Are America’s best days behind it? Or is there a way to return to the values that our Founding Fathers and so many subsequent generations held? Tim Goeglein, co-author of the new book “American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation” is an optimist about the future—believing Americans can rebuild their culture from the ground up, starting in their own neighborhoods. Read the full interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
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Daniel Davis: We are joined in the studio now by Timothy Goeglein.
He is the vice president for external and government relations at Focus on the Family here in Washington, D.C. And he’s also co-author of the new book “American Restoration: How Faith, Family and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation.”
Tim, thanks for your time.
Tim Goeglein: It’s a real pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.
Davis: So Tim, in this new book, you talk a lot about the need to return to America’s spiritual foundations.
There’s so much to unpack there, but I want to ask you, first off, what do you mean when you say returning to American spiritual foundations?
Goeglein: It’s impossible to understand the United States of America without understanding the spiritual foundation, even before our founding.
You know, Americans were a great presence in North America 150 years before we were formally a country. And literally from the beginning we were a nation, which was a eventually a religious republic. A country that faith and public life could not be divorced. They went together.
And from the very beginning, this idea of self-government was rooted in a spiritual dimension that you cannot impose virtue, the other side of freedom, upon the people. That you need to have moral excellence in the people and in the leaders.
Our Founding Fathers and mothers rightfully asked, “Well, in the American experience, where does that come from?” And in the American experience, it comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In “American Restoration,” we do not open up our book pining for the 18th century or the 19th century or the 20th century. What we say is that the way forward is not despair and discouragement, but it is being hopeful about the next chapter of America.
I’m an irredeemable optimist and “American Restoration” is built on the foundation.
What we say in this book is that if we really want to restore our country and we’re very serious about restoration, regeneration, renewal, it’s not going to be rooted in Washington, D.C., and in government. It’s going to be rooted in faith, the family, and personal sacrifice in our communities, in our neighborhoods.
That’s where the solutions, as it were for “American Restoration,” are really based.
Kate Trinko: You just mentioned that you’re hopeful and I would say that I am a pessimist, so I’m going to push back a little bit here.
Why is there a realistic chance for hope when right now, a lot of Americans came, had grandparents from this foundation of faith and virtues, and have chosen to reject it?
What about the modern world gives you any realistic hope that people are suddenly going to change their lives and take up sacrifice and virtue?
Goeglein: First, I’m a hopefulist … and may tell you it’s not rooted in a confetti-to-the-wind optimism.
I am an optimist, but that’s not my basis for hope. First and foremost, I’m a Christian, and I love living in a country, in a culture and a civilization where the foundation of that hope is the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is definably, the best foundation that a country can be built on.
I’ll tell you, I never negate and we should never negate as Americans that we’ve been in incredibly tough positions before.
This is a country that lived through a Civil War. We lived through two world wars. We lived through the social and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s.
During all of those periods of time, it was very tempting … for Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives to sort of say, “That’s the end of America.”
There was a time not very long ago in the ’60s and ’70s where quite literally parts of America were burning down. Where there were shootings in the streets. Where there were shootings on campuses. Where we had the resignation of a U.S. president for the first time ever.
We lost nearly 60,000 Americans in Vietnam. We lost 750,000 Americans in the Civil War. And I’ll tell you, during those chapters of American history, people said, “Count me out. The country’s done.”
It isn’t. Because for America there’s always tomorrow and there’s always the hope for restoration.
What we do in this book is that we set out a blueprint for how to restore the country. To restore the Constitution. To restore the family. To restore civic renewal and civic responsibility.
It’s really a wonderful read because it’s a read that says better days are ahead. Not easy days.
Restoring a country like ours is not easy. This is a large, complex continental nation of 329 [million] souls. … So when you’re talking about restoration, it is necessarily not going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a way forward.
Davis: Your book mentions multiple things. Fifteen actually. Fifteen chapters, 15 things, areas where America can be restored.
Walk us through just a couple of those that you think are the most important and how specifically how that would happen.
Goeglein: I believe that the most important way to restore America begins in the home. It begins with family.
