Christianity,  Culture

Our deepest cultural problems are spiritual, not political

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.


  • Chris Ryan

    The sexual revolution had many results, some good, some bad. Its hard to imagine the progress we’ve made on women rights and gender equity without the ’60s. OTOH, I agree that fatherless homes are a great tragedy. Clearly we need to devote more government resources to single parent homes. Unfortunately Clinton & Gingrich gutted much of welfare in the ’90s–to our detriment. Instead we get crass conservative congressmen saying, “Those who don’t work shouldn’t eat” while pigging out at the government trough themselves. Likewise, we need a new moral awakening so that we build more intact families. There are far too many children falling thru the cracks b/cs they only have 1 parent to rely on.

  • Christiane Smith

    Our Lord Himself was born of a single mother. Mary’s ‘fiat’ was outside of the ‘norm’ of the day when a young woman married prior to conception, but through the intercession of God, we know that she was chosen and that she in turn chose to say ‘yes’. We know that God revealed to Joseph the truth about Mary’s conception of Our Lord, and that Joseph willingly accepted and lived out with grace the role of foster-father to Our Lord.

    We come from a religion where even in the beginning, societal ‘norms’ have not consistently held sway. But we are still called to this faith in spite of this. Something other than societal ‘norms’ must be the source of our spiritual stability as Christian people.

  • johnhughmorgan3

    Maybe the Baptist church should define what lifestyles are biblically legimate and ask for mentors who have lived those lives and didn’t jump onboard the “sexual revolution” train.

  • Paul Reed

    “The stats on the number of children living without fathers or mothers is a cultural calamity that cannot be solved by any government program.”

    Rubbish. This is the same kind of reasoning that says you can’t curb abortion with making it illegal. You want to curb divorce? Here’s how you do it:
    1) No welfare
    2) No child support

    Send a few single mom’s into the streets, and I guarantee you, the word will get out: The days of free sex and the gov’t footing the bill are over.

    • johnhughmorgan3

      Amen Paul Reed. The problem is that the Baptists like things very comfortable. They don’t want to challenge the political status quo for fear of losing money and members. That’s why their Russell Moore recently criticized Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore for defending traditional marriage, in effect throwing the SBC’s support behind same sex marriage. I’m not sure if they will ever wake up and realize that they helped to create America’s deep spiritual problems to begin with.

    • Christiane Smith

      Hi PAUL REED,

      ‘no welfare’, ‘no child support’ . . . I know that kind of talk and where it comes from, and that it is on the increase, but I’m certain people say these things without thinking it through

      a lot of single moms work and support their own children, but there are some who struggle with emotional or mental illness, with addiction(s) . . . life’s tough for all of these women . . . but it’s their children who must rely often on the kindness in a community, already sadly aware of the contempt they sometimes find instead

      if we, as Christian people, have no problem letting all this fall on the heads of children, then what are we? I don’t think you meant it that way, at least I hope not, but I worked for twenty years in inner city schools, and poor children are extremely vulnerable to a host of more horrors than just lack of money . . . if you want a litany of what they are facing in their lives, I can list it for you, but I think you already know some of it . . .

      when there is a child to consider, the child must be cared for . . . I no longer even care who provides or how it is done or even if people approve or don’t approve . . . or whether individuals, government, or Church
      and if we shut down on this single act of mercy toward these innocents, then we do we still have the right to think of ourselves as human persons, must less Christian people ?

    • James Stanton

      Unfortunately we’re not just talking about a few single moms here. I do agree that this kind of government policy could be effective but it’s too late. Also, I think there’s an implication here that women are mostly to blame for divorce based on who would be hurt most by these policies.

    • buddyglass

      Doubt the lack of welfare and child support would stop men from leaving women. If anything it would probably accelerate it. If I know I can desert my wife and kids with no financial repercussions it becomes that much more attractive.

      It might stop (some) women from leaving their husbands. Mostly those with small children who don’t have much earning potential and/or have small children.

      Bravo to you.

