On Monday, September 30, 2019, Austin Grad welcomed the distinguished scholar and social critic Mary Eberstadt for the fifth annual Austin Graduate School of Theology/First Things Lecture. A 1983 magna cum laude graduate of Cornell University and recipient of an honorary doctorate from Seton Hall University in 2014, Mrs. Ebertadt is currently senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. She previously served as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, executive editor of the journal National Interest, a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the US State Department and speechwriter for Secretary of State George W. Shultz, and a special assistant to US ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick. She is the author of several non-fiction books and one work of fiction, The Loser Letters (2010), chronicling a young Christian’s conversion to atheism, which reviewers have compared to C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.
Mrs. Eberstadt’s lecture on Monday evening for approximately 150 attendees at the University Avenue Church of Christ, as well as her presentation to a smaller group at an Austin Grad Round Table luncheon on campus on Tuesday, October 1, developed themes treated in several of her non-fiction works. In her Monday lecture, “Searching for Self: The Non-Political Roots of Identity Politics,” she proposed that the universal human question “Who am I?” becomes more difficult to answer when the answers are unclear to questions like these: Who is my father? Who is my brother or sister? Where, if anywhere, are my cousins, grandparents, nieces, and nephews? “In an era when actual, organic families are in disarray and decline,” Eberstadt argued, “today’s political identity groups serve as figurative families and communities.” The lecture touched on themes developed in her most recent book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (2019), as well as her earlier works Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (2012), and Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes (2004), especially the chapter “Eminem Was Right,” which surveyed the impact of family breakdown and parental abandonment in popular music. Her lecture may be viewed here.
At the Tuesday Round Table, Mrs. Eberstadt’s topic was discussed at length in her book How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (2014). She noted that sociologists have not yet offered a satisfactory explanation for the decline in church attendance observed in all “modern” majority Christian societies, most recently in the United States. “The missing conceptual piece,” she suggested, “is a variable so seemingly humble as to have been overlooked by the titans of sociology no less than by their many descendants: the human family. The health of the family and the health of Christianity are joined at the root. To study the historical timeline is to see that religious vibrancy and family vibrancy go hand in hand. Conversely, so do religious decline and family decline: where you see one, expect the other.”
In her lectures and in conversation with the Austin Grad faculty during her visit, Mary Eberstadt emphasized the importance of understanding clearly where we are and the nature of the problems we face as citizens and Christians, so that we will be in a better position to address them. Her visit helped members of our community progress toward that goal.