Posted: January 29, 2007
The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, by William J. Bennett
William Bennett's latest book provides a succinct account of the dissolution of the family and the morality that supports it. In this slender and readable volume, Bennett takes just the right tone in discussing, and defending marriage and family—subjects that are political, with immense social repercussions, and yet involve the deepest of personal sentiments. The book is deliberative, well reasoned, and sympathetic, but nonetheless presses upon the reader the magnitude of the crisis of the American family.
The story Bennett tells is sad—indeed, heartbreaking. He shows, without a hint of shrillness or smugness, the depth of human suffering that has accompanied the destruction of the family, while also painting a vivid picture of the goodness and desirability of a healthy family. He tackles head-on the leading arguments against the nuclear family and the traditional roles of motherhood and fatherhood. And he shows that at the center of these liberal and libertarian doctrines and institutions is a rejection of objective morality that undermines not only the family but also all that Americans once considered good, decent, and sacred.
Going beyond the usual conservative argument for the social utility of the family, Bennett explains in human terms the real happiness and contentment that spring from a healthy family life. Such an effort is critically important today, when so many Americans will never themselves be part of a happy family.
* * *
A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation, by Diana L. Eck
Sociologist Nathan Glazer observed several years ago that multiculturalism had become the new civil religion of America, replacing that fusion of pious and rational principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.
Diana L. Eck, a Harvard religion professor and director of the university's Pluralism Project, gives a popular portrayal of the forms taken by religions imported from Asia and the Middle East in this age of multiculturalism. These are fruits of a political act, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Eck worships, eats, schmoozes, and eats some more with Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in America, showing how the faiths transform and are transformed by American life. "[T]he founding fathers wrote what some have called a 'godless' Constitution, one that deliberately steered away from the establishment of any sect of Christianity, even Christianity itself, as the basis of the new nation." What replaces Christian primacy was "pluralism[,]…the dynamic process through which we engage with one another in and through our very deepest differences." Thus when the U.D. Army permits Wiccans to be identifies as such on their dog tags, we see pluralism working its wonders.
Eck could not have foreseen how problematic her thesis is today, post September 11. "America's vibrant new Muslim communities are here to stay," she writes. "Now more than ever, all Americans need the instructive challenge of the Qur'an: that our differences require us to get to know each other." But this presumes that the immigrant computer-geek from Pakistan and the Harvard professor from Montana know America's first principles. Unfortunately, both the new religions and the new civil religion appear closed to knowing the roots of the old civil religion—which still retains some vitality. Hearing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung in that National Cathedral prayer service proved how much ours is bother a Christian nation and a tolerant one, contrary to the apostles of soulless pluralism.
* * *
The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities, by Randall O'Toole
Despite its eccentric organization and its focus on Portland, Oregon, O'Toole's collection of essays is the best introduction to urban quality-of-life issues available today. The book serves multiple purposes: It contains 40 short, op-ed length chapters on urban-affairs topics, almost 80 more on "smart-growth myths"; case studies on Portland and other cities; and numerous useful tables of facts, statistics, and websites. The "myths" include the assumption that urban sprawl leads to economic and environmental ills. O'Toole, a much honored policy analyst with the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, makes clear how the arrogance of local planers, fueled by a vision of good urban life, has caused local government to be costly, inept, and despotic.
O'Toole points the way toward cities that pay more attention to the benefits of markets, property rights, citizen awareness, and common sense. Much of his argument is devoted to challenging the advocates of "smart growth" who love public transportation, restrictive zoning practices, and regulation generally.
He has a formidable challenger in the "new urbanists," who have an appealing vision of beauty they wish to see realized in American cities. They disdain "sprawl," monotonous suburbs, boring architecture, and long commuting times. Their desire to re-create elements of small-town America—tree-lined streets, small stores within walking distance, houses with front porches—appeals to frustrated urban dwellers of all political views.
Armed with the confidence of bureaucracy, many new urbanists and smart-growth advocates are perfectly willing to impose their vision on cities through planning commissions and the like—all examples of the Progressive legacy in American politics. In this way, local government, with its non-partisan character, it disregard of political parties and hence of all democratic politics, and its trust in administrativse expertise, is today the best example of the success of Progressivism. The American Founding's ideals of limited government (seen in its regard for property rights) and active citizenship might revitalize the cities while dismantling this administrative state. That is the challenge for students of local government today. In a field where Marxist tracts and bureaucratic apologetics abound, O'Toole's book is essential reading.
* * *
Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America's Urban Poor, 1825-2000, by Joel Schwartz
Political theorist Joel Schwartz's new book is required reading for anyone seriously concerned with the poor. It is an elegant example of political philosophy applied to an eminently practical problem. Schwartz explains how early 20th century moral reformers such as Jane Addams and Walter Rauschenbusch argued against personal moral reformation as an essential part of overcoming poverty. Virtue's transformation from a responsibility of the individual to a by-product of social policy led eventually to the welfare crisis of the last half-century. Echoing Alexis de Tocqueville, Schwartz concludes that, "the promotion of virtue is not exclusively—perhaps not even primarily—a matter for public policy."
But what place do political obligations have in helping the poor develops as citizens? Perhaps an analogy with Aristotle's democracy, the rule of the many or the poor, might be applicable. Aristotle advised that the poor learn, and practice, virtue by contributing to the common good. The poor today could contribute to military successes through participation in the army or navy. In the war on terrorism, any number of informal security functions, such as patrolling strategically important areas, might be performed by our urban poor. In return, their fellow citizens might treat them as equals, capable of assuming responsibility.
* * *
Roots of Freedom: A Primer on Modern Liberty, by John W. Danford
Political theorist John Danford, a scholar of David Hume and Ludwig Wiggenstein, perceptively examines the roots of modern political freedom—and what threatens them—in his new book. Danford wrote the early drafts of much of this book during the late 1980s in the form of short articles for Radio Free Europe. But readers will find that this series has a use beyond fighting Communism. His primer surveys Greek philosophy, Christianity, feudalism, the Protestant Reformation, and an array of modern thinkers from Machiavelli through Tocqueville and Marx. Danford shows that the fundamental modern principles are individualism, the rule of law, property rights, and moral restraint; their major theorists are John Locke and Adam Smith. Danford emphasizes free societies' need to protect property and the qualities of character that the concern for acquisition creates. But his ultimate concern is liberal education. He concludes his book: "Perhaps, after all, the ancients can be said to have something to contribute to the principles of free societies. If there are to be free societies, there is no substitute for liberal education."
While approving enthusiastically Danford's purposes and this book's adoption as an elementary text, one might quarrel with his portrayal of the division between the ancients and the moderns. As he explains it, the division leads to a practical problem, namely, how to defend what he calls "liberal commercial societies." "The ills of equality or egalitarianism are probably inevitable in free societies," he writes. But don't these ills reflect the radical assault on the mixture of the pre-modern and modern roots of our freedom by those who have redefined freedom?