Is America a Decadent Society? A Conversation with New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat

Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline 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.

Ross Douthat is one of the most important public intellectuals in the United States these days. You know him as a columnist for the New York Times. Before joining the Times, he was a senior editor for The Atlantic. He’s also a student of American culture, the film critic for National Review and he has appeared regularly on television. He’s the author of several books, including Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, and To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. Today we’ll talk about his newest book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

Albert Mohler: Ross, it takes a certain amount of self-confidence to write a book entitled The Decadent Society, and that word is going to immediately send some flags up that, this is something of a cry of the heart. It’s also not your first book. How do you get to the point where you’re writing a book entitled The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success?

Ross Douthat: Well, honestly Al, I just turned 40 so I feel that I’ve now finally reached the age where I can offer sweeping assessments in our civilization just as I sort of start the slow slide towards my own mortality. That’s the justification at least for these kind of making sweeping pronouncements but I think this is a book that it’s trying to explain in a way what I think are two feelings that people have simultaneously about not just America but sort of Western society, the developed world writ large and one of those feelings is this sense of crisis and looming disaster everywhere you look and sort of depression, despair, anxiety, which is so much a part of I feel like our media atmosphere and the sort of cultural psyche of our times and then that coexists with this sort of statistical reality that by most material measures, Western life has never been better, in the sense that we’re richer than any civilization has ever been before. We’re not collapsing into a 1960s style crime wave. We’re not enduring something like World War II or the agony in Vietnam, even with all of the wildness of the Trump era in Washington, in fact American society overall seems very stable and… so you get a lot of books that are written that are books about crisis and then you get a certain kind of book written, I would say Steven Pinker’s books, are good examples that basically make the argument that no, people are feeling anxious just because the world is changing too fast, but really things are just getting better and better every day. I’m sort of trying to write in the space between those two diagnoses and say that they basically… they both capture something of what’s going on and what is actually going on is that we are richer than any society has been before. We are despite what you see on Twitter pretty stable, but we also feel like we’ve come to some kind of cultural and spiritual and political dead end where our institutions don’t work very well anymore. People don’t believe in the future anymore. People are literally not having children anymore and the frontiers that people believed in for a long time, including the very literal frontier of going to the moon and going into space seemed closed and it’s sort of like we’ve… to put it in terms of genesis, we’ve filled the earth and subdued it, and we don’t have any idea what happens next and it’s freaking us out and that’s what I’m defining as decadence.

Albert Mohler: Yeah and we’ll talk more about the word, but the word itself not only implies but contains within itself the idea of decline and thus it raises the question, what kind of decline, what does the decline mean? But in my own kind of a worldview, philosophical, theological, philosophical development, I first became acquainted with the declinists when I was a teenager trying to figure out the world and I first really got to them through National Review magazine of all things, just simply because the magazine was extremely helpful to me, not only because of the arguments it made, but because of the authors it cited, and so… I mean, I just didn’t know any better than go trotting off after those authors and so whether it’s Spengler or whomever else. The problem I had as a teenager when I started reading the literature is that it was completely convincing and then I started to notice something, even as a very young thinker. I’m just thinking, the problem is there’s declinist literature in the 16th century and of course there was even in the ancient world. There is declinist literature in the 19th century. There’s declinist literature in the 20th century and I believe all of it, and yet I’m glad to be living! I was born in 1959. I’m 20 years older than you. I’m really glad to be living right now in this particular time materially but not so much morally and so by the way, that’s my retort to Steven Pinker. I think Pinker’s optimism makes perfect sense if you are, as he, a pure materialist because in purely materialist terms, there can be no doubt that we are in a better situation than before. I don’t live in a purely material world and I don’t think that way and nor could I buy into what I saw was an un-Christian dystopianism in much of the declinist literature and I want to tell you, one of the reasons why I appreciate your book as in other things you do is that you’re a declinist but you’re not a defeatist. I really do think decadence is just about the perfect word.

Ross Douthat: Yeah and I mean, I think what I appreciated that I don’t seem to feed us because obviously it’s not the most insanely optimistic book, but part of the argument that it makes is that you can have decline or falling off without inexorably leading to barbarian invasions, Roman palaces being torched, total catastrophe and that in fact, it’s actually pretty normal historically for civilizations to enter into these periods of stagnation, riff and repetition, which is sort of part of the definition that I use in the book and that there… obviously it’s not a great time in which to live sort of spiritually and morally and aesthetically, but it’s also a time in which there’s always the possibility of renewal and Renaissance, which isn’t the case once the barbarians have actually showed up and torching everything, right. It’s not the dystopia yet. Right? It’s a… I think the decadent society has dystopian elements and I think I say it late in the book that you could pick different pieces of our society from the opioid addiction in the heartland to pornography addiction on your smart phones and say these are all dystopian elements, but they don’t hold complete sway. It’s still possible to live fruitfully and creatively and have a sort of humane existence under decadence, I think. I hope.

