Our Biggest Challenge: Fragmented Families

According to Dr. Mitch Pearlstein, author of the new book Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future (2014), our prospects aren’t all that sweet unless we do something about our miserable family fragmentation rates.  By the term family fragmentation Pearlstein includes everything from divorce to co-habitation to out-of-wedlock childbirth to single parenting to other forms of family disorganization associated with dysfunction.  Pearlstein interviewed 40 thought leaders from America’s Left and Right coasts, as well as in between, to ask for their take on America’s future in light of this reality.

Fighting for Marriages

Why have so many of us passively abandoned what God has established (Matthew 19:6) in favor of what he hates (Malachi 2:16)?  My concern is not so much with the party wanting the divorce as with his/her friends and associates who “cave” rather than aggressively advocate for the couple’s marriage.  One of the reasons we have caved is that we have bought into a faulty vision of marriage as a purely romantic relationship sustained by love, and only now are active Christians rejecting that faulty vision for a vision of covenant marriage with profound public consequences that include the parenting of children who will sustain the society and the possibility of human flourishing.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower


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© 2014 Robert Osburn

Updated 4-11-2019.

For at least a century, American colleges and universities have been identified with a monolithic secularism that vigorously pits academia against the church, and vice versa.  Why this is the case is brilliantly narrated by George Marsden in his 1994 classic The Soul of the American University.

One of the many implications of academic secularism has been a faculty often resolutely at odds with orthodox Christian faith.  Study after study has confirmed that faculty, especially those who are the elite within the natural and social sciences, hold very diffident (at best) and sometimes hostile (at worst) attitudes toward Christianity.  African American sociologist George Yancey has shown in his 2011 study Compromising Scholarship that self-identified evangelical Christians are sometimes the victims of anti-evangelical bias when it comes to faculty hiring.

The secular ivory tower holds firm, or so it seems.  However, there are indications that cracks are beginning to appear in the tower’s forbidding secular walls.  For three reasons (outlined below), the prospects for evangelical and other conservative Christian faculty are just now beginning to brighten. 

The first, and most important, factor is that postmodern Perspectivalism has opened the door to Christian scholarship.  Admittedly, postmodernism---the view that, instead of seeking truth, the only thing we humans care about is getting power---has had tragic effects on society and the church.

However, one of its ancillary claims (which happens to be very true) has given religious believers a “foot in the door.”  One of the many implications of postmodern thought is that humans inevitably interpret reality through a worldview, or perspective that colors how they understand the data of reality.  Take human beings in all our complexity: Scientific naturalists see complex biological machines, whereas, without denying the complex biology, Christians see evidence of God who designed us in His image.  

Prior to postmodernity (which began its rise in the 60s), the scientific naturalist simply proclaimed, “Here is the data, which speaks for itself,” as if they were perfectly innocent of any interpretation of that data.   Postmodernism calls them on the carpet: You interpret the data just like everybody else, precisely because you have a perspective, a worldview.  The net effect is that academics, especially younger academics, are increasingly schooled to see the importance of perspective (worldview) in how we make sense of reality.  They are also much more comfortable with the idea that different professors have different worldviews. Thus, as Marsden showed in his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, scholarship interpreted through a Christian perspective is a viable option for academia. (He expands on this idea at the end of his 2014 book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.)

The second reason for the crack in the secular ivory tower has to do with the effects of family fragmentation.  Mountains of evidence clearly point to one conclusion about family fragmentation: Children raised in fragmented families have poorer academic prospects than those raised in stable, two-opposite sex parent homes.  Not surprisingly, since Christian faith has the overall effect of stabilizing families, children raised in such homes have a higher probability of making it all the way to their PhDs and, thus careers in academia.  That means that a higher percentage of academic hires, notwithstanding anti-evangelical bias on campuses, are starting to involve young, fresh-out-of-graduate school faculty who are active Christians.  Anecdotally, there is evidence this is already happening, and so one can predict that in years to come the faculty Christian fellowships on our secular campuses will grow much larger. 

Finally, the third reason for this particular crack in academia---greater openness to and greater hiring of active orthodox Christians to faculties---is the rise of Christian study centers next to major universities.  Though not well documented, over the past decade the numbers of these study centers where Christ is honored and serious scholarship is celebrated has grown significantly.  The website for the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (full disclosure: I am a founding board member of that organization, and for 12 years directed one of the study centers in the consortium) lists 27 active Christian study centers next to major universities such as Yale, Kansas, Florida, Texas, Minnesota, and Cornell.  (Only 15 were in operation when this article was initially written.) As these centers expand and multiply across the USA, they will further legitimize the case for Christian scholarship while also providing a nurturing ground for future Christian academics.  My successor at MacLaurin Institute (now Anselm House) has launched a stipended annual fellowship program (Colin MacLaurin Fellows Program) for Christian students that engages them in the very best of Christian scholarship, the intellectual foundations of Christian faith, and provides a social context that reinforces serious Christen engagement with academic life.  This will translate into a future wave of Christian academics.

