The Moral Crisis of Secular Culture: A Conversation with Mary Eberstadt

Interview with Mary Eberstadt

Thinking in Public

May 20, 2011

(This is a rush transcript.  This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.)

Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

All around us we see evidence of massive social changes. But behind and underneath those social changes are ideological, philosophical, worldview shifts.  It’s difficult to keep both of these in our perspective and to understand which came first.  This is one of those questions that leads us to try to find someone with whom we can have an intelligent conversation about the intellectual crises and its human cost.

Mary Eberstadt was a member of the policy planning staff at the U.S. State Department.  She’s been a speech writer for former secretary of state George P. Shutlz, and she was special assistant to Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.  She’s now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a widely published author, and one of America’s most influential public intellectuals. Mary Eberstadt, welcome to Thinking in Public.

Eberstadt: Thank you Dr. Mohler.  Thanks for having me on.

Mohler: Well I’ve been looking forward to this conversation to talk about the intellectual crises and its human cost.  You’re one of the very few published and influential thinkers in America that deals both with the larger issues of the big philosophical and ideological changes of our day and then its impact upon domestic life, family life, marriage, and individual life.  But, I want to step back for a moment just to ask you if you were all of a sudden looking to have a moment in which you enter American society in 2011 and the last time you knew it was many decades ago what do you think would be the most defining changes that would come to your mind?

Eberstadt: Well, unfortunately I think the most defining change would be a negative change and that is for all the wonderful things that have happened to society and all of our technological leaps during those same years if you were to look at our world from the point of view of the smallest, the weakest, the most vulnerable.   I think you would see a change for the worst.  I have in mind not only the unborn but the lives of many children in our society.  A society driven by divorce, unmarried motherhood, and other family changes that I think have had a very negative impact on many millions of people during these years.  The collapse of the family is the fundamental fact that I would point to in seeing the difference between say 50 years ago and now.  And in saying that I’m not at all saying that we need to get back to some golden age like the 1950’s.  I think it’s dangerous to talk about golden ages and to have kind of nostalgia about history.  So this argument is not about that this argument is an argument that begins quite frankly acknowledging the very negative change in our world which is the disappearance in many cases and diminishment in many others of family bonds.

Mohler: Now did something happen ideologically that opened the door or served as a catalyst for this?  Was there some kind of prior philosophical shift that had to take place before this reordering of our social lives could happen?

Eberstadt: Well, in a sense the family has been under attack for a very long time specifically since the enlightenment because many progressive minded thinkers have for centuries seen the family as an impediment to utopian dreams.  The family has also been seen correctly I think as something so bound up with Christianity that to attack Christianity is to attack the family. But getting more specifically away from the enlightenment thinkers and into our own times, you know I think many intellectuals during the past century say not only in America but in the West generally have been of a very progressive mindset following in that enlightenment tradition.  And very few intellectuals have shown an interest in defending the family.  A great many have shown an interest in attacking the family or in minimizing the fallout from what’s happened from the family.  And so there’s been a real emptiness in the public square on the part of those less educated and supposedly clearest thinking to try and reverse some of the problems that have resulted from this collapse.

Mohler: You have described much of the shift that took place in our society in terms of what’s just put under the umbrella in terms of the sexual revolution.  All of a sudden human beings are relating to one another sexually.  And in our most intimate lives in ways that are literally revolutionary.  So how did that happen?

Eberstadt: Well the fundamental fact, there was of course the technological leap of the pill.  And I mean the pill both literally and figuratively.  The pill and all the accompanying modern contraceptives that have made it possible shorthand for women to behave like men.  That is what made it possible for women to behave the way predatory men always did which is to act as if their sexual acts would not have consequences.  And the pill I think is the fundamental fact of our time.  It has erased the differences between men and women as no other technological innovation ever has or could.  It hasn’t really erased the differences because our actions are what they are.  It has made a great many people think and act as if men and women are interchangeable sexual beings.  And I think this kind of endrogeny  has had sad consequences for many millions of people including consequences that we’re just beginning to reckon with.

Mohler: So the separation of sex and reproduction is not just a technological reality; it’s a fundamental reordering of how human beings relate to one another.

