Americans and spiritual illiteracy

Daniel Cox and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux write:

Millennials may be the symbols of a broader societal shift away from religion, but they didn’t start it on their own. Their parents are at least partly responsible for a widening generational gap in religious identity and beliefs; they were more likely than previous generations to raise their children without any connection to organized religion. According to the AEI survey, 17 percent of millennials said that they were not raised in any particular religion compared with only five percent of Baby Boomers. And fewer than one in three (32 percent) millennials say they attended weekly religious services with their family when they were young, compared with about half (49 percent) of Baby Boomers.

A parent’s religious identity (or lack thereof) can do a lot to shape a child’s religious habits and beliefs later in life. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that regardless of the religion, those raised in households in which both parents shared the same religion still identified with that faith in adulthood. For instance, 84 percent of people raised by Protestant parents are still Protestant as adults. Similarly, people raised without religion are less apt to look for it as they grow older — that same Pew study found that 63 percent of people who grew up with two religiously unaffiliated parents were still nonreligious as adults.

But one finding in the survey signals that even millennials who grew up religious may be increasingly unlikely to return to religion. In the 1970s, most nonreligious Americans had a religious spouse and often, that partner would draw them back into regular religious practice. But now, a growing number of unaffiliated Americans are settling down with someone who isn’t religious — a process that may have been accelerated by the sheer number of secular romantic partners available, and the rise of online dating. Today, 74 percent of unaffiliated millennials have a nonreligious partner or spouse…

Andrew Reed and James Matheson, two British ministers who visited America in 1834, wrote that, “America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.” John Adams famously believed that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And Benjamin Franklin believed that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” It’s not nothing that Americans are becoming a spiritually illiterate people.

Jubilees

Ben Holland writes on the ancient practice of jubilees and debt forgiveness:

In ancient Babylon, a newly enthroned king would declare a jubilee, wiping out the population’s debts. In modern America, a faint echo of that idea — call it jubilee-lite — is catching on.

Support for write-offs has been driven by Democratic presidential candidates. Elizabeth Warren says she’d cancel most of the $1.6 trillion in U.S. student loans. Bernie Sanders would go further -– erasing the whole lot, as well as $81 billion in medical debt.

But it’s coming from other directions too. In October, one of the Trump administration’s senior student-loan officials resigned, calling for wholesale write-offs and describing the American way of paying for higher education as “nuts.’’

Real-estate firm Zillow cites medical and college liabilities as major hurdles for would-be renters and home buyers. Moody’s Investors Service listed the headwinds from student debt -– less consumption and investment, more inequality — and said forgiveness would boost the economy like a tax cut.

While the current debate centers on college costs, long-run numbers show how debt has spread through the economy. The U.S. relies on consumer spending for growth -– but it hasn’t been delivering significantly higher wages. Household borrowing has filled the gap, with low interest rates making it affordable.

And that’s not unique to America. Steadily growing debts of one kind or another are weighing on economies all over the world.

The idea that debt can grow faster than the ability to repay, until it unbalances a society, was well understood thousands of years ago, according to Michael Hudson, an economist and historian.

Last year Hudson published “And Forgive Them Their Debts,’’ a study of the ancient Near East where the tradition known as a “jubilee” — wiping the debt-slate clean — has its roots. He describes how the practice spread through civilizations including Sumer and Babylon, and came to play an important role in the Bible and Jewish law.

Rulers weren’t motivated by charity, Hudson says. They were being pragmatic — trying to make sure that citizens could meet their own needs and contribute to public projects, instead of just laboring to pay creditors. And it worked, he says. “Societies that canceled the debts enjoyed stable growth for thousands of years.’’

Forgiveness was good for the economy, would be a modern way of putting it.

I’m reading Chuck Marohn’s “Strong Towns” right now, and he makes the case for both incremental reforms in our communities. But he also points out the impossibility of the present financial commitments of our cities and towns, citing the example of Ferguson, wherein approx. $800,000/year has been spent on paying creditors, and approx. $25,000 was spent repairing sidewalks.

We’re going to need some form of jubilee, and how we come to accept that is going to be less about partisanship than it will be about sober, political reality. At present, neither those of us in suburban HOAs nor those of us in hollowed out city neighborhoods can properly pay for the services we require. We can either embrace reforms now or have them thrust upon us.

‘The biggest issue will be population collapse’

Maureen Malloy Ferguson writes on anti-natalism, the idea that having children is to be avoided or minimized as much as possible:

Ever since the Garden of Eden, we have been told to be fruitful and multiply. Affirmation of this commandment is now coming from the strangest places.