Albert Mohler: Yeah and you’re not the first to think that, but you think in a very sophisticated and public way in this book. By the way, I finished writing one book about our cultural predicament. It comes out next June and I’m already working on another one which… that’s how fast things seem to be moving but one of the arguments I’m making in the second one is that I think as a culture, we’ve shifted from rival utopias to rival dystopias and right now the left is operating in the United States of a dystopia in which the rights in charge and the rights operating out of a dystopia in which the left’s in charge and I think in different ways both have now assumed a certain kind of cultural pessimism. I mean, certainly if you look at the climate change defeatists who are looking to say human existence is coming to an end. It is an interesting thing because the word decadence is inherently moral, isn’t it? I mean it’s not just decadence is in a bank account that’s running out, it’s decadence is in something that ought not to be lost. It is being lost culturally and morally.

Ross Douthat: Yes, but it’s not as simple as everything is getting worse morally across every dimension.

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Ross Douthat: Right.

Albert Mohler: And it never is.

Ross Douthat: It requires some kind of… right. It implies a certain kind of futility and stagnation whereas there are periods in human history when great virtue coexists with great wickedness, right. If you go back to Renaissance-

Albert Mohler: That would be just about all of human history in one sense. Yes.

Ross Douthat:Well, that would be all of human history but I’m emphasizing the great, right? Because if you go back to Renaissance Italy, I think just to pick an example, right? I think you could make an argument that it’s an era that produced great art, great saints, and some of the wickedest figures imaginable.

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Ross Douthat: Right? And I think that holds true of various parts of the 20th century and I think what characterizes decadence is more the sense that we may be getting morally worse, but we’re also sort of mediocre. There isn’t the kind of vividness of… the evils that we have are like internet pornography, right? They’re not the vivid evil of the Borgias, right, or the de’Medici, there this sort of private growth evil that people indulge in by themselves literally-

Albert Mohler: Except for the half-

Ross Douthat: …and that’s sort of what I want to-

Albert Mohler:Yeah. Except for the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl. Which is to me, and by the way, I watched, just to be honest- honesty is important here- I didn’t watch the Super Bowl and I didn’t watch the halftime program, but I have seen enough of it as people have said, you need to look at this to recognize. I do think as a society, the spectacles even that attract us are a sign of some kind of moral shift that is taking place in ways that I find myself still capable of being shocked.

Ross Douthat: Yeah. I think that’s generally right, that there is a sort of reality television meets voyeurism element, the sort of circus element in American life that is much stronger today than it was 60 or 70 years ago and is particularly vivid at our sort of national carnivals, which is basically what the Super Bowl is.

Albert Mohler: Bread and circuses. You are entering into a moving intellectual conversation. You’ve done that before. We’ve had conversations on this program about bad religion, how we became a nation of heretics and your book To Change the Church, and actually I want to kind of end with bringing those things together but you’re also in conversation with other authors and there are people who live in my mind as well. Jacques Barzun, and his book From Dawn to Decadence most importantly perhaps, and yet I can remember the first time I read that book. I remembered that Barzun begins by talking about decadence in terms of what he saw as the end of Western civilization. I mean, I think… and he was writing about the end of the 20th century. The book actually came out in 2000, but he said, it’s not only the end of a century, it’s the end of 500 years of civilization. Now, I wonder at some point if just growing old shows up when you have that kind of declinism but on the other hand, Jacques Barzun was such a cultured man and by the time he finished his book, he recognized even then in 2000, about 90% of what he thought was disappearing was still there but you did sense that 10 years later there would be 80% of what he was talking about and 20 years later, we clearly understand that what he saw receding was indeed receding but as you point out in your book, it can be a very long melt. And decadence can be at least for many people, a rather comfortable existence, but it’s existence on a civilization that is running down rather than one that is becoming more energized and moving toward the future.

Ross Douthat: Right and this is… I mean, look, I’m very Frank, but I’m sort of stealing my definition of decadence from Barzun who is-

Albert Mohler: Fair enough.

