I have a confession to make: I can’t get enough of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Give me another teary tell-all and I’m all in. Indulge me with a made-for-reality-TV special and I’ll fetch the popcorn. Just a hint of the pair excites me, because I firmly believe that the drama of the fifth in line to the British throne and the third biggest star on the show Suits bids fair to be the seminal story of our era.
Think that’s a silly exaggeration? Allow me to retell the tale of what happened when Harry met Meghan.
Once upon a time, there was a nice young man from a very traditional family. How traditional? Well, let’s just say it’s the sort of family where grandma approves every marriage proposal, picks out the bride-to-be’s jewelry, and insists her bouquet contain myrtle. It’s the sort of family where you can neither wear fur—because one of your ancestors in the twelfth century disliked it—nor play Monopoly, presumably because it’s beneath you to care about something as common as earthly possessions, even in a board game. It’s the sort of family that has dress codes for toddlers, strict rules about who talks to whom and how at dinner, and a firm protocol on how to hold a teacup (thumb and index finger pinching the handle, middle finger supporting the bottom). It is, in short, a family that is tradition personified.
One day, however, the nice young man decides he’s had enough. Enough of all these rules! Enough with these responsibilities! It’s time, he thinks, for fun, for self-expression, for the sort of radical reinvention you can get only when you move to California and hang out with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. And so he flirts with a girl he meets on Instagram, and before anyone can like or share or retweet their affair, he turns his back on the crown jewels and skedaddles, leaving in his wake a trail of self-indulgent self-portraits on any media platform willing to pay top dollar for that sort of thing. And he lives happily ever after as a self-realized, real-life celebrity who thumbs his nose at hidebound traditions.
This, alas, isn’t just the story of the planet’s most outrageously privileged preening pouters. It’s a story all of us fear, and too many of us have witnessed. As faithful parents, we invest every shekel we have in making sure our children grow up to cherish and uphold the traditions that mean so much to us. And we know we must contend with awesome powers beyond our control that are forever whispering to our children just one compelling word: leave.
And leave too many do. A recent Pew survey indicates that if current trends continue, the “nones”—atheists, agnostics, and those who simply don’t think or care enough about religion to affiliate themselves with any group—will make up nearly 50 percent of Americans by 2070. Dig a bit deeper into the statistics and it’s not too difficult to discover why. When asked how often they participated in prayer or Scripture study groups, for example, a whopping 62 percent of young American adults responded “seldom/never.” Seventy-five percent said that common sense, science, or reason guide them as they struggle to make sense of the universe around them, not faith.
And why do these young ones leave the fold? Two answers stand out: Because they question religion’s teachings (60 percent of respondents) and because religion’s teachings fall afoul of today’s political and social trends (49 percent of respondents).
Pew’s researchers could’ve saved themselves some time and simply talked to Harry. Tune into his recent offering on Netflix, and you’ll hear the artist formerly known as the Prince say: He had to leave because life as a royal was rigid and oppressive, and because his tradition, his family, and his country were all very racist. No evidence is offered in support of that last bombshell, and none is needed: We have text messages from Beyoncé, shared with an adoring audience and reassuring Harry and Meghan that they were (enjoy the mixed metaphor) “selected to break generational curses that need to be healed.”
Divine election, curses, healing—the language of Harry’s post-royal life suggests that he’s merely replaced one rigid belief system, tried and true and passed down from one generation to the next for centuries, for another, concocted by celebrities and academics and played out in public for fun and profit.
It’s all very sobering. We watch Harry and we realize that there, but for the grace of God, go our own kids. And if the Windsors—who literally head a church of their own and have more means at their disposal than is possible to count—couldn’t pass down their tradition, what chance have we got? What’s stopping our own little Harrys from one day tossing their napkins across the dinner table and letting us know that they, too, now deem us and our beliefs hideous and are off to seek their fortunes elsewhere?
It’s a haunting question, so much so that we’re all the more eager to ask how we should defend our families against such an eventuality. There are no easy answers—just ask the parents and priests and rabbis and scholars who’ve grappled with the challenges of religious education for decades. But we can be grateful that Harry and Meghan bequeath to those who have eyes to see one shining bit of insight.
Among the reckless royal’s torrent of twaddle, one sentiment comes off as genuine: Life in the court seems airless, mirthless, and dull. To some degree, the judgment is entirely understandable. Anxious about upholding its ancient customs in a mercurial and rapidly changing world, Britain’s premier family had no choice but to navigate its path carefully and judiciously, avoiding anything that might imperil the royal project. We feel the same concerns every day as we talk to our children about our faith and its strictures and watch them flirting with the culture that surrounds us, attracted to what it has deemed desirable and cool. Often, we speak softly. Not wishing to alienate our own kin, we pretend that they can have it all: Go to the celebrated school and land that slick tech job and live in the desirable address and have the swanky friends while still somehow staying true to our beliefs and our traditions and our way of life.
The lesson Prince Harry teaches us is simple: That never works.
We’re at a watershed moment, and we must now decide if the future belongs to the faithful or the nones. If it’s the latter we wish to throw in our lots with, all we have to do is nothing. The allure of lowly appetites and self-indulgence will take its natural course. But if it’s the former, we have a pretty great primer on what not to do, courtesy of the Windsors. I’ve watched every last snippet of Harry-and-Meghan-related anything, so here is my abbreviated moral of their fairy tale: Don’t act like tradition is nothing but a burden to be somberly and solemnly carried. Don’t forget that doubt, as G. K. Chesterton so presciently taught, is the emotion that helps us nurture our faith, not quash it. Don’t play defense against the outside world; aggress, and have confidence that your way of life is superior because, unlike the transient hokum that passes for virtue these days, our religious beliefs and habits have survived the test of time and are demonstrably and unshakably true. And don’t forget to have fun, because, without joy, tradition isn’t a word but a sentence.
Imagine, then, an alternate reality. Imagine that, rather than being told things like “always pack a black suit when traveling in case you have to represent us at a funeral,” Prince Harry was instructed to be a vocal, lively, and passionate defender of the institution, faith, and future he embodies. Imagine the young man’s being asked not to sip champagne in gala events or play polo but to deliver speeches about why it is that God still saves his grandmother, the queen. It’s hard to imagine that alt-Harry decamping to Santa Barbara.
Let us not repeat the royal blunders. Sure, duty is a powerful and prominent feature of any traditional form of life. But so are joy and heartfelt conviction, along with a tincture of heroism as you and your family and your community alone are fighting the good fight in an uncaring, disenchanted world. It’s that dashing spirit of refusal to just go along with the dull and commonplace that has always propelled small groups of believers to accomplish astonishing things (see under: Jews, the). We owe our own children that joy, conviction, and heroism. With God as their portion, they won’t end up weepy and in exile from all that we hold dear.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.