Remember who you are

We spent yesterday driving up to Lake Hartwell, Georgia, to spend Thanksgiving with family. Along the way, we decided to stop in and see good friends who relocated to Georgia from Kentucky, whom we had not seen in years. They have found a truly beautiful spot to live here. The Georgia forests are alive with fall colors. We found ourselves gasping at the woods and creeks with each curve of the road or descent into a valley. It was a spectacular drive.

While we were visiting, one of their teenage daughters asked permission to go out with some of her friends from school to look at a display of Christmas lights. Her parents asked who she was going with, who else might be there, who was driving, and so on, before telling her she could go.

As she was walking out the door, her mother stopped her and said, “Remember who you are. Make good decisions.”

Remember who you are. Make good decisions.

That succinct delivery of wisdom stunned me. Her daughter received the words thoughtfully too, even though you knew she was accustomed to hearing it. I told our friends that I was going to make a note of those words for when Elise is old enough to venture into the world independently. That will become my mantra too.

As a young adult (heck, even as a mature adult), you get so caught up in being popular or trying to attract the attention of certain people that you tend to forget existential decisions often seem like small matters. That pushing through what seems like a porous boundary on one occasion – what might seem like a small or even reasonable gamble – can end up having life-altering consequences.

And beyond that, we now live in a society that is actively encouraging children to forsake the wisdom of millennia for cheap pleasures or a fleeting sense of belonging. How do you tell a child to be wise when every other social influence – even perceived authorities and institutions – are telling them to be stupid and make mistakes? How do you help your child navigate cultural influences that now have quite the track record for producing lost and miserable generations?

Our friends are Mormon. Although I am Roman Catholic, I have always respected the practical wisdom of Mormon parenting and felt a kinship to their virtue ethics.

After our conversation last night, I Googled the phrase “remember who you are” and learned that this is a common refrain in Mormon communities. The reason the words are so effective is they cut to the core of what it means to be a person of faith and live with dignity.

When someone tells you to remember who you are, you do not only think “I am a person from a good family, who was raised correctly, who genuinely wants to live a good and virtuous life and bring honor to my family name.” It goes well beyond filial piety (not that filial piety is a bad thing). Rather you think, “I am a child of God and everything I do is a demonstration of my relationship with God. What will doing this say about who I am as a person and what I value? Do the people around me care about what they are doing in the same way?”

To that end, I enjoyed reading this article on Mormon parenting:

We have been up in Logan this past week caring for Richard’s wonderful 91-year-old mother who sleeps about 20 hours a day and retains her wonderful, sweet personality, though for the last two or three years, she can’t remember who we are or who she is. Seasons revolve, roles reverse. She took care of me in that same house on Fifth North when I was a small boy, and now we take care of her in the same rooms.

I don’t want the forgetting part to happen to me, but I do want what she has had — another really good 20-plus years beyond 65. During that autumn of her life, she created lesson plans for a national chain of preschools, wrote a remarkable history of her Swedish ancestors, managed her investments, real estate and rental properties, dabbled in poetry and art, traveled around the country and around the world, and maintained great relationships with every one of her children and grandchildren. She’s in her deep winter now, and in her lucid moments wishing to go to a better place to be with my dad, who has been gone for 50 years.

There is a certain irony in the fact that she can’t remember anything, because I used to think I was the only boy with a mother who, every time I left the house, and I do mean every time, would yell at me, “Remember who you are!” I have since learned that it is quite a common parting shot among moms, including Teddy Roosevelt’s mother.

You guys know I love Teddy Roosevelt, so the idea that Roosevelt’s mother used to say this too is just fantastic. But anyway, back to the article:

“Remember who you are” means a lot of good things, like uphold the family name, make me proud, don’t do anything stupid, be careful, think, etc. But have you thought what it means in the eternal context? Remember who you really are — a child of God, a spiritual being having a mortal experience, a person who has taken upon himself the name of Christ, a priesthood holder, etc.

We want our children to remember those things not just so they will behave better, but so they will feel more self-worth, treat their body with respect, make good choices, be kind to others, protect themselves and their standards. We could give them continual lectures on all these points, but maybe the best way to say it really is “Remember who you are.”

It strikes me, however, that this approach only works on children if their lives up to that point have had some sort of spiritual information.

If you told a child who was raised by moral relativists to remember who they are, they would not respond with “I am a person who genuinely wants to lead a good life.” They would say, “I don’t know. Who am I?” This is one of the many reasons social institutions now fail to produce kids who are capable of flourishing at all, let alone flourishing through periods of adversity.

You can’t ground someone who has come to view their personhood as some plastic cultural context. Similarly, a person who does have a life with spiritual content cannot remember who they are without placing the small stuff within an eternal context.

Is Christianity collapsing in the United States?

The Pew Research Center just released their latest survey of religion in America: In the US, Decline of Christianity Continues at a Rapid Pace. If you take the survey at face value, it paints a picture of the United States experiencing the first majority godless generation in the nation’s history, with large urban areas becoming mostly secular within the course of a mere decade.