We in America have a large percentage of families which are broken. Marriages, families, parenting, absolutely broken. And it is totally and completely central to our whole idea of restoration.
Government cannot cause the family to fall in love again. Government cannot tuck a child into bed at night. But government can get out of the way. And government can also find ways to incentivize ways to make it easier for parents and families to thrive.
So we with clarity and with, if I may say, pinpoint accuracy define focusing on the family as something that is absolutely central to the restoration of our country.
We also concurrently say that it’s very important to restore the idea of the centrality of the Constitution.
This is a country of law and not men. And the Constitution has a fixed meaning and a fixed purpose. And we have lived for too long in an ever-growing gargantuan federal government, which believes that it can better than families, communities, churches, synagogues, neighborhoods, localities, believes that it can better and more uniformly address the problems that ail us.
In “American Restoration” we say just the opposite, that it begins at the local level.
It begins with what the great statesman Edmund Burke called the “little platoons.” And what he meant [is] the little platoons are family, church, synagogue, neighborhood, community. All those associations and groups, which Tocqueville celebrated when he looked at America in the 1830s and [said], “That’s what makes America exceptional. It’s what makes us different.”
Davis: One of the things I want to ask about that, you talk about the importance of little platoons, but it seems to me that so often when we think about cultural erosion and corruption, a lot of it does come from the elites in our culture who are controlling.
Think of the tech companies who control with algorithms what we see on social media. Or think about when you open up Netflix, the first thing you see is something overtly sexual that you didn’t want your kids to see.
Those are the kinds of structural problems that are driving social change in the wrong direction. And those are set by elites, rather than people in local communities.
Do you think that a big part of the problem at least is the culture of the elites and what they’re pushing through Hollywood, through Netflix, through other media that are affecting our communities?
Goeglein: I could not agree more. And not only can I not agree [more], this is part of the central narrative of “American Restoration,” that we believe that irresponsible elites across a series of professions have been a central part of the problem.
I mentioned one of them a moment ago. The problem of a central government that is literally out of control. That believes it can micromanage better than people in the home or in the church or in the neighborhood or in the community. That it can control and make these decisions for us better than we can make them ourselves.
So the answer is absolutely yes.
A very good friend of mine is David Azerrad, and by the way, several people at The Heritage Foundation play an important role in “American Restoration.”
We’ve gone into some of the best research that the matchless Heritage foundation has done. And we have used that in our book.
One of the things that David Azerrad has written about is a front-row America and a back-row America.
A front-row America being elites, who are out of touch. Who are like the boy and the girl in the bubble. You know, they don’t have to mix with other people but, in fact, back-row America is hurting very badly.
And there have been many important studies and books that have—like “Hillbilly Elegy,” “Alienated Americans” by my friend Tim Carney—done an excellent job of distilling what the problem is.
What “American Restoration” does is it’s a bookend to those kind of excellent analysis. It says, “Yes, we’ve got real problems in our nation. Here are the reasons why, and here are some of the ways that we can address head-on these real challenges and problems and can make them better.”
We quote in this book a little-known scholar who deserves to be much better known, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in which she talks about how Victorian England—by the way, Victorian England was in absolute meltdown mode—reapplying the great spiritual truths of Anglo-American civilization was able to help restore a really great country. And there are lots of other examples.
So restoration and renewal and regeneration are possible. It can happen and I’m confident.
Trinko: Yeah. And of course, if you’re interested in the back-row, front-row America, we interviewed Chris Arnade, the former Wall Street trader-turned-photo journalist, I guess you would say … I think might’ve coined that term.
We had him on the podcast a few weeks ago and I’d encourage you to check that out if you’re into this topic.
So, one poll that came out recently that really surprised me from The Wall Street Journal and the NBC News found that back in 2000, which is not that long ago, two decades ago, 41% of Americans said they went to religious services weekly. That number is now down to 29%.
You and your book discuss a lot about how important regular church attendance is. What do you think drove the decline in the past two decades and how do we reverse this?
Goeglein: I believe that the biggest driver of the decline, as you describe it, has been the fractioning of the American family. And I want to give a very concrete example.