Ross Douthat: …infinitely more cultured and knowledgeable than any newspaper columnists can ever hope to be but I think it’s that point that you just made, that comes across clearly in his definition where he says the forms of art as of life seem exhausted. The stages of development have been run through, institutions function painfully. I mean, what better distillation of American politics could you have! Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. And Barzun in his book spends a lot of times in high culture and he’s covering the whole sweep of Western history as you said, and I’m a movie critic as my sort of moonlighting gig for National Review, and so I spent a certain amount of time in my own book on sort of middlebrow culture where I think that you can see the same tendency. This sort of drift and repetition is basically the description of all of Hollywood for the last 10 or 15 years as sort of franchises and spectacles. You’re talking about spectacles, there’s nothing that’s more spectacle oriented then the Marvel cinematic universe and the endless sequels and reboots and recycling of properties that were basically invented in between 1940 and 1970 or 1940 and 1980, right, that you have comic books and science fiction and Lord of the Rings. All of these genres come out of what I think seems in hindsight like this last great burst of Western creativity, which we’ve then been sort of… even at the middlebrow level, even at the level of Hollywood blockbusters have been living off ever since. I think that’s sort of… so my book is trying to move between D.C. politics and economic stagnation on the one hand and just things like how the Star Wars movies even illustrate decadence that you go from the original Star Wars movies are not high art by any stretch of the imagination, but a kind of imaginative remix and reinvention of classic science fiction and then by the time you get to the sequel trilogy that we’ve just sort of endured… lived through, it’s literally just recycling what George Lucas did 40… 40, 50 years ago, basically. Even there, or maybe especially there, I think you can see these patterns setting in and maybe once the baby boom generation passes away some of that, maybe there’ll be some room for more dynamism-

Albert Mohler: Yeah. Interestingly-

Ross Douthat: …but the moment you try to see it.

Albert Mohler: The latest or the last Star Wars movie seems to have attracted reviews across the political spectrum basically coming to the same conclusion. Evidently this storyline ran out before this movie came out.

Ross Douthat: Yes. Well, and that’s… I think that people, and this is true in politics too. People recognize decadence. It’s not that people love it, right? I mean maybe they like the repetition for a little while but I think the same thing in politics that the appeal of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders I think can be explained with people feeling deeply dissatisfied with where we’ve ended up. I mean, “Make America Great Again.” Right? It’s basically a slogan that says America used to be on this path towards the bold future and we got sidetracked somewhere, but maybe we can do it again and the same way on the left I think Sanders is basically telling people on the left, look, you thought the socialist dream died with Ronald Reagan or the end of the Cold War but in fact we can bring it back to life. I think that desire is powerful. I’m just skeptical that it can actually at the moment lead to the transformations that people are hoping for.

Albert Mohler: Yeah, and also when you think about the various scenarios, and I’m here kind of cheating going to the end of your book, when you talk about various scenarios, one of them complete catastrophe, the other Renaissance and the third kind of just the continuation of the same thing and as long as it lasts, as a Christian theologian and observer of the culture in history, I just have to say, I don’t think the resources for Renaissance are here. Now, I can hope they might emerge but those have to be moral resources and by that I don’t just mean a simplistic list of moral rules. I mean, there has to be a set of commitments and virtues that in a moral horizon that is just largely absent, and by the way you mentioned Reagan. I reminded, some friends the other day that Ronald Reagan used the same phrase. He didn’t use it as centrally as Donald Trump does, “Make America Great Again,” but he did use it but I think the difference is Ronald Reagan did it with a smile as if we’re up to this, we can do this, and this is a fight I want you to come and join me in. Kind of the happy warrior like Roosevelt. I think president Trump representing the times, not so much himself, but representing the times is speaking to voters who think, no, this is now such a cultural emergency. There’s no smile in this. There’s an urgency, maybe even a moral panic of sorts.

Ross Douthat: Yeah and I think that Trump’s, again, like Sanders on the left, is speaking to a smaller group than Reagan was. I mean, Reagan was fundamentally a 60% president in the sense that it was still possible under Reagan to build the kind of majorities that we were used-

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Ross Douthat: …to from American history, right, that Roosevelt enjoyed and Eisenhower enjoyed, and like basically every president of the last 20 years, Trump is a 50% to slightly below president and if he has a democratic successor, it will be the same way and that’s sort of the power of… in a way, the power of stalemate, right? The point that you made about how left and right both feel like the other side has all the power. They’re both right in the sense that right now Republicans control much of government and Democrats are shut out. Less so since the midterms, but still somewhat true but liberals control the culture almost completely. They control the universities and the newspapers and-

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Ross Douthat: …every newspaper, but most of them and the movie studios and so on. So you have this conflict where each side has its own kind of power. Neither side can figure out how to bring their power to bear in the other sphere and so both sides are sort of… they both think the apocalypse is upon them, but neither of them are actually winning. It’s a very strange thing.

