- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Earlier this year, American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray wrote a warning about American elites pushing America to become like Europe.

European social policies “drain too much of the life from life,” Mr. Murray wrote in a March article in The Washington Post called, “Thank God America Isn’t Like Europe.”

A “spreading European mentality … goes something like this,” he wrote. “Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.”

The truth, he explained, is that the most momentous events of life occur “within just four institutions: family, community, vocation and faith.”

The European model “enfeebles” these four institutions, so the Democratic Party is foolish to steer this nation in that direction.

Instead, Mr. Murray wrote, if America is to remain an “exceptional” nation, its elites “of all political stripes” should do more to preserve and strengthen these four institutions.

I am inspired to bring up Mr. Murray’s observation after attending a conference about religious practice and the family, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, Child Trends and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. The tiny slices of research presented at the Heritage conference showed that faith and family are intertwined.

Faith and family work together to “socialize children,” and orient a nation’s people to “moral, social and spiritual goods,” as University of Virginia sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox said.

On the downside, he added, because faith and family are synergistic, the erosion of one pulls down the other.

This begs the question: Should Americans be overly concerned about the strength of their religious and family culture? Aren’t secular things — education, technology, democracy, media and agnostic tolerance — enough to keep America flourishing?

The research and Mr. Murray’s observations suggest that the answer is no.

The virtues of “love, commitment and sacrifice” are taught, honored and modeled in faith communities, Annette Mahoney, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University, told the conference.

Religion plays a significant role in guiding people in their personal relationships, including marriage, as well as how to raise their children, she said. Moreover, religion is protective of the family — it lowers the risk for divorce, domestic violence, infidelity and child abuse.

But what is not known is whether religion can save a family once they are in crisis, Ms. Mahoney said. Initial research “is not clear that religion helps when trouble comes,” she said, citing actor Mel Gibson: He is a “devout Catholic” and father of six who bucked the odds to make the blockbuster movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” she said, and yet he is estranged from his wife of 29 years, and recently had a baby with his mistress.

Meanwhile, a worldwide survey of youth has revealed a hunger to understand the spiritual dimensions of life.

About 93 percent of youth understand that life is more than material, Search Institute’s Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence said in its soon-to-be-updated 2008 report on global spirituality.

It’s “expressed differently,” but there’s a broad consensus that being human means there’s a spiritual life, Eugene Roehlkepartain, co-director of the center, told the Heritage conference.

The Search Institute study of more than 7,000 youths in eight countries also upholds the family-faith connection. When asked “Who helps you most in your spiritual life?” the young people’s No. 1 answer is “family.”

It’s not just a bromide. There really is no place like home.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at


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