The hope of virtuous social change is a good thing, but the change starts first in the soul of religious conviction and the hearth of the family before government can support and enact positive change. When advocates of social welfare deny the foundations of faith and family, they deny the foundations of progress in any positive sense.

It was once said to me that if you do not show a small boy how a thing works, he will naturally want to take it apart. If he wants to find out how a lawnmower works, you can be sure he will remove the screws and bolts until he finds the core of the machine. Whether through malice or a natural curiosity, he has destroyed the very thing he was investigating. The best thing a parent can do is show him how it works to begin with and how to put it back together—side-by-side, learning the craft of building something for the sake of a greater good. Then, the lawnmower can achieve what it was built to do. The same principle rings true of a culture.

Too often the discussion of what makes a culture good is left in abstractions and macro-narratives—overarching laws or systems to be set in place, understood by a select elite. For the common man and woman, we would do well to focus on concrete examples of what actually helps a culture thrive. We should all know that society is in constant need of reform and a type of progress towards a more virtuous way of life. But how does one do it? How can a culture be made to thrive? Through the centuries, there have been two factors that make or break a culture: religion and family. Within these two structures you have the proper ordering of social progress. In religion, there exists the permanence and continuity of belief that guides a people in morals and selflessness. In the family, authority, love, and G.K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” are visceral realities, yet the continual need to build and grow and make the next generation more equitable and virtuous than the one before it. It is not a cult of Progress; rather, it is a teleological ordering of man through the soul and the hearth.

Augustine reminds us in The City of God that the city of this earth stands unredeemed; therefore, we should not be shocked by disorder. Sinful people create sinful societies. We cannot save ourselves as much as we might try. However, Augustine also knew that we are not hopeless. Russell Kirk comments on Augustine’s work stating that “in every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.” In Balthasarian terms, in the theo-drama emerge characters who act with the grace offered them and better society through a combination of charity and fighting spirit. Kirk continues this statement by saying that society “has been tolerable and constrained to relative peace from time to time only by the compulsions of the state.”[1] The governing body of a people plays a significant role in supporting or enacting positive change.

The conversation around cultural change focuses far too much on macro-narratives and overarching policy, systems and political machinations to mechanically order a society. Real change is a mixture of political, spiritual, and familial. One cannot change a government unless the hearts of the people change. One cannot change the culture unless the government supports the change. However, at the heart of the matter is a much smaller unit through which lasting, effective change occurs: the family.

Not that long ago, the great Martin Luther King, Jr. stated that “the group consisting of mother, father and child is the main educational agency of mankind.” Our worldview, our self-understanding, and our cultural values all begin in the hearth of a family. If a culture truly desired to progress toward a social utopia, the encouragement of stable familial structures would accomplish far more for the average citizen than any governmental intervention. While the government can be a positive thing for social progress, it is a tool to be used by people. It is not the foundation of social change. Rather, it is a reflection of the interior character of the people themselves.

King knew that social change was not going to come about through the government alone. In fact, in his time in the South, the government was the problem. However, if he convicted the minds and hearts of those who wanted progress through faith in God, the familial structure, and individual character, then the government would come to reflect that. Society is an outpouring of the familial. If a social structure is breaking down, one of the first layers to correct is the primary cell of the family. Take, for example, a few of the social ills that are a result of fatherless homes: [2]

• 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes
• 80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes
• 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes
• 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes
• Daughters of single parents without a Father involved are 711% more likely to have children as teenagers

Progression or regression of culture begins in the home. Within the family, a child receives a proper perspective of the cosmos and purpose of human life, which is then enacted through good social policy. The government is a reflection of the family unit; broken families create broken governing bodies. The second aspect of virtuous progress, one that forms the family itself, is religion.

In Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion, he writes that “the religious factor has had a far more important share in the development of human cultures than that which has usually been assigned to it by the theorists who have attempted to explain the phenomena of social progress.”[3] For example, he explains the origin of the Shaman in ancient cultures and how the highest place of honor was afforded them as a mediator between man and the gods, which led to ceremonial processes that changed the progress of the culture itself. So much so, Dawson states that the invention of agriculture “may well have been a unique discovery which was diffused from a single centre of origin.”[4] That center of origin being the religious belief system which led toward societal improvement.

As for the ideals of progress in the modern sense, these ancient religions did afford some progress in the sense of economic change; however, they were direly limited in the fuller understanding of progress toward an eschatological reality. Even the Greeks and the birth of philosophy left the ideal of progress to a cyclical fatalism.[5] The real boon in progress, as understood today, began in a manger in Bethlehem. Christianity sparks a new roadmap for the religious basis to guide people toward both scientific and social progress. A new order of the cosmos that transforms both the interior life of man and the vision of the natural world. As Dawson explains, “the source of the new order was found, not in a mythological figure, like the Savior Gods of the Mystery Religions, nor in an abstract cosmic principle, but in the historical personality of Jesus, the crucified Nazarene.”[6] The natural order of society shifts from a dislocated, abstract experience of religion to a personal incarnation into the human race itself. “Christ is the head of this restored humanity, the firstborn of the new creation, and the life of the Church consists in the progressive extension of the Incarnation by the gradual incorporation of mankind into this higher unity.”[7]

Unfortunately, the historical materialism of Karl Marx or the mystical positivism of Hegel has convinced entire generations that governmental structures alone exist to instigate positive change. Dreams of social welfare, which are good, are expected to be a product of the government alone, leaving out faith, the family, or individual character. However, it is religious experience and faith in God that leads mankind to desire change and an increase in human dignity. Through such experience families enact cultural change by educating their children in the virtues and these children then pour out into society with hearts full of love for their neighbor. This is how we progress as a society. Denying the foundations of faith and family, we deny the foundations of progress in any positive sense.

The hope for social progress of equality and human dignity is founded on the Christian truth that God became man, and “thus the incarnation is the source of a new movement of regeneration and progress which leads ultimately to the deification of human nature by its participation in the Divine Life.”[8] If a society decides that the Christian foundations of progress are no longer viable, then the project is built on the false hope that man can save himself. At the heart of the issue is religious belief and the familial structures through which those beliefs incarnate. Then the government will come to reflect the virtue or vice of the people themselves. The hope of virtuous social change is a good thing, and we need a government to support and enact positive change. The change needs to start in the soul of religious conviction and the hearth of the family.

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Notes:

[1] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 161.

[2] Statistics from “The Fatherless Generation.”

[3] Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion: An Historical Inquiry (Peru, Ill: Sherwood Sugden & Company Publishers, 1929), 95.

[4] Ibid., 107.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Ibid., 155.

[7] Ibid., 155. Emphasis mine.

[8] Ibid., 159.

The featured image is The Artist’s Family (1885) by Gustav Wentzel (1859–1927) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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