Is America in Decline?

Not long ago on the Aquila Report a certain writer asserted that America is in decline. He did not specify any particular form of decline – moral, economic, or political. He