Eberstadt: Yes absolutely.  And you know for a while when the sexual revolution was really just getting rolling say half a century ago people would point this out and they would be ridiculed as…and fuddy duddies, and whatever word you want to use.  It was interesting that last year on the 50th anniversary of the pill because last year marked the 50th anniversary of the pill’s approval there was an outpouring of commentaries from all over.  You know left, right, religious, non-religious, and people were broadly speaking a lot more agreed about that than they used to be.  That is that the separation of pro-creation from female sexuality in fact was a revolution.  It was something that changed everything about the way men behaved toward women and women behaved toward men.  And the expectations that people brought to those relationships.

Mohler: You know Lisa Miller, I believe it was at Newsweek Magazine, wrote a massive story on this and cover story on the anniversary of the pill.  And one of the things that was pointed out in this public discussion was the fact that it has so changed the way humanity lives that most moderns cannot imagine there was a time before the pill.  In other words this revolution is so comprehensive and from kind of a strategic standpoint successful that it has changed the way people think since they no longer even remember a time when sex and procreation were rather inherently linked.

Eberstadt: Yes and I’m sure you know this also Dr. Mohler as I did how celebratory all of those pieces were.  You know as if the pill had had only wonderful liberating consequences and not very complicated consequences.  This goes to a general point that I think we need to reflect on which is that society, our society, I think is in denial about the negative cost of all that.  I think it’s in denial about the cost of the sexual revolution.  Let’s go back again to children and ask from the point of view of say a five year old child, would you rather have been born fifty years ago when your chances of being in an..home would have been considerably higher.  Or would you rather be born today when I think you would have a 1 in, what is it, I think 40% of kids now have their biological father absent in their home at some point.   From the child’s point of view the choice is clear and no amount of technological gadgetry or you know material prosperity makes up for that absence of family.

Mohler: You know every civilization or society tends to have a narrative that is its communal meaning.  And I think one of the things we need to note there is that the narrative of a good many people in the society and I think certainly the elites.  Those who are most active in academia, in the intellectual life, in the political and social, and cultural and entertainment life of this society, the narrative that seems to be the only narrative they know or think about or can imagine is a narrative that says we are about oppression giving way to liberation.  Every issue, every controversy, every cultural question comes down to how do we liberate the oppressed?  Well if that’s the only story you have then every kind of binding responsibility and every kind of objective fact is going to be seen as something that is going to be oppressing something from which they need to be liberated.

Eberstadt: Yes and here again I think it helps to realize that liberation is not what it’s cracked up to be.  From the point of view of say a twenty-one year old young man with no particular religious or moral constraints, say a young man who just wants to let’s say bait as many girls as he can with as few consequences as possible all of this sexual liberation is a wonderful thing.  It’s made his life very different from the lives of his ancestors 200 years ago.  From the point of view of some young women who are still young and pretty enough to command attention in the sexual market place this is also a great thing.  But if you ask that same woman at age fifty, sixty, how it all looks in retrospect I think you get a very different answer because as we know from reading women’s literature and watching Oprah there are a lot of miserable women out there who were in the sexual marketplace successfully when they were young only to find that they couldn’t compete later.  I’m not defending this I’m just saying it’s a fact of life that this is another way in which sexual revolution has had negative effect on millions of people.  And as a society we’re really not dealing with it.

Mohler: In some of your writings you deal with the fact of secularism and its impact on our lives.  And you deal extensively with the sexual revolution.  You make a very interesting argument, and I’m going to make it the way you make it which is actually in the form of a question.  But you ask the question are we, have we experienced a sexual revolution because of secularism or have we become secularized because of the way we live our sexual lives?  I think that is a phenomenal way of asserting the most basic question.

Eberstadt: Well thank you for that.  I hope it’s useful.  You know when a lot of people talk about secularism the discussion tends to get very abstract.  You know they bring in Rousseau, Voltaire, or other heavy duty thinkers and you know even in that state of atheist books of the last few years that we’re all very familiar with people tended to talk about secularism at a pretty high philosophical level as if it all came down to arguments between philosophers or arguments between Charles Darwin and that evil theologians or what have you.  I don’t think that’s really how secularism happens.  I think that there have always been powerful temptations toward secularism on the part of Christians because the Christian moral code especially is a very difficult moral code.  And since the time of Jesus there has been people who have wanted to resist what he had to say about how we are supposed to live.  It’s a tough code.  It’s like being in the Marines theologically speaking.  So there have always been detractors and people who would rather have it to be otherwise.  I think secularism happens because enough people got tempted enough especially the sexual revolution that there was a kind of critical mass of people who couldn’t put up a serious public denial about what happens when we don’t have the Christian moral code.  So I think family changes have been part of the theological changes all along.

