By Mary Eberstadt; FIRST THINGS; December, 2021
Solzhenitsyn famously defined the principal trait of the twentieth century in four words: “Men have forgotten God.” So far, the twenty-first century might be summarized in six: Men are at war with God. Awakened from agnostic slumber by new forms of temptation, chiefly the sexual revolution, humanity is at war with God over a question that reaches back to the beginning of time: Who, exactly, should have power over creation?
Christianity and Judaism teach that the answer is “God.” The culture dominant in the West today teaches the opposite. It says that the creation of new life is ours to control—more precisely, that it is woman’s to control. It says that we can dispose of life in the womb for any reason whatsoever, from simple whim to a preference for a boy rather than a girl. It goes further, saying that we can erase life on the basis of rationales that continue to expand. In Belgium, a middle-aged woman was recently euthanized because she was distraught over the surgeries done and chemicals taken in the vain hope that she could change her sex. She was seduced by the prevailing culture, which says that we can re-invent ourselves in new genders, cosmetically accessorized by surgeries and chemicals.
How did we reach the point where our society repudiates creation? Let’s begin in the present. Many voices, both supportive of and opposed to identity politics, have discussed what this new code of conduct is doing to us. We need to ask a different question: What is the nonstop obsession with identity telling us—about ourselves, our civilization, and the wounds that our complicity with the sexual revolution has caused us to inflict on ourselves?
By way of answer, consider this syllogism. The sexual revolution led to the decline of the family. This weakening in turn has fueled the decline of organized religion. (I lay out why this is the case in How the West Really Lost God.) Both of these losses have left elephantine holes in the Western sense of self. As a result, many Western people now scramble to fill those vacancies with something else.
The revolution robbed many of a familial identity. By spurring secularization, it also robbed them of a supernatural identity, which is why swaths of the materially advanced societies once rooted in European civilization now suffer unprecedented uncertainty about who they are. This is especially true among the young. They are racked by the compound fractures of what is now a sixty-year experiment, motivating frantic, often furious attempts to construct an ersatz identity. We are told to see ourselves as members of political collectives based on race, ethnicity, gender, and the rest of the alphabetized brigade. This divisive project has in turn given rise to today’s sharply politicized turns of public discourse, street unrest, and the rancorous, unforgiving tone of much of our politics.
Famous experiments on animals demonstrate that artificial isolation from their own kind produces dysfunction. We need to understand that humanity is running an analogous experiment on itself. The revolution ushered in facts of life that had never before existed on the scale seen today. Abortion, fatherlessness, divorce, single parenthood, childlessness, the imploding nuclear family, the shrinking extended family: All these phenomena are acts of human subtraction. Every one of them has the effect of reducing the number of people to whom we belong, and whom we can call our own.
Outside consciously religious communities, which now amount to a counter-culture, generational reality for most people can be summarized in one word: fewer. Fewer brothers, sisters, cousins, children, grandchildren. Fewer people to play ball with, or talk to, or learn from. Fewer people to celebrate a birth; fewer people to visit one’s deathbed. In a way that is not generally acknowledged, the sexual revolution has produced a relationship deficit. And since we are social creatures and define ourselves relationally, this shortage means that we face an identity deficit. Who am I? This is a universal, inescapable question. Because of the revolution, many of us have lost the material with which to construct an answer.
As our individual lives become more disordered and bereft, so do our politics. The first use of the phrase “identity politics” appears in a manifesto published by radical African-American feminists in 1977—just as the first generation born into the revolution was coming of age. For those who haven’t read it, the Combahee River Collective manifesto is a poignant window onto modern times. It declares, in essence, that its signatories—all women—are giving up on the men in their lives. They are banding together for a future that does not include unreliable boyfriends and husbands. There is a straight line from that declaration of failure to the one uploaded by Black Lives Matter last year (and subsequently removed), which likewise denied healthy relations between the sexes and within the natural family, and failed even to mention fathers or brothers. Both proclamations signify that political identity has become a substitute for familial and communal bonds. Both are rooted in a fury at creation itself—an anger at the disruption of the natural order, which the creature now claims the right to re-order.
These are the facts of life in our times, the essential features of the world our children are inheriting. Facing them without blinkers or sugarcoating, what’s a believer to do?
The first imperative is compassion. If we are to rebuild from the rubble we’re surveying, we must grasp what underlies it: massive, often misunderstood and unseen suffering. This includes the suffering of people in factions that commonly oppose the Church. It’s easy, especially among traditionalists, to dismiss the public enactments of identity politics with derogatory terms like “snowflake,” “coddled Millennial,” and “spoiled brats.” Easy—and wrong.
