Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Is America in Decline?

I think, you'll be glad to know, this series is at an end. Previous posts include:
1. In the previous post I suggested that what was initially exceptional about the US is that it was the first fully implemented representational democracy, whose structure had the potential to embody best for the first time in history:
  • the love of God toward all the people of a nation equally...
  • God's manner of giving individuals the freedom to accept or reject him while...
  • protecting all individuals against harm while...
  • considering all the individuals of a society equal in value...
  • and protecting the minority against the potential oppression of the majority.
A representational democracy is not biblical by structure--such things just didn't exist in the ancient world, and the brief democratic experiment in Greece had no protection for individual rights. It is rather that the results of this structure had the potential to result in a place that embodied Christian values better than any other structure in history.

And of course the US was only the first. There are now representational democracies all over the world.

2. Again, another claim of this series is that the percentage of true Christians at any one time or place is much smaller than those who are Christians in name. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the initial migrations of Europeans to America, there was a higher percentage of fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. After all, so many of the first immigrants were fleeing religious persecution.

But by the time of the Revolutionary War and the founding of the US, I wonder if the percentage had leveled out to about what it is now--about 20%.

Similarly, although the structure of America's representational democracy seems ideal, its ideals are still being worked out:
  • Slavery persisted till 1865 (interestingly, Thomas Jefferson's originally proposed Declaration condemned the slave trade, but the Continental Congress rejected those parts of his version). 
  • Reconstruction after the Civil War was so botched that we had to have the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Race conflict even this past year illustrates that the structures of society are still out of whack in some way.
  • Women were not included in America's social contract until 1920 when women had the right to vote. Even in the 1950s their presence in the work place was resisted.
3. There is a sense in which America's laws are more loving than ever. I imagine the wild west to have been a place of vast injustice, where there was scarcely any true rule of law. Imagine how murderers, pedophiles, and wife beaters must have thrived on the old frontier in Kentucky and Indiana in the year 1800.

Spousal and child abuse is less tolerated than ever. Without altering my position on homosexual sex, I still can't imagine that a country where homosexuals are not forced to undergo chemical castration, imprisonment, or death is a more Christian place than one where they are.

4. So in what respects, then, might America be in decline, if the percentage of true Christians remains about the same and the value of all individuals is higher than ever? Even abortion is at its lowest in over forty years.

I suppose there are two parts to this question in my mind: 1) Is the average individual less "moral" than before? A person can behave morally because it is cultural without any real investment in morality or Christ. 2) Is the structure of the US less loving than before?

5. With regard to the first question, the crime rate has fluctuated a little in the last couple of years, but in general is still lower than the 1970s. It thoroughly declined in the 1990s. It was down in 2013.

Divorce rates shot up forty years ago when it became a serious option but are not clearly on the rise now. Despite often quoted statistics about Christian divorce, those statistics relate to all declared Christians and thus include the nominals who are now becoming nones. The divorce rates among the more serious 20% are not as high.

From what I believe is a more thoroughly Christian viewpoint, we must reckon that while divorce is never the ideal, it is not always better for the children for couples to stay together. In cases of abuse, staying together imprints a son or daughter to become an abuser. I also wonder if divorce rates will actually go down in the emerging context where most gay individuals will no longer marry to hide their sexuality ("bearding").

Clearly options like living together and premarital sex are more prevalent than ever. This is deeply saddening. Nevertheless, teenage pregnancy is actually on the decline overall. I don't have any statistics, but I actually doubt that homosexuality is on the rise, although experimentation may be. My hunch is, though, that the percentage of gay individuals is more or less the same as it always has been. We just didn't notice.

So the facts seem to suggest that, at least in these areas, individual morality is not really on the decline among nominals and non-believers.

6. That leads me to the structures, are the structures of America in decline? Here are the things that are worrying me the most:

a. economic disparity
The difference between the wealthy and the everyday person is starker than ever. This strikes at the foundations of a democracy. Capitalism, again, is not an end in itself. The genius of the American system is not that it rewards a few. The most Christian aspect of the American system is the fact that it values all and potentially empowers all.

When the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum has healthy sources of livelihood and healthy living conditions, society as a whole benefits, is healthier, and more embodies the core values of a nation that is truly Christian in values. When the lower end lacks resources, crime increases, violence increases, and history is also replete with tales of revolution. If you don't account for your poor, they will eventually account for you.

b. the welfare class
Although well intentioned--even intentioned with Christian values--too much of America depends for its livelihood on others who do the work. It's not just about unfairness to those who actually do the work. That's the legalistic way to think of it. It's ultimately bad for those on the receiving end and it undermines the capacity of the society as a whole.