Mohler: Research is never neutral because facts and data have to be interpreted.  The interpretation of such data is where ideology enters in and that’s why a conversation with someone like Mary Eberstadt is so interesting because one of the great questions, one of the most perplexing questions of our times is why there are so many who simply will not look at all of the data available and see the truth.  It is a willful blindness but it is an all too common problem.

When we look at the American family today and we look at the big moral questions that we currently face, how do you think the average family is now situated to address those questions?  Not so much the political, social sphere but actually in their internal lives.  One of the things you deal with extensively in your research and writing is the fact that everyone is having to deal with this and you describe this very well in terms of the sexual revolution, in terms of the revolutions in family law and life and all the rest.  I mean here is this you know Christopher Lash, I believe called a haven in a heartless world and this little family unit is now in the midst of all of this so that virtually every mom, every day, every husband, every wife, is having to deal with these issues.

Eberstadt: Yes everybody is having to deal with these issues.  I mean there are pockets of serious resistance.  There are pockets of religious communities out there of say Orthodox Jews, of serious Catholic, serious Protestants, serious Mormons, there are pockets out there where there are enough people living in a community that they can resist this more effectively but for the vast majority of American families all of these changes have had an impact.  Everyone can think of their now out of the closet gay cousin, or their divorced grandparents, or their multiply divorced siblings, so even people who are trying to live by that…Christian moral code are effected in their wider families.  Now this is where the collapse of the intellectuals really becomes a problem because the secular intellectuals have convinced people that because that is true, because there are these changes that everyone knows about and can see in their own family lives. Therefore what we’re all supposed to do is pretend that their inconsequential because after all it would be hypocritical to say anything about them when they affect all of us equally.  This is not true.

Mohler: I just interrupt to say inconsequential or even to be celebrated.

Eberstadt: Or to be celebrated but see this is not true.  The analogy I would use here is flavoring.  Before the Civil War almost every southern family was affected by slavery one way or another.  You might say everybody was implicated.  There were good people, there were bad people, there were people who tried to figure out what to do about that, or many people who couldn’t figure out what to do about that.  But the fact remains in retrospect at least that that didn’t alter the rightness or wrongness of human slavery.  I would say the same about these family changes we’re talking about, the fact that they affect so many people has nothing to do with the truth of those changes or whether they’re for the good or for the ill.

Mohler: One of the things you have done in your writings is to force us to look at certain facts at certain research that otherwise we probably would not see.  And many in this society probably do not want us to see.  But for instance some questions such as the impact of daycare we’ve got some pretty good indications that it’s doing a lot of damage, but there’s almost no way to have a honest cultural conversation about this.

Eberstadt: Daycare is a perfect example of the abdication of the intellectuals in these kinds of matters because when they first say everybody has to say this, not jumping on parents who use daycare, a lot of folks have to in part because of the collapse of the family, find some institutions to do what the human family used to do.  However, that said, over the years whenever bad news about daycare comes out and bad news about daycare has come out repeatedly, the intellectual response, the pundit response from the secular world has been almost universal.  It has always been this is a great thing.  In other words, is the news that kids in daycare get sick more often than other kids, which is true of course they get sick more often they’re exposed to more germs, well saying intellectuals say this is a good thing it means they build up immunity.  Now if we were talking about anything but daycare the idea that there are things that make kids sicker than other things would be regarded as a negative.  But because of the ideology surrounding this issue bad things have been celebrated as good things.  Similarly when day care is linked to adverse behaviors like biting and other forms of childhood violence, people have popped up to say, well this is a good thing because it means that they’re having to deal with stress at an early age.  Again, I think anybody reasonable looking at this would say, no these are bad things, we should discourage institutions that encourage these things.  But that’s not the way the discussion has gone in the case of daycare.

