Conservatism needs to recover its ability to speak to our deep and perennial need for solidarity. The economic freedom that encourages individuals to be productive and independent certainly needs to be promoted. We need more robust economic growth, and there’s an inherent dignity in earning a living and providing for oneself and one’s family, which is why, as Arthur Brooks has pointed out, we value “earned success” much more highly than benefits that are given to us. It’s a false philanthropy that constructs programs and policies that seduce people into habits of dependency that diminish the opportunities and incentives for earned success.
All that needs to be said, and said frequently. The problem is that today’s Republican party says little more. Economic vulnerability and moral disorientation are the defining political and social challenges of our time, and economic freedom, however important for a vibrant economy and healthy society, does not address these problems.
The average Joe is not being threatened by an incipient socialism, and it’s foolish to imagine that he is. Middle-class America is falling apart because of the triumph of capitalism and free market principles across the entire globe. The free flow of capital and goods provides wonderful new opportunities for some, but lots of Americans are increasingly uncompetitive. The increase in economic freedom over the last few decades, which is now global, benefits the few and disadvantages the many.
Moreover, middle-class culture is falling apart because of the equally stunning triumph of lifestyle freedom, and this puts ordinary people at a disadvantage as well. Progressive elites who often preach lifestyle freedom have regrouped. They raise their children in segregated communities and schools, guiding them toward lives as well-disciplined competitors in the new meritocracy. (Helen Rittelmeyer’s “Sex in the Meritocracy” shows this to be the case even for elite hedonism.) In the dictatorship of relativism, the dictators insulate themselves from excess. “Make healthy choices,” they tell their children. Meanwhile, the rest of America slides toward moral disorientation. In a world of tattoos and piercings, serial cohabitation and out-of-wedlock children, all saturated by a crude popular culture, it’s not clear anymore what makes someone an honorable, respectable adult.
In this context, a conservative approach attuned to society’s problems must emphasize the theme of solidarity—or better, responsibility—not freedom. One way or another, the social contract will come unraveled if those of us who are winners in the global economy don’t find ways to take responsibility for our fellow citizens who aren’t. The same goes for those disoriented, atomized, and degraded by mass culture.
The family is the most reliable and humane social safety net, and it needs to be strengthened. Moreover, we should take responsibility in a personal way rather than turning society’s problems over to bureaucrats to manage and remediate. The principle of subsidiarity—solutions as close to the problems as possible—fosters a humane society because it brings us into contact with each other as citizens. We come together, face to face, to exercise our collective responsibility.
But we cannot take responsibility in only local ways. The social crises precipitated by globalization and the decline of traditional moral authority will undoubtedly require national and even international responses. This anguishes any true conservative who rightly regrets the modern growth of government. Big government precipitates endless problems—economic inefficiency, rent seeking, corruption, and the temptation to displace or take control of civil society.
But conservatives deceive themselves if they think a bigger government can be avoided. The extraordinary expansion of economic freedom made possible by the global triumph of capitalism is almost certain to call for political developments on the same scale. The moral disintegration of middle-class life, especially the decline of the family, requires an adequate response. Given the scale of the problem—what social institution is more important than the family?—it is bound to require the resources of the nation as a whole.
Christianity teaches that we have a duty to serve the common good in our time and in our place. To do so, we need reality-based thinking rather than ideological dreams. There are conservative ways to “do” big government that discourage dependency and leave space for civil society to repair and renew itself. The 1996 welfare reform provides a good example, as do charter schools and other efforts to create the educational pluralism advocated by Ashley Berner (“The Case for Educational Pluralism,” December 2012).
Government can be big without being a nanny, or at least not an overbearing one; it can aggregate communal resources for the common good without entirely displacing private initiative. It was this possibility that the flawed but important concept of “compassionate conservatism” tried to evoke. We need a similar approach to global institutions: a conservative internationalism of the sort suggested by Pierre Manent (“Human Unity Real and Imagined,” October 2012).
Most important of all, we need to reject the politically expedient view, one entertained these days by the Republican establishment, that conservatism should set aside the social issues in order to win electoral victories. Every society needs principles and sources of order. That’s why, unless we sustain sources of moral authority that put the order into ordered liberty, we’ll see an even bigger, more intrusive government designed to provide a regulatory, bureaucratic, and therapeutic order where a moral one is lacking.
In a free society, people need to take responsibility for their lives. This requires moral clarity among elites who claim to lead the country, clarity about what counts as good, responsible, and respectable. Without moral clarity, the political goals of conservatism will be impossible to achieve, because limited government is only possible for people capable of self-government.
