Scott Yenor

Defending the Family in Liquid Modernity

Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress sees the benefits, counts the costs, tells us how we got here, and gives some advice on muddling through the bitters. No institution—including the Church—is immune from feminism’s influence, so no one can ignore its deeply personal wounds.

Human mastery over nature, exercised technologically, is how human beings experience “progress.” Better medical care to extend life. Cars that prevent crashes and protect us from their effects. More market opportunity for all. We rarely think of how the sweetness of progress comes with corresponding bitter costs—and what that fact teaches about the human condition.
Modern feminism expresses this dilemma of progress. On one hand, women have more schooling and degrees today than ever before; more political and economic rights; and more liberation from unchosen roles. On the other, we no longer really know what a woman is and how other beings (call them men) should relate to women. Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress sees the benefits, counts the costs, tells us how we got here, and gives some advice on muddling through the bitters. No institution—including the Church—is immune from feminism’s influence, so no one can ignore its deeply personal wounds.
For Harrington, feminism rides the wave of deeper movements like industrialization and technological thinking. In the beginning, families were communities, truly the basic units of society. They were economic units where husbands and wives produced what families needed together. These conditions coincided with patriarchal legal and cultural arrangements, but all was softened by the fact that teamwork was essential. Then came “the transition to industrial society,” which took men from the home and created “separate spheres” for men and women. The social and economic conditions for communal marriage vanished, so social mystiques like the “cult of domesticity” were needed to prop up marriage. “Big Romance,” as Harrington calls it, emerged, all the better to encourage women to love their chains. Soon the contradiction was unsustainable.
The first feminism—the good one, as Harrington sees it—defined a woman’s maternal value amidst this mismatch between the mode of production and family form. Such early feminists “valued maternity, care and interdependence alongside just measures of economic and political agency and individual freedom.”
That first feminism did not last, by Harrington’s account, mostly because the market continued to liquify, commodify and alienate and to reduce all human understanding to variations on the pricing mechanism. The result was second-wave feminism, an extreme version of the market mentality, where the male model of market success became the model for everyone. Women could only find their meaning outside the home in paid work, while housework was pawned off on domestics. Sex became transactional. The promise of liberation—indeed, the promise of progress itself— colonized human life through the market mentality.
As a result, as Harrington catalogs, we live in a time when relationships are more difficult to form, when motherhood is neither honored nor aspired to, and female bodies are thought to be the playthings of transgendered technological innovation. Upper-class women can buy some immunity from liquid modernity, but working-class women cannot.
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Polygamy (or Something Like It) Rises

Reconceiving of marriage in terms of “self-expression” has been a terrible, value-laden mistake, betraying the pretensions to liberal neutrality. Plural marriage is inferior for raising children and for maintaining marital harmony; but most of all, in today’s climate, it creates a culture dedicated to adult sexual self-expression rather than the good of children and deep love.

Public support for polygamy increases inexorably. According to Gallup, nearly a quarter of Americans now think it is morally acceptable when a married person has more than one spouse at the same time, up from 5 percent in 2006. These changes track others chipping away at public support for enduring, man–woman, procreative marriage. Moral approval of sex outside of marriage, same-sex marriage, same-sex sex, divorce, having children outside of marriage, and long-term unmarried cohabitation have risen sharply in recent years. One of the only dams that has not yet broken is the importance of fidelity, which nearly nine in ten respondents claim to support.
From one angle, it is surprising that public disapproval of polygamy has endured so long. Polygamy has a far deeper and better historical track record than same-sex marriage, and with good reason. Great polygamous civilizations have existed. Polygamous relations emphasize duties binding sex, procreation, marriage, and parenthood into an enduring relation. Biblical injunctions against sodomy and lesbianism abound; the New Testament has no explicit injunction against polygamy for laymen, and the Old Testament has more than a little legitimate polygamy. Polygamous marriages have their problems, to be sure, but they are secondary problems, in a way.
Same-sex marriage (SSM) is in every way more of an affront to civilization than polygamy. SSM reconceives the institution away from duties and children and toward adult self-expression. Most civilizations have, in one way or another, stigmatized and proscribed the same-sex sex at the heart of SSM; SSM blesses same-sex sex. Most civilizations point human sexuality toward enduring, procreative man–woman marriage; SSM requires alternatives to procreative sexuality like surrogacy, adoption, and turkey-basters. No wonder no civilization has ever adopted, much less celebrated, same-sex marriage before our global empire has.
Revolutionaries instead first sought public approval of SSM. This is revealing. Revolutionaries planted sex-centered, self-expressive, duty-free “pure relationships” (as British sociologist Anthony Giddens calls them) within our old marital arrangements and allowed that seed to grow. Transforming sex became the means of transforming the goals of marriage in law and opinion. By the time they got to polygamy, revolutionaries were actually advocating polyamory. (Polygamy is where a man or a woman has more than one spouse—the most common kind of polygamy is polygyny, where one man has several wives; polyamory is a group of people sexually involved, with or without marriage.)
The crucial shift from polygamy to polyamory reveals that what now matters is the love, not the form. The United States Supreme Court allowed laws against polygamy to stand in the late 1800s. Mormons claimed polygamy was an expression of their protected First Amendment freedom of religious practice. The Supreme Court upheld restrictions on polygamy because it was a patriarchal form of marriage that violated the principles of equality at the heart of republican citizenship. Condemning polygamy was part of defending monogamy.
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Are There Trustworthy Protestant Universities?

