Allan Carlson on coming U.S. moral revival

Q&A | U.S. culture never stays in a moral morass for more than a few generations, researcher argues
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 11/12/15, 10:45 am

Allan Carlson has been writing about the family for more than 40 years. He began his career with the Lutheran Council in America’s Government Affairs Office in the 1970s, but he’s perhaps best known for his long association with two conservative and pro-family think tanks, the Rockford Institute and the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. Carlson has also been a professor at Hillsdale College, and he’s the author of nearly a dozen books on the underlying causes of population decline and on the characteristics of strong families and strong cultures. I had this conversation with him at the World Congress of Families during the last week of October in Salt Lake City.

You brought a very positive message to this conference about the state of the family. What was that message? The message is that periods of family decline are nothing new in American Life. Going back to 1630, there have been four distinct periods of family strength and renewal and four distinct periods of family decline. Things may look really dark right now, but that’s been true before in different ways. The details are different, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel because the human race and Americans in particular cannot tolerate chaos and immorality for very long.

You said that in the Colonial period there was rampant immorality. In as many as 50 percent of all marriages, the women were pregnant at the altar. That was true around the year 1700. The Puritan experiment in New England, which had an astonishingly good run for about 50 years, or two generations, fell apart after 1680, and one sign of that was a new wave of immorality where the marriage rules, the marriage laws broke down. Men in particular left the church. Men’s roles as fathers and gentle patriarchs toward their wives and children disappeared, and it took about two generations of living under that for things to start to recover. 

What was the next positive era? During the Colonial years from 1730 to 1780—the critical decades leading up to the American Revolution, we saw an astonishing renewal of the American family. It took five distinct forms. In one area, the Puritans were awakened by the Great Awakening. The Quakers showed up in the Delaware Valley with a strong family system. In Chesapeake Bay, both white settlers and even African-American slaves showed signs of family renewal seen in higher fertility and the emergence of marriage cultures, even on the slave plantations and the Scotch-Irish up in the hills—crazy bunch, but also very strongly oriented toward family. The American Revolution was fought and won by people who had confidence drawn from their strong domestic family life.

After the American Revolution into the early 1800’s, you said there was another period of decline, right? You see a decline in religious tendency. The Quaker experiment broke down after two or three generations of success. The slave culture got nasty down south with the coming of king cotton. … A lot of things just went wrong. A lot of things went haywire. Again, it lasted about two generations until a new wave of reformers and leaders came along to articulate and lead the way back to a strong family system, which happened in the 19th century. 

You’re not a huge fan of big government and liberal politics, but you actually sort of grant the devil it’s due in saying the New Deal did some good things to create a renewal of the family in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Is that accurate? It’s accurate. I get into trouble with a lot of conservatives here, but it is entirely true that the New Deal social policies, domestic policies, were premised on a common assumption of a family life: a breadwinning father, a homemaking mother, and three or four children. All public policies adopted during the 1930s were premised on that, and sought to find ways, often times successful, to support and encourage it. For maybe about 30 or 40 years it actually worked.

Clearly, there’s been a decline since then. Do you think there’s going to be another renewal? There’s going to be another renewal because we human beings—not just we Americans, but all human beings—cannot tolerate a long period of moral incoherence. Something will fill the vacuum. I’m not sure what new form it will take this time around. It probably is going to surprise us, but ... I can guarantee there will be a form of moral renewal. It’s going to happen because we have to find a way forward as this nation that has a stable social foundation.

What signs do you see to suggest it’s actually happening? First of all, there’s an awareness of the pit that we’re in. It’s not the first time Americans have faced this. We’re in the fourth and fifth phases of this stage. There’s the emergence of a new generation. You’re starting to see young people. It’s going to have to come from them. People in their teens and 20s and 30s who’ve lived through the depths of the current family crisis know that’s no way to live.

We’re seeing that in some ways. The millennials are more pro-life than their parents. We have about 2 million people being homeschooled in this country. Is that the sort of thing that you’re talking about, and is that enough? This may not be enough, but that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. Again, the seeds are all there. You’ll find distinct demographic groups in the United States who are still growing, and in fact, growing as a proportion of the country. It’s groups often times seen on the margin. We’re here in Salt Lake City. Mormon, Utah. [It’s] still growing, in fact—a religious community very dedicated to family life as part of its theology. You see the Quiverfull movements among evangelical Protestants. The most rapidly growing ethnic group in American today is the old-order Amish. [There were] 5,000 of them in 1900; close to 350,000 today. If they keep that up for another century there’ll be about 15 million of them. They’re repopulating the countryside. There’s also Hasidic Jews, ultra-orthodox Jews in American cities—Cleveland, New York, and other places—growing very rapidly, deeply committed to family life and to fertility and children. … There are enough signs of things bubbling up that I think we can safely say something is happening right now.

Listen to Warren Smith’s full report from the World Congress of Families on Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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