David Brooks’s column in The New York Times today is a must-read. Brooks grapples with the ubiquity of broken families in our culture. The stats on the number of children living without fathers or mothers is a cultural calamity that cannot be solved by any government program. Brooks writes:
The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.
But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.
Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
Brooks is right that we can’t get this genie back in the bottle through government programs. The problem is beyond the competency of Caesar. Nor can we simply hope for a moral renewal to appear out of thin air. The old taboos—much despised as they have been—did actually provide some protection for women and children. Their disintegration has left the weakest and the most vulnerable exposed to the sexual whims of lecherous men. The old norms won’t be reinstated easily—if at all.
The sexual revolution seemed freeing and sexy at the beginning, but it really doesn’t wear well over the long haul. Why? Because no matter how much we’ve tried to sever the ancient connection between sex and childrearing through birth control and abortion, the connection still persists. Where people pursue sexual expression outside the covenant of marriage, you will eventually find children born to parents who are not married. The sexual revolutionaries promised freedom by casting aside the old norms. But what they have delivered is two generations of children from broken homes. The human condition has always been desperate. It has only become more conspicuous in the aftermath of the failed promises of sexual liberation. As a culture we have sown to the wind, and now we are reaping the whirlwind.
As Christians, we really do have a more hopeful vision for humanity. Yes, it is counter-cultural now, but it does meet our deepest needs. It provides redemption. It gives the power that weak people need for bona fide moral renewal to take place. It is the only force with enough power to accomplish the renewal of families that Brooks is calling for. If I didn’t know any better, I might say that Brooks is beginning to see that.