Schools that aim for prestige and “excellence” as the current American regime defines it are most likely to accommodate our culture’s presuppositions. Fewer “prestige” schools embrace a conservative Protestant social teaching that emphasizes marriage, recommends different roles for men and women, and shuns same-sex sex and same-sex marriage. Students interested in becoming doctors or lawyers might choose Baylor, SMU, or Wheaton. On the other hand, schools without signs of American decadence are less descript, their chief virtue being that they fail to promote vice.

The decline of Protestant higher education is manifest. At the time of their founding, most Protestant colleges and universities had a strong sense of mission, connected to preparing Christians for ministry, missions, and trades.
As James Tunstead Burtchaell documents in his meticulous Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, school after school, in tradition after tradition, chose American respectability over fidelity to a distinctly Christian mission. This tome details how Congregationalists lost Dartmouth and Beloit; how the Presbyterians lost Lafayette and Davidson; how Baptists lost Wake Forest and Linfield; how Lutherans lost Gettysburg, St. Olaf, and Concordia; how Catholics lost Boston College and Saint Mary’s College of California; and how Evangelicals lost Azusa Pacific.
What emerges is a science of higher education apostasy. Schools worry about being perceived as “sectarian,” as it is defined at different times. University programs multiply, necessitating departmental hiring. Faculty become beholden to professional standards over school missions. The administration wants prestigious faculty and progressively sheds faithfulness and piety from job descriptions. Faculty statements of faith “devolve from active membership in the sponsoring church or denomination to nominal membership, to acceptance of the college’s own faith statement, to silent toleration of the ill-specified purposes of the institution.” Chapels, vestiges of old missions, become the only “sectarian” event on campus—and then they fade, becoming optional or inclusively non-sectarian. Once controversies swirl about chapel, their light is already dying out.
Soon Christian colleges begin speaking the language of intellectual freedom and diversity of opinion while they water down and then drop distinctively Christian mission statements. New monies from alumni and government replace old denominational money. Governance moves from the denomination to the alumni or to those who know the college president. Eventually, Protestant schools, as Burtchaell writes, end up “judging the church by the academy and the gospel by the culture.”
As American culture shifts, so do Christian colleges. While it was possible, earlier, to entertain the idea that American culture was not anti-Christian, that is no longer the case with the ideology of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), which is presently conquering Christian universities. Universities are now “welcoming” but not faithful to the truth; they embrace “diversity” but not the Savior of the nations. Christian schools commonly defile themselves in conforming to transgender ideology, same-sex marriage, queer theory, and perpetual singleness.
Burtchaell’s Dying tells much the same story as George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and as does James F. Keating’s “Who Killed the Catholic University?” Every school’s decline is different in the specifics, but every such story is also broadly the same. The mechanisms of prestige and government money absorb Christian universities into Americanism. Maintaining Christian distinctives requires a deep, abiding commitment to tradition and a jealous guarding of mission against imperial Americanism. Protestant higher education hardly specializes in these traits, and neither do Catholic schools.
A list of apostate universities is much longer than any list of holdouts. David Goodwin, President of the K-12 Association of Classical Christian Schools, which now boasts more than 500 schools, tells me that “the number one question he hears is ‘where should I send my graduate to college?’” Are there universities that Christian parents can still trust?
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Sex Ed as the Leading Edge of the Revolution

At its deepest level, guarding against worldly influences means wrestling back from public schools the authority to educate children in all the deepest questions of human life. This means also in the smallest questions. American public schools are based on the assumption that the public raises children—and only after parents and churches deferred to the public schools generally did they cede the duty of sex ed to schools. Now that the full radicalism of that sex ed is apparent, Christians must act accordingly and walk away from the schools that have usurped parental duties. 

