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Interview: Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt is Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, where she explores issues related to American society, culture, religion, and philosophy. She is also a research fellow at The Hoover Institution, and formerly served as executive editor of National Interest magazine. One of America’s leading cultural critics, Mary is a frequent media guest, and has written widely for numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, National Review, First Things, The Washington Post, and American Spectator. She is the author of a number of influential books, including: Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (2012); The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism (2010); and Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and other Parent Substitutes (2005). Her latest book is, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Mary Eberstadt, which was conducted by John Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. An edited version of this interview aired in May 2013 on the Council’s weekly radio program, “Family Policy Matters.” Mary discussed issues from her new book, How the West Really Lost God, and explained the intimate relationship between Christianity and the health of families.


John Rustin: Your book, How the West Really Lost God, seeks to offer a new understanding of why secularization has grown so dramatically, particularly in Western nations. Just so we understand our terms, what do you mean by secularization?

Mary Eberstadt: One way of putting it is that secularization means people not going to church anymore, [and] we’ve seen dramatic declines in church attendance across the Western world, including the US, which is still more religious than Europe, but showing declining attendance. To give a very dramatic example, the Telegraph in England just published an analysis of the 2011 Census there, saying that it looks as if a minority of people in Great Britain will be Christian within the next 10 years. They will have a Christian minority in the next 10 years! So, that is a very dramatic example of secularization.Mary Eberstadt: One way of putting it is that secularization means people not going to church anymore, [and] we’ve seen dramatic declines in church attendance across the Western world, including the US, which is still more religious than Europe, but showing declining attendance. To give a very dramatic example, the Telegraph in England just published an analysis of the 2011 Census there, saying that it looks as if a minority of people in Great Britain will be Christian within the next 10 years. They will have a Christian minority in the next 10 years! So, that is a very dramatic example of secularization.

JR: Well, that certainly is a concerning thought, and as your book chronicles, the United States seems to be moving in that direction. You argue in the book that the decline of the natural family is part of the reason we have seen an increase in secularization, and you point to some major trends to back up this claim. What are some of these trends?

ME: Let’s talk first about what did not happen, because what didn’t happen is what secular thinkers have been saying for over 125 years. Secular thinkers have put forth the idea that you can expect Christianity to decline because Christianity is a superstitious religion, and that as people become more educated and knowledgeable, they will realize that they can dispense with this idea of God. That is the prominent storyline across the West, explaining why we see these slides in attendance. But John, the problem is that that storyline does not hold up, for several reasons. One, we know that prosperity alone doesn’t drive out God. There are places in the United States today, where the most prosperous third of the country is actually more likely to believe in God and to go to church than the bottom third. So that stereotype of the Christian as this poor, “clinging to their guns and their religion,” as our president once said, this is a stereotype that really doesn’t hold up. And this, in a way, is encouraging news because it means in a way that the storyline a lot of people have imbibed of inevitable Christian decline brought on by education and rationalism is not really what is happening out there. So, in the book, what I first do is dispense with that storyline, and say, “OK, let’s look at what is really going on,” because I think what is really going on is something much more interesting.

It is that the churches are only as strong as the families in them, and you never see religious decline without family decline. And what I am trying to get at is a new idea, which is that family decline for all reasons encourages secularization, and we can talk about those reasons in a minute but just to give a couple of big picture examples. Scandinavia today is the most secular place in the Western world—in Scandinavia only something like 10 percent of people believe in the concept of hell anymore, and very few people go to church, lots of people don’t get married. Scandinavia is also ground zero of these experiments in the modern fractured Western family, and pioneered the out of wedlock birth rate, pioneered the fatherless households, and pioneered the idea of the welfare state as a substitute for the family, which is one of the things I get into in the book, that sort of tussle that you see between the welfare state and the churches. So, my point is in Scandinavia there has been religious decline for sure. Secular scholars would say, “Well, that is more proof that Christianity is going the way of the dinosaur.” But I don’t think that is what is going on. That’s a clear-cut case where family decline is helping to drive religious decline, and vice versa. So once again we have to look at the centrality of the family in these trends, and that is what has not been done before.

JR: Well, very interesting, so it is not so much “Enlightenment” or the “Enlightenment culture” that has brought on this change, but really the breakdown of the family…

ME: Yes, and lots of different ways, John, let me take one example that is pretty obvious when you reflect on it. The Judeo-Christian tradition has presented the idea of God as a benevolent, loving father figure, and this is how the idea of God has been handed down in that tradition, for a very long time. In the modern, Western family, very often, we have a situation where there is no benevolent loving father in the home. If you are the child of such a family, and you don’t know what it is like to have your father be like that or to have a male figure be like that, if your experience of a father figure is a series of your mom’s boyfriends, then you have to make a little more of a conceptual leap to understand that basic idea of God as a loving parent. So, that is just one way in which the fracturing of the family makes the Christian story harder to tell, or harder to grasp. Because Christianity could always take for granted before that people could understand this familial language that runs throughout Christian teaching, but what happens in a world where you don’t have families like that, how can you understand the holy family, how can you understand what is so miraculous about the story of Jesus if you’ve never held a baby, and you don’t know what is miraculous about that, and you live in a world with plummeting birth rates and most of your friends don’t understand what is so incredible about that story too? So these are all ways in which I think the fractured… Western family contributes to the emptying of the pews in Western churches.

