I don’t know whether I buy completely into Mary Eberstadt’s arresting title.  How does anybody “lose” God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth (as the Nicene Creed impressively denominates Him)?  He just kind of went south?  Let that go.  We get the general, and indisputable, idea, which is that relationships between God and the Western sphere of Planet Earth have seen far better days, and we ought to do something about it if we can.

We very well might manage significant repairs, provided we catch on to what Mary Eberstadt is up to here.  How the West Really Lost God is no syrupy lament for the days when we all said “Merry Christmas” to one another, under the very eye of the ACLU, nor does the author carry on and on about Liberal Creeps Who Don’t Believe the Word of God.

She posits, instead, a sociological disaster of recent origin.  For various reasons—the development of the birth-control pill was early and crucial—the family structures that supported organized religion began to deteriorate.  The whole institution of marriage as understood normatively in the West came in for heckling and questioning.  Why all these kids?  Why any at all, when they just cost money and get in the way?  Birthrates fell.  Father no longer knew best.  His authority as head of the family waned; often enough, his disposition to use that authority waned, being thought unfashionable—a relic of pre-feminist days, before women could apply for credit on their own.  Divorces, along with out-of-wedlock births, multiplied.

So what?  So everything, from a Christian standpoint, according to Mrs. Eberstadt, a social analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (and wife of the noted demographer Nicholas Eberstadt).  Family and religion work together.  “The decline of the family,” Mrs. Eberstadt writes,

has contributed to the decline of Christianity in more ways than one.  It has rendered some people less capable of understanding what life with a protective, loving father could be like.  It has left others feeling annoyed and on the defensive about church teachings . . . And the simple ubiquity of the modern varieties of un- and anti-Christian behavior further erodes the traditional understanding of right and wrong in these matters by sheer repetition.

You have to think of Christianity and the family as intimately linked—as, to borrow Mrs. Eberstadt’s illustrative phrase, a kind of double helix.  Family, by her accounting, feeds religion not only with numbers but with moral commitment.  Religion gives back to family the understanding of how our smallest social unit—Mom, Dad, Dick, Jane, Sally—by its unity and energies does the work of the Lord on earth.  Viewed in this way, it all makes perfect sense—save, of course, to relentless secularists.  Are we here because we’re here because we’re here, etc.?  Not in any religious sense we aren’t: We’re here to perform work given by God for the upbuilding of His kingdom.

In a secular sense—who cares?  The point isn’t service but, apparently, how far I can “Lean In” so as to accelerate professional accomplishment and the ratification of a costly college degree.  The point is my right to decide which pregnancy can come to term and which particular “product of conception” hasn’t a snowball’s chance in the infernal place.

And who’s to tell me, or any of the other multifarious “me’s” in our self-regarding 21st century, anything else?  Won’t be done.  “[I]n large stretches of the advanced West today,” Mrs. Eberstadt says, “many sophisticated people do not believe that the churches have any authority whatsoever to dictate constraints on individual freedom.”  “[T]he mere existence of Christian beliefs” stirs up hostility “in an age when many people live in tacit or open defiance of church tenets.”  So much for the churches’ ability to explain and teach things that satisfy on a basis other than the fleshly!

Among other things that Christianity unfolds to the world is the meaning of the natural family.  Hence, “a world where natural families are often weak is one in which the very language of Christian belief, literal and figurative, is destined to be less well understood than it was before.”  And so Christian belief gets taught poorly and received hardly at all, assuming either of these activities occurs.  As Christian belief declines, adherence to family structures and principles—rooted as they are in the human understandings conveyed by Christianity—wanes.  And around and around and around . . .

The “Family Factor” is what Mrs. Eberstadt calls the nexus between family and God, and its consequent effects on life in general.  “The idea that readers are being asked to entertain is this: the family is not merely a consequence of religious belief.  It can also be a conduit to it.”  It can be, that is to say, a channel bringing men and women to engagement with the realities of life as lived in the most intimate and fulfilling of contexts: The family, with its mystical ties and miraculous occasions, beginning with birth, continuing through sickness and wellness and sorrow and healing, the entirety of the process leading to transcendence as human life itself becomes . . . something more.

Strong families by their nature engender strong churches in close and deliberate touch with the foregoing realities.  Weak churches—read: “liberal” churches fond of skirting the hard, nonpolitical truths of human existence—engender weakness.  Why bother with bishops, clerics, and such like who seem to think it essential to dwell longer on the environment than on the Resurrection?  Why get up in the morning to hear this stuff?  Wouldn’t Starbucks be more fun?

The freshness of Eberstadt’s accounting of a process we suspect already from observation and intuition has to do with how her narrative moves to front stage center.  Family and church do go together—but in ways we rarely reflect on, preferring to talk of the ACLU, Ivy League liberals, Vatican II, women priests, whatever.  It does all go together.  How helpful, even so, to be shown the interrelationships of Christian faith and family life, hence to understand better the radial effects of, say, a random lesbian hookup or a high-school principal’s decision to paw through the drafts of commencement speeches, looking for verboten suggestions of religious witness.  Modern life more and more seems innocent of the Christian conventionalities known of old, in spite of the debased coinage of many.  (What was wrong, in the end, with prayers for the safety of high-school football players, such as used to precede Friday-night games?)

The question now is, Can we do anything?  Mrs. Eberstadt presents both “the case for pessimism” and “the case for optimism.”  I think that’s fair.  The first case obliges us to recognize that fewer people are having children, which means fewer intact families emerge to model the ancient rituals having to do with family and God: the duties, the cares, the concerns, the plain old self-effacing, uninhibited love that theoretically flows from parent to child and back again.  “[O]ut-of-wedlock births are the new normal.”  The absence of a father at home challenges the understanding that “God can be understood as a benevolent, protecting male parent.”  Never mind how ultrafeminists grit their teeth at the imputation of a woman’s insufficiency to model everything worth modeling.

I like better Mrs. Eberstadt’s case for optimism as to how “the incentives toward maintaining a family network might come to trump some of the disincentives that the affluent society inadvertently puts in the way of such efforts.”  But I don’t like the case all that much better, actually.  From Mrs. Eberstadt, in this bracing book, we get sociological analysis of a high order: a gratifying pushback against the dopey things modern families are said to be: loose, liberated, lacking center and gravity.  Why not be glad for the chance to rebuild from the ruins?  Likely because of the less human-centered expectation to which mortals are invited—the scripturally suffused expectation that God Himself will do something about the problem; maybe not the “something” yearned for on the basis of human analysis, but something more, shall we say, theologically rooted.

And though this world, with
devils filled

Should threaten to undo us

we will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us.

The prince of darkness grim

We tremble not for him . . . 

That’s the ticket, is it not?

I say this, declining to withhold from Mary Eberstadt an ounce of gratitude for shrewd, highly focused analysis of the human mess.  Out-and-out deniers of the Faith, joined by people who don’t care one way or the other, not to mention liberal Christian “leaders” unplugged from the spiritual dimension of their calling—these varied folk need, for the sake of their own credibility, if any, to step forth and explain why the lady is mistaken.  A hundred to one, they can’t do it.


[How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, by Mary Eberstadt (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press) 257 pp., $24.95]