The two family cultures with the strongest sense of purpose are at odds with each other religiously, morally, culturally, and politically. The clash of what the Culture of American Families Project calls the “Faithful” and the “Engaged Progressives” is consequential, perhaps definitive, for public life. Their evenly matched self-confidence and success in passing along their values to their children means that the culture war is very likely to continue unabated.
The report, which summarizes the results of a three-year investigation conducted by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (the research team includes Ashley Berner, author of “The Case for Educational Pluralism” in the December issue, and Advisory Council member Joseph Davis), breaks down family cultures into four basic categories: the Faithful, the Engaged Progressives, the Detached, and the American Dreamers. The latter two family cultures largely accept the status quo. Detached parents report a feeling of helplessness. For good or ill, their kids are formed by popular culture. American Dreamers are more positive, but they want their children to succeed as success is defined by others. By contrast, the Faithful and the Engaged Progressives raise their children on their own terms, inculcating into them well-formed, confident, and comprehensive worldviews.
Twenty percent of American parents are among the Faithful. They largely reject the sexual revolution. Sixty-eight percent register the strongest possible disagreement with the proposition that “sex before marriage is okay if a couple love each other.” Sixty-nine percent think contraception should not be made available to teenagers without their parents’ approval. Three-quarters reject same-sex marriage.
When it comes to women and the workplace, the Faithful mothers are more likely to stay at home with the kids than are others. This does not correlate to a simplistic view of women at home and men in the workplace. The Faithful are much more likely than other parents to “completely agree” that a woman should put family above career, but they also insist with equal vehemence that the same holds for men. Family trumps personal needs and desires. Not surprisingly, the Faithful are also hostile to the culture of divorce. A striking 60 percent reject the view that divorce is preferable to sustaining an unhappy marriage, as compared to 16 percent of other parents. Eighty-eight percent are married, and 74 percent remain in their first marriages.
These are the sorts of folks who read First Things . They don’t accept the moral minimalism of our therapeutic age. A resounding 91 percent reject the view that “as long as we don’t hurt others, we should be able to live however we want.” Eighty-eight percent think we should guide our behavior by what God or Scripture says. And they’re confident. Two-thirds say that controlling teenagers’ access to technology (internet, social media, cell phones) is not a losing battle. They’re overwhelmingly more likely than the general population of parents to agree that “it is my responsibility to help others lead more moral lives.” Which is what they do, forming strong communities that are often organized around church and church-related education for their children.
The Engaged Progressive parents are in many ways equally committed and equally determined—and, at 21 percent of all parents, as numerous as the Faithful. They emphasize personal autonomy. People need to be given space to find their own ways in life. Over half affirm that “as long as we don’t hurt others, we should all just live however we want.” A super-majority (83 percent) agrees that we should be tolerant of “alternative lifestyles.”
Engaged Progressives endorse a mobile and plastic view of morality, one attuned to personal needs and differences. They’re skeptical of traditional authorities, especially religious ones, which they view as overly punitive and insufficiently inclusive. Eighty percent of Engaged parents say they wouldn’t appeal to Scripture or religious authorities to guide the moral development of their children. They also tend to reject spanking (a third say it’s positively wrong to do so), which in my experience is the single most reliable predictor of the whole range of progressive views. They want their kids to be fair-minded, caring, and non-judgmental. This reflects their vision of society, which is not a libertarian dreamland where people get to seek individual self-interest, but instead a therapeutic culture in which people are affirmed and supported in their personal journeys.
Although Engaged Progressives say that divorce is preferable to an unhappy marriage, they are almost as likely to remain married as the Faithful. They are also as likely to eat meals with their children. Mothers with pre-school kids are very nearly as likely to stay at home. They may be more permissive than the Faithful, but they’re no less committed to maintaining their families and serving the needs of their kids. Almost all (93 percent) say that they invest a great deal of effort in shaping the moral character of their children. Their family culture is very strong.
Child-rearing is the most primitive of all political acts, as Plato, Rousseau, and many others have recognized. Given the differences in family cultures, it’s not surprising that the Faithful and the Engaged Progressives clash in the voting booth. The Faithful are overwhelmingly Republican. Engaged Progressives are Democrat by an almost four-to-one margin. What’s more subtle is the clash over social institutions, with the Faithful tending toward a counterculture and the Engaged Progressives taking command of civic institutions.