Higher education’s very secular ivory tower is covered in crises, pathologies, and injustices (such as the growing aversion to letting Christian student groups restrict their leadership to self-identified and practicing believers).  However, there is at least one crack in that secular ivory tower: The numbers of self-identified Christians who, at least in some cases openly pursue Christian scholarship, is starting to grow.  

Some cracks are bad.  This one looks to be very redemptive.


Saving the Environment or Being Good?

© 2014 Robert Osburn

We hear it in America almost every day: “Save the environment lest we destroy ourselves.”

Because God has given us a creation and a cultural mandate in Genesis 1:26-28, I’m right there: Yes, we must take care of this world that God has given us.  But, then there is a gnawing thought in the back of my mind: “But, what if we have no world to save, given growing evils such as family fragmentation that threaten to shred our personal worlds?”  After all, the number one correlate with inequality in the USA is the likelihood that one is raised in a single family home. Stacks and stacks of empirical evidence demonstrate that family fragmentation (single parenting, out of wedlock births, divorce, etc) destroys character and undermines possibilities for social mobility.

Must I sacrifice personal morality in order to rescue the environment?  In fact, yes, according to the tone of almost all Western media presentations of the issue: “You are damned if you do not join the environmental crusade, but, oh, we really can’t judge how you live your personal life.”

Now, if I live in Beijing, that last question will not gnaw at me the way that the choking smog does. In China, the media, especially that which is state-controlled, almost certainly avoids discussing the environment, and so the media message is something like: “We all know it’s bad, but we have no choice other than to suffer and shut up, even though something desperately needs to be done.”  Social harmony is the greater good that risks being harmed if we Chinese get honest about the smog.

So, which is it: the environment or the family and society?  We humans don’t like these binary trade-offs, nor should we.  Most of us know that it’s “both-and.” 

There is a fundamental principle that can help us straighten our priorities when we are pressured to either join a crusade to save the environment or zip our lips lest we destroy social harmony.  The principle is this: We must be good people if we are to do good. 

When the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus (as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke) his question was about what he must do in order to inherit eternal life, but note also that he addressed his question to “Good Teacher” (Jesus).  Rather than answering his question, Jesus, as he was wont to do, challenged his premise with another question: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18: 19).

Jesus was intent on reminding the wealthy man that character precedes calling, attitude comes before action, and who we are undergirds what we are to do.  This theme pervades the Biblical text because we humans want to atone for all our evils by doing things such as saving our environment. (This desire to atone for ourselves is rooted in what Prof. J. Budziszewski at the University of Texas calls “the revenge of conscience.”) But, only One Man possessed the character by which He could atone for our evils and simultaneously make us new people with cleansed character sufficient to the calling to care for creation.  This is, in essence, the promise of what evangelicals call salvation: Jesus’ perfect character qualified Him to do what we could not, which is atone for our moral evils, including the evil of destroying our habitat, our environment. 

I believe this helps us to establish moral priorities in an evil world: Let us first attend to moral renewal, by trusting Jesus and by reforming the social environments that help shape our character, such as our families and communities. Thus, contraire to most Western media and many in the chattering classes, I claim that aggressively fixing our family fragmentation must be our first priority in the USA.  Fixing the physical environment rightly deserves our aggressive attention, but it must be the second (though never-neglected) priority.  Rules and policies for cleansing our environment must be calibrated in step with policies that restore US families.

My claim must be tested in Beijing, I know.  The principle remains true there as well as in the USA: Character precedes calling.   The character crisis in Beijing, it seems to me, is not family fragmentation, but, instead, dishonesty and corruption.  A true accounting of the actual levels of pollution and a resolute turn away from demanding bribes for services, combined with an embrace of our True Atoner (Jesus) will likely go a long way towards beginning the overdue cleanup of the air our Chinese friends breathe.  China has a massive calling to clean up its environment, but its first and simultaneous priority must be the renewal of character even while it promulgates good environmental laws. 

The renewal of character, which precedes calling, starts at the Cross.  It still is the first hope for our skies and streams.