As a person with a quantitative background, I have been trained to look for what I call “sanity tests” in reported data. If your data suggest something that is powerfully contradicted by your experience on a large scale, then … don’t publish your data. Run more tests. Try asking your questions differently and see if you get different results.

I often offer the popularity of Trump as an example of this principle. In fact, Trump regularly uses sanity tests to undermine his critics with great success. Fox News publishes a survey suggesting that a majority of people in the US support his impeachment. (It’s the first time liberals have loved a survey from a conservative organization.) Trump then holds two rallies in the course of a week, one in a historically blue state and one in a historically red state, both packing to capacity professional basketball arenas with sometimes tens of thousands of viewers outside the arena watching him speak on big-screen televisions. He books over half a million new small donors in a matter of weeks. If you weren’t an innumerate idiot, you’d have some questions about your polling methodology and predictive prowess.

Let’s ask some “sanity test” questions about Pew’s data, shall we?

From Pew:

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.

Our first problem here is that their question is phrased this way: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?”

Those are your options in the survey. Now, take the example of a person who was raised Roman Catholic but has become deeply disillusioned by the Church because of the clergy abuse scandal and a pope that blesses plants. (Church finances, a good proxy or sanity test for this scenario, suggest millions of Americans fit into this category.) You try going to an Eastern Orthodox church, but everyone’s talking in Russian. You try to go to other high-church denominations, but you discover Episcopalians and some Lutherans are shouting their abortions, which disgusts you existentially. You go to Evangelical services, but don’t quite grok the praise music with lyrics an overhead projector. Not your style. Suddenly you are keeping your kids at home on Sundays, hoping for a better pope in your lifetime.

Does that mean you have renounced Christ? Absolutely not. Does that make you perhaps describe yourself as “something else” or “nothing in particular”? Um, yeah, probably it does. By Pew’s methodology, this person who is perhaps too faithful a Christ follower for their denomination is lumped in with atheists. That’s not a commentary on American society, it’s a commentary on how surveys reflect bias or ignorance about the topic they are purportedly studying.

Let’s try a different scenario. I have a lot of younger relatives (Millennials and Generation Z) who passionately resent organized religion for many (sometimes very persuasive) reasons. They don’t understand why they need to listen to a boring, hour-long sermon delivered by a stranger when they can get down on their knees at any place and at any time and talk to God directly. Would they consider themselves “nothing in particular”? Um, yeah. Might they also call themselves followers of Christ? Of course. I would submit to you that these folks are almost 100% likely to find themselves in a pew on a regular basis within their lifetime, like when they go through some personal crisis and find they need the support of a community or when they get married or want to have their kids baptized like they were.

Pew also highlights the general godlessness of the Democratic Party versus the Republican Party:

Religious “nones” now make up fully one-third of Democrats. And about six-in-ten people who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party say they attend religious services no more than a few times a year. The ranks of religious “nones” and infrequent churchgoers also are growing within the Republican Party, though they make up smaller shares of Republicans than Democrats.

On the one hand, all you need to do is look at the policy ideas of the Democratic Party front-runners now to see there’s some truth in this: suddenly there’s much higher and much more vocal support for abortion, and in particular, late-term abortion; the suggestion that churches and religious non-profits should face progressive ideology litmus tests to be able to keep their tax-exempt status; support for public persecution of commercial interests that buck the party on gay marriage or transgender rights, and so on. There is no doubt empirically that an antipathy toward Christianity is driving people out of the Democratic Party.

(As a digression, Democrats eliminating the tax-exemption for churches and hospitals only frees them up to become powerful political bundlers. Right now, the only thing stopping megachurches from becoming Republican community organizers is the tax-exemption. Talk about not understanding the implications of tax policy, geez.)

The situation is a lot murkier among Republicans and Independents. There are certainly more non-believers among Republicans than there used to be, but they are likely wildly different than the non-believers among other groups. George Will makes a case for atheists who are sympathetic with religious folks and demand a society tolerant of religious belief in his new book The Conservative Sensibility. (In fact, he devotes a crazy-long chapter entirely to this topic.) But once again, Pew is likely mis-characterizing people who do not like their options as far as organized religion is concerned in with atheists. This is another area where political fundraising is probably a better proxy for true belief profiles than a poorly-worded survey.

One of the things I have always found somewhat ironic among progressives, particularly atheist progressives, is this notion that history is moving in their favor. To the extent that Millennials hate going to church, they are a blip in the trajectory of the church. The Catholic Church has been around for two thousand years. Many Protestant denominations have been around for several hundred years. The opinions of a 25-year-old do not “cancel out” wisdom traditions that have survived far more tumultuous times and far more violent cultural purges than current higher education institutions being controlled by aging hippies. John Dewey was followed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush. Your cultural biases are not inevitable.