Noteworthy social commentator and Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute, Mary Eberstadt, follows her 2013 landmark book How the West Really Lost God: A New Theology of Secularization with her latest imprint, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Both provocative and insightful, Primal Screams stands as a clarion call to Christianity and all who assume the appellation “Christian” to relinquish allegiances to ideological consumerism and embrace the value of the family, of “familism”—intact, larger, and extended families—as necessary for the preservation of Western culture and, more importantly, the promulgation of our holy faith. Intact and enlarged religious families are integral to the church, to evangelism, to Western culture. Such a thesis, as obvious and non-revolutionary as it may be, cuts across almost every accepted social maxim reinforced today—from environmentalism’s urgent call for procreative minimalism to the celebration of selfishness to the omniavailability of sexual gratification.
In How the West Really Lost God, Eberstadt substantially documented how the atomistic/individualistic family system—that is, the loss of the non-fragmented extended and enlarged family—causes the loss of religious belief that all family systems require to exist and that this phenomenon principally accounts for entrenched, accelerating secularization (such that Charles Taylor articulated in A Secular Age). Eberstadt conclusively evidenced the thesis that societies that lose the family also lose the faith, and vice versa. They enter into an age of moral and civic decline until the value of familism is rediscovered.
Primal Screams asks the question, “How has the matter of ‘identity’ come to be emotional and political ground zero for so many in the first place?” and posits two additional theses beyond How the West Really Lost God. The first thesis is that Generations X, Y, and Z’s obsession with personal identity is linked to ruptured family relations—ranging from divorce and lack of siblings to the shift in attitudes toward familial vocations. Eberstadt accounts for the attractiveness and saturating nature of identity politics as a surrogate for the role traditionary families (ensconced in traditional faith) once held. Unmistakably, revolutionary social forces are at play. Eberstandt writes, “For Americans and others, political desire and political agendas have become indistinguishable from the desires and agendas of the particular aggrieved faction with which they most ‘identify’—and the human beings outside those factions are treated more and more not as fellow citizens, but as enemies to be eliminated by shame, intimidation, and, where possible, legal punishment” (7).
Her argument entails not only articulating the breakdown of the American family but also the indoctrinating and blanketing aspects of media, education, politics, and entertainment that posits predetermined identity categories as basic to one’s self-understanding and the means by which the world is engaged, interpreted and understood. To be sure, Christianity does this, too. However, the religious identity of the Christian was grounded in a view of God and church that pivoted on and was concentrated in the family. The family itself was connected with transcendent values, principles, and being. Christian identity promoted family and therefore communities of responsibility and accountability, generosity and love. It was stable, solid, enduring and divine and, so, one’s personal identity had a nurturing in that which was stable, solid, enduring and divine. Identity politics, on the other hand, rests upon ever-shifting, foundationless humanitarian impulses at best, rank consumerism and narcissism at worst.
The second thesis Eberstadt advances concerns the role the sexual revolution has played and continues to play in the atomization of families and the rise of identity politics. The result has been what the author calls “the Great Scattering: the unprecedented familial dispersion, now sixty-plus years in the making with no end in sight” (9). The engine of this transformation, she asserts, is the sexual revolution, meaning the widespread social changes that followed the technological shock of the birth control pill and related technologies delivering reliable contraception en masse for the first time and altering the value of human worth, marriage and holy matrimony, and social norms. Not only in the United States, but around many parts of the world, the revolution has included the de-stigmatization of non-marital sex in all its varieties, and a sharp rise in behaviors that were formerly rare or stigmatized or both. “That list of particulars,” Eberstadt writes, “includes but is not limited to rising and sometimes skyrocketing rates of abortion, fatherless homes, family shrinkage, family breakup, and other phenomena that have become commonplace in the world since the 1960s” (9). Chapters two (“A New Theory” The Great Scattering”) sets forth the rationale for this thesis, while chapters three through six substantiate it with evidence, extrapolating the implications on personal identity and where identity politics has rushed in to hoist up alternative identity-making narratives, many of which are transparently contrived.
The “primal” aspect of Eberstadt’s thesis collates human beings to the animal kingdom. Animals are known to exist in kinship structures similar to those governing human beings from the point of creation. From orcas to monkeys to pachyderms, significant animal behaviors are learned within familial structures. Violate, fragment, alter these natural structures and there are detrimental behavioral consequences that have wider reaching implications. In other words, there are natural laws at play that, when the integrity of the family is disrupted, are being repudiated and violently violated. The result can only be something unnatural. Human beings, subject to the same natural laws, are experiencing primal screams for identity grounded in family and the values and behaviors promoted by family, that are being supplied by “unnatural” identity politics and consumerist subcultures—neither of which satisfy what is basic for human flourishing.
Given the startling rise in suicides (e.g., over the last decade, suicides among 10-18 year olds has tripled, with suicide the leading cause of death for all ages ranging from 10–24), the issue of identity looms large in any conversation. The Church has always posited holy baptism as basic and fundamental to human identity—children were reared in their baptismal identity. But what happens when there is no objective act of God, no objective, public declaration from God that such and such a children has been made His own, that they are a Christian through the gift of faith deposited in holy baptism? Challenges to identity crowd in on every side, especially from consumerism but also from subcultural groups positioning a political identity. Instead of the unifying factor of the church and family, there is the loud and ubiquitous voices of demographic dividers.
Following Eberstadt’s Introduction and six chapters are three incisive essays from Rod Dreher, Mark Lilla, and Peter Thiel, all of whom find convincing merit in Eberstadt’s theses (excepting Lilla, who demurs regarding the second.) All three turn the conversation toward avenues for further consideration, and Eberstadt concludes the book with a reflection upon these essays and a recapitulation.
Primal Screams stands as essential reading for all pastors, educators, church leaders and workers, and, supremely, parents. I read significant portions to my children, stimulating significant discussions with my three teenaged daughters and younger son about personal identity, baptismal identity, the vocations of spouse and motherhood/fatherhood, friendship, love, and the Lord’s desire that the family be the context for human flourishing and the cradle of Christian faith. For decades the church has been mealy-mouthed or muted about the blessings of children or, worse, deeply influenced by consumeristic principles as to what constitutes “the good life.” Eberstadt drums that it isn’t a greater percentage of spendable income or cosmopolitan, transient living — the consumption of the tourist or acquisitionist. It isn’t, in other words, in “achievement society,” as Byong-Chul Han has denominated our present milieu, but in the security and stability of an identity ensconced within that double helix of faith and family.
John J. Bombaro (Ph.D., King’s College, University of London) is the Associate Director of Theological Education for Eurasia, based at the Rīga Luther Academy in Latvia.