Editors note: the following book review appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.
Scott Yenor. The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020.
One of the perennial temptations for social conservatives, it is often said, is the desire to “legislate morality.” This trope was especially on the rise when Supreme Court cases like Obergefell v. Hodges and United States v. Windsor were top of mind. In the eyes of social conservatism’s critics, what could possibly account for the opposition to arrangements like same-sex marriage except for personal animus or sectarian dogma? As same-sex marriage became the law of the land, swearing not to legislate morality was a way for religious and social conservatives to surrender with dignity. After all, who are they to judge?
The problem with such an approach toward public policy specifically, and the effects of the sexual revolution more generally, is that when it comes to legislation surrounding sex and the family, the action of the political community is, ipso facto, to legislate morality. The pretension toward refraining from legislating morality is simply to raise the white flag while the sexual revolution rolls on.
In Scott Yenor’s important new book, The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies, Yenor examines what a new sexual regime might look like if the sexual revolution continues to ramble on unabated. Yenor defines the sexual revolution as a rolling revolution, a revolution whose “principles and premises point to a never-ending revolution in marriage and family life . . . this seemingly irresistible revolution continues to advance amidst the ruins of what it has destroyed” (x).
It would seem to be an empirical fact that the sexual revolution of the 1960’s has largely failed. Instead of the promises of fully liberated libidos and deeper, more passionate relations, Western culture faces a steadily declining birthrate, the collapse of marriage as a formative institution, and the disappearance of mores and wisdom that would help to civilize men and women in previous times. Often the communities facing the sting of the new sexual regime are mostly poor and disenfranchised, whereas the prophets of the rolling revolution more often than not “talk Left and act Right,” in Mary Eberstadt’s clever formulation. In the absence of the Old Wisdom, which has been effectively dismantled by the sexual revolution, many young women and men are left with a deep sense of emptiness and loss — for what exactly they don’t know.
Yenor’s book takes up the first principles of the rolling revolution and then what might be done to curb some of its effects. Books on the sexual revolution from social conservatives tend to be heavy on descriptive analysis and light by way of practical prescription. But Yenor’s practical guidance for social conservatives makes his book truly invaluable.
Yenor’s policy proposals are truly interesting and often quite attractive. In addition, his recommendations for thinking through the unfulfilled ambitions of the rolling revolution from first principles is illuminating. The alternate, anti-feminist account sketched in brief by Yenor, a view he labels “womanism,” is a refreshing account of what a post-sexual revolution womanhood might look like. It’s an account that is, in reality, the lived experience of many women who have been disillusioned by feminism’s delusions and failed promises. Yenor’s womanism is a recognition of the real ways in which men and women differ with regard to vocational aspirations, the limits of the body, and the futility of 50-50 splits in areas typically dominated by one gender.
The one caveat I’ll offer is that it’s regrettable Yenor and his editors decided to call this view “womanism,” since womanism has been understood to be a species of intersectional Black feminism since at least the late 1970’s. It’s possible Yenor understood this and didn’t care, but I worry that in using such terms there may be confusion for those less familiar with the ever expanding intersectional glossary.
Yenor’s book takes up so much that it’s overwhelming to try to do it justice in a short review. Many of the topics Yenor explores would be unthinkable for polite discussion even a few decades ago, but, as Yenor often reminds readers, our society is not so decent. And so these issues must be taken up if we are to fully weigh the unfortunate effects of the rolling revolution’s steady progress. For that reason, I would commend this book to policy makers and possibly pastors, but likely not much more than that. Admittedly, I found some of the subject matter to be quite upsetting and would skim over particularly difficult sections.
While I found much to commend in Yenor’s analysis, I was struck by the enormity entailed in the task of pushing against this rolling revolution. The Recover of Family Life shows both the possibilities and limits of policy. Yenor himself would likely concede that policy is only one tool for creating the conditions for a sustainable family regime after the sexual revolution. Policy alone won’t teach spouses what it looks like to extend mercy and grace to one another. Policy alone can’t jig a polity into loving the Good or teach what that Good is and where it may be found. Policy can offer benefits to couples for having children, but policy can’t fundamentally reorient parental duties toward God and neighbor.
The way we will see change is if we commit to be the types of families and the types of spouses that embody the Old Wisdom and commit to instruct our children in the light of that wisdom. As our little platoons expand from households to neighborhoods and to the broader polity, maybe then will the refugees of the sexual revolution find hope in the midst of their travails and the Old Wisdom sing loudly from the streets once again.
Scott Corbin lives in Fort Worth, Texas with his wife, Jessi, and their four kids.
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