by Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D

Published at November 26, 2008 and October 14, 2004.

Apparently, Western secularism pulled from its traditional roots cannot.

We cannot sustain ourselves economically because the Western democracies are committing financial suicide with federal spending and entitlement programs that they then push off onto future generations instead of paying today.

We in the democratic West are also committing demographic suicide by having so few children that we are not replacing ourselves, therefore reducing the size of the future generations we hope will pay our bills.

And let’s not even consider the problem of multiculturalism, which teaches that our own civilization is no better and probably worse than any other. This ideology robs us of the confidence to instill our core values in the next generation.

By contrast, the Christian version of Western civilization had no trouble sustaining itself in each of these areas.

It is an open question whether exclusive secularism can sustain itself.


In economics, we consume at the expense of the future. This is the premise of Peter G. Peterson’s new book, Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties are Bankrupting our Future and What Americans Can Do About It. Peterson, founder of the Concord Coalition, notes that Americans have low rates of personal savings, and our public policies encourage current consumption at the expense of future tax payers.

Politicians of both parties find it expedient to increase spending relative to taxation. Democrats promise one federal program after another, all courtesy of the taxpayers. Republicans make heroes of themselves by cutting taxes, but make no comparable cuts in spending. Economic curmudgeons like Peterson often wring their hands because America has become a culture of immediate gratification.

Peterson is right to emphasize that the unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are poised to become far more important than even the deficit itself. All these policies have something in common: we consume now and pay later. This is not sustainable over the long run.

Europeans are no better. The state levies high taxes, provides generous social assistance, and mandates high levels of job benefits in the private sector. The cost of these wonderful benefits is that some people have fabulous jobs, while others have nothing, far less than they would have had in the absence of the mandates. All these benefits have to be paid for by someone. Workers whose productivity does not justify these compensation levels are out of luck. Unemployment in European countries has stabilized at 8%, a scandal by American standards. Germany and Denmark have been hemorrhaging jobs, at a rate of 2% in the first half of 2003.

In the meantime, there are still jobs to be done for which no one is willing to pay the legally required compensation package. All over Europe, immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East do those jobs. France has allowed itself to be filled up with Muslim immigrants, who are and always will be excluded from the higher-class jobs, and who are and always will be angry about being so excluded.

The progressive people of Europe have done a fine job of voting themselves higher compensation levels. They break their arms patting themselves on the back for their compassion, and miss few opportunities to declare us stingy by comparison. But they conveniently overlook the fact that these compensation levels were purchased by cutting off the lower rungs of the job ladder, and that government spending has to be paid for. The European incarnation of the instant gratification economy is no more sustainable than its American counterpart.


The problem of immigration points to another area of unsustainability: we are not replacing ourselves. We have to import foreign workers, both to do our dirty jobs, and to maintain a working age population to finance our social assistance schemes. But the tragedy of our low fertility rate extends far beyond economics.

There is no greater statement of hope in the future, than the bringing forth of new life. Our below replacement fertility rate tells the story of people who either don’t believe in the future, or who are unwilling to sacrifice current consumption for the sake of the future. Well-educated, high-income professional couples postpone having children until they can afford a child. This is the richest country the world has ever known, in any terms we would care to measure. How can it be that the wealthiest members of the wealthiest society the world has ever known can’t “afford” to have children? The open secret is that we don’t want to spend the time, money and energy on kids, until we are reasonably sure we will be satisfied with the outcome.

We don’t treat kids as if they were worthwhile investments in the future, in and of themselves. We treat them as if they were one more species of consumer good. But the cost of postponing childbearing is that we have fewer kids, which is less fun for us and less fun for the kids we do have. It is astonishing to me how often kids themselves want more siblings, rather than more material “stuff.”


The double irony of this situation is that secularism views itself as the hope of the West, saving it from the real and imagined evils of Christianity. But the plain fact of the matter is that Christian civilization had no trouble sustaining itself, even when it was less technologically sophisticated and less militarily powerful than its neighbors. When Islamic armies stormed the gates of Vienna in the seventeenth century, Christianity continued to transmit its basic values to the next generation. In spite of the demographic catastrophe of the Black Death, Christianity bounced back.

And economically, Christian doctrine instilled into people the capacity for delayed gratification. In the Calvinist version of Christianity, hard work and savings were considered especially loved by God, and economic success a sign of His favor. The Catholic version of Christianity encouraged people to invest in the having and rearing of large families. In addition to offering eternal life as a reward for good economic behavior, Christianity promised observable material rewards. The austere Calvinist form of Christianity offered the material reward of financial security in old age, while the exuberant Catholic version offered the image of leaving this world surrounded by children and grandchildren at the side of the deathbed. Despite the difference in emphasis, the different variants of Christian civilization sustained themselves economically from one generation to the next.

The secular West doesn’t believe in the future, nor really in itself. This loss of faith in the future of our culture is our biggest weakness in the War on Terror. For radical Islam has no doubts about itself. Islam believes in itself and we don’t. This fact threatens us in ways that no military power can really defend against.

The traditional religion of Western civilization, Christianity, gives people a reason to delay gratification, to plan ahead, and to believe in the future. The modern secular world could, in principle, offer alternative reasons. However, it is beyond question that it has not so far done so. Will Western civilization go the way of Egyptian civilization and the Roman Empire?

Stay tuned. Only time will tell. But if we are serious about the West sustaining itself we need to renew our faith, take financial responsibility for our expenditures, and commit ourselves selflessly to our children, regardless of the cost.

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