The Culture of American Families Project shows that the Faithful are alienated from public institutions and the dominant cultural forces at work in society. They are the most likely to think moral standards in America have declined. They don’t turn to the experts our society now credentials and authorizes—therapists, psychologists, school administrators, teachers, and counselors. This distrust is epitomized in their attitude toward public schools: 42 percent see them as largely bad for children, as compared to 19 percent of other parents. Among the Faithful whose children go to public schools, 63 percent report that if they could afford to do so they would send their kids to religious schools or homeschool them. In sum, they largely reject the forms of social authority that have fallen under the control of the Engaged Progressives.
This alienation is not dysfunctional, although it can sometimes look that way to those who wish to superintend our society. The Faithful respond by investing in the social institutions they find trustworthy—religious communities primarily, but also the schools, media, and social networks that support and are supported by their religious, moral, and social commitments. In a way unimagined by cultural observers fifty years ago, a religious subculture has emerged in America. It sometimes expresses anger and despair over the larger trends in society. But just as often, it is confident and self-assured, even hopeful. As the investigators report, compared to most parents, “the Faithful feel better supported by their web of relations.”
The Engaged Progressives are confident and self-assured as well, not least because they see things going their way. To a great degree, their view of the world now defines the American establishment, or, perhaps more accurately, our various establishments. They are the most highly educated cohort in the study, and although the report does not go into detail, I’m sure that Engaged Progressives are overrepresented in higher education, museum administration, accrediting agencies for various professions, and many other standard-setting and credential-granting agencies and institutions. They don’t need to build institutions, because they control most forms of public authority today.
This confidence involves more than institutional power. Their investment in their children reflects a secure sense that they know what makes for a good life: individual autonomy in the context of a supportive social environment that welcomes “diversity.” For all their talk of tolerance, this makes them fundamentally hostile to the Faithful, as anybody who has ever had to deal with a teacher or counselor bent on “inclusivity” knows.
That’s perhaps inevitable. The Faithful have a very different view of what makes for a good life: obedience to God’s law in the context of a community willing to enforce clear moral norms. And they vote. They live down the street. They come to library board meetings to insist that pornography filters be put onto public library computers. These people—people like us—threaten Engaged Progressives’ view of the world, and we have the confidence and numbers and determination necessary to displace them. Christianity is a living competitor for authority in American society.
And so we have our battles over culture. The Engaged Progressives turn out to be as willing to intervene and tell people how to live as the Faithful, especially when they are challenged. Because they think they know what makes for a good life, they see it as their moral duty—to society as a whole and not just to their children—to stymie or even silence anyone who vies with them for social authority.
There is, however, an important difference, one that makes Engaged Progressives more intolerant and the Faithful better able to live in a pluralistic society. We’re not happy with the moral trajectory of America. But we have institutions of our own that we trust—our churches, primarily, but others as well. We can live with the Engaged Progressives, because we’ve made private provisions for our children. We’ve developed communities and a counterculture that does not require us to control all aspects of public life.
This is not true of the other side. In the minds of Engaged Progressives, public schools are their schools, the public culture is their church. They have adopted what Shalom Carmy has called a cultural Brezhnev doctrine: Progressive control of institutions can never be questioned. And they have imperial ambitions, which is why their role in the culture wars will remain one of constant aggression.
Facing the Future
A friend wrote recently. She worries about America’s future. The culture of marriage is weakening. We seem unable to restrain the ever-growing size of government. Iran, Egypt, Syria—where’s American leadership? She wonders whether our nation has the capacity to deal with its problems, or even to acknowledge them.
These are legitimate concerns, but we need to be sure that we don’t misjudge our circumstances. Last year Commentary asked me to contribute to a symposium on the future of America. It’s true, I wrote, that “we face many challenges: the fiscal crisis of the modern welfare state, the end of American military super-hegemony, an elite culture bent on dismantling the Judeo-Christian moral consensus.” No doubt readers can add still more reasons to be pessimistic. After Romney’s defeat, many conservatives have entertained dark thoughts about how we’ve reached a tipping point. A majority of Americans are now dependent on government. The moochers are overwhelming the producers, as some crudely put it.
I’m not so pessimistic. As I wrote last year,
The American myth has a remarkable—an unprecedented—absorptive power. It reabsorbed a defeated South after the Civil War. It absorbed and still absorbs waves of immigrants—even the children of ex-slaves, whose suffering and humiliation should have made them eternal enemies. A decade ago at my church, one of the elderly black members wept as he watched a documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots in World War II who had to endure Jim Crow while training in the South. “How,” he said to me afterwards, “could our country have been so unjust to those men?” Our country! I defy anyone who understands the anguish of that man (who had himself grown up under Jim Crow!) to be anything other than an American optimist. Deficits, unemployment, new international threats, the fraying moral fabric of society—has any generation, any nation not faced these or similar challenges? A country doesn’t “solve” these sorts of problems but rather meets, ameliorates, and endures them. In these times of threat (and we certainly live in such a time), a nation is only as strong as its common culture, and ours is very strong, very strong indeed.