Mohler: I love the titles of many of your essays and articles and I believe that a couple of them are very suggestive of lines of discussion that would be fruitful for us.  Not too long ago you asked the question is food the new sex?  What are you talking about there?

Eberstadt: I think if you step back from what’s immediately in front of our eyes and try to look at the flow of history in our society over the last fifty years or so one of the things that would strike you would be that people have become a lot less permissive about matters of food.  That is they attach a lot more moral questions to food than they used to.  You know we have these debates raging about what people should eat.  Should they eat organic?  Should they eat things grown on farms?  Should they eat things with sugar, etc., etc., eat red meat, etc.  At the same time that we have become a lot more moral about food, we as a society have become less moral and more permissive about sex.  So I hypothesized that if you follow this step by step there’s the de-stigmatizing of non-marital sexual behavior and the stigmatizing of food I think what you see is that we sort of…what used to be morality about sex onto food.  And I think that’s a very interesting thing.

Mohler: Now you follow that up with an essay with another provocative title and that was asking the question is pornography the new tobacco?

Eberstadt: Yes again more fallout from the sexual revolution.  It used to be a few years ago that there was a substance that was everywhere in society.  Some people said it was bad for you.  Most people said it wasn’t and that substance was tobacco.  We all know what happened with tobacco.  Eventually to a great moral and health campaign it became re-stigmatized but simultaneously now there’s a substance in our society that’s everywhere that people, a few people, say is bad for you but most people say is fine.  And that substance is pornography.  And I think the similarities between those two cases are again fascinating.  And the campaign against tobacco I think in a way is very encouraging because what it means is that it’s possible to imagine that fifty years from now a similar campaign against pornography might have resulted in re-stigmatizing the thing.  I don’t think that’s impossible.

Mohler: Your most recent book is entitled The Loser Letters:  A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism.  Tell us what you’re doing there.

Eberstadt: I create a fictional character named A.F Christian that’s not her real name it stands for a former Christian.  And in a series of letters he tells the story of how it was that she grew up as a believer and came to reject all of that and the common atheist.  Now the book is a satire so everything is not what it appears to be.  But essentially we learn her life story, and I hope you start to feel something for her.  We see here a creature of our times.  A girl profited by the sexual revolution and all of its consequences who has lost her faith and been taken advantage of in the wider world.  So in writing it that way I was trying to reach young people especially who I think find it resonates with their own life history.

Mohler: Well let’s talk about that particular character that you have invented.  It’s kind of a symbol of a generation that has grown up with all these revolutions and debris of all these  revolutions around them that has been highly influenced by a far more secularized worldview and even by the ideological influence of the new atheists.  How should the church respond to this generation?  How should we speak to this generation?

Eberstadt: I think one starting point is the churches have been playing defense and they need to play offense.  And part of the reason that the new atheists have been so successful in the public square is that they put forward a very confident faith.  They’re very in your face.  Young people resonate to that even when the message isn’t what they ought to hear they resonate to confidence and authority.  And I think part of the problem is that we, that is to say people interested in defending traditional Christian principles, dogmas, what have you, we have not been nearly as proactive especially in reaching out to the young.  I think this is a terribly important thing both for the health of society and for the inner health of those people.

Mohler: Well, I think it’s a remarkable thing that there are voices out there that are able to see through the fog, the culture smog as some call it, and force us to face some facts.  At the same time it is amazing to me that if you just watch the cultural conversation or listen to it.  If you really start to look at the kind of cultural production that’s going on around us, it appears that there is a generation coming that is even past what we might describe as the sexual revolutions you so well documented.  I’m looking at some of the stuff that’s coming from both Hollywood and in the academic world and I just wonder you know what in the world could be next?  I’m going to ask you to say you know what do you see coming?

Eberstadt: Well, the bad news is that if we follow out the European trajectory and end up with European style race of illegitimacy and broken homes, particularly northern European style of race where people rarely bother to get married anymore, we are going to be in even more trouble than we are now.  That’s the bad news.  I don’t know if it’s good news but I think we can take some encouragement from the fact that human beings do learn over time.  To go back to the example of smoking you know plenty of people who thought it was not a harmful thing learned other wise in the course of several decades of research and several decades of people patiently putting the message out there that this was something that could be bad for you.  It’s not impossible that something like that could happen with the negative fallout of the sexual revolution. That is that it’s not impossible that maybe the 1,000th time that somebody piles on the statistics about what broken homes are doing to children there will be people out there who will say, hey, wait a minute, that really does sound reasonable.  So I think it is still possible to change the hearts and minds.  And that’s what real research is all about.

