Interview with Charles Murray

Charles Murray
Charles Murray

WHEN WE THINK OF QUAKER WRITERS, Charles Murray, author of the Bell Curve and last year’s bestseller Coming Apart, is probably not a name that occurs to most Friends. Yet this former Presbyterian is a regular attender at Goose Creek Meeting in Virginia and finds Quaker principles and practice both personally congenial and theologically profound.

In a short phone interview with Friends Journal, Murray gave a spirited defense of Quakerism as the logical home for someone with his independent views. He also challenged Friends to stick to their theological first principles rather than partisan politics when they go out to change society. He feels that the Friends testimonies of simplicity, integrity and peace are helpful correctives in our world. Not surprisingly for this pugnacious conservative thinker, he frames the reasons why in a way not often found on the pages of Friends Journal.

In Coming Apart, published in early 2012, Murray examines the growing cultural divide between white America’s elites and working classes, where people in prosperous “super” zip codes predominantly raise their children in two-parent families, strongly promote education, and regularly attend church. Murray tracks the opposite trends in formerly-stable working class areas. Research overwhelmingly shows that, on average, children in two-parent families, no matter the economic level, do better than their counterparts without both parents. Murray worries that the dissolution of the traditional family and strong social mores will cause less social mobility and greater economic polarization (for another look at the single parent issue, see “Economic Inequality and the Changing Family” by Jason deParles in the July 15, 2012 article in the New York Times).

While Friends also worry about that divide, Murray’s remedies don’t often show up in Quaker political literature. He believes that those in the super zip codes need to take greater responsibility for promoting education and marriage (it works for them, why not others?) and also for remedying the “unseemly” avarice that is represented by, for example, huge corporate salaries. He recommends that we “provide a basic income for all Americans ages 21 and older, to be financed by cashing out all income transfer programs.”

Murray vigorously advocates his research findings in the public realm, but he does not come to Quaker meeting to argue politics. Murray describes his spiritual journey as typical: like many, he decided religion was “all nonsense” in college. “We didn’t consider the power of Christian theology. We rejected Sunday school stories but in an unthinking way.”

Photo courtesy Franklin Bell/
Goose Creek (Md.) Meeting.
Photo courtesy Franklin Bell/

Searching for a spiritual home, his wife, who grew up Methodist, started attending a meeting that he rarely visited because the messages were too partisan. Later, when the couple settled in Maryland, they found Goose Creek. Even after the publication of his controversial Bell Curve, the meeting was “completely supportive.” He wryly added, “possibly because of their love of Catherine rather than me!”

Rather than a “seeker,” Murray calls himself a “want-to-be-believer.” When asked what appeals to him about the faith, he responded:

The Quaker teachings about simplicity are extremely relevant to seemliness. Quakerism is really good in reminding you about that. I listen to the reading of the queries. Specific messages on the teaching of Quakerism are the reason I go. Quakerism, insofar as it has a natural resonance with a political ideology, has a resonance with libertarianism . . . you persuade, not coerce. Use of physical force in coercion is one of the ultimate bad things. That is the central tenet of libertarianism.

He sees Quaker truth-telling dovetailing nicely with libertarians’ strong opposition to fraud. He adds, “I understand what the actual (political) views of Quakers are. Yet, for me doctrinally, I am in the right place even if none of the other Quakers except for my wife understand why!”

Though mostly restricted to Goose Creek Meeting, Murray says his experience with Quakerism “has been very positive”:

Quakers are really earnest. I approve of that! In the realm of politics, Quakers really need to guard against self-righteousness and understand that people who care just as much as they do about the welfare of human beings can take radically different paths to the same ends. Quakers have to stop thinking that they are the only ones that really care.

He does not subscribe to bullhorn pronouncements. He suggests, “The next time you’re at a Friendly Eights and the topic of out-of-wedlock births comes up, just say that scholars on the left and right have come to the same findings—children of single parents face a lot of deficits even after you control for the parents’ education and income.” He readily acknowledges that many single parents do an excellent job, but the statistics show that overall, it’s a harder task.

Despite his own strongly held views, he feels that it’s Friends’ theology that counts:

Quakerism is, I believe, a magnificent adaptation of the Christian religion. The concept of “There is that of God in everyone” is profound. The sense of the Light as a framework for thinking about contact with God is a profound contribution.

He goes on to say that while he isn’t a total believer, he feels that Christianity is a strong part of Quakerism. He adds, “So the main message I would like to give to Quakers is about keeping politics out of meeting. This is not because it will alienate people like me, but because politics are trivial in comparison to the power of Quaker theology.”

Signe Wilkinson

Signe Wilkinson is an editorial cartoonist and member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa.

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