The Religious Revival that could save America

Note: This is my most recent column at the National Review.

By Jonathon Van Maren

According to prominent political scientist Charles Murray, the American republic is unlikely to survive without another Great Awakening — or, at the very least, a revival of the religious values that the Founders depended on to undergird their experiment. Murray is not a religious man — he is an agnostic — but he can read history, and he knows how nations die. Murray’s latest book Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class came out this year, following on the heels of the prescient Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 in 2012. (Murray’s considerable infamy comes from the 1994 book he co-authored with psychologist Richard J. Hernstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.)

In a recent interview, I asked Murray what the social implications of the dramatic rise in “nones” — those who identify with no religious tradition — in the United States over the last several decades would be. Murray first noted that the decline of religious practice in America is somewhat exaggerated, as many Americans who identified as culturally Christian simply ceased doing so as Christian orthodoxy became less popular, contributing significantly to the sudden precipitous decline. But that said, Murray believes that the implications of the loss of religious values will have profound implications for American life.

“The Founders were not really super orthodox,” he observed. “They were all nominally Christians, but they wouldn’t pass the litmus test for a lot of evangelicals today. But they were absolutely, emphatically agreed that you cannot have a free society with a constitution such as the one they had created unless you are trying to govern a religious people. If you do not have religion as the controlling force, then the kinds of laws we have could not possibly work.” Without religion, Murray told me, there was simply no “intrinsic motivation” for people to behave morally — and no definition for what constitutes moral behavior in the first place.

The current experiment that the West has embarked on, in Murray’s view, has an expiration date: “I cannot believe that the secularization of society is going to continue indefinitely. We have never had an advanced culture, in the history of the world, that is as secular as contemporary Europe. I would say that it is the test case, the canary in the coalmine. And so Sam Harris, who I like and respect, will say that as a secular humanist society, they’ll do just fine and they’ll do just fine over the long term. My own sense is [that they won’t.] You cannot have a free society, a society that allows lots of individual autonomy, without some outside force that leads people to control the self. And I think the increasing Muslim minorities in those countries are probably going to accelerate the exposure of the degeneracy.”

Murray is right: Increasingly, it is Muslim leaders pushing back against the LGBT agenda in places like the United Kingdom, while the servile Church of England cowers or collaborates. The difficulty that the diversity-oriented progressives have leveling accusations at Muslim immigrants that they would happily smear Christians with is, in Murray’s view, “indicative of the lack of confidence, the hollowness of the new upper class in England. That is over the long term. Highly secular societies are going to break down. Then I think you are looking a future in which there is a kind of resurgence of religiosity, but it could take a couple of forms. I am very unhappy with the prospect of a religiosity that is authoritarian . . . as Christian theology has been perverted in the past . . . as [Islamic] theology has been perverted, and is being perverted.”

In short, Murray believes that the West “could go either way. If you could have a resurgence of what used to be known as a religious Great Awakening — we’ve had three of them at least, maybe four — those had very good effects. Those [could] change the behavior of the population in very positive ways. And that’s going to be great if that happens. If you have a new upper class that joins in a resurgence of the Judeo-Christian traditions, the United States could be great. But if you end up with authoritarians of any theological stripe, we’re in trouble. But I think a sort of steady state secularism is the least probably of the alternatives.”


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