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Who are the “Millennial generation”? New data from two of the country’s leading social research organizations provide an invaluable window into their thinking and experience. So far, the discussion of these findings has centered on the disastrous collapse of marriage, work, and religious practice among Millennials (ages 18 to 29). But the most dire social problem is that Millennials don’t trust their neighbors. The deepest question our culture will be facing in the coming generation is not what to do about jobs or single parenthood, but whether we are still capable of loving our neighbors. Pew Millennial TrustTo be sure, it’s a grave concern that Millennials are becoming disconnected from most of the basic structures of human civilization. Gallup reports that only 44 percent are employed full time. That’s not just because some of them are still in school or looking for a job and can’t find one. In huge numbers, Millennials have simply dropped out of the labor force. That’s a catastrophe if you think human beings were made for work, where they find dignity and moral coherence. Is it that Millennials have rediscovered the beauty of the household? Are there millions of new stay-at-home moms, working hard in the home but not showing up in employment statistics because they’re supported by their husbands’ incomes? To the contrary, Pew Research Center reports that only 26 percent of Millennials get married any time between ages 18 and 32. That’s compared to 36 percent for Generation X, 48 percent for Baby Boomers, and 65 percent for the Silent Generation. The decline of work and the decline of marriage consistently go hand in hand. Connections to religious institutions also tend to stand or fall with connections to these other structures, especially family. Pew finds a postwar high of 29 percent of Millennials describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Most of these people actually have religious beliefs of one kind or another, but they tend to see no point in what they call “organized religion” or in local church institutions. As leading marriage scholar Brad Wilcox asks, “What could go wrong?” These trends point to a period of continued social disruption ahead. People need institutions of work, family, and religion to hold them in authentic relationship with one another and to structure their lives. God is three persons in one God, and human beings were made in his image—for unity in diversity and diversity in unity. We are distinct individuals, each with his own dignity, but we are also social creatures. We need each other. The decline of civil society not only makes us shallow and self-oriented as individuals; it also destroys the freedom and dignity of our culture. In the Reformed theological tradition, since at least Herman Bavinck, the four great domains of social life have been identified as family, church, economics, and politics. As institutions in the first three domains wither, the state must expand to pick up the slack. Government takes over the basic functions of our lives from the cradle to the grave and sets itself up as the moral shaper of human life.

Decline of Institutions

However, none of these data is exactly a new revelation. Social scientists have been noting these trends for some time now. One of the most important books of this generation is Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which summarizes the long-term data on the decline of institutions of work, family, religion, and community. Major social disruptions are normal in the life of any civilization. We’ve had one or two of them in American history. Civil War battlefield deaths alone claimed 2 percent of the U.S. population at the time; today that would be more than 6 million people dead in a four-year period. That’s on top of millions more who would die of disease, major cities totally destroyed, and so on, if we had an equivalent disaster today. Keep that history in mind before you panic about low marriage rates. We’ve seen worse. In fact, although Murray is generally pessimistic, one of the reasons for hope he lists at the end of his book is that America has faced many existential challenges before, and it always seems to bounce back unexpectedly.

Childlike Trust

America’s resilience has always come from its ability to bring people together. As Murray writes in another book, the slender but profound American Exceptionalism, this country’s historically unprecedented cultural and economic success has arisen in large part from the fact that Americans trust one another: People assume that strangers they meet are generally trustworthy, helpful, and fair. This attitude has been crucial to America’s success and baffling to other nationalities, who historically have been astonished by the openness of Americans. To them, Americans seemed almost childlike in their trust in the good faith of any random person they came across. In the first half-hour after meeting a total stranger, an American was likely to confide personal information and ask personal questions that might require years of friendship before they would be raised between Europeans or Asians. This social trust has been the bedrock of all our historical success: in politics, as a stable and relatively just (as nations go) democratic republic; in economics, as the world’s engine of entrepreneurship and growth; in families, where the American household was once so strong Tocqueville attributed all our success to the superiority of our women; and above all in religion, where we simultaneously enacted the broadest possible protections for religious freedom and cultivated one of the world’s most pervasively religious cultures. It is our firm foundation in social trust that allows us to bounce back from existential catastrophe. Abraham Lincoln did all he could to preserve bonds of trust between North and South even as the Civil War cannons were firing all around him. Consider the famous closing passages of his two inaugural addresses:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. (First inaugural address, 1861) With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. (Second inaugural address, 1865)

Steep Decline

That was then, this is now. Murray points to data showing a steep decline of social trust from the 1970s to the 2000s. Here the Pew data tell their most disturbing story. They show that this decline of social trust is accelerating among Millennials. When asked whether, “generally speaking, most people can be trusted,” only 19 percent of Millennials said yes. That is compared to the already disturbingly low figures of 31 percent for Generation X, 40 percent for Baby Boomers, and 37 percent for the Silent Generation. Back in the early 1970s, positive responses on social trust questions tended to reach almost 60 percent, depending on which group you were asking. Do “the mystic chords of memory” and “bonds of affection” still bind us as a people? There can be no rebuilding of the institutions of work, family, and religion—there can be no effective solution to our social disruptions—unless we firmly believe that “we are not enemies, but friends.” Lincoln could say those words in 1861, yet for some reason few seem confident saying them today. There is a distinct role for the church in this challenge. A conviction that “we are not enemies” arises partly from a conviction that “we must not be enemies.” The solution is not only to discover the ways in which our neighbors are decent people who share many of our values and want to live in peace with us. We must also reach out across divides and build that kind of shared life where it doesn’t already exist. In short, social trust arises not only from an awareness of my neighbor’s virtues but also from “the better angels of our nature” that move us to build bonds with those we view as alien or foreboding. The Greek word translated as “hospitality” in your New Testament, φιλοξενία, literally means “stranger-friendship.” The contribution Christianity made to the shaping of America’s political institutions is a complex story. But the contribution of Christian φιλοξενία to the shaping of American culture more generally has been at least as important, if not more so. The decline of social trust is the deepest problem our culture faces. The cancer of distrust will eat away at all our plans to deal with political, economic, and familial problems. Sooner or later, this culture is going to realize that nothing can save it if it doesn’t rebuild its moral bonds. Showing the world what φιλοξενία looks like will not only help us stay faithful as our culture becomes more faithless; it will help our culture rediscover why it used to think faith was so important.

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