Mohler: Well, as I hear you speak I’m struck by the fact that as I reflect upon the great moral shift on tobacco I just will offer the suggestion that a lot of that probably had to do with the fact that the average person in the society has had experience with a grandfather, an uncle, a grandmother, a sister, or someone near and dear to them who had died a horrible death that can be attributed causally at least to some extent to tobacco and tobacco smoking.  I wonder, and I shudder to think this, but I wonder if that kind of moral recovery on the issue of sexuality, and marriage, and all the rest will only take place after there is such a widespread pathology around us that it’s virtually impossible to deny the real pain and agony and brokenness that has come into so many lives because of this revolution.  I just wonder if that’s not a part of the same kind of trajectory.

Eberstadt: Yes I think it’s underway already in certain respects.  For example when secular thinkers and atheists make fun of religious folks especially as you know Christians in America are the whipping boy for just about everything we say.  When Christians of America get made fun of I always laugh a little to myself because most of the believers I know and many, many of the most serious believers I know are not people who were brought in because they learned it at their mother’s knee and never had another thought in their heads.  They are instead people who have had bruising experiences of the world who are wounded people like my fictional character in that book.  They are wounded and that is what has drawn them to the church and to entertaining the idea that there might be a better way to live their lives.  I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about Dr. Mohler.

Mohler: Yes absolutely.

Eberstadt: And so the world and all of its wicked ways is part of what keeps driving people back to Christianity.  So in a sense what I think you’re describing is underway already.

Mohler: So what’s next for you in terms of writing and research?  What are you working on at the present?

Eberstadt: Oh thank you.  I have a book coming out next year called Adam and Eve after the Pill which will be about some of these issues that we’ve been discussing trying to trace out the actual as opposed to imagined legacy of the sexual revolution.  And the following year I hope to have a book out about secularization in the West generally because I find this to be a great puzzle of our times.  How did it happen especially in western Europe? Just so many people lost their faith, and it’s a puzzle I hope to be shedding light on down the road.  So thank you for asking.

Mohler: Well I’ll look forward to seeing those and other works.  And thank you so much for joining me today for Thinking In Public.

Eberstadt: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you Dr. Mohler.  Thank you.

Mohler: That’s the kind of conversation that’s really fun.  It’s enlightening because it leads to new ideas and new ways of connecting the dots.  Mary Eberstadt’s a very effective researcher and writer.  And she’s writing and thinking about issues that are really, really important.  Not just on the global scene as you might associate with the Hoover Institution but also in the domestic life and individual lives.  And if you listen to her carefully she’s thinking theologically not just sociologically that’s important too.

Looking at the huge changes that have occurred in our society there are so many questions that come to mind.  Which came first?  The change in the patterns of behavior or the change in the patterns of thinking?  Now the average reflex is to think that the change in thinking always came before the change in behavior.  And somehow the elite level and what we might call the pioneers of these revolutionary changes that is almost certainly true.  But the research of Mary Eberstadt has led us to ask some fundamental questions about how this actually happens at the popular level with the wider demographic.  How do these ideas take root and take hold of the society that should have pretty strong defenses against them?  Well, this is where she asks that most fascinating question.  Are we more secular because of our sex lives or are our sex lives as they are because we are more secular?  And the revolutionary part of her asking that question is the assertion that it just might be that when we change our moral lives and moral patterns of behavior we then find a way to reconcile our worldview, our philosophical and ideological lives to then come into concert with that to authorize and allow that change in behavior.  Now we recognize that when it happens in an adolescent that that’s one of those patterns we recognize in teenagers.  They try to justify after the fact what they have done but that turns out to be a far more generalized human pattern of behavior and pattern of thinking.  And when it comes to the big questions of this conversation and beyond I think we need to recognize something very important is going on here.  The sexual revolution was never only about sex because sex is never only about sex.