JR: Mary, in your book, How the West Really Lost God, you argue that collapse of the family has actually undermined Christianity in the West. And I know you have spoken about that prior to this question. But how has the collapse of the family actually served to undermine Christianity?

ME: Well, the bottom line is that after the Sexual Revolution, all the churches have faced problems they never had before… After the Sexual Revolution, when it looks as if you can have sex without consequences for the first time, lots of people became part of these trends, living together without marriage, for example, out of wedlock birth, and all the rest of the things we’ve been talking about. Now, all of that behavior on that kind of scale, sets up a whole new problem for the churches because the churches that are still traditional minded are now seeing a great deal of resistance from society. And I am sure everybody out there has seen this, there is increasing hostility toward Christians in the public square. Over in Europe, countries that once discriminated in favor of Christians now discriminate against them. And you see this increasing stigmatization, where it once was considered perfectly ordinary Christian belief half a century ago, is now stigmatized as extremist and marginalized and taunted. So these are all after effects, I think, of the relationship between the family and the church, once again, because the splintering of the family—the fact that many people are living in defiance of the Christian moral code, whether they see it that way or not, means that those people don’t like to be told they are falling short of any standards, don’t like to be told that there are other people who think they are wrong. So we have in this whole phenomenon, a great deal of new resistance, churches have not had to deal with before on this kind of scale. And that’s something they have all got to figure out what to do with.

JR: Well, we at the NCFPC, work directly with state lawmakers as they adopt policies related to a lot of these issues, and we certainly see the importance, but this sheds a new perspective on that. [It] really reinforces the importance and the need for folks to look at policies and to be engaged in what is going on—not only on these specific issues but understanding the bigger picture of the impact that the embracing of abortion, divorce, single parenthood, those types of things within our culture, have an impact on a much bigger picture of the willingness of the culture to embrace a religious based moral code.

ME: Yes, and you know these things can be difficult to talk about John, but nobody wants to point a finger or shake a finger in anyone’s face. There are many single parent households that can’t help but be what they are, but to celebrate that on the other hand is to unwittingly endorse practices that are not only bad for children down the road sometimes, but also very expensive. The… modern welfare state in many ways effectively bankrolls the fractured family. It serves as a father substitute, a parent substitute, and it doesn’t look as if this system can be sustained. If you look over at Western Europe, you see this very acutely. The population base is declining. There are simply not going to be enough taxpayers to go around to sustain this cradle to grave family substitute known as the welfare state. So, all of these questions are indeed [C]hurches are only as strong as the families in them, and you never see religious decline without family decline. 34 Family North Carolina Radio Stations Airing Family Policy Matters questions of policy at the highest level. It’s not the case you can just say, “well let’s live and let live and let people just do what they do.” Having people do what they do in this way is having an impact, not only in their own backyards, but on the global economy, and on other taxpayers who pick up the pieces for the sad fallout of these changes. So, although I am an optimist, and I think the trends point towards optimism overall, I do think it’s important to see that these are policy matters.

JR: And on that point, you address in your book that the fate of Christianity matters even to nonbelievers, Christianity on balance is a force for good in modern society. It seems that what you’re saying is because of the real societal and cultural impact that faith has and that the family has, even non-believers should be concerned about what happens to Christianity. Is that the case?

ME: Yes, it is because we know that Christians give back in the public square, and I’m not knocking other religions, this is also true of other religious people, but Christians are the ones studied in this book. They give more to charity; they volunteer more of their time; they even donate more blood. There are many examples like that in the book, where I’ve drawn from secular social science to make the point that Christians do a lot of things, or at least some Christians do a lot of things, that we would say are good for the public square, and for the people around them, no matter what the people around them believe. Conversely, in a very secular place like France, you see very little charitable giving, so if we kick Christianity off the face of the map, the first thing we can expect is a serious diminishing of these kinds of public spirited enterprises, including charities, like soup kitchens and unwed mothers’ homes and all the rest of the kind of stuff that people with that religious creed often try to endorse.

JR: The good thing is Mary, that you don’t end your book on a negative note, but you actually envision the possibility of a revival in both the natural family and in Christianity. How do you see this taking place, and what solutions do you recommend for strengthening both the American family and the church in America?

ME: Well, the reason I’m an optimist, is first of all it’s wonderful that the conventional storyline has been definitively disproven now—the idea that Christian decline is inevitable is contradicted by the facts. Now, that we have that out of the way, let’s look at what makes it come and go in the world. You know, it’s always a mistake to say that social movements are inevitable, including something like the demise of Christianity, so that’s point one for optimism. Point two, getting back to the welfare state, if the main substitute for the family and the churches turns out to be unsustainable, then I think you will see happen what always happens in times of adversity, people will go back to their more organic connections of family and church, just as they did after 9/11, when millions of people darkened church doorsteps who had not done that in a very long time. That’s because adversity has a way of sending people home, and I don’t think it would take a global catastrophe to do it… When people need to do it, they look to what’s their most immediate surrounding, and their most immediate ties and those are family, and the religious communities that many people still do belong to. So, I think the grounds of a revival are there…


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