America, A Culture In Crisis—A Historical Perspective

Feb 1st, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Why do people reject God and embrace an atheistic worldview?  Are they convinced that biblical Christianity is irrational, nonsensical? Are the “nones” doubting their faith or questioning their faith because of rational argumentation?  Are atheists and/or the now infamous “nones” rejecting Jesus because of their deep-seated, well-thought-through convictions, or are there other explanations?  Perceptively, Matt Reynolds, Associate Editor, Books for Christianity Today, writes:  “In Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, British historian Alec Ryrie argues that we’re apt to give too much weight to intellectual convictions in tracing out the roots of religious skepticism. Which means we’re apt to overlook the outsized role played by more personal factors like anger against the church or anxious uncertainty about the state of one’s faith.  Reviewing the book in the December issue of CT, Wheaton College historian Timothy Larsen sketches out another story that needs telling.  “Often enough,” he writes, “Christianity wasn’t rejected outright—either intellectually or emotionally. Rather, it didn’t take hold because it wasn’t successfully passed down. This outcome resulted from an array of interlocking social changes.

  • First, for good theological reasons, Christians gave up trying to coerce people into believing.
  • Second, the worldly benefits of being a Christian mostly went away. People once went to church to prove they were respectable. This was a vital survival strategy. When hard times came, neighbors and charities would only help those deemed deserving. But rising standards of living and the creation of a welfare state reduced reliance on the safety net of a pious reputation.
  • A third reason was the rise of leisure opportunities. Before modern transportation and media, a person could neither get out of town on Sunday morning nor access electronic entertainment, making church a welcome break from a boring, cooped-up life at home. But once a trip to the beach was within reach, it was church that felt boring and cooped-up.
  • Fourth was the rise of permissive parenting. Mom and Dad no longer had the nerve to insist that Johnny get up and go to Sunday school, whether he wanted to or not. The parents had not stopped believing in God; they just neglected to give their children a spiritual formation.

“Repeat the cycle just once, and you have a generation that hasn’t necessarily rejected religion—but, in all likelihood, hasn’t been initiated into it. When the English soccer star David Beckham’s daughter was born, a journalist asked if he planned to have her christened. He replied, ‘I definitely want Brooklyn christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet.’ This is not a culture of having rejected religion—whether intellectually or emotionally. Many of the ‘nones’ don’t know how to pray for the same reason they don’t know how to read Roman numerals: No one taught them when they were young, and so they now assume it must not be worth learning. Maybe Jill doesn’t believe in God because her grandparents let her parents stay out late on Saturday night and then sleep in on Sunday morning. Anger and anxiety play their roles, but so does apathy.”

Historian George Marsden adds another level for understanding and explaining the utter confusion and cultural chaos of American civilization—a historical one. I have been reading widely in the works of Christian historians lately, trying to understand how we got to this point in our history. Permit me to summarize the salient arguments in Marsden’s, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. For some, this may be some heavy intellectual lifting, but it is worth the effort.

Proposition #1: America is a synthesis of Protestant and Enlightenment ideas: A high regard for natural science, reason, common sense, self-evident rights and ideals of liberty. This fusion provided the consensus on which America was built and continued even into the era of theological liberalism in the early 20th century.

Proposition #2: The consensus culture on which America was built collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s. Liberty was redefined as autonomy and a formal recognition of Christianity (e.g., public school prayers, Bible reading, etc.) ended. A new set of radical mores and practices replaced the consensus.

Proposition #3: In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, a cultural backlash occurred with the rise of the religious right and the ensuing “culture wars.” But there exist no dominant principles within America to deal with the widespread religious pluralism that now characterizes American culture. The collapse of the Enlightenment-Protestant consensus has created a thorough-going crisis in America.

Developments in the 1950s that undermined the consensus:

  1. A conviction developed that a humane, cultured elite (primarily intellectuals) must provide the culture with direction and coherence.
  2. Conformity was the key term of the 1950s, but everywhere there was evidence of alienation and despair (e.g., David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, James Dean in the film Rebel without a Cause). Conformity was viewed as an enemy of autonomy, which is how freedom was now being defined (e.g., Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique).
  3. Personal autonomy was now viewed by many as the solution to the alienation and despair that conformity was generating. But the problem was that there was no ethical or moral foundation for personal autonomy. Thus Walter Lippmann, in The Public Philosophy, tried to provide a foundation for autonomy—a return to natural law. Modern liberal culture and modern science could not find an adequate basis for ethics or moral behavior. William F. Buckley reached the same conclusion. Liberals, such as Arthur Schlesinger in The Vital Center, responded with a secular proposal that would balance individual autonomy with community responsibility. America’s strength rested with its relativism and lack of dogmatism; it was a pragmatically based consensus.
  4. America thus accepted two sources of authority in this new consensus: the authority of the scientific method and the authority of the autonomous individual. The contrast between B.F. Skinner (the science of behavioral psychology can make us better) and Carl Rogers, who emphasized the free, self-actualizing, autonomous individual is telling! The late 20th century became the age of the expert—e.g., the Kinsey Report, Dr. Benjamin Spock. But as Christopher Lasch demonstrated, this produced a “culture of narcissism” in which the free individual was guided by the manager and the therapist—not religious convictions.
  5. Although the 1950s witnessed a profoundly important religious revival, the growing secularization of culture also produced one of the legacies of the 1950s—the privatization of religion. Diverse religious voices were to be tolerated, but they were regarded as private options, not significant points that could contribute to the public domain.
  6. Thus, the 1960s became the decade of cultural upheaval and fragmentation. The radicalism of the 1960s was thoroughgoing—challenging everything about America: its past, its values, its standards and its ethics—all rooted in the synthesis of the Enlightenment and Protestant Christianity. Roe v. Wade was the re-awakening of evangelicalism (e.g., Jerry Falwell, Francis Schaeffer).
  7. The result by the end of the 20th century was the Culture Wars, the “religious right” and the attempt to reclaim America’s religious past. Americans have no paradigm for accommodating to religious and ethical pluralism. It is indeed a culture in crisis.

Trusting only in the authority of science and in human autonomy has only exacerbated the cultural crisis. Once again we see the centrality of the Gospel, of sound doctrine and the critical importance of parents and churches focusing not on politics or who is running for what office but on passing on doctrinal truth their children. May God enable us to re-order our priorities and allow Him to cleanse our hearts, our families and our culture.

See Matt Reynolds, CT Books (7 January 2020) and George M. Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.

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