It is so fundamental to what it means to be human that you take the issues of sexuality and intimacy, and marriage, and procreation, and child bearing, and child rearing and you recognize that there is very little in our lives actually that is outside those connections and spheres.  The reality is that our sex lives are very determinative of our larger lives as much as they are illustrative of who we really are.  You find a window into the soul through the sex lives of not only a civilization but of its individuals.  And that’s where Mary Eberstadt is very helpful in showing us that the change that we describe as the sexual revolution may well be the great engine of what we call secularization.  It just might be that when people begin to order their sexual lives as if there is no God and God has not spoken and revealed a moral code to us, if he has not given us the institution of marriage, if we begin to live that way well pretty soon the patterns of our minds and of our thinking begin to follow the patterns of our lives and our sexual behavior.  Now when it comes to the denial of reality, well here’s another important point in that conversation, it turns out that we has human beings are incredibly adept at denying the obvious and refusing to see what is right before our eyes.  The fact is that we already know.  We have an avalanche of data and experience pointing to the cost of the sexual revolution.  But it is still almost breathtakingly amazing that there are so many people in this society who will look at that data and find what they describe as good news.  They will find some way to celebrate even such things as the break-up of marriages, the reality that children spend so much of their time without a father in the home on such a large scale.  The fact that this or that change in the civilization has brought such unhealthy and unhappiness into the lives of many people.

Again, as I said earlier in the conversation, if the only narrative you know, if the only explanation of history that you have accessible is the fact that every change and every issue, and every controversy comes down to a question of oppression versus liberation, then you’re going to try to liberate humanity from every kind of binding commitment, from every kind of historic and traditional institution, from every kind of moral code and moral expectation.  The problem is there’s no endgame to that process.  When we think about the intellectual crises and its human cost we’re talking of course about what can be documented in terms of sociological and research data.  We can look at all these studies, we can pull them all together and try to analyze them but the most fundamental moral question is whether we are going to allow our hearts and minds to be directed towards what is actually true, even if that truth is very awkward.

Now those of us who are Christians looking at this entire equation understand that we begin with an apriori, with a pre-commitment to the fact that there is a God and he has revealed himself to us, that he created human creatures in his image and he gave us the capacity of moral responsibility, that he is given us instruction about what is for our good, that he has given us objective institution such as marriage and he has defined them as much as he has defined the proper use of our sexual gift.  We come to these questions regardless of the particular form with that kind of pre-commitment.  But amazingly enough, and this is where we had better think carefully, all too many Christians are actually somehow able to bracket what we do know and cannot no know by God’s revelation of himself to us and live as if we do not know these things.  We can become complicit in the great denial and subversion of the truth by refusing to see what is right before our eyes.  The great issue for us is not the sociological data as informative and irrefutable as so much of it is.  It is not even the experience that we observe with our own eyes and ears and by our powers of perception and by the extent of our relationships and knowledge.  No it’s not that, we are driven by the knowledge that is revealed to us in the word of God. But that matters not if we are going to deny the truth and are going to live in rebellion if we’re going to embrace the kind of confusion around us as if we have no other choice.  One of the most important issues for Christians in this particular generation is the question of whether we are going to live by what we actually know.  And we’re going to be accountable to what God has revealed to us concerning these things, and we are going to act not so much in defiance of the sociological data, as overwhelming as all this information is to us, but in defiance of the call to abandon what we know.  To deny the truth we have received and to disobey the command that has been addressed to us.  That’s the big question.  The intellectual crises and its human cost comes down for us to a theological and spiritual crises which the only answer is trust, and faith, and obedience and that’s where it all started, that’s where it ends.  Thanks for listening to Thinking In Public.

Many thanks to my guest Mary Eberstadt for thinking with me today.  Before leaving I want to invite you to the upcoming D3 youth conference being held on the campus of Southern Seminary this summer June 27-30.  Designed to develop student’s understanding of leadership, worldview, and missions, D3 will be a summer experience full of learning and growing opportunities for high school students serious about following Christ.  I’m excited to have Eric Bancroft and Army Major Jeff Struecker joining me to speak as well as musical guests Flame and the Hoffmans.  For more information visit  Thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public.  Until next time, keep thinking.