Families and churches relinquished control over sex ed to public schools in the early 1970s. Now families and churches are reaping the whirlwind.
Initially, at least, public schools assumed control over sex ed to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and halt teenage pregnancy. Parents were not doing a good enough job—and public health was at stake. Or so we were told. Public school mandates have expanded, however, to recommending non-vaginal sex, then to tolerance for same-sex sex, active affirming of same-sex relations as virtually normal, and finally to the affirmation of transgender identities.
David Ayers’s After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical catalogues the loss of authority over sexual matters among Christian churches. Ayers, a sociologist at Grove City College, slices survey data to show that most evangelicals—and all varieties of Christians—have increasingly adopted “worldly attitudes and practices” on issues related to sex and sexuality.
White evangelicals and black Protestants are more likely than other groups to think sex before marriage is always wrong or almost always wrong, but that number (now 40%) has declined for each age cohort. Unmarried and divorced evangelicals tend to think sex out of wedlock cannot be wrong. Christians of all varieties think cohabitation before marriage is acceptable, though black Protestants (47%) and white evangelicals (35%) are least likely to. Again, younger Christians of all varieties are much more open to shacking up than older ones.
As attitudes change, so do behaviors. Nearly 60% of evangelicals aged 23-32 now have had more than three sexual partners, numbers still lower than other religious traditions but still very high.
White evangelicals are more likely, over time, to embrace same-sex marriage and to bless same-sex sex and relationship than in the past. Ayers also shows evangelicals engage in more oral sex and over 50% have cohabited with a member of the opposite sex by age 28. 52% of evangelical females have cohabited by age 28, while 64% of those without religion have.
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Christianity and the Working Class

How can churches become more welcoming to blue-collar Americans? The first step involves seeing them as “our people.” Nothing about the decline of America’s working class is irreversible. The middle-brow contempt for the working class must be replaced with a spirit of brotherhood and a sense that we are in the same boat. They are worried about the fate of the country, every bit as much as we are. They have an almost instinctive form of patriotism, just as many Christians do. All of us have souls, struggles with sin and hopes for salvation–these must be boldly expressed through the Christian lens. As the recent trucker rallies in Canada show, if there is hope for our civilization generally, hope lies, as Orwell has Winston Smith narrate in 1984, with the proles. So it is for a Christianity that has always found believers among the lower classes. 

Kvetching about the rise of the religious “nones” distracts from the other challenges of the world increasingly hostile to Christianity. One challenge is that working-class Americans are increasingly unchurched.
It was not always thus. No gap between working class church attendance and attendance in other classes existed before the 1980s. Working class Americans were long faithful Christians. Working class Catholics were the backbone of many urban perishes. During the 1990s, my wife and I lived across the street from a faithful Catholic family with 21 kids and no twins. Fundamentalists in the country were devoted church goers and were much more culturally conservative than well-educated WASPs.
This is no longer the case. Poll after poll and book after book show that a yawning church attendance gap has opened in America. Just under 50% of the college educated attended church, while about 23% of those without college attended according to a study in the early 2010s. That gap has, if anything, widened in the past decade. My Lutheran parish has flipped in much this way: it has gone from a mostly blue-collar parish in the 1990s to a solidly, but not exclusively white-collar parish now. Evangelical churches in my area reflect the same thing.
The church attendance gap reflects America’s ongoing class division. Marriage rates among the lower classes are significantly lower, while cohabitation rates and divorce rates are significantly higher. Suicide rates among those without college education have soared, as has drug and alcohol abuse. Children of the lower classes do worse on standardized tests than the children of the upper class. Working class Americans have a much more difficult time finding and keeping steady work as well.
These are interlocking problems. The old American synthesis of conservative faith and family life combined with economic opportunity seems to be dying or dead. Faithful churches are fewer in number than fifty years ago. Family life and economic opportunity seem increasingly to be privileges of the wealthy.
Churches cannot solve the whole of the issue, but they can do their part. The first step is understanding. Imagine most American churches through the eyes of a working-class or blue-collar American man. He is a powerline worker, a plumber, an HVAC technician, or a roofer. Whom does he see when he enters modern churches? He sees many bookish men—men who read some theology or who are serious students of their professions. He also sees many emotional men, filled with their love of God and their connection to their wives. Christ fills an emotional need for such men—and churches arise to provide a psychological defense of the need for faith. Neither the bookish nor the emotional parishioners are copasetic with our working-class, would-be Christian. Just as he is a fish out of water when people begin to talk about the demands of their desk jobs, our working-class man cannot find a place in the modern church where there seems to be little to no place for the working man.
Seeing him as a “misfit” may be a charitable way of viewing the problem. Churchgoers may, in fact, actively contemn America’s working class. “Those people” may have liked Donald Trump’s “mean tweets.” They do not affect urbanity. They get their hands dirty without the typical middle-class politesse or anxiety.
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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

