Losing Our Religion
September 3, 2019 | Published first in Human Life International
by Fr. Shenan J. Boquet
God, Country, Family
Americans’ priorities are undergoing a seismic shift, and I’m worried about what it means for the future of the pro-life and family movement.
A new poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal has found that Americans views about the importance of religion, children, and patriotism have drastically changed since 1998, when a similar poll was conducted. Whereas in 1998, 62% of Americans said they view religion as very important, that has since dropped to just 48%. But what stands out even more than the drop is the generational gap: while 67% of those over 55 say religion is very important, a meagre 30% of those aged 18-38 agree.
Similar decreases were found in reference to patriotism and having children. Only 43% of Americans now say having children is very important, a 16-point drop from 18 years ago. The total change on patriotism is less dramatic – only a 9-point drop – but once again what stands out is the generational divide: whereas 79% of those over 55 say patriotism is very important, only 42% of those 18-38 say the same.
Of course, this doesn’t come as a huge shock. Poll after poll has shown that fewer and fewer young people want anything to do with organized religion and have increasingly complicated views about their country. And in an age when celebrities like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are pushing the message that having children is actually selfish and harmful to the planet, is it any wonder that younger Americans don’t have children on their priority list?
On the other hand, just because this is the new norm, doesn’t mean that there isn’t serious cause for alarm. As Mike Huckabee pointed out in a recent column, this poll is one of the best ways of understanding the increasing social fragmentation and polarization in our country – something almost everybody agrees is happening. In the past, most people simply took it for granted that God, country, and family were the three most important things in our lives – the things that were worth living (and dying) for. Even when we vehemently disagreed on the details, the very fact that we valued the same things often made it easier for us to work together. Certainly, the fact that almost everybody believed in an all-loving God who commanded us to “love one another as I have loved you,” made it more likely that even when we disagreed, we could do so civilly.
As Huckabee wrote, “A society that isn’t rooted in the absolute morality of faith in God and collective belief in the sacred value of human life will always tend toward division and incivility, regardless of who is in political power or who writes our textbooks and newspapers.” Amen to that.
Making Abortion Unthinkable
However, as I read about this poll, and some of the reactions to it, I couldn’t help but ponder what it bodes for the future of the pro-life and family movement. Last week, I shared with you some encouraging news about the progress of the pro-life movement in America. And indeed, great strides are being made! And yet, I confess to harboring a secret fear. And the secret fear is this: that all this progress is resting on an all-too-shaky foundation, one that could too-easily be wiped out.
I firmly believe that the best, and only truly solid solution to the Culture of Death, is a spiritual solution, because, at root, it’s a spiritual problem. And I’m afraid that without a spiritual awakening, we are doomed to pursuing patchwork solutions that may not hold up under pressure.
Of course, this is a very complex issue. Abortion, clearly, is not just a spiritual problem. It’s also a legal problem, an economic problem, an educational problem, and a scientific problem. That’s why, for example, we have to push for laws that protect the dignity of the unborn child. Laws not only make it harder to provide and to obtain abortions, but they also educate citizens about the fact that killing unborn children is an unacceptable way of solving their problems. That’s why pro-abortion activists are wrong when they say that making abortion illegal is futile, because it will simply drive women to get underground abortions. Quite the contrary: making abortion illegal will save countless lives, and through the law’s education power, will help shift the culture towards life.
On the other hand, the pro-aborts are not entirely wrong either. Even if we make abortion illegal, some abortionists will continue to offer abortions, and some women will still get abortions. This will be aided by the fact that technology has made abortion easier than ever. In some places, women can even go online and order (whether legally or illegally) the drugs that will help them kill their babies.
That’s why we can’t just stop with making abortion illegal. We also have to make it unthinkable. And that’s where the spiritual element comes into play. The end goal of the pro-life movement has never been just to make abortion so difficult to get that fewer women will get them. The goal has been to create a Culture of Life and a Civilization of Love (to use St. John Paul II’s terms), in which the inherent dignity of every human being is so deeply valued that abortion becomes unthinkable.
It’s when you start to look at abortion in this light, then you begin to see just how complex the phenomenon of abortion really is. Looked at this way, abortion is a symptom of the Culture of Death, more than a cause. The cause of abortion is the vast, underlying, multifaceted and poisonous spiritual milieu – the Culture of Death – built upon the anti-Gospel of selfishness that ultimately ends in one human being killing another human being as a “solution” to some problem.
Abortion exists because people have skewed ideas about sex; skewed ideas about marriage and family; skewed ideas about love; and skewed ideas about the meaning of life itself. Abortion exists because the hearts of our citizens have been trained to choose self over other; to use another for sexual pleasure without thought of personal responsibility; to prioritize fleeting aims and enjoyments over the eternal destination of our souls; to think of morality as relative, and any absolute moral claims as a form of tyranny; and to view freedom as the right to do whatever we want, rather than the capacity to choose what we ought. Abortion exists because of the spread of contraception and its insidious mentality, economic and social injustice, the breakdown of the family, and the breakdown of communities.
It is the spiritual side of things – the reality of sin –that explains why people can be fully aware of the fact that the unborn child is a living human being, and still think that abortion is perfectly ok. Think only of the late-term abortionist Leroy Carhart, who recently stunned a BBC reporter by admitting that he is “killing a baby,” and that he has absolutely no problem with that. It would be naïve to think that if only we showed people the truth about abortion – that it kills a living human being – that they turn against it. Many would not. Because, sadly, they are overcome by a spiritual blindness.
What our country needs above all is a spiritual renewal.
Indeed, the power of spiritual conversion cannot be overstated. One sees this illustrated powerfully in the lives of some prominent converts to the pro-life cause. Think, for instance, of former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson. When Nathanson became pro-life he was an atheist. It was only a decade later that he converted to Catholicism. Even as an atheist, he was able to see that abortion was wrong. But it was thanks only to his spiritual awakening that he ultimately came to see the truth: that abortion was merely just one, small part of the Culture of Death. As Nathanson’s spiritual director, Fr. John McCloskey put it, Nathanson, “was a pro-life prophet. He saw the whole Culture of Death coming, and knew that abortion was just the tip of the iceberg.”
This is the great wonder of authentic spiritual conversion – that it re-orients the whole person. That it completely changes his or her way of thinking. By encountering the generosity of God’s love, we come to understand the true nature of love, and we come to understand the wisdom of His commandments. Someone who has an authentic encounter with God doesn’t just see that killing babies is wrong, such a person also understands how the only way the killing will stop is if couples honor their marriage vows, if we protect children from sexual immorality, if we value the lives of the disabled and elderly, and on and on.
This is why this latest poll concerns me so much. In the absence of faith, the pro-life and family movement is left fighting the Culture of Death piece by piece, skirmish by skirmish. In this way, we can certainly win battles here and there…but can we win the war?
Religion, family, and country: What unites these three things is that they are all transcendent. They are bigger than, more important than, the individual. They call the individual outside of himself and turn his vision upwards. Without the transcendent, people are left worshipping themselves. And that, in the end, is what the Culture of Death feeds upon: pride. So, as we go about our pro-life work, let us never forget that the Gospel of Life is co-extensive with the Gospel itself: the answer to the Culture of Death is nothing other than Christ. The most important part of our pro-life work, therefore, is its evangelical side. This need may not always be explicit: but in every place we proclaim the pro-life and family message, we ought to strive to be the embodiment of Christ, and to help people experience the transformative power of His love. This is the most surefire way I know of to topple the infernal towers of the Culture of Death.
Copyright 2019 Human Life International. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.