Grove City, PA. That old question of practicality, often pernicious to humanities majors, haunts even those who pursue a degree from a conservative Christian college: what do you intend to do with your degree? What career will you pursue?
I first interacted with the career question in kindergarten. I developed an answer to the tamer, elementary school version of the question: that is, what do you want to be when you grow up? In response, I drew a woman with a small green purse and a big pink smile and wrote “a mom.” I knew several of my classmates did the same.
Today, I am not so sure. Aspirations towards family life seem to be dwindling among college students, even religious and/or conservative college students. My perspective emanates primarily from my own observation and experience in two distinct colleges and a variety of political and faith-based groups. But my perspective accords with both the steadily declining fertility rate and desire to have children among those able in the US and other wealthy countries in recent years – a trend which only looks grimmer as years go by.
In my generation, careerism, which thrives off a desire for prestige, intertwines with influencer activism, which grows from a desire for popularity. Together, these modern forms threaten the desire for familial and communal life – an aspiration traditionally associated with conservatism, especially the strain of conservatism inherited from Aristotle, Cicero, and Burke. The spirit of the careerist and the influencer counter this classically “conservative” spirit that aspires towards an actual family and community, with all the duties each entail.
At an institution like Grove City College, one might expect to hear talk of parenthood or communal life in relation to that old inquiry of what to do? One might expect, too, to hear talk of parenthood and communal life in relation to the ever-pressing problem of how to answer a decadent culture?
Those two questions – what to do with one’s education? and how to live in the world? – indeed resound between the stone slabs of our chapel’s floor and the red bricks of our Hall of Arts and Letters. Yet here – as at most schools in our industrial, mechanized society – pressure towards a professionalized world reverberates as well.
We students may speak of desiring family, but we do so while passing the career services office, fliers for the pre-law track, meetings for the med-school-interested, bustling groups of Business Management majors or Entrepreneurship majors or Design and Innovation majors. All these may be good resources and routes. Some young Christians surely ought to pursue careers in medicine, law, and business.
In seeking polished resumes and prestigious titles, however, we must not confuse the value of an enviable LinkedIn profile with that of moral formation, the importance of a profitable career with that of vocation. In seeking success, we must not discard aspirations toward family and community.
Abstract groups that revolve primarily around politics or ideology further this collegiate aspiration towards careers over communities, albeit indirectly. When extracurricular time involves attending political meetings and ideological discussions, dislocation from community and family seems like acceptable collateral damage. In other words, when young conservatives pursue think-tank forms of conservatism, careerism naturally replaces traditional communal aspirations. Ambitious right-leaning students flock to Young Americans for Freedom, College Republicans, Turning Point USA, and other such groups which, despite liberalism’s hold on academic institutions themselves, abound on campuses across the country. Right-leaning college students understandably seek out avenues for policy discussion and activism, striving after prestigious, urban, Reaganite groups like the Heritage Foundation.
Journalist Carmel Richardson considered this phenomenon in a recent piece in The American Conservative about the Republican party as the “party of parents.” To be the party of parents requires parenthood:
The Reaganite crowd can speed through talking points about preserving marriage and the family faster than a Catholic at confession, but they’re rarely living it out. They worked in the White House, on the Hill, at the leading pro-life, conservative think tanks, and all the right newspapers; prestige demands they follow the very rules (career first, kids second) they rail against in their op-eds. It’s not that having a family is unacceptable in these circles, but that it is only acceptable at a certain phase of life, and in the right (read: small) numbers. If you’re married and pregnant with your first child before the age of 25, polite eyebrows will raise.
Richardson locates a certain prestige in the “old right” that prevents practical action. Such prestige begins in the careerism and competition of college students, for whom grade point averages and graduate school applications often claim more thought and effort than preparation for the ancient work of household management, oikonomia.
But the pressures of prestige are not the only distractions on campus from that old recognition of the oikos. Today’s young conservatives are not merely think-tankers-in-training. Many take, too, to TikTok and Instagram to post flashy infographics and narrate their political protests in punchy, fifteen-second clips. Like their counterparts across the political spectrum, these young conservatives attend an occasional demonstration or conference – but only with a neat sign or suit, positioned perfectly for each well-lit picture. This method of political action – a sort of influencer activism – revels in links to be shared, petitions to be signed, GoFundMe sites to be forwarded until funding is reached for whatever cause is currently in crisis. Influencer activism, with its wide maze of links, likes, and algorithms, figures forcefully on both right and left. Though distribution may be uneven, both sides of our current political spectrum boast a wide array of picture-perfect activists with Twitter-level thinking skills who consistently signal their support for the party cause – whether vax or anti-vax, Never-Trump or Pro-Trump, Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter.
In form and appearance, the pink and white infographic with bolded statistics and buzzwords that a twenty-year old woman studying Political Science might repost does not differ between a pro-life page and a pro-choice page. Only the content differs. This increasing uniformity of form ought to spark, in the least, a second thought. Can the simplistic structures of social media effectively advocate for fundamental goods like family, local community, and authentic faith? If my primary pro-life “activism” takes the same form as my pro-choice neighbor – posing for protest pics and editing opinion video clips – is my “activism” genuinely serving life? If the response of the youth on left and right alike follows, more or less, the same frameworks of image-centered virtue signaling, those who care to cultivate healthy oikoi ought to be concerned.
