In his review of Charles Murray’s new book, Yuval Levin offers this as one of the reasons why Fishtown has fallen so far behind Belmont:
[T]he 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 Apartis 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.
I greatly admire Levin, but (to put it mildly) have some doubts about his analysis here. Leaving aside for the moment the rather loud debate over sexual morality that has been a byproduct of the Obama Administration’s contraceptive mandate (if this isn’t social conservatives standing up for order, I don’t know what is), I think Levin might be overlooking the quiet work a lot of American churches and faith-based organizations are doing. They’re planting churches in marginal areas and supporting missionaries, not just overseas, but in low-income apartment complexes here at home. They’re trying to teach people how to have successful marriages and how to be good parents. To be sure, the evidence suggests that, however much these folks are doing, there’s much more work to be done. But I’d bet that more money and energy from socially conservative churches and denominations goes into these efforts than into the political advocacy that garners headlines. Consider, for example, this site, to which I linked from a site belonging to my own denomination. Yes, we talk politics in the fellowship hall (almost never from the pulpit in the churches I’ve attended) and we might march for life, but the lion’s share of the outward-directed energy and money goes to missions and “service and mercy.” And when you plant a church to serve a community that is religiously underserved, it becomes the center of a congregation whose members hold one another accountable.
Ross Douthat notes Levin’s argument and uses it as a springboard for a point he wants to make:
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 of church-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 [my italics], and the glue of confessional and denominational traditions is much weaker than in generations past.
He’s right about the institutional decline, but is, like Levin, misled by the news from the pews that attracts the attention of people in New York and Washington, D.C. That said, he’s more hopeful that religious institutions have a role to play in addressing the problems Murray has identified:
But at the same time, religious belief offers one of the most few motivators that might be potent enough to persuade a high-achiever to choose a life outside the SuperZips. (Just ask Ignatius of Loyola, or Francis of Assisi, or …) And even in their weakened state, our religious institutions — with their flar-flung networks of parishes and ministries and schools in need of leadership — offer a more plausible mechanism than most other professions for seeding middle America with the talented and energetic. What’s more, faith itself can have a leveling effect in a stratified society, and supply a common ground for people from very different walks of life: Under some circumstances, at least, a young Princeton-educated pastor might be better equipped to minister to a blue-collar community than a Princeton-educated social worker or Teach For America participant. To the extent that the kind of upper class civic reawakening that Murray calls for is even a remotely plausible answer to the current social crisis, then, it would probably have to be a religious awakening as well.
Perhaps I have a more catholic view of talent than Douthat does (my standards are lower?), but there seems to me to be talent enough to do what needs to be done without having to import large numbers of Ivy Leaguers. They’re certainly welcome to join us, but rebuilding social capital doesn’t necessarily require someone with a B.A. from Harvard or Penn. The guys in my church graduated from places like Wheaton, Calvin, Florida State, Bob Jones, and Southern Cal. They have a heart for the work and know well enough–thank you very much–what needs to be done. I’ve spent time at many churches and on many more college campuses. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve met people who wouldn’t be out of place in Widener Library or Dunster House. We need more of them actively involved in churches and other ministries. But they don’t all have to have Douthat’s pedigree.