      • Jay Miller

        Many were never together to begin and have nothing to leave. Many young moms start out single and stay that way with a range of family members juggling child care responsibilities. This can cause huge problems like attachment disorder for the kids in many cases.

        • buddyglass

          Here’s what Paul Reed said that I was responding to:

          “You want to curb divorce? Here’s how you do it:”

          Making divorce less costly for men but more costly for (certain) women does not seem likely to curb divorce.

  • Jonathan Charles

    sorry but there are standards the culture has
    men must be the homemakers who support their wives careers and look after the kids ( Good dad)
    take Sandberg’s leanintogether for example- most complementarians are Afraid to challenge that – do no expect change if you do not even provide an alternative.

    • James Stanton

      I don’t think these are cultural standards as much as they are economic realities. The glaring failure in the US capitalist model is that it is truly no longer friendly to Christian family values. It is increasingly difficult to raise a family on one income.

  • Curt Day

    Why are the only national issues we regard as being spiritual are family and sexual issues? What about the spiritual nature of our neoliberal capitalism? And what effects has this current economic system had on family life, or is family life only affected by changing sexual mores?

    Yes, sexual mores are important. But our silence on our exploitive economic system and its effects on the family seems to indicate that that system is one of our sacred cows. And we should note that to change that part of our cultural problems, we not only have to address the spiritual nature of our economic system, we have to change the political structure as well. And for the Church to ignore this necessary change shows that we have learned nothing from our past and its contributions to the conditions that led to both the French and Russian Revolutions.

  • Jay Miller

    This reminds me of someone I met while in college in the late 70s. He was part of our small choir at a Christian college, and told his story of adopting a hippie lifestyle including the free love ideas of the 60s and 70s. He explained how he and his wife tried dating around because they felt that was what they were “supposed to do” as good hippies. After a while, however, they both came to the realization that they got married because they like each other and wanted it to stay that way. So they chose to live a more traditional married life because they found it more satisfying to their needs for love and companionship than what the free love movement was offering.

  • Jay Miller

    I might add that the problem addressed in the NY Times column is bigger than many realize. When my wife and I were considering adopting a young child, a psychologist advised us to use caution because many infants were spending their first 24 months in homes where they were not able to make a critical bonding connection with a single adult figure. As a result, these children were growing up with an attachment disorder that had profound and un-reversible impacts on their characters and personalities. Many families adopted young children from these situations with the best of intentions, but were woefully unprepared for the trauma and challenges involved and often ended up divorced or with other serious family issues.

    My concern is what are we doing to our society when we are encouraging large segments of each new generation to bring infants into a chaotic home life with little chance of forming that first critical bond with a single adult person? Life is challenging enough as it is without permanently damaging young children in this way. It should be seen as just as bad as someone drinking alcohol or taking drugs while pregnant. it is that bad, but I do not hear anyone talking about it. What will the next few generations look like when vast numbers of children will likely become adults with a complete inability to form any sort of moral character or normal human relations?

  • Christiane Smith

    After reading the post about Margaret Sanger, I reviewed my thoughts about Paul Reed’s comments, and I would like to add that when we turn on a pregnant woman who is single and deny her assistance before and after the birth of her infant,
    what may go through her head is something we may not want to be accountable for . . . do we in fact, when insisting that she be ‘independent’ of our help, send her unwillingly into the arms of an abortionist?

    Many women who get abortions can’t see their way ahead with anything but despair. If our part as a Christian people is NOT to offer hope and compassion, then I’m confused about exactly what the goals are among those who oppose assistance for a pregnant female who needs it in our society.

    What is the deal? And how can we resolve our repulsion to abortion with our repulsion to extend assistance to pregnant women who need it? I think Christian people need to sort this out because otherwise we may be engaging in hypocrisy here, and I don’t think that is something that people really want to be known for when they identify as Christ-followers.

    Thoughts? I don’t mind when folks disagree with me, so feel free to share any ideas concerning what I said here. And thank you for considering what I wrote in any case.

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