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Endangered agnosticism

What if the next 10 years could bring enhancement instead of deterioration? 

Charles Murray Milbert Brown Jr./Genesis Photos

Endangered agnosticism
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Charles Murray is an American Enterprise Institute fellow and the author of brilliant books including Losing Ground and Coming Apart. Here are edited excerpts of our interview in front of students at Patrick Henry College in Virginia.

You’ve called yourself a Madisonian. What does that mean?

I believe in the Constitution that was passed with enumerated powers, so the federal government was not to do anything not listed as those powers. The Commerce Clause meant selling rice grown in South Carolina to people in Pennsylvania, a pretty restrictive definition.

Is Madisonianism the classic American ideology?

There’s also egalitarianism, which in this case does not mean equality of incomes. It was that even if you became rich and powerful you weren’t supposed to get too big for your britches. That had a long persistence in the United States, especially in the Midwest and some of the South and the Mountain States.

How does that manifest in those places?

People don’t build 15,000-square-foot homes even if they could, because that would be unseemly. When I grew up in Newton, Iowa, in the 1950s, none of the Maytag Company executives bought a Cadillac, even though any of them could have afforded it. Cadillac was too much of a symbol of wealth, and you did not want to look like you were lording it over your neighbors. So you had freedom, individualism, and egalitarianism.

Who is for those now?

The left gave up on those three a long time ago. Until the 1960s, Democrats were pretty much on board with those concepts, but after, they weren’t. Last year, you also had the white middle working class give up on freedom and individualism aspects and even some of the egalitarianism aspect.

‘To what extent is it a problem for society when you have lots of people who can avoid thinking about the bigger questions just because they can distract themselves?’

One of my favorite novels is by Spanish author José Gironella: The Cypresses Believe in God is set in the five years from 1931 to 1936 before the Spanish Civil War. He shows people increasingly taking sides, so much so that he could tell the politics of a person by the shoes he wore. The result in Spain was 1 million dead. Are we becoming divided that way in the United States?

It’s so palpable when you go into Washington, D.C., one of the centers of the elite bubble. They have nice mansions, but it’s the food they eat, the cars they drive that shows how we are coming apart. I decided to see the cars they drive, so I went out into the parking lot of the Whole Foods and other stores in Bethesda and just counted the percentage that were foreign. Then, I went out to the parking lot in Brunswick, Md., and counted how many were foreign. Huge difference.

Please spell that out.

Out in working class America, people buy American cars. The elite in America buy foreign cars. A little thing all by itself, but it’s part of this way that the new upper class is living in a different culture. And the worst part of that is that they disdain ordinary Americans, and they let that disdain be known. If you go to a polite dinner party on the Upper East Side in New York City, you cannot use any slurs without getting immediate pushback. I’m glad that that happens. But evangelicals or rednecks—the rural white working class—are two groups you can get away with denigrating.

You live out in the countryside, and your wife is a member of the Goose Creek Quaker Meeting?

Right down the road.

And you are not.

I am a fellow traveler. I should go into more detail, because there are some Quakers who believe in one God at most. Now, Catherine is a Christian Quaker who has become serious about it. I, myself, plan to get more serious about all of this myself.

As you get older?

Catherine a year ago, when I was 73, said, “What if I could tell you that your next 10 years could be ones of enhancement instead of deterioration?” That really got my attention, because I have been following her spiritual journey very closely.

Since I’m asking prying questions, let me ask one more here. At the age of 74, is death getting your attention?

Yes, it does have that tendency. Both of my parents died in their mid to late 90s. I don’t assume I’ve got that many years left. I haven’t led as healthy a lifestyle as my parents did. I understand more viscerally than I did 30 or 40 years ago that I am mortal, but I have never been afraid of it, not because of deeply held religious beliefs but because I find the literature on near-death experiences to be really fascinating, and so extensive that even as an agnostic, I’m not at all confident that death is still the end.

Many people, regardless of their theological beliefs or lack thereof, seem to have FOMO, fear of missing out. Cleveland Indians fans wonder if someday they will win the World Series. Historians who have written about the past 300 years are curious about the next 100. Do you have FOMO?

I have a few friends who are scared to death of dying. In fact, my mentor Paul Schwartz, in the 1980s as he faced death, was very frightened of it.

Do smart people tend to say, “I’m so smart, I don’t need God”?

Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly,” which did not mean he was in favor of sinning but he knew that when you sin boldly, you realize sooner you’re making a real mess of things and you need God. I sure hope so, but I’ll tell you something that is bothering me a lot as I try to look ahead: That is the degree to which it has become so easy to entertain yourself 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if you can stay up that long. I consider this a problem for myself. I can go on the internet at any time and constantly switch from thing to thing that I enjoy doing. I can play a game of chess. I can go from there to my Twitter feed and to all the places you can surf.

What are your evenings like?

My wife and I sit down in front of the TV at night, because there is a lot of really great TV out there, series that are beautifully acted and wonderfully constructed. They’re way beyond the quality we had 40 years ago and beyond the quality of most movies. With access to Netflix and Amazon and the rest of it, you have more than you could possibly watch. So I say to myself, to what extent is it a problem for society when you have lots of people who can avoid thinking about the bigger questions just because they can distract themselves? In the novel Brave New World, there’s a drug that is taken, “soma.” I wonder if the internet is the electronic equivalent of that drug.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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