There is a common denominator beneath the bizarre rituals occurring on campuses and elsewhere, beneath an increasingly punitive social media, beneath the performative rage of BLM—indeed, beneath cancel culture itself. It is anguish. These days, many people who claim to be victims are indeed victims. But they are not victims of the oppressions and exclusions they’ve been taught to make central to their self-conceptions—the “gender binary,” “heteronormativity,” “structural racism.”
No: Like many others born after 1960, they are victims of a destructive maelstrom that rattled and shrank and sometimes destroyed their families. They are victims of the same revolution that undermined their churches and uprooted their communities. From that wreckage, identity politics sends up a howl for a world more ordered, protective, and connected than many now know. Some in the younger generation call themselves “socialists.” It’s easy to tell them that socialism has been discredited and won’t work, and to denounce universities for indoctrinating them. Both points are true, but irrelevant to the deeper reality illuminated, however inadvertently, by today’s young rebels. Socialists and identitarians alike sense that the world into which they were born is somehow inhuman. They want out.
They are not wrong in apprehending that something primordial has run amok—they are merely mistaken about its rightful name. This, too, is not altogether their fault. For decades, many Christians have avoided the subject of the sexual revolution and its fallout. Many have also made public enemies of those who defend natural law and biblical teaching. A growing chorus says, “Capitulate.” Accept that people are whoever they say they are. Celebrate the behaviors that Christianity declared off-limits for two thousand years. Put down the Bible and pick up the rainbow flag.
Believers exhausted by the culture wars convince themselves that surrender is “loving.” It is not. What if embracing people as they are, and only as they are, ignores their pain and fails to address that pain—and the deeper reasons for it? The torment out there is real. I recently wrote elsewhere about announcements by various celebrities who have re-defined themselves as “transgender” or “non-binary.” As I researched their stories and read their own words in interviews, something stunning emerged. Every individual on the list shared two common harms: divorced or absent parents, and violent childhood or adolescent abuse, in almost all cases sexual.
This should make us wonder. What if the dominant storyline about gender self-invention is all wrong? What if the cheerleading drowns out other cries? What if childhood and adolescent trauma, combined with the radical uncertainties of family and communal life, contributes to today’s gender confusion and gender migration? If that is so, then embracing transgenderism is at best iatrogenic, and at worst betrays cold-blooded indifference.
Third, the days of pretending that we can carry on business as usual after the sexual revolution are over. We can no longer avert our eyes to the demands of social justice in our post-revolutionary disorder.
Well before the pandemic, new data indicated a steep rise in psychiatric problems among American teenagers and young adults. In 2020, drug overdoses in the United States reached the highest level ever recorded in a twelve-month period. “Loneliness studies” abound, spotlighting the isolation of the elderly in every Western nation. There’s an intensifying push for more euthanasia, another consequence of the people deficit. A tsunami of pornography, about which we hear nothing from people who march under the banner of “social justice,” continues to destroy marriage and romance and families. As for the poor, they were and remain cannon fodder for the revolution. Families frayed, unchurched, and without strong communities, they remain the hardest hit.
There is a message here for those who deride their brothers and sisters in Christ for their supposed obsession with the “pelvic issues”: You are welcome to abandon your mockery, and join the counter-cultural activists seeking to undo some of the damage you ignore. Rollback of abortion, divorce, and the rest ought to be one of the social justice priorities of our time.
Finally, we must understand that the identity crisis now roiling the Western world has also infiltrated the Church. What sunders Christians today is not science. It is not the desire of traditionalists to worship in Latin. It is not even the self-inflicted wounds of clerical sex scandals, grave though these are. No: The religious divide of our time is between those who think they can compromise with the sexual revolution without compromising their faith—and those who are awakening to the fact that this experiment has been tried and has failed. It has failed not only institutionally, but morally. The Church of Being Nice shortchanges its victims and ignores their wounds. The Church grounded on belief in redemption and a benevolent Creator must not.
In the end, the choice before people of faith is simple. We either believe that there are souls on the line, or we don’t—including the souls of those who hate what we stand for, or what they think we stand for. We either believe that they, like us, are created in the image of God and for a purpose, or we subject ourselves and all who come after us to perpetual self-invention and its miseries. So let us witness as best we can to the truth that humanity’s problem today is not with creation. It’s rather with interference in that creation by an ongoing revolutionary experiment—one that sweat and prayer and grace may yet turn around.
Mary Eberstadt holds the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center, and is a senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. This essay is adapted from a speech given to the Napa Institute in July 2021.