfort themselves that secularization is really the gutting of Protestant Christianity's convictions. And then there is the spirituality-versus-religion notion which understands Christian decline not as the rise of secularity but as an opening for alternative approaches to the spirituals. As plausible as Eberstadt's rejoinders are to these arguments, she does not challenge sufficiently the notion that secular equals the decline of Christian influence. No one really thinks that Christianity's cultural footprint has expanded since 1950 - let alone 1600. But is secular the best way to describe what, though inelegant, could just as well be called de-Christianization? For anyone who highly regards Augustine's teaching on the two cities, with the implicit notion that the secular is simply the period between the advents of Christ - the age (saeculum) in which the city of man and city of God co-exist within in the earthly city - the idea that secular equals Christian decline is wrongheaded. Indeed, the very category of secular is Christian.
Eberstadt goes on to consider the prevailing accounts of secularization and finds them wanting. From the "opiate of the masses" and Enlightenment rationalism to the consequences of two world wars (plus a nuclear cold war) and the increase of wealth, secularization theories fail to convince Eberstadt, at least, as single causes or as accounts of the current predicament that face the West.
She comes closer to the kernel of her theme when she starts to correlate the decline of Christianity and the weakening of Christian norms for family life and sexual relations. Eberstadt points to evidence on the correspondence between the health of families and religion. So, for instance, those regions of the West that have the smallest families and lowest fertility rates are also the places where faith flags. Or consider the baby boom of the 1950's which accompanied an extraordinary growth of churches. According to Eberstadt, the correlation is remarkable: "More children equal more God. More marriage equals more God" (p.123). This relationship also clarifies secularization's consequences. One is the gender gap which shows that women have historically been more religious than men. Eberstadt suggests this is because women are more family-friendly than men. The importance of the family to religion also highlights the 1960's as a pivotal time in the secularization of the West, a decade that launched a sexual revolution and that liberated women from homemaking. At the same time, healthy families are indicative of strong churches. When churches liberalize sexual ethics, their numbers (and teaching) plummet.
Readers finally come to the kernel of Eberstadt's argument when she examines the goods - both religious and social - that families provide. On one level, families and Christianity reinforce each other on the level of plausibility. The responsibilities of parenting often drive people to (or back to) church. At the same time, Eberstadt points to the Christian narrative's dependence on family language, such as God the Father, and God the Son. At a deeper level, Christianity's social ethic assumes what today goes by the name "traditional" family. These reinforcements function as a sort of social double helix, "two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another" (p.22, emphasis Eberstadt's). Ties between family and Christianity lead Eberstadt to make utilitarian arguments about the family's contribution both to society and Christianity itself. From statistics about the social consequences of one-parent families to the importance of belonging to a Christian community and learning the faith as part of a group, Eberstadt covers circumstances that not so much prove her case but show the consequences of secularization for the family.
Although Eberstadt's argument will likely gain a warm reception from those Americans who have rallied under the banner of "family values" for the last thirty-five years, her case should raise questions among at least the conservative Protestant portion of those voters and activists. (Even conservative Roman Catholic readers may wonder if Eberstadt's description of the interdependence between Christianity and the family does justice to the tradition of celibate priests, monks, and nuns.) You don't need to know Christ's own words from Luke 14:26, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple," to suspect that Eberstadt may inflate the family's significance beyond what Christianity has taught historically. I do wonder how she might have revised her book had she reflected on Christ's words, even discounting them as hyperbolic. The history of Christianity is replete with saints who leave behind families in order to follow Christ. In those cases, Christianity upends family life as much as it rises or falls with it.
This does not mean, of course, that Christians who place Christ above all earthly loyalties are above family ties and duties. Paul's instruction to believers married to unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:12-16) shows that Christians still have an obligation to families and that conversion is not an excuse to renounce those responsibilities. At the same time, reading the Old Testament without noticing the significance of families in the life of the covenant community is impossible. And those covenantal expectations for family life extend into the New Testament, and to one degree or another, were recovered by Protestants at the time of the Reformation when, one could say, the family itself became its own monastery (minus the vows to celibacy and poverty) - a training ground in Christian devotion with the father as abbot. For conservative Protestants, the family is good but only in a proximate sense - not in an ultimate one. After all, in the new heavens and new earth marriage will no longer exist (Matt 22:30), at which point the family of God will supersede the nuclear family.
If Eberstadt had given proper attention to Christianity's own teaching about the importance of the family, she might have reconsidered the 1950's, a time when families and churches expanded at similar rates. That post-war family may now be forever tarnished by such maudlin television shows as "Leave It to Beaver" or "Ozzie and Harriet." Even if those network families did not depict accurately the virtues of white, middle-class, suburban families (who never seemed to go to church), the Christianity of the 1950's that blessed those families is not one that Eberstadt should use to support her case. For Protestants it was a time of neo-orthodoxy lite - more Niebuhr than Barth - when the American way of life (freedom and democracy) - not faith and repentance or word and sacrament - was synonymous with Protestantism. The situation among Roman Catholics was better but not by much. As Roman Catholics (in the United States at least) left behind their ghettos for suburban parishes, they assimilated American norms in ways that prepared the way for Vatican II's engagement with the modern world, a posture that significantly undercut rationales for becoming a priest, nun, or monk. Of course, the families of the 1950's were as responsible for increasing membership in conservative as in liberal churches. But in the case of liberal Christian families, domestic ties could not withstand the baby-boomers loss of faith.
The problem with Eberstadt's book is not her defense of the family, its significance in the history of the West, or the enormous challenges to it in contemporary society. As a creation ordinance theologically, and as a building block of society and real community, the family should be defended. This institution is crucial to healthy societies and churches and is under assault (perhaps because the advocates of "family values" were too assertive). So Eberstadt is smart and courageous to defend it. But the problem is that she appears to elevate the family above Christianity. In other words, Christianity serves as a means to the end of the family. If the family ever becomes more important to the conservative Protestant wing of "family values" voters than the gospel and the Christian ministry, then what happened to 1950's churches and families could well be the fate of Christian defenders of the family. That is a side of secularization, however defined, that Eberstadt does not but should have considered.
D. G. Hart is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College. His latest book is Calvinism: A History (Yale, 2013).