By Leslie Fain
As European churches sell off properties to resort spas and mosques, and Christians approach minority status in England, one prominent theorist says the same fate could befall the U.S., and not for reasons people might think.
Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who spent five years researching and writing her latest book, “Why the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization,” said it can happen in America if the nation doesn’t get its demographic and theological houses in order.
She argues that family decline is a big part of why Christianity is receding in the West.
In a visit to Europe, Eberstadt, who has written widely on cultural and religious issues, said she was deeply impressed by how thoroughly Christianity had diminished there and began researching the problem of secularism.
Since the Enlightenment, intellectuals “make it sound as if secularism comes about because people sit in the corner and think hard about the problem of evil and other philosophical topics,” she said.
“Western secularization has not happened on the timelines predicted for it by secular theorists, and it also has not happened for the reasons commonly offered to explain it,” she said.
“Contrary to what many sophisticated secular people have supposed, for instance, education and prosperity alone don’t drive out God,” said Eberstadt. “To the contrary, there are examples cited in the book, including in the United States today, of the opposite pattern: Better-off people and better-educated Americans as a whole are actually more likely to go to church than worse-off and less-educated ones. So much for being ‘poor, uneducated, and easy to command,’ as a Washington Post reporter famously described believers 10 years ago.”
Eberstadt contends that in Western secularization, family decline is fueling religious decline, “just as family strength in other places and times has fueled religious revivals.”
“The family is the unseen and critical partner in secularization: that’s the bottom line,” she said. “As many examples in the book go to show, the fracturing of the family has in turn helped to fracture Christianity in ways that haven’t gotten the attention they deserve and that need to be understood.”
One only has to look at Scandinavia, which has been referred to as “Ground Zero” of Europe’s rapid secularization, to see how family and faith work together, she said.
“Scandinavia has been a pioneer of the changing family, where unmarried households skyrocketed in the Western world. [Almost] half of all households in Sweden are single person homes,” she said.
Today, only 10 percent of Danes and Swedes believe in hell, which is the lowest rate in the Western world.
What initially led to family decline in the West?
“The short answer is urbanization and industrialization,” she said. These two events served to upend and fracture the family, according to Eberstadt.
By way of contrast, in her book she points to how post-World War baby booms sparked religious revivals across the West.
Interestingly, religious devotion across the West really began to drop around the 1960s – the decade the birth control pill was ushered in.
Babies drive people to church, according to Eberstadt.
“Childbirth is experienced by many parents as the most important event of their lives and inclines some toward religiosity,” she said. “Children drive people to church because parents often want to seek out a like-minded moral community for them.”
In addition, “family is sacrifice,” she said.
“People who sacrifice are likely to be sympathetic to the Christian message, which is a story of sacrifice itself.”
In “How the West Really Lost God,” Eberstadt makes the point that due to lower birthrates, there are some adults in the West “who have never held a baby.”
How does that impact or color many people’s understanding of the Incarnation?
Eberstadt also argues that the divorce and illegitimacy rates plaguing the West can make the Christian narrative more difficult for some to comprehend. Since the story of Judeo-Christianity is of a God who can be understood and known as a loving, benevolent Father, it could come across as foreign to someone who never experienced a loving, natural father in his life, she said.
Economics and politics play roles, as well.
“We need to remember that the fractured Western family could not exist on today’s scale without the modern welfare state,” said Eberstadt. “The welfare state acts as a father substitute.”
Some sociologists believe the welfare state is making it hard for many working class men to compete with the benefits it provides for single mothers, thereby discouraging marriage.
“I think that is a serious argument,” she said.
Despite the shape of the family across the West, Eberstadt says there is reason for optimism.
“It’s turned around before. Both Christianity and the family have been strong in some places and times than others, which is an important point. Secularists often think Christianity is in a permanent and inevitable decline,” she said.
“By the end of the Roman Empire, you would not have bet on the future of the Roman family. Once Christianity came on the scene, a new ending to that story started to write itself, so revival is always possible.”
Eberstadt said there is much that concerned pastors, church leaders, parents and grandparents can do to help turn the tide of family decline.
“The battle is fought one church at a time, all at the grassroots,” she said. “Churches need to understand how crucial the family is to them. They need to understand how hard it is to keep a family together.”
Eberstadt suggests churches offer specific aid and services to families, such as babysitting so couples so they can go on date nights, meal dropoffs when people have babies, and enlisting qualified people to counsel other church members when their marriages are in trouble.
Community is key in supporting and nurturing family life. Eberstadt recounted talking to a secular Jewish friend recently who has two children.
“The friend wistfully said if she had been an Orthodox Jew, she could have had 12 kids. ‘They understand,’ my friend said. When a woman has a baby, she lies in bed for six weeks, and people come, one by one, and bring meals.'”
Besides focusing on community, Eberstadt said that it is important for churches to stick to the traditional teachings of Christianity.
“It’s a mistake to respond to modernity by changing with modernity,” she said.
Churches that relaxed the Christian moral code are the ones that are in the most trouble, she said.
“The U.S. has a more dramatic religious scene, but if the U.S. churches move away from traditionalism, they will be in the same demographic and financial straits” as the mainline churches in America – the Episcopalian, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian ones. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, recently made news June 1 for ordaining its first openly “gay” bishop, who also happens to be in a same-sex relationship.
Why should non-Christians and agnostics care whether there are fewer Christians in the West?
“Because secular people have to pick up the pieces of the shattered family, including financially,” said Eberstadt. “Who does the welfare state take care of? Single moms and fatherless children. Who pays for those benefits? Everyone else. The fracturing of the Christian moral code has had fallout for everybody.”
As far as Christians are concerned, Eberstadt said that hope for the future can be found in just getting rid of the conventional storyline. Because of the storyline that Christianity is always in decline and that society’s most intelligent do not buy into belief in God, “even among believers, there are those who think Christians are on the wrong side of history. I hope the message of this book is that believers can win sometimes, too,” she said.
Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in Louisiana with her husband and three sons. She can be reached at [email protected]