I’m not denying the real problems we face. I worry about the aggression of the Engaged Progressives. They may tear apart our common culture. But let’s be realistic. We’ve always been hobbled by our own moral bankruptcy, to say nothing of our ordinary selfishness, myopia, and endless squabbles. That’s our collective, fallen fate. Just think of the sad fact of slavery, which many of the founders recognized would lead to a disaster, and then the century of racism that followed abolition. Think of the anti-immigrant, know-nothing nativism that has erupted with regularity. Think of our foolish isolationism after World War I, or of the way communism seduced many elites, or of Vietnam. Conservatives traumatized by the Romney defeat and whatever it may reveal about America in the twenty-first century need to remember these failures. We endured them, and in some cases overcame them.
And they also need to remember more recent history. Osama bin Laden thought that America’s all too real and obvious corruptions—our wanton hedonism, our empty materialism, our reality TV political culture, our supine, bleating efforts to placate enemies with our vast treasure rather than meet them with military resolve—defines us. He was very wrong. We need to face and fight our national corruptions, some perennial, some new. As we do so, let’s not fall victim to a conservative pessimism about America that perversely mirrors bin Laden’s.
In this issue, Paul D. Miller argues that we have a moral duty to stay in Afghanistan, a Christian duty. George Weigel largely agrees, but a number of our respondents remain unconvinced. I find myself torn. After 9/11, our invasion of Afghanistan was surely just, and Miller rightly reminds us that we should try to secure a decent future for Afghans. But as the years go by, the fighting cannot help but seem more and more futile. As was the case in Iraq, America shows herself to be supremely capable of remarkable feats of military prowess but largely unable to impose her will. We aren’t able to remake the Muslim world. At best, we can punish and deter enemies, and we can use our wealth and military power to buy friends—the usual stuff of geopolitics, which revolves around national interests rather than moral principles.
Morality, the world order, and American power—these are worth thinking about. American hegemony is not going to end any time soon, but it is in relative decline. With each aircraft carrier China builds, we become more a nation among nations, exceptional in our vitality, allure, and power, but not in the sense of being the embodiment and arbiter of the “liberal world order.” Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, the global system will no longer be “ours” as the “free world” was during the Cold War and the “liberal world order” has been since the fall of the Soviet Union.
It’s not a future I savor. The doctrine of original sin suggests not only disorder and danger but also cynical, self-serving manipulations of moral principle and international law by our enemies to their advantage—geopolitics as usual, a rough game sadly resistant to the higher morality of Christian love.
From the Editor’s Desk
On December 10 and 11, the Institute on Religion and Public Life hosted a seminar to discuss Robert Bellah’s recent book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age . A generous grant from the Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs Program (an initiative of the John Templeton Foundation) brought more than twenty scholars to New York. The discussion was animated, as one would expect when theologians, philosophers, and sociologists like Paul Griffiths, Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Joseph White, John O’Callaghan, Edward Feser, Francesca Murphy, James Davison Hunter, and others engage something as ambitious as Robert Bellah’s account of the emergence of religious cultures from prehuman life to the centuries just prior to the time of Christ.
Fundamental questions kept coming up. What is the relation between sociology and theology? Does a scientific story of humanity displace the Christian story? What do Christians and Jews have to say about the fact of religious pluralism? Can we bracket metaphysics in our account of the human condition? At times Robert Bellah could be forgiven for thinking that the seminar discussed everything—everything but the remarkable substance of his close study of ancient religious cultures. But that’s often what happens when people engage ambitious, fertile, and provocative books, which Religion in Human Evolution surely is.
We look forward to publishing some of the papers and responses in a forthcoming issue.
In February, we will begin accepting applications for next year’s Junior Fellowship. The Junior Fellows are fully involved in discussing submissions, editing, and writing for the website. They also participate in the various seminars, lectures, and other activities sponsored by First Things.
The Junior Fellowship term runs from August 1 through August 1. A modest stipend is provided, along with housing. It’s a great opportunity for a young person graduating from college who wants to join the conspiracy of truth. Look for more details on our website.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis.