Yuval Levin, in his latest book, The Fractured Republic, addresses the divisions of our political life. He argues that there is a tendency to become nostalgic for better times. “The Left looks back to the middle of the twentieth century, when unions were strong, large public programs promised to solve pressing social problems, and the movements for racial integration and sexual equality were advancing. The Right looks back to the Reagan era, when deregulation and lower taxes spurred the economy, cultural traditionalism seemed resurgent, and America was confident and optimistic. Each side thinks returning to its golden age could solve America’s problems.” Donald Trump’s election slogan, “Make America Great Again” evokes that sentiment.
Levin suggests that we have altered “the shape of lives and souls. We have let loose a scourge of loneliness and isolation that we are afraid to acknowledge as the distinct social dysfunction of our age of individualism.”
Individualism involves the corrosion of people’s sense of themselves as defined by their social, religious and familial relationships. In their place a hyper-centralized government seeks to treat individuals equally by treating them all impersonally.
Family life has changed dramatically. In 1955 roughly 4.5 percent of children were born to unmarried mothers. In 2015, it looks to have been just over 41 percent of births. These figures suggest a failure on a massive scale by our society to provide the next generation with some of the basic prerequisites for a truly thriving life. Nearly half the children raised by single mothers now live in poverty, while roughly a tenth of children raised by their married parents are poor. Children who grow up in single-parent families are also significantly more likely than their peers to exhibit behavioral problems, drop out of school, experience mental health problems, attempt suicide and fail to enter the work force as young adults. The breakdown of the family leads to a dysfunctional society.
Our society is no longer united by a general agreement about the virtues and benefits of the traditional family and of traditional sexual mores. Moral norms involving premarital sex, abortion, adultery, divorce, pornography and gender identity that have been in place for many centuries have dissolved in the span of decades. The desire for personal choice and control has liberated people from accountability to any moral authority.
Expressive individualism, if taken all the way to its logical conclusions, points toward moral chaos. Moral anarchy has become the goal of some of our most influential institutions. Because the larger culture has drifted away from the traditional norms of family life, a community consciously built around them becomes a subculture with a moral life of its own. Christians can therefore witness to a better life through modeling traditional biblical values. “They may not need to do something new, but they might need to understand what they are already doing in a new way – as at once a shelter and a model, a refuge and an act of edifying rebellion.”
Just as the church became the center of community life during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire into the dark ages, so we need to build communities we believe essential to the survival of our way of life to escape a collapsing civilization.
Alasdair MacIntyre warned, “This time the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers. They have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.” St. Benedict of Nursia founded communities of monks and nuns intended to help safeguard Christian culture in a world that was quickly becoming unruly and dangerous – as MacIntyre clearly believed our own world is also becoming.
This is a call to those who value marriage, family and church life to join together to offer to the wider culture a way of life that transcends individualism and promotes healthy human flourishing. It is forward looking that seeks to renew the culture and national life as religious revivals have done so in the past. This is the mission of the Christian citizen in a fractured republic.