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Church, State, and the Role of the Family

Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

Family life is not an outcome of belief but a conduit to religious faith….

Eberstadt shows that strong family formation means more God. America enjoys a higher degree of religiosity than European countries, because “there are more families following the traditional model in America, even today, than in Europe.” Indeed, the post-war American baby boom coincided with a religious boom.

Conversely, weak family formation (e.g., illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce) means less God. The countries that have experienced religious decline have seen the natural family at its weakest. The French lost God earlier than other Western nations, because they stopped having babies and forming families in the late eighteenth century. Scandinavia, an area that has experienced dramatic decline in religious belief, has a high divorce rate and late marriage, and although there is a high rate of out-of-wedlock births, the total birth rate is very low. Countries that stop marrying and giving birth also stop attending church.

Correlation does have some explanatory power, but there is more to this story to buttress the case for the connection between faith and the family. One missing ingredient here is politics, because as the West “lost God,” it didn’t really lose religion–it simply substituted political religions for its Judeo-Christian past. Shaw and Eberstadt mention rationalism, the Enlightenment, and late 18th-century France as an early example–and it’s a good one.

The French Revolution was not a case of politics triumphing over religion. It was a case of a messianic political religion triumphing over the church. The language and symbolism of the Revolution were soaked in the concept of regeneration and rebirth. Religion had been so central to life in 18th-century Europe that it had to be appropriated by the church’s enemies because of its idealistic and aspirational language. As Michael Burleigh notes in Earthly Powers:

The attempted fusion of Church and Revolution through the Constitutional Church had been a divisive failure. So why not elevate the Revolution itself into the religion? After all, it had its creeds, liturgies and sacred texts, its own vocabulary of virtues and vices, and, last but not least, the ambition of regenerating mankind itself, even if it denied divine intervention or the afterlife. The result was a series of deified abstractions worshipped through the denatured language and liturgy of Christianity.

Because the French Revolution ushered in the new (and persistent) age of messianic politics, the state became a rival to the church–and later to organized religion in general in the West. This is one reason the value of the separation of church and state became truly realized with regard to protecting the former from the latter. It’s what Roger Williams meant when in the 17th century he said “when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the World, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe … and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day.”

A century later, as William M. Wiecek noted, the divide became stark:

For the antinomian divine, God’s garden (the church) had to be protected against the profane incursions of the ungodly (the wilderness). For the Enlightenment rationalist, on the other hand, the state had to be protected from the church, lest power-avaricious clergy corrupt the secular order.

Returning to the family, we see not only its role in incubating religious practice and tradition in each new generation but also the political outlooks that may logically result from it. Studies have suggested, for example, that conservatives in America have larger families than liberals, and that conservative church attendance is double that of liberals. Might there be a reverse connection along the lines Eberstadt argues in this separate context? Might conservatives be more religious because they have more children? It would certainly not be the only reason, of course, but perhaps an underestimated contributing factor.

While we’re at it, might having children encourage a more politically conservative outlook? Having families certainly affects a person’s interaction with the state, not just on basic issues of taxes and services but of voluntary economic organization. In his review of Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune, Benjamin Friedman notes the age-old existence of risk-sharing within families. In a footnote, he adds: “Risk-sharing within families continues to be important. According to some estimates, even small families can internally insure against nearly three-quarters of the income risk associated with individual family members’ uncertain length of life.”

This is not to claim that having more children means less dependence on the state, in the aggregate or otherwise. But it may affect the kind of dependence on the state, and the mere existence of the opportunity for risk-sharing encourages a ubiquitous reminder of the state’s proper role in human affairs and its lack of monopoly on fulfilling the needs of its citizens. This is not the separation of church and state, but rather the separation of state and individual. I’m not suggesting the purpose of having a family is for economic abstractions like risk-sharing. Only that Eberstadt is surely on to something when she offers renewed credit to the family’s impact on society at large.



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