If conservatism essentially involves the conservation of goods, conservatives ought to be wary of jumping at modern media’s methods – methods which invariably shorten, shallow, and disconnect. Young conservatives, as such, ought to resist pressures towards influencer conservatism, just as they ought to be cautious when engaging with the abstract, think-tank conservatism of the careerist.
The goal of conservation instead requires active participation in the communal and familial life we strive to conserve. If “the family, not the individual is the real molecule of society,” as Robert Nisbet wrote and as conservative Christians insist regarding issues from marriage to education to abortion, then what business could be more important than the formation of a family and a virtuous home economy?
We must seek the specific (but not simplistic) task of forming lives in communities centered on true goods. We must dare to desire the domestic over the prestigious, the profitable, the popular.
The Greeks do not stand alone in placing the household at the center of society. Christians throughout church history have likewise recognized the centrality and dignity of domestic life. Martin Luther, for instance, held that divine order obligates familial care, which, in turn, renders harmony. When discussing parenthood and “changing baby diapers” in “The Estate of Marriage,” Luther holds that man’s “natural reason” disdains domestic duties. Luther characterizes natural reason as a “clever harlot” who turns up her nose at the stink of duties seemingly below herself: changing diapers, rocking the baby, etc. Fallen nature, as Luther demonstrates, craves autonomy rather than dependence and duty, desiring to “remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life” over becoming “prisoner” to diaper-changing and other mess-management.
As Luther argues, however, the Christian must not act out of this unquenchable thirst for perceived ease but must, instead, act out of humility, recognizing his place under God. Luther reframes domestic tasks that autonomy and natural reason name “insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties” in light of their divinely appointed nature: “divine approval,” writes Luther, adorns and bejewels the seemingly ugly task of parenthood. The obligation to steward a family – an opportunity to care for and commune with God’s own handiwork – is itself precious. Shepherding the spiritual and physical well-being of an eternal soul–even changing the soiled clothes of an eternal soul–cannot be named an insignificant task, Luther maintains.
Luther calls man “unworthy” of such “truly golden and noble” works. He asks God, “How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will?” God gifts man with roles of eternal significance, like that of family formation. The gift-nature of domestic duties beautifies the individual who gladly accepts them.
In City of God, Augustine accords with Luther’s ideas of God-given domestic obligations. Without such obligations to one another, mankind misconstrues peace: Augustine portrays the one who lives isolated from others as a perverse “half-man.” The half-man has no wife and “no children to play with when they are small and instruct as they are growing up; he has no friendly conversation, not even with his father… he gives to nobody, but takes what he wants from whom he can.” Half-men do not give; half-men may only take. Carefree and community-free, such a man does not belong to anyone, and none belongs to him.
Augustine understood that such unbelonging unravels man. Belonging, on the other hand, bears a sweetness unparalleled by any “peace” the half-man imagines. Like Luther, Augustine denounces the autonomous, polished life in favor of a specific “domestic order.”
Domestic order, Augustine explains, entails a “cooperative order for giving and accepting.” Domestic order comes from service, for harmony comes from love of one’s neighbor, including spouse and children, and love of neighbor shows itself in humble service. In the house of the Christian, Augustine holds, “those who command really serve. Though they appear to command, their commands do not issue from a craving to dominate, but from a readiness to take care… from a compassionate acceptance of responsibility.” Order – and, thereby, peace – blossoms from a spirit of humble service that gratefully accepts the fact of domestic obligation.
Family formation, thus, is not a mere obligation – a bare command to “be fruitful and multiply” – but a gift, an opportunity for Luther’s “truly golden and noble works.” A chance for order, peace, and harmony. As Aristotle argued in the Politics, the oikos represents the basic unit of the polis. As such, a harmonious polis blossoms from a harmonious oikos.
Ideologies and curated images both threaten to dislocate young conservatives (as well as our counterparts with other political persuasions) from the oikos. For the sake of the polis, then – if not for the sake of the intrinsic goods of sweetness and peace that Luther and Augustine acknowledge – we must uphold the worth of practical, domestic duties. For the sake of harmony in our society – if not for the sake of harmony in our souls – we must harken again upon the home. Here is where our most practical work lies.
I maintain my kindergarten-age ambitions towards home. To graduate with good grades and achieve a good position, to present my beliefs well to the world – I maintain these desires, too. But I refuse to prioritize the abstract and self-serving tasks of the careerist or influencer over the practical and particular tasks of a humble servant in the home.
Russell Kirk recognized that the spirit of ambition shared by the think-tanker, media-leader, and ideologue alike stands separate from the aspiration towards domestic harmony that thinkers like Luther and Augustine encouraged. Success in those competitions cannot compare to the rewards of love:
The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt.
Image Credit: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Garden Scene in Brittany” (1886)
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Spring 2022 print edition of Cogitare Magazine.