Paracelsus, the pseudonymous author of First Do No Harm, argues that the American medical system is profoundly and perhaps irretrievably broken. The original Paracelsus, who also used that pseudonym, was a contemporary of Machiavelli and an acquaintance of Erasmus and Luther. He helped revolutionize medicine with modern methods, something that made him a critic of the medical establishment of his time. Our Paracelsus opposes today’s medical establishment for its corruption and stagnation.

Trust in American institutions is at an all-time low. Fewer Americans trust their elected officials, journalists, or business leaders to do what is best for the country than at any time in the past. Perhaps the decayed institutions do not deserve the public’s trust.
Congress seems unable to pass laws or budgets or to oversee the executive branch. Administrative bureaucracies are often captured by industries and narrow interests. The press no longer holds public officials accountable for misdeeds and lies; it promotes its own preferred narratives instead. Universities have become ideology factories. America’s military has waged several wars ineffectively; it has lower standards for admission than in the past. Our public schools achieve less at greater cost than in the past. No college professor honestly thinks students are better than they were a generation ago, nor are the college professors as well educated. Fewer movies have compelling plots or character development.
The list of decaying institutions includes our fake economy, the energy grid, factory farming, churches, air travel, public infrastructure, architecture, and our melting pot of assimilation. Our IQ scores are declining as are sperm counts, while obesity rises. Birth rates are cratering. Marriage formation lags. Americans are shorter on average than we were a generation ago. The list could go on.
Sports like golf and basketball, television, and the culinary arts are arguably better than in the past. Yet late republics specialize in just such bread and circuses. Decaying republics have good booze, tasty cheeses and crackers, and wonderful flat screens to watch girl-boss gladiators on demand.
Medics Under Fire
Could America’s medical system remain free from this general decay? Paracelsus, the pseudonymous author of First Do No Harm, argues that the American medical system is profoundly and perhaps irretrievably broken. The original Paracelsus, who also used that pseudonym, was a contemporary of Machiavelli and an acquaintance of Erasmus and Luther. He helped revolutionize medicine with modern methods, something that made him a critic of the medical establishment of his time. Our Paracelsus opposes today’s medical establishment for its corruption and stagnation.
Paracelsus treads on sacred ground when criticizing modern medicine. Founders of modern science like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes thought the modern project would stand or fall by its ability to deliver ever greater improvements in health. Modern doctors are indeed able to do far more than their medieval predecessors. In many ways, the authoritative doctor stands in the modern mind as a representative of the entire modern scientific project, so an attack on medicine is an attack on the promise of modernity.
Medicine and science generally have delivered, in a manner of speaking. Life expectancies have indeed risen from 40 years old in 1880 to nearly 80 in 2015. Much of the credit for this rise goes to improved sanitation, better housing, better nutrition, the development of vaccines, and declines in maternal and infant mortality—all products of Baconian modern science. The health care system gets too much credit for the rise in life expectancy (life expectancy was almost 60 before by the 1920s), but it is a factor in rising life expectancies. No one appreciates medical advances more than I do. I would have been a widower had my wife given birth to our first in the 1850s. My daughter, diagnosed with stage four cancer when she was very young, is now a thriving adult cancer survivor: she would have been a goner in the 1920s or 1950s.
My positive experiences with the medical system happened well over a decade ago. Paracelsus dates our decayed medical system to around then. No system is perfect, of course. Anyone attempting to establish Paracelsus’s conclusions must present a “before” picture to compare against the decadent system. Paracelsus accomplishes this through a rich, mostly narrative clinical dissection of America’s system. According to Paracelsus, the goals of perpetuating the health system and providing quality health care are diverging, to the detriment of patient health. As more money and prestige come from perpetuating the system, the patient-centered goal of health is compromised. Health care’s glittering exterior (white-coated doctors, nice buildings, big staffs, lots of research money) masks an interior that is increasingly rotten and dysfunctional.
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A High Road for Protestant Sexual Ethics

Marriage and family life may be the arenas of human life where the ongoing work of sanctification plays out most vividly. They cannot make human beings holy, but they open the human heart to accept God’s grace and to understand it.  

