Mary Eberstadt has an article describing her optimistic view of the future of faith and family despite the current cultural climate (she also has a few books to check out: Adam and Eve After the Pill and How the West Really Lost God). She takes all the prevailing weapons against these institutions and turns them on their head.
She begins her article detailing the dismal current climate and adds that Christianity lives and breathes on the strength of marriage and family formation.
For 2,000 years, Christianity has weathered severe storms, surviving discrimination and outright persecution. Are we really and only now facing the Church’s terminal decline? Does the sexual revolution, alone among all cultural influences inimical to the Church throughout history, render the cross and all it stands for obsolete?
For over a hundred years, sociology has broadcast the death of God — prematurely, it turns out, because sociologists have ignored the part played in religious belief by that great institution with which religion’s fate appears inextricably entwined: the family.
History shows that, in case after case, one pillar is only as strong as the other. Religion, and specifically Christianity, waxes and wanes according to the strength of marriage and family formation.
One might think that this would lead her to be pessimistic given the most recent attacks on these institutions. But she says
A contrarian case can be made that things aren’t as grim as they seem — or, conversely, that they aren’t nearly as invigorating as they seem to their adversaries. The case for cautious optimism shares many facts with the case for pessimism. In fact, the case for optimism is more or less the case for pessimism turned on its head and examined from a different angle.
Reviewing wide swaths of human history, Sorokin spied a general rule: “The principal steps in the progress of mankind toward a spiritual religion and a noble code of ethics have been taken primarily under the impact of great catastrophes.” Calamity, as he saw it, is not only a possible inducement to religious revival but may even be its sine qua non.
She then ties these points to the economic crisis that began in 2008.
In the 1970s, sociologist David Popenoe predicted that one consequence of diminished Western affluence might be exactly the revival of the institution of the family. After all, he observed, families perform a function crucial to all societies, doing for free what would otherwise cost money to accomplish. “The importance of this family care-giving function,” he writes, “becomes clear when we consider what might happen if modern societies ever again fall into a serious economic depression.”
Could the post-welfare Western state end up imparting economic value to marriage, childbearing, and family ties, as the pre-industrial agricultural state did for many centuries?
Another inadvertent consequence of the economic crisis has been the return of many adult children to the homes of their parents. Though undertaken for financial reasons, might not the movement of the “boomerang generation” back to the nest also have the effect of reinforcing family bonds? Hard times, in short, have a way of driving people back to what’s most elemental.
In Family and Civilization (1947), Carle Zimmerman, another Harvard sociologist, demonstrated that throughout history the family has followed a pattern: It grows stronger after a period of decay has incurred mounting social costs. Zimmerman argued that family strength is cyclical and that the problems resulting from periods of weak and atomized families lead to counter-cycles of strong family formation.
Eberstadt goes onto point out five other hopeful signs, one of them being family reproduction.
There’s another reason not to write the obituary for Christianity and the traditional family quite yet: demography. As Phillip Longman and Eric Kaufmann have independently documented, and as Jonathan Last energetically explores in his riveting book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, believers have babies, and nonbelievers don’t. And among believers, the most religious have the most babies. Over time, as those who look at the numbers agree, this simple fact will tilt Western populations toward religious belief. Sociologist Rodney Stark argues that Christianity grew from a small sect to a world religion precisely because the Church’s prizing of marriage, its banning of infanticide and abortion, and its overall attentiveness to the family contributed to a demographic advantage for believers. All those conditions still obtain.
She closes with this word.
None of which is to say that Western believers today can count on seeing brighter days for either institution in their lifetimes. In the short run, to reverse John Maynard Keynes, we’re all dead. As for the long run, though, several signs point the way not just to hope but to likely revival. Therein lies a limited but real case for optimism about the twinned futures of family and faith.