Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published some findings from over 30 years of polling. Perhaps the most striking result was the decline in the numbers of Americans who say patriotism, religion, and having children are “very important” to them. The share of Americans who say that of patriotism has fallen about 10 points since 1998. The share of Americans who say religion is very important has fallen some 14 points. The share that says having children is very important has dropped from slightly under 60 percent to slightly above 40 percent. A conservative looking at such numbers can’t help feeling a little depressed.
As God, country, and children have receded in importance, the percentages of Americans who say that “community” and “money” are very important to them have surged. As I studied the results, I thought of Mary Eberstadt’s groundbreaking 2013 book, How the West Really Lost God, as well as Robert Nisbet’s 1953 Quest for Community. Eberstadt argued that the decline of the natural family was driving religious disaffiliation. Nisbet noticed long ago that if the human longing for community is not fulfilled by the mediating institutions of family, church, and neighborhood, human beings will look to Leviathan for commitment and meaning.
The polling appears to confirm both arguments. As children have mattered less, so has faith. And as these core institutions have decayed, Americans have turned to the substitute community of polarized politics. The results haven’t been pleasant.