Again, I don't have statistics, but one wonders if a sense of entitlement and a laziness with regard to work has become part of all layers of society. The child of a rich or middle class person can be unproductive and non-contributing to society as well. The welfare just comes from within the family rather than from the government. Has America as a whole become less work brittle? I don't know.

This does get at a moral question? Are Americans more oriented to self-gratification and pleasure than ever? I don't know. It might be that, as with the issues I mentioned in the last section, it only feels that way and that the percentages are more or less the same as always.

But when you think of what signifies the decline of a great people, a decline in the impulse to do, to create, to work has to be a major element. If a people are not competing, if they are not ready to defend themselves, if they only receive or take in for themselves as individuals rather than contributing to a greater good, that is an eventual death warrant for a society, it seems to me.

c. lack of education
Education is a crucial element in a successful democracy. An uneducated majority will vote for the wrong people and the wrong outcomes. Here again, while it feels to me like America is less educated than ever, it may very well be that social media and cable news has only given a greater microphone to a certain set of people. This is an insight that I am slowly coming to, the most vocal and alarming voices are often not the voice of the majority. The majority usually, over time, moves in the right direction, it seems to me.

But certainly there are voices with power that are anti-science in America right now. It doesn't seem to matter to many Americans that the majority of experts in a particular field are solidly convinced of something. My uneducated opinion seems to count as much as someone who can actually do the math.

But maybe it has always been this way. It just seems that now the anti-evidence voices control the textbooks.

d. postmodernism
Anyone who knows me well knows that I believe there are important insights to be gained from postmodernism. But even to say that puts it in a framework of truth.

Postmodernism has--it at least feels to me--eroded the scholarly pursuit of objective truth and encouraged a certain kind of ideological tribalism in America. From my earlier posts, you can tell that I believe the Enlightenment quest for truth and objectivity was a core basis for the prosperity and egalitarianism of Western culture. Everyone stands equally before the court of truth and the court of law.

Sure, postmodernism has made it abundantly clear that this goal is ultimately a dream. But it is a dream we must continue to pursue!

Unfortunately, Christians have sometimes, without realizing it, jumped on this bandwagon. If all positions are really animals in a circus, then we can be in the circus too. But ideological tribalism is inherently deconstructive to the framework of Western society.

The values of equality can sometimes blur into this deconstructive arena. So we value women equally to men so we give them equal voice. Absolutely. But in any instance where feminism begins to say, "You cannot communicate with us because you are a man. Your truth is a different truth than our truth," at that point feminism has become the enemy of democracy. A democracy can only thrive if there is a core, common truth shared by all.

And so when "presuppositionalism" makes it such that the different parts of society cannot communicate with each other on some common playing field, it has become deconstructive of democracy.

Those are some thoughts. Hopefully there are some insights in there. If not, I welcome your critique, for I believe in a truth that is common to all and, most importantly, common to God.


vanilla said...

Several times I have read the sentence beginning "Without altering my position on homosexual sex, I still can't imagine' and seriously I do not understand what you are saying. I am perhaps more dense even than I imagined I am.

Martin LaBar said...

That was a complex sentence. He means, I think, that even though he believes that homosexual activity is sinful, he doesn't think castrating homosexual males, or stoning homosexuals to death, or treating them with hormones, is Christian behavior.

This was a good series. Thanks.

vanilla said...

Martin, I like to believe that that is what he meant. And yes, it is a very good series.

Ken Schenck said...

That's what I meant. :-) Thanks V and Dr. Labar.

Keith Drury said...

Another great series Ken!

Patrick Bowers said...

Ken, I think you have been a bit too kind about education. I would go further and say that primary and secondary education has in the last 20 year devalued learning (especially hands on/craft)to the point of just giving the correct answers on a test. Getting correct answers in the end doesn't really help in the real world of problem solving. I know that teachers are very frustrated about way they don't have time to spend with children who struggle or learn in ways which are contrary to standard teaching methods.

I would also add to the list of signs of a decline to industrial agriculture and failing infrastructure (water, rail, power generation and roads) devalued in the long site for short term gains or productivity.

I also think you have left a nice big elephant in the room which you have created by waxing so eloquently the Enlightenment and the state of the U.S.A. What is the roll of the local and national (for in those who churches which have a central leadership) churches in speaking into this decline as part of their roll of being the presence of the Kingdom of God.