By Timothy S. Goeglein
America is suffering from a historic familial brokenness that is disillusioning.
One of the best and yet saddest examples of this is the increasing number of American kids who live in poverty, the root cause of which is, in the words of The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, “the collapse of marriage.”
Thousands of other examples from social science are equally devastating: increasing delinquency rates in public schools; shockingly high dropout rates in schools; drug, alcohol, gambling and pornography addictions; increases in domestic and spousal abuse; and gang membership.
Eagle Forum founder and social commentator Phyllis Schlafly has written compellingly about the impact on our country of this social and moral decay, as follows:
“A great deal of the government spending is going for the daily support of people who have had babies without getting married. And that is a very costly and unfortunate thing. It’s really the main reason for the budget and spending being at such high levels. We need to address that as both a cultural problem and a fiscal problem.”
I am convinced that ultimately, a weakened family structure is the root cause.
Social science confirms the consequences for a society where family, marriage and parental breakdown are too often the norm. Unprecedented numbers of children are growing up without fathers. Our students’ grades in math and English are falling while the number of Americans seeking treatment for drug addiction is rising. The federal government has spent $16 trillion on welfare programs since 1964. A record number of Americans live in poverty.
Among the rising generation of Americans, we are seeing two new trends: less marriage and more cohabitation. Both are widely and socially acceptable; and in the latter form, the ramifications for children born out of wedlock will be significant if present trends continue. In 2009, for the first time in American history, the number of young Americans who are not or who have never married was higher than the percentage who are married.
Who can help?
The primary help for orphans, widows, prisoners and the homeless continues to come from the heart of the work that “values voters” do around the country, day in and day out.
Values voters are those who see a primary relationship between their religious orthodoxy and the issues of marriage, parenting and family. They seek out and support candidates who share their views that the nuclear family is the foundation of society, that marriage is between a man and a woman, that the sanctity of human life is an unquestioned and immutable principle, and that religious liberty and individual conscience constitute our first freedoms.
This is consistent with the vision of our evangelical, Catholic and Jewish forbearers, who held a biblical worldview and who in other centuries led the efforts to make significant changes in our society.
One such person was British abolitionist William Wilberforce, who successfully led the efforts to abolish the British slave trades against gigantic odds, and thus changed the course of history. He was primarily motivated by his Christianity and his mentor John Newton, who wrote the words of the great hymn “Amazing Grace.” This kind of applied faith has much in common with the values voters of the 21st century.
But what’s different today is that the Bible is no longer appealed to as an authority like it once was. So, secularism and its values are filling the authority vacuum that the Bible once held. Businesses, schools, families, politics (including voting) and government need to be called to hold the Bible as the authority. When this once again becomes the norm, we will be powered by politics informed by our faith.
As a cradle Lutheran, I take seriously Augustine’s and Luther’s so-called “two-kingdoms” view of government and the church. We as Christians live in two kingdoms simultaneously: the remarkable country in which God has placed us, but also ultimately in the place that is our eternal home, heaven itself. In my nearly quarter century in Washington, serving in senior posts in the United States Senate and the White House, I have come to see that it is central we not conflate these two kingdoms.
These realms — the church and government — are the ones Chuck Colson famously said are “kingdoms in conflict.” He is right. What Colson meant is what Luther meant: Government has a sphere and the church has a sphere, and they are separate and distinct. The church is most effective when it is the church and not an extension of government. Yet we as Christians are called to be salt and light, to be involved in the public life of our great nation, but never to conflate the God-given duties and roles of church and state.
I honor and echo Luther that we must be vigilant about how we are to maneuver as Christians in the contemporary world. This historic relationship between faith and public life is one we must navigate with prudence and diplomacy.
So, what is the way forward toward a healthier culture? It is to actively re-energize what the 18th century Irish statesman Edmond Burke called “the little platoons,” those voluntary associations the American philosopher Robert Nisbet termed the “intermediary institutions” of family, church, synagogue, fraternal groups, neighborhoods, healthy communities and civil society in general. These are the institutions that can most effectively address our most pressing social problems. They — not more government — can foster the primary need for healthy, intact families.
Government cannot cause a family to fall in love again; government cannot repair a broken marriage; government cannot parent a single child, much less millions; government cannot tuck a child into bed at night.
More Washington-directed solutions will not work, and attempts to force them will make already difficult matters worse. In fact, more government is a trap and does not offer the solutions to the human need that is so great and so profound in our land.
Hope is just ahead, but it will depend on what the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb calls a “remoralizing” of our basic institutions and our basic assumptions. We need to focus like a laser beam on healthy families, marriages and parenting. Their breakdown is a crisis government cannot fix. It is up to us.
If those fundamental institutions are healthy, a healthy culture and society will surely follow. Government overreach will be less of a temptation. We’ll be better defended against misplaced utopian faith in politics. The challenges are great, but if we are successful, a new American renaissance may await us.
Timothy S. Goeglein is vice-president for external relations for Focus on the Family and a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Va., where he has served as a deacon for 24 years.
This excerpt was modified from Goeglein’s recently released book The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, published by Broadman and Holman. — Ed.
Posted Oct. 19, 2011