Men despise religion…The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.~Blaise Pascal
Can Christian sexual ethics survive the sexual revolution? Churches everywhere trim in the face of the popularity of modern sexual mores. Most Protestant churches long ago abandoned proscriptions on contraception and divorce. Many have on abortion. They wink at cohabitation. They rarely complain that the state has usurped familial obligations like teaching about sexuality and caring for children or warn parishioners that public schools see themselves as ersatz parents instead of in loco parentis.
Into the breach steps John W. Kleinig, a Lutheran minister in Australia, theologian, and author of Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body, which accentuates the positive about Christian marriage. Christians, Kleinig worries “will not be heard and heeded by our critics” unless we lead with “a positive, rightly ordered vision of it in its beauty” rather than adopting a “self-righteous, censorious stance.” The Ten Commandment’s Thou-Shalt-Nots point to Shalls: leading with Shalls instead of Shall-Nots puts Christian marriage in the best light. We have reason to hope that the attractiveness of the family will reinforce the attractiveness of Christianity. Thus will good men wish Christianity to be true from the attractiveness of Christian marriage.
Equally important, the Shalls will explain to Christians themselves what they are doing and why. Modern ideologies leak into Christian churches in a thousand ways. One of them is through shaping how people understand family life. Believers get light from the “Modern American Sun” and the Light of the World. If believers follow the American Sun, they will think marriage is a prison, motherhood and fatherhood are limits on freedom, their body is their choice, or sex is merely a vehicle for personal pleasure. How should Christians think about these things?
Making Marriage Attractive Again
Neither marriage nor family life can really proceed without sacrificial love, so they provide a glimpse of heavenly love in a fallen world. To make marriage attractive again churches should emphasize making its attributes attractive. Protestant churches either misunderstand and misapply these attributes, or downplay them because of the power of the Modern American Sun. Kleinig highlights those unseen attributes.
Sexual desire is especially corrupted. The who, how many, how, how often and with whom of sex are all subject to temptation. Against this, Kleinig preaches the “beauty of chastity.” Chastity does not simply mean “no sex” or “no sex before marriage.” It means the right ordering of sexual desire. Assume that a husband buys his wife sexy lingerie and orders her to put it on and act like a prostitute before sex. That is not chastity, though it respects, in sense, the bond between sex and marriage. Real chastity involves a man and a woman entering into an exclusive enduring sexual commitment to one another, where they love and serve one another instead of giving way to their lusts. Chastity means that sex finds a subordinate place within a larger communal relationship where husbands and wives share lives. That communal relationship is beautiful—it’s a “house of marriage,” as Kleinig sees it.
Marriage is transformative. It is not an alliance between separate individuals. It makes a community. Husbands are less apt to look at wives as sexual objects, as happens with fornicators. Wives are more likely to be satisfied with the man they have, instead of filing for divorce at the first whiff of marital conflict. Husbands and wives joined in communal marriage are more likely to be open to bringing new life into the world. Men and women stick it out not for fear of the consequences of not sticking it out, but rather because not sticking it out is unthinkable. The two have become one. Sex creates children and responsibilities for parents. This is when the two really become one. This leads Kleinig to a deep worry about contraception. “A married couple,” Kleinig writes, “who can have children but deliberately refuses to do so commits an unnatural, life-denying act of defiance that rejects the blessings God wishes to bestow on them and the whole human race.”
The vision for marriage is one man, one woman, one time. What God has united let man not put asunder. In God’s eyes, the man and the woman of marriage are not separated. Re-marriage from the perspective of the church is not an option. This creates the proper disposition to the inevitable conflicts and rough-patches of married life. When marriage is enduring, the petty troubles appear petty. When endurance is optional, every breeze can blow it down. Built on God, marriage cannot be built on sand. And how beautiful it is to keep the main thing the main thing, as opposed to having an itchy trigger finger for divorce. Kleinig goes as far in the direction of demanding permanent marriage as any non-Catholic thinker I have seen.
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