One of the things, by the way, that powers “American Restoration” is not a bunch of opinions and anecdotes. It’s actually empirical data. It’s very important in data sets that we know what we are actually dealing [with], and I want to give just one example. …
In 1965, a mere 56 years ago, 54 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a very important study on the African American family in the United States of America.
Now, this is only 1965. He found that 25% of all African Americans were born out of wedlock. Now we’re in 2019, that number is at 70% or above. Also, that’s 53% of all Hispanic Americans and more than 30% of native-born white people.
In composite, about 40% of all Americans are now born out of wedlock. And for the majority of babies born to women who are 30 years of age and under, the majority of babies are now born out of wedlock.
So if you have this kind of demography and you are facing this kind of challenge, it is not the federal government. Frankly, it’s not any government that is going to be able to address that kind of decline.
And the question emerges in social science: Well, wait a minute, what drove that? And the answer goes back to where we started.
It ultimately starts from a spiritual decline that is measurable in some pockets of America. The great conservative statesman and philosopher Russell Kirk said that political and public policy differences are actually spiritual differences first. And I think that there’s a lot of truth in that.
Trinko: That is a great segue into my next question, which is, just looking through your book, I share so much of the analysis of the culture that you give. It’s a pretty bleak picture right now.
And you know … we’re recording this in June, which is Pride Month. And as a Christian I have certain feelings about that.
You paint a picture of a culture that is losing, its sort of adrift in moral relativism, and your book is about recovering that.
The solution you’re calling for, though, doesn’t it really just come down to people converting to Christianity and being faithful?
Goeglein: That’s correct. I’m glad you raised that.
And in light of the last question, I believe very strongly that you can be a great American and be a man or woman of faith. I believe very strongly that you can be a great American and not be a person of faith. Or be a great American and a person who’s searching and looking, right? I don’t think that that is the the demarcation. I really don’t.
I also believe, and we say this in “American Restoration,” that for all of the many cultural challenges we have, and there are many, we also have a lot of bright spots.
May I say, just when you think that you’re at a moment of cultural decline, that even in that decline you can see spots of recovery and of renewal.
It’s kind of like when you have one of these terrible California wildfires and you look out and you say that is a very bleak landscape. Until you come back about two weeks later. And from all the charred cinders, coming through the charred cinders are small green shoots. And I do believe that organically cultures are the same.
I believe that you can focus like a laser beam on all of the problems. And we certainly seek to do that in “American Restoration.” But we also seek to hold up real examples of real people, real institutions, real groups, who are really addressing some of our most important social, moral, and religious issues.
So we don’t say or assert in the book that in order to restore America that we must have a mass conversion to Christianity. As Christians, you know, we certainly pray that people would come to know Jesus Christ, but that is not our demarcation for a healthy or flourishing country.
We know that from our founding.
Some of the greatest people in our founding were serious Christians. Benjamin Rush and George Washington.
Others were not serious Christians, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. It doesn’t make them any less great as human beings. But it also does not deter from the fact that foundationally and from the beginning, America was a nation that flourished because of strong Christianity and strong Judaism. And you know, that is a fact.
Trinko: You talk in the book about the importance of religious liberty and, obviously, if you’re going to practice your faith, you need to be allowed to by the states.
However, we’re seeing more and more clashes on this front and you describe some of them in the book.
Specifically, I would say pro-abortion advocates and LGBT activists are often pushing for things that Christians feel in good conscience they cannot accommodate.
And there’s often a push from the extreme left to say, “No, we’re not going to find a third way. It can’t be that there’s another baker who bakes the cake. It has to be this baker.”
How do you recommend people engage with the far left and with maybe family and friends who are sympathetic to the far left?
Goeglein: May I say, I am really thrilled by that question because I believe, a tenet to where we began this interview, that the frontal assault on religious liberty and the rights of conscience in the public square is overwhelmingly one of the greatest challenges that we face.
And the question is why? Because it’s unconstitutional.
There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that in any way usurps the centrality of religious liberty and conscience rights, that were inherent in the Constitution from the beginning.