The quirky futurist Elon Musk recently issued a dire warning. “Most people think we have too many people on the planet, but actually, this is an outdated view … The biggest issue in 20 years will be population collapse. Not explosion. Collapse.”

The New York Times normally devotes considerable ink to the supposed problem of overpopulation, but is now sounding the alarm about declining fertility in a fascinating article headlined “The End of Babies”. Demographers agree that global fertility rates will fall below replacement levels by 2070, a dramatic prediction with devastating implications.

What, then, is to be done? A simple and beautiful place to start is to contemplate the wisdom of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” …

Newlyweds today often seem somewhat startled at the mention of babies, as if children are a separate endeavour to be considered after many other milestones are met. Jack Ma, the visionary co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba (double the size of Amazon), tells employees: “Marriage is not for the purpose of accumulating wealth, not for buying a house, not for buying a car, but for having a baby together … Have more children!” …

I’ve taught in these Pre-Cana programmes for years, and there is surprising receptivity to the Church’s vision for marriage and family. It is often the first time couples hear that children don’t need to be planned like a business plan. Sometimes the best things in life are surprises. Joys are multiplied in large families, and the sorrows are shared with more loving hearts. Studies show that having sisters and brothers makes you a better person (middle children – known for being peacemakers – are an endangered species). You will never regret the children you have, but it is common to regret the children you never had. It is good to say yes to God when He wants to give you a gift.

“You will never regret the children you have, but it is common to regret the children you never had.”

Supermajorities in favor of common sense

Michael New writes on our recent Americans United for Life/YouGov national poll:

Last month, the pro-life group Americans United for Life (AUL) released the results of a survey on abortion clinic regulations commissioned through YouGov. The results indicated that super-majorities of Americans favor common sense regulations abortion facilities.

Specifically, it found that 75 percent of respondents think that abortion doctors should be held to the same medical standards as any other physicians.  Similarly, the poll also found that 70 percent want to hold abortion facilities to the same standards as hospitals. Finally, the results indicate that 78 percent of respondents believe physicians performing abortions should be able to transfer patients directly to emergency rooms.

These new polling results are welcome addition to the ongoing national debate over sanctity of life issues. While there is probably more polling data on abortion than any other public policy issue – many specific abortion policy questions have often received little attention from pollsters or survey research firms. …

This October, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear June Medical Services v. Gee,  a case involving the constitutionality of a Louisiana law which requires that any doctor performing an abortion to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. This will certainly increase the salience of health and safety regulations for abortion clinics in the coming months.

Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that Supreme Court decisions about morality policy issues are often sensitive to public attitudes. As such, AUL should be commended for commissioning this poll, which demonstrates that regulations of abortion clinics enjoy widespread public support.

We want to continue to do more polling like this, if for no other reason that the importance of documenting American attitudes on this issue—regardless of how the U.S. Supreme Court ends up ruling in June Medical Services v. Gee next year.

State-level purity tests

Noah Brandt writes on the decision of the Democratic Attorneys General Association to make abortion on demand a litmus test for any future endorsements:

President Donald Trump likes to say he’s going to win so much, you’ll get tired of winning. Maybe Democrats have taken the president too literally.

The Democratic Attorneys General Association is leading the charge to excise all abortion moderates from the good graces of the party. It announced it will not endorse or assist any candidates who do not support unfettered abortion access.

While state AGs may not seem incredibly relevant, they are an important stepping stone toward governors’ mansions in many states. So, considering the Democrats’ weak bench for plausible candidates in red states, the decision not to compete for attorney general is significant. That is what national Democrats are doing by supporting only abortion absolutists in pro-life states — they are deciding not to compete. …

Consider this state-level purity test in light of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ recent reelection. In a time of increasing state polarization, it should have been a huge victory for the Democrats to retain the governor’s mansion in ruby-red Louisiana. But it wasn’t the Democratic Party that ultimately secured Edwards’ reelection.

What makes Edwards different from the sea of losing Democratic nominees in a myriad of red states? It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure it out. He won on the strength of his abortion position.

Edwards was running against a well-funded, if somewhat uninspiring, Republican challenger. Edwards won a tough race, exceeding expectations and clearly illustrating how a Democrat can win in a challenging atmosphere. And he did so by defying what is now the litmus test of another official organ of his party.

The imposition of this state-level purity tests for Democrats ensures that the national party will become less representative of American attitudes in many states. It will contribute to a growing rift between the roughly two-thirds of states that are broadly pro-life and the remaining states which aren’t simply permissive of practices that most Americans view as extreme, but are increasingly moving to enshrine as a publicly-funded right. Why would the Democratic Party want fewer leaders like Gov. John Bel Edwards in states they would otherwise certainly lose?

New political priorities

John Burtka IV joins a growing chorus in calling for Republicans to turn from their concern with the economic and return to the human person and the family:

It’s time for Republicans to think anew about the family. For the past thirty years a conscious decision was made to prioritize financialization, cronyism, and globalization over social cohesion and broad prosperity. If conservatives believe that family is the foundation for a healthy civilization, it’s time that they protect the institution from external forces unleashed not by creativity but by deliberate policy choices promoted by elites on Wall Street and in our nation’s capital.

Thanks in large part to stagnant middle class wages, burdensome student loan debt, and rising housing costs, family formation is being delayed, and the building block of our society is crumbling. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, fertility rates in most Western countries have dipped below the replacement level of 2.1 children per family. In approximately fifty years, there will be more people on the planet over the age of sixty-five than under the age of fifteen for the first time in recorded history. …

If social conservatism is to have a future in American politics, the Republican Party must become pro-life for the whole of life, and the most popular place to start would be to support paid family leave. Across party lines, 74 percent of Americans support paid family leave. Family policy is an area that is very important to the president’s daughter, Ivanka, and there are a growing number of Republicans in the Senate like Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Joni Ernst and Bill Cassidy who have introduced family leave proposals. Support for such policies is also picking up steam among conservative think tanks and publications like The Daily Caller, American Affairs, and the American Principles Project, as an appetite for a pro-worker, pro-family agenda grows on the Right.

Most importantly, implementing pro-family policy the right thing to do because it provides vital support needed for middle class families who have been suffering at the hands of market forces that have hollowed out our heartland and crushed the American dream. President Trump promised to end the forever wars in the Middle East and rebuild America. There is no more urgent place to start than by rebuilding the American family and the time to act is now.

Economic opportunity matters, but economics have become the sole measure of social health at the same that as the fracturing and fragmentation of family and community life have hollowed out so many parts of America. We need a shift in priorities.

Burtka touches on the experience of Hungary over the past decade, and on the reality that only conservatism provides a meaningful path forward for both human thriving and the protection and stewardship of the environment. We need a new Republican Party. And we need a New Democratic Party too, for that matter.

‘Santa’ means saint, and saints are real

I was raised believing in Santa Claus. It absolutely infused a spirit of wonder into the Christmas season. But in growing up, I’ve come to think it was the wrong sort of wonder—a rootless sort of wonder that was one part magic and one part consumerism, both of which obscure Christ as the key mover of Christmastime.

Fr. Thomas Petri and Dr. Chad Pecknold recently had an exchange on Twitter that made me think of this:

We put our shoes at Nativity, my grammar school, in the corridors for Saint Nicholas’s Feast Day. Dr. Pecknold responded as a part of that thread with what I think is a close to perfect approach toward raising children to experience the wonder of Advent and Christmastime, without the lie at the heart of our modern experience of it:

In the kingdom of anxiety

Terence Sweeney writes on Alan Jacobs’s “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis”:

History can be told as the story of what happened, but it can also be narrated as the story of what could have been but was not. We look to history, in part, to see not only what is now but what may be. This is in part the motivating force behind various genealogies whether they be Michel Foucault’s or Alasdair MacIntyre’s. If the past is not what we have been told, perhaps the future may be different from what we have been told it will be. …

Auden was skeptical of a “program of Christian social renewal” in part because of his concern that it was “a massive misunderstanding of the claims of Christianity” to treat it as “a means to an end, that end being social cohesion” (81). This is the threat of conservatism for Christianity: it makes Christianity a force for social good—the city of God makes a better terrestrial city. But as Auden knew: “This is to re-enact the Constantinian error, which was to ‘profess and practice a religion of success’” (81). The crass version of this is the prosperity gospel in which Christianity will help us win so much we get bored of winning. In the richer traditions of Christianity, the question remains: what is the victory we seek?

For Auden, this victory could not be a social, cultural, or political. He challenges us to ask if we “believe that the contemplative life is the highest and most exhausting of vocations, that the church is saved by the saints?” (55). These values probably do not benefit society, but the contemplative and the saint seek a kingdom that is not of this world. Yet, for Auden in For the Time Being, they must remain at work here for we have “the time being to redeem / From insignificance.” Our victories this side of Eden are ironic ones redeemed only by the hope of Someone Else’s victory. We can only pursue this true victory by working for small victories “In the Kingdom of Anxiety” for it is only here that we can “Love Him in the World of the Flesh.” If you hope in the most ironic victory—that of the Cross—you may come to “the great city that has expected your return for years.” All we can do until then is win some and, more often, lose some, work against technocracy and nationalism, and actively wait as a service to God and to all. Ultimately, it is not social reform that matters; what matters is becoming saints. …

Perhaps it is Auden’s sense of irony and hope that leads Jacobs to close with the message of yet another writer: the French philosopher Jacques Ellul. Jacobs sees Ellul as having been “more realistic” in choosing “the simple hope for miraculous deliverance” (206). For a Christian, this is the truest realism, for our only hope is for the continuing miraculous deliverance of the Cross, Resurrection, and Return. Still, this reader was left grasping at the end. Is our only hope, as the diminished thing, a miracle? Jacobs leaves us with the advice that we must learn from these writers and that we must be aware of the signs of the times. But what can either teach us? As the diminished thing, how are we to arrest this diminishment and maybe even grow? These writers did not arrest the time. If, as I posited in the beginning of this essay, a genealogical approach gives us a sense of what was not, but also what could be, then Jacobs seems to provide us with little in the direction forward. The past that failed seems now merely a prologue towards continued diminishing.

Perhaps then, this diminishment provides us the spiritual lessons we need. Genealogical accounts are meant to remind us of contingency and so possibility for what may be. But what Auden teaches is that social reform is not our ultimate goal even if our social reform is a new Christendom. And now that comprehensive Christian social reform is wellnigh impossible, we must learn to dwell as diminished. Jacob’s lesson is that our calling is to be diminished in the year of the Lord 2019. What Eliot, Weil, Maritain, Lewis, and Auden provide ultimately is not the wisdom of a new Christendom, but the wisdom of a diminished Christianity. The possibility they open up is the possibility of a wiser Christianity, which has been shorn of its political power but also liberated for its work in the time being as we await another but very different coming of Christ.

What is a Christian’s telos or purpose? By God’s grace, becoming a saint. Christianity’s telos is not social cohesion per se, but of achieving a greater soul and greater soulfulness.

This is why the “the simple hope for miraculous deliverance” is Christian realism at its best, because it recognizes that its hope in “miraculous deliverance” corresponds with our little-thought-upon “miraculous appearance” at conception and emergence into this life. Just as our coming into life was an unanticipated gift, our leaving it too can be looked upon as a “going home” to the God who brought us into being.

Solitude, or being alone with ourselves

Marco Lapi writes on a Communion and Liberation conference on the theme of care of the elderly, and on the themes of loneliness and isolation:

Fr. Julián Carrón, who was entrusted with the theme “Faith and Solitude” … [spoke] on this last “elementary experience of man” as sung by Giacomo Leopardi in his Nocturnal Singing of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia and as described by Emily Dickinson: “There is a solitude of space, a solitude of sea, a solitude of death, but these society shall be compared with that profounder site, that polar privacy, a soul admitted to itself, finite infinity”. Because, added Fr. Carrón, “no solitude is comparable to that of a soul in the presence of itself”. As Fr. Giussani stressed, “the sense of impotence accompanies every serious experience of humanity”, therefore “the more aware man is of the immense dimension of his impotence, the more he realizes that that solitude cannot find an answer in us or in others”.

On the other hand, a different perception of lacking is not lacking in human experience, which revels itself as a “marvellous achievement”, as Gaber sang: Loneliness is not madness, it is essential to be in good company”. It has nothing to do, for example, with the anguish that pervades the two orphans of Pascoli’s the homonymous poem, at night. “A tremendous conquest or a marvellous condemnation?”, Carrón asked himself, referring to how Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz. She also spoke of it: “I know two forms of loneliness: one makes me feel terribly unhappy, lost and without direction; the other makes me strong and happy”. The answer, and the difference, is not to be alone or not, but to live a life full of meaning.

A question of attitude, as the words of the psychiatrist Eugenio Borgna, cited by Carrón, recall: “Loneliness and isolation are two radically different ways of living, even if they are often identified. To be alone does not mean to feel alone, but to be temporarily separated from the world of people and things, from the daily occupations, to enter into one’s inner self or imagination, without losing the desire or nostalgia for the relationship with others, with loved ones, with the tasks that life has entrusted to us. We are isolated, however, when we close ourselves because others reject us or when, more often, we follow the wake of our own indifference, of a gloomy selfishness that is the effect of an arid and dried up heart. Therefore, it is not a condemnation, because there is no lack of testimonies of how it is possible to live any human situation positively. Journalist Marina Corradi, quoted by Carrón, talks about her “crack”, which at a certain point became “severe depression”: “I read Mounier: “God passes through wounds”, he wrote. It made me think that perhaps my crack, like a hole in a waterproof wall, was a necessary laceration? If I did not exist, who am physically healthy, not poor, lucky, I wouldn’t need anything. That broken wall, that flaw, is a salvation. A torrent of grace, uncontrollable, can enter through it and fertilize the dry and hard land.”

“This is the fight in any circumstance”, explained Carrón: “But for what reason do we want rid of it? Only love for ourselves, because, in fact, even the deepest pain can lead us to discover completely unknown horizons. But, to open ourselves up to this possibility we must look at it with that openness that only man can have”. Provided we do not fall into that current emptiness of meaning, described by psychoanalyst Umberto Galimberti, which does not affect “a particular age, because you can already live old age at the age of twenty,” says Carrón.

In order for loneliness to be “experienced as a positive factor of living”, it is necessary to go through it. In order for it to become “the place where to discover the original companionship”, it is necessary “not to block the need for meaning that dwells in the human “. Starting from the fact that we do not make ourselves, as as Etty Hillesum again testifies: “Inside me there is a very deep source. And in that source there is God. Sometimes I can reach it, more often it is covered with stones and sand: then God is buried. Then we must unearth it again”. “Life is, therefore, expressed, above all, as awareness of the relationship with the one who makes it”, continued Carrón, citing Fr. Giussani’s Religious Sense: “Only in this way can solitude be overcome, in the discovery that we are like love that continually gives itself, that makes me, because there is an Other who wants me to be there. Companionship is in the “I” because we do nothing alone, because we are generated by Him in every moment. Every human friendship, every attempt to respond to this loneliness is a reverberation of the original structure of being, that is, of this original companionship that Another makes us by putting us into the world”.

To be comfortable with being alone with yourself is something like a superpower—an wholesome aloneness not touched by melancholy or despair, but enriched by a splendid sort of isolation that provides us the necessary space to know ourselves by knowing our creator. The first step toward experiencing this comes from silence, which Robert Cardinal Sarah reflects on in “The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.”

We all need this sort of solitude, and to develop a capacity for it if it doesn’t come naturally to us. A capacity for solitude is something to be pursued intentionally precisely because it’s a precondition for our capacity to give of ourselves to others.

“To be alone does not mean to feel alone, but to be temporarily separated from the world of people and things, from the daily occupations, to enter into one’s inner self or imagination, without losing the desire or nostalgia for the relationship with others, with loved ones, with the tasks that life has entrusted to us.”

Peter Singer and friendship

Charlie Camosy writes on his relationship with Peter Singer, Princeton’s infamous analytic philosopher:

I saw that, even if Singer was a committed atheist, he had a lot of common ground with Catholic social teaching, Thomas Aquinas, the church fathers and Jesus himself. More surprising to me, I began to find his views on abortion and euthanasia more interesting.

Though I considered him clearly wrong about moral status and who counts as a person, he was wrong in interesting and informative ways. And, again, he was one of the few in his camp who was willing to follow his arguments wherever they led him — even if it was to a deeply uncomfortable place.

After I arrived in my current place at Fordham University, I began to think about a book project exploring Singer’s work, which would eventually become “Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization.” …

We have never papered over our differences. Indeed, as one does when one is an analytic philosopher, he honored our friendship by inviting me to debate him in various places, from his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, to his classroom at Princeton. …

As I reflect back on our 10 years of friendship, I’ve come to realize that, especially in our current context, Singer’s significance arises from his unwavering commitment to facts and arguments. Despite decades of attempts to “cancel” him (an audience member once leapt on stage, ripped off his glasses and smashed them with his foot), Singer refuses to bend to the temptation to use raw power to marginalize those with whom he disagrees.

His approach is the only way out of our current mess of a public discourse. Indeed, as far as I can tell, it is the only way to give the vulnerable and marginalized a shot at having their point of view taken seriously by those who hold power over them.

I spoke with Charlie a few weeks ago, and we touched on Singer and the value he had as one of the rare opponents of the human right to life who was willing to “follow the logic” where it leads. When Singer advocates for lawful infanticide and other barbaric practices, he’s following the logic of a culture that rejects human dignity as innate. And at least to the degree that he’s being honest with where the logic of that attitude toward human life leads, we should be grateful for his willingness to say what others will not say.

Charlie’s friendship with Peter Singer is instructive in another way, too. Without instrumentalizing friendships, it bears keeping in mind that only through friendship can we hope to soften or change another’s heart.