Albert Mohler: I may differ a bit in that I think the progressors are winning. I just think they’re not winning as fast as they want to win because I think it’s pretty easy to foresee that the future’s unlike the president in the sense that, with the changing demographics of the country, the opportunities for a conservative political movement to capture more than 50% becomes less likely. I think it’s an obstacle that the left thought it had done away with at least eight years previous to 2016 but I-

Ross Douthat: I think that’s right in the sense that the culture has shifted leftward in a meaningful way in the last 10 or 15 years in a way that I think conservatives did not expect when George W. Bush was president and part of liberalism’s problem is that liberals have shifted leftward even faster so they haven’t gained as much political power from this shift as they think but no, I think that shift is real, but I guess I’m still skeptical and you can sort of tell this in the book of…. like our mutual friend Rod Dreher who wrote The Benedict Option and writes a lot about the decline of American Christianity. I think the decline he’s describing is real, but I don’t think it’s quite as terminal as he does. I think instead, there’s this sort of consolidation of American Christianity, conservative Christianity around a core that’s pretty resilient but doesn’t know how to then necessarily influence the wider culture, so he gets back into this dynamic of stalemate, the chord will probably disintegrate.

Albert Mohler: Yeah and, well, and I guess intellectually I’m with Rod, attitudinally I’d like to be more with you. That we all kind of live in multiple worlds at the same time, but my theological tradition is solidly Augustinian, and as an Augustinian, I have to believe that basically all declinists are right but that God’s common grace actually because of his love for his human creatures, mitigates the consequences of that decline and sometimes brings unexpected order out of disorder and so I’m always praying that God will move in our times in ways that aren’t explicable by the moral resources here at the moment. And as you say, it’s not an even… it’s not like everything’s in decline any more than it was true that everything was in ascent at any point. Just to take everything from civil rights to antibiotics. I’m really glad I was born in 1959 and not 1859. There’s a sense in which I’d love to live in a Victorian house but I don’t want to live with Victorian medicine and I’m going to be honest about that.

Ross Douthat: I think that’s quite reasonable, and I also think that what you say about providence is it’s essential for sort of understanding the unpredictability of the future, right? That one of the… we were talking about Rome a little bit earlier and a couple of… I have a couple of quotes in the book. One from G. K. Chesterton and one from W. H. Auden, both about sort of the dynamics in the Roman Empire around the time when Jesus was born, when it was this sort of world empire that had conquered its own known world and sort of expanded as far as it could go and like ours, like our civilization didn’t really know what to do next and Chesterton’s line is, “it was the end of the world and the worst of it was that it need never end.” Auden’s line is “what terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash, but rather that it lasted for four centuries without creativity, warmth or hope,” and those are pretty pessimistic lines but in fact they’re describing the age in which Christianity was born, right? Out of this period of decadence when no one was paying attention to the provinces of Judea, this transformative thing was happening and that… I mean, just as both as Christians and just as students of history, that reality has to make you aware that the decadence you see is not necessarily the only thing that’s happening.

Albert Mohler: Right. I think Auden is absolutely indispensable, frankly. Always close at hand on my shelf. The line and the word in that particular stanza that has always haunted me is the word warmth. That it is a decadence or a social cultural moment without warmth and I don’t think Americans anticipated that. I find that most of the people I talked to, both Christians and non-Christians are feeling kind of brutalized by what’s going on in the society with everything from the internet and social media to all the rest. There’s not a whole lot of warmth in the digital universe, that’s for sure.

Ross Douthat: No, the digital- which all came after the Jacques Barzun book that we’ve been quoting. I mean he was writing just as the internet was getting underway-, but the digital I think has mostly extended and accentuated these trends towards atomization, isolation, the death of community, the death of warmth and it’s this sort of odd dynamic because on the one hand it’s the one great innovation of the last 20 years, right? Strip away the internet and it looks like we’re in a kind of technological stagnation waiting for the self-driving cars that are never actually going to get here because they can’t drive in the rain. Right-

Albert Mohler: Right. I want my own air taxi. I was promised that as a kid.

Ross Douthat: Right? No, the flying cars haven’t happened. The moon bases haven’t happened. We’ve stopped inventing new antibiotics. Our life expectancy has plateaued but at least we have the internet but then in fact the internet has sort of frozen us into these sort of pools of narcissist and the sort of maddening social media dynamics and that’s I think… that’s something that’s I think become clearer, especially just over the last 10 years as we’ve sort of recovered from the great recession. We went through this period of sort of crazy historical events in the 2000s where you have the .com bust and then 9/11 and then the Iraq war, and then the great recession and actually less has happened in the 10 years since but we’ve sort of come to realize that the gadgets that we were embracing back then, the iPhone and Facebook and everything else aren’t necessarily… one, they aren’t necessarily making the world a better place because the Chinese government can use them to enforce totalitarianism as easily as anyone can use them to spread freedom and two, they may be making us more isolated or unhappy, less likely to date and marry and have kids and that’s, but again, it’s not… they don’t necessarily bring about collapse. Right? People who… teenagers. This is one of my favorite examples that teenagers now are better behaved than they were when I was a kid and probably when you were a kid. They’re less likely to drive drunk.

Albert Mohler: They’re also less happy though.

Ross Douthat: They’re less likely to- .

Albert Mohler: But they’re less happy.

Ross Douthat: …in the sense of… Because they’re on their phones, they’re in these safe world.

Albert Mohler: They’re lonely. Horribly lonely. Yeah.

Ross Douthat: Yeah and that’s sort of… but that I think too is sort of what I’m trying to get at with the phrase decadence. That it’s not the crime wave and the city burning. It’s, everything’s stable, everything’s peaceful, but everyone knows something is wrong.

Albert Mohler: Yeah. One of the things that you do well in your book, especially when you write about stagnation, is bringing some disparate strands of an argument together and they need to be together. When I read Robert Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, I actually had to take a walk after about a hundred pages, because I hadn’t thought about our moment quite as he wrote about it. I can still remember when reading one sentence, because I was born in 1959 and he makes a sentence basically that in 1959, when the Boeing 707 was developed, human beings were able then to fly at about 600 miles an hour. A century before the train had transformed humanity but not available to many. It was really only a matter of decades. Human beings went from the speed of their feet or the speed of horse to the speed of 600 miles an hour but as he says, human beings aren’t going any faster than that 60 years later and that’s my life span right now. I’m looking at that going… that’s not what I thought I was buying into as a space age kid in Florida in the 1960s. This economic stagnation is a lot bigger than the last three quarters of the Dow.

Ross Douthat: Yeah. I mean, what you’re describing is a lot like this essay I quote by the sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson, where he’s talking about watching the moment when… I think it was the Columbia, the space shuttle that was carried on a plane across the country from either Texas or Florida-

Albert Mohler: Oh, yeah.

Ross Douthat: …to DC to go in the Air and Space Museum and I remember when this happened.

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Ross Douthat: I was probably 25 or 30 but it was this moment where a sort of moment of communal celebration and Americans are looking up and watching this symbol of American greatness or overhead, but in fact it’s the end-

Albert Mohler: It was a funeral.

Ross Douthat: It was the end not the beginning.

Albert Mohler: It was a funeral cortege. Yeah.

Ross Douthat: And Stephenson says, I’m watching this on my iPad, right? I’m watching this on my amazing technological device, which is in fact better and cooler than the rabbit ears TV that I watched the moon landing on and yet it feels like this huge failure that we can have these amazing simulations of space and space travel, but there’s a ceiling above us that we haven’t been able to break through.

Albert Mohler: Serving as an op ed writer for the New York Times is a very lofty perch in America’s civilizational hierarchy but it’s not only a place from which to write, it is also a stance from which to see and Ross Douthat sees a very great deal. That’s what he’s telling us about as he thinks about these things in his newest book.

Albert Mohler: Well, you talk about the sense of resignation that comes from this and in fact in your chapter, the closing of the frontier, you talk about that in kind of big canvas terms. I have to tell you and… so I guess this is kind of going on the record. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary thought that your most powerful quote comes from Tony Soprano. A certain irony in… but you quote Soprano, and by the way, you engage with popular culture, the middlebrow as you suggest. I think more insightfully anyone else I know, but you cite Tony Soprano’s lament quote. “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Now, he was talking about the mafia, but there’s a sense in which I think about that sometimes about the Southern Baptist Convention. American evangelicalism and larger. There’s a sense in which I feel like I didn’t come in at the beginning, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be a lot tougher for those that come behind me.

Ross Douthat: I mean, I don’t… I guess you should just leave that quote there and it can be the headline grabbed from our conversation.

Albert Mohler: There it is.

Ross Douthat: But no, and that’s one of the points I try and make about pop culture is that the Sopranos is an example of how even our best shows, that sort of golden age of television that everyone talks about, which really did produce some great shows are shows that themselves are grappling with decadence. The Soprano family is… they’re a mafia family but part of what’s appealing about the show is in other ways they’re just a very normal upper middle class, New Jersey, Italian American family at the end of the 20th century and what Tony says there applies to the mob, but I think also applies to the general spirit of our age.