We have seen endless cases at the Supreme Court. Endless cases in the circuit and in the the the district courts, which have been a net result of this assault on religious liberty and conscience cases.
I feel very strongly, in fact, we say this in “American Restoration” and we have a whole chapter on the restoration of religious liberty in the book for this reason, that incrementally, and it does take time, that we will eventually move our way back toward the constitutional position and defense of religious liberty and conscience rights.
It’s not to say that we are not having and will not continue to have a major debate in this area, but I believe that incrementally we are going in the right direction, even as we have enormous challenges.
We also have a chapter in “American Restoration” on the restoration of the right to life and human life. That is incredibly important to us.
Look, we have had more than 60 million abortions in America since 1973. That is a real black mark on our country. But … as a person who has been involved in the pro-life movement since I was 12 years old, I believe very strongly that this is a very good time for the pro-life movement.
I think we are winning. I think we’re moving in the right direction.
I am overwhelmed, having been [to] every right to life march in January with the exception of two for the last 30 years, that the right to life people who come to Washington get younger and they get larger. And those numbers are overwhelming.
It’s simply bad manners in a lot of quadrants in America now, where it wasn’t even 15 years ago. It’s bad manners not to be pro-life with 3D and 4D images of babies. We know that it is a baby.
Trinko: I appreciate it, in your book, how you talked about the importance of caring for foster kids and also your co-author mentioned that at his church there is, I believe, a night for parents of Down syndrome kids.
I just thought it was nice how you guys paid so much attention to being pro-life after birth, as well.
I think that’s very true of the pro-life community, but we’re always slammed as not. And it was nice to see you address that.
Goeglein: I was in a debate just last week in which my interlocutor said, “Yeah, you’re pro-life, which means that you only care about the baby until the day it’s born.” And I said, “That is absolutely false.” And he said, “Prove it.” And I said, “Read ‘American Restoration.'”
We have a whole chapter in this book, to your point, we care about mother and baby before the baby is born. We care about the baby in all three trimesters, right? And we care about mother and baby long after the baby is born and the mother is dealing, as is baby, with a lot of issues.
But also to capitalize on that, we care a lot about orphan care, foster care, and adoption. And we wanted to make sure that “American Restoration” had a a sizable bit of attention to this issue.
One of the tragedies in America is not only abortion, but also the vitiation of young Down syndrome babies. That has got to change and we’ve got to do that better.
I trust and believe that by raising it in books like this, talking about it on a podcast like this, that we will move more and more toward a pro-life America.
I believe that we will see a day when Roe v. Wade is overturned. I do believe that, and I think that it will be on par of the day that Dred Scott finally came to it’s last gasp.
Davis: Your book also responds to folks like Rod Dreher, who have offered what they call the Benedict Option, in which Christians are engaging in a strategic withdrawal from certain sectors of culture in order to protect the good that we have.
What’s your main response to that argument?
Goeglein: Rod Dreher is a great friend and I’ve known him and benefited from his writing, his research, and his friendship for many years.
I have read his book now three times, cover to cover, and I have compared the text of the book with debates that have happened and with analysis since.
I want to be very direct in this point. To the degree that there is a difference or a distinction it is at least in some of those debates and analysis that he has been calling for disengagement.
And there’s a nuance about this, and we make this very clear in the book. This is not in any way a backdoor attack or a critique of Rod. But we disagree in this regard. This is not a time for Christians or conservatives to disengage, to be discouraged, to drop out.
This is a time … we say in “American Restoration,” to engage more than ever.
For us to be present more than ever in the public square. To be involved in schools, public schools, and private schools. To be involved in government. To be in the media. To be in the culture, shaping professions. To be in the law and legal societies. To be in the permanent bureaucracy. To be a presence in the state capitals and in Washington, D.C.
There’s never been a time where we have needed men and women of faith to step up and to be more involved than now.
Davis: That is a great place for us to leave it. The book is called “American Restoration. How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation.” Available on Amazon. Tim Goeglein, thanks so much for your time.
Goeglein: Such a pleasure. Thank you so much, and God bless The Daily Signal.