Albert Mohler: In terms of this kind of level of culture, you make a parallel. You make it kind of in half but to kind of fill it out a little bit. We used to be a civilization that produced a C. S. Lewis, but now we’ve got Phillip Pullman; who used to be a civilization that produced a J. R. R. Tolkien but now George R. R. Martin and… I’m not so concerned about the individuals, but about the mythology, the sagas, the story of civilization that they tell and I would only describe… in fact, sterility would be a perhaps not adequate term, not dark enough about the kind of dystopia, Pullman and Martin, but I want to go to sterility in the sense you use it in your book, because this is just one of the most haunting issues that I think about every single day. I can remember years and years ago, hearing a lecturer talk about how civilizations emerge and this particular speaker said, you have to understand that pre-civilization, there is the urge to reproduce and civilization basically grows out of what is simply innate, which is this desire to reproduce. Of adults to have children and yet we are becoming a self-sterilized, not only society but I mean for crying out loud that you talk about the West For all kinds of reasons, Japan is perhaps in the greatest emergency. This has to be a deep soul significant moment for the world.

Ross Douthat: It’s a very, very strange thing and it’s… again, it’s striking in part because it was only 40 or 50 years ago that the great panic of the world’s elites was that they were going to be too many babies. That the developed world especially was going to be overpopulated and this was going to lead to a civilizational crash and so we had to get out ahead of it and if you watch like there’s a Netflix documentary on China’s one child policy that’s absolutely harrowing-

Albert Mohler: Yeah, absolutely.

Ross Douthat: …to watch what in the most extreme form in countries like India and China with Western support people did to try and get out ahead of this supposed crisis and two generations later with the exception of Africa where population is still growing rapidly, everything has flipped over and it’s a crisis of sterility, of senescence, of aging and people not getting married, not having children and it’s accelerating in the U.S., right. The U.S. was this outlier up until the Great Recession where we still had fertility rates that were about at replacement and now we’ve converged with Western Europe and East Asia but then parts of East Asia has gone further and even Japan was long the outlier, but other countries in East Asia are now even worse than Japan. South Korea’s fertility rate is one basically, which means that if you… it means for every two South Koreans-

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Ross Douthat: …there will be one child, which is just extraordinary and no one can quite figure out why it’s happened in the sense. It’s clear why fertility has fallen overall. We don’t live in an agrarian economy. Infant mortality rates are lower, but why it’s settled at 1.4 or 1.6 instead of 2.2 or 2.3 is it’s a general crisis that nobody, I think, understands or is clear on the solution to and clearly it has something to do with moral and spiritual and religious questions.

Albert Mohler: It has to. Yeah. The saddest thing about it is that on that issue alone, it’s really hard to imagine where recovery would come from because… and by the way the problem you make very clear and that is becoming haunting to us all is not just that there are fewer babies. It’s that there’s a massive increase in the number of old people and I think the population control people- the Paul Ehrlich’s and all the rest who were writing their own dystopian pictures in the late ’60s and the ’70s, and with the support of the cultural elites, and, frankly, coercion when it comes to places like China- the reality is that they didn’t really think about the extension of life expectancy taking place at the same time and none of us knows what it’s like to live in a society in which there are so few people who are in their generative periods.

Ross Douthat: No, it’s unprecedented in world history and I think it’s something that is felt all over the place. It’s felt in things like… there’s all this talk about how college students today are so fragile and they get characterized as snowflakes by people who are criticizing them and there’s a lot of concern about their mental health and suicide rates and one thing about today’s college kids is that they are less likely to grow up with lots of siblings than any human generation in the past. There’s this whole form of socialization from large families where I can see, I don’t have a huge family, but I have three kids and I can see them sort of in a weird way toughening each other up-

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Ross Douthat: …and just that kind of thing across the life cycle, the disappearance of these dense networks of cousins that people took for granted and I don’t know if you’ve seen the Quintin Tarantino movie that’s nominated for best picture, “Once Upon a Time in America.” It’s set in 1969 in Hollywood and it’s about the moment basically before the Charles Manson murders and one of the striking things watching that and watching all of the flashbacks to that era for the moon landing is America was such a young country.

Albert Mohler: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Ross Douthat: The difference between America in the ’60s and America today in terms of the age, the population distribution. The size of the baby boom generation and their youth then, and that youth was destructive in many ways. The ’60s were a period of turbulence, of chaos, of disruption, but they were also a period of dynamism and change and-

Albert Mohler: Absolutely.

Ross Douthat: …transformation and that’s just much harder for a society with our age distribution to say nothing of whatever things will look like in 40 years to imagine or achieve.

Albert Mohler: Yeah. I was showing someone some pictures of my family, a very young person, pictures of my family and I was one of four. The pictures are with the other families of our larger family, who have three and four and five and you look at that… and these young people look at those photographs as if they’re looking at some kind of moment in time they really can’t imagine but I can also tell you-

Ross Douthat: Like you were the Amish or something.

Albert Mohler: Right. I was talking with the… and these are very, by definition, let me say, they were very intelligent young people, but we were talking about the fall in the birth rate and all the rest and they were looking for all the reasons. I said, well, let me just state the obvious, which hasn’t been put on the table technology brought about. I mean, because… if you look at the birth control movement, even the early 20th century, it was largely ineffectual because it was theory without technology but with the development of the pill, and of course, subsequent developments, it was a theory with a technology and speaking… I remember, I wrote a piece for first things in response to I guess it was the 40th anniversary of the post declaration on contraception and the fact is we can and evangelicals just didn’t think seriously about that issue. The pope shocked the church evidently, the Catholic church, by coming down as he did but the fact is that the barn door was open for American Protestants and evangelicals who thought that if his technological and it’s available, it’s as morally significant as taking an aspirin.

Ross Douthat: Yeah, it was a remarkable technological shock and that came at a moment I think where it was sort of a perfect intersection of a new technology with a cultural shift where you had figures like Hugh Hefner-

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Ross Douthat: …and Kinsey and others sort of preparing the ground for a kind of revolt against the conformism of the ’50s basically. But what’s striking too is that I think some kind of fertility shift after the pill and after the ’50s was inevitable but it’s this scale and permanence of the change that is so striking, right? It’s normal for a conservative era to be followed by a more liberal one. It’s normal for an era where you suddenly have a soaring fertility rate to be followed by a falling off but what’s striking is in so many ways we’ve sort of gotten stuck somewhere in 1975 or so, right, and this is… you see this not just in fertility itself, but talking about religion and Catholicism. I mean, so many debates that happen within the churches, within evangelicalism, within Catholicism under Pope Francis feel like the same debates that were kicked off by the ’60s and it’s like, we can’t somehow get beyond them. We can’t figure out what comes next. We’re just doomed to be arguing about contraception, divorce, abortion for the next 50 or a hundred years.

Albert Mohler: Well, I mean, it’s hard for me to imagine it’s only 50 or a hundred years if history continues. I have to say as an evangelical Christian, but nonetheless, I mean… Let me just offer a suggestion as an evangelical. If you look at the argument of Humanae Vitae, I don’t think Paul VI understood quite how the impact the contraception would have. I think John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae understood it much more clearly and that is, it shifts the equation to “why would we have a child?” “Is it morally right to have a child?” I mean, even where people aren’t thinking in self-conscious terms of a moral calculus, the decision now basically is to have a child whereas throughout all of human history, the decision was to have sex. Marriage and sex and babies went together. I think John Paul II understood that breaking that link probably is the greatest explanation. I can’t come up with anything better.

Ross Douthat: Yeah, I think it shifted a cultural default. It shifted an assumption of a strong link between three things: sex, marriage and family that had been shifted before in various times and places. There were forms of contraception for the ’60s and fertility rates did rise and fall but I agree it shifted in a more profound way and it created a cultural expectation that… well, I mean I think a part of it is just, it created this expectation that fertility could just be more controlled than before and with that expectation came the idea that you could just plan to have kids- I think you see this in the generations that came afterwards- that you could plan to have kids in this extremely narrow window, right. That you could spend your whole, your teens and your 20s in your early 30s, in your mid 30s getting settled and then there’d be this five year window where respectable people would have kids. I mean, I think that’s how at least upper middle class life is set up in America today. That’s the expectation and the problem is that the human life doesn’t really work like that. People, they don’t always-

Albert Mohler: The human body doesn’t work like that.

Ross Douthat: The human body doesn’t work like that, right? People don’t… they don’t find the right person to marry or they find the right person and think it’s too soon and so they don’t marry them and yeah, and women obviously even with assisted reproductive technologies, they’re still just these limits. A lot of the discussion hasn’t on the left right now. There’s more discussion now on the left about sort of this crisis of marriage and families than there was 10 or 15 years ago when it was seen as just kind of right wing issue but a lot of the discussion there is about this in a way, except that people can’t imagine going all way back to New Testament sexual ethics.

Albert Mohler: Nope, I don’t see that on the horizon. While I’ve got you for just a moment, I have to shift gears. Sort of. It’s actually just a continuation of the same conversation. We had one of these conversations about your book of two years ago to change the church. Pope Francis and the future of Catholicism and that was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in this entire series and, I also had a chance to speak to-

Ross Douthat: I appreciate that.

Albert Mohler: …Southern Baptists, just even earlier today and one of the things I said was, I think what we have to understand is that the big building years of this denomination took place when we thought the culture was moving to us, or at least we thought we were moving together and it is becoming more and more clear that that is not the case and hasn’t been for some time, and I think about traditionalist Roman Catholics, that I know so well. I think under especially John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but especially John Paul II, there was the sense that the church is moving and because of the power of the Roman Catholic church in Western civilization that we have this powerful leverage to try to prevent a lot of these very, very haunting realities from progressing, but you wrote this book- and again, it was just a fascinating book for an evangelical theologian to engage- but I have to wonder what would you think differently now two years later because you are warning about Pope Francis and schism but now he’s talking about it.

Ross Douthat: Yeah but oddly I’ve become a little less worried, I guess. I think I’ve talked myself into more of the thesis of my current book, the idea that there is this stalemate that is hard to escape and I feel like the last few years… the holy father came in and made a big push around communion for the divorced and remarried. It was then associated with other attempts to liberalize the church and he got a little way with this. He sort of shifted things somewhat and as we have this conversation, we’re waiting to see if there’s some kind of shift on priestly ship celibacy. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but my impression of the last couple of years is that for the moment he’s hit some of the limits of what the liberal side of Catholic debates can effectively shift and obviously there are people… the Catholic bishops in Germany are determined to push further and out of that pushing, maybe you could get the church closer to schism. I’m not obviously ruling that possibility out, but I do think that there’s a sense in which Pope Francis pushed and conservatives pushed back and he shifted things a bit in a liberal direction but the stalemate is very powerful. I think that’s one of the lessons.

Albert Mohler: I just have to wonder if it is though as an outside observer here who has studied in Roman Catholic institution and studied Roman Catholic theological method and watches these things very closely, but could be completely wrong. It seems to me that Francis has accepted the idea that local jurisdiction can arrange for what amounts to different Catholicisms in different places. I mean, that’s basically the logic of the Amazonian move if he continues. Hard to imagine how he can pull that back now and the German bishops here.

Ross Douthat: If he continues but the Amazonian move again, we probably shouldn’t get too deep into this because it will probably happen-

Albert Mohler: Sure.

Ross Douthat: …between the conversation and the airing but there’s a lot of talk that the move on celibacy will essentially be pushed to a commission that will keep the conversation in Rome.

Albert Mohler: Wow.

Ross Douthat: And this happened… they did the big youth synod in Rome about a year ago and there was an expectation that there would be a big shift in church language on homosexuality and it was much more modest than liberals hoped or conservatives feared and I mean, look, I could say that yes, since I wrote the book, a lot of people who used to scoff when I talked about schism are talking more about it. I could be completely wrong in seeing the stalemate reasserting itself a bit and I do… I think it’s of a piece with the liberal shift in the culture. I think it’s real.

Albert Mohler: Sure. Oh, yeah.

Ross Douthat: I think Francis’s liberalization is real. The center of gravity for Catholic debates has shifted since John Paul II. I just don’t know if the revolution or the schism is actually at hand or if this is just this sort of, again, like these… it’s just this endless extension of the debates of 1968 and 1975.

Albert Mohler: Yeah, very interesting. I raised this primarily because as an evangelical, I recognize we’re not on an Island in this cultural moment and you did have the sense that a part of the strength of conservative arguments in the 1980s and ’90s and beyond was the combined strength of arguments that were coming with such consistency from the Vatican, especially from John Paul II. From the theology of the body to… and Benedict’s understanding of Western civilization, which I mean, so many Catholics seem to be embarrassed about now. I actually think his Regensberg speech although impolitic was basically articulating truth in which it’s very difficult to retreat honestly and I will tell you that as an evangelical, and I mean a Protestant evangelical nail the theses to the Wittenberg castle church door evangelical, culturally and in terms of the great battle for everything from metaphysics and ontology to morality, it’s feeling lonelier out there these days.

Ross Douthat: I don’t blame you for feeling that at all. I think that there’s no question that in this Catholic seesaw, the more liberal side has gained much more power in Rome and there isn’t to the extent that there’s a kind of religious conservative Christian conservative alliance or united front across the Western world, and that’s obviously made more complicated in the age of populism too. It doesn’t have its leadership in the Vatican right now at all. There’s been a shift in that sense in terms of which figures and Catholic factions are in power that has left, I think conservative evangelicals more isolated in the culture in the West than they were certainly when I was becoming Catholic 20 years ago. There’s no question.

Albert Mohler: I know in advance any conversation with Ross Douthat it’s going to be a fascinating conversation. The issue is we will simply not have enough time to talk about the obvious things to think about, but Ross, thank you so much for the generosity of your time. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation and clearly I want the listeners to this program to read your new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Thanks for joining with me today.

Ross Douthat: Thanks so much, Al. I really appreciate it.

Albert Mohler: If you enjoyed this episode of Thinking in Public, you’ll find more than 100 of these conversations at under the tab Thinking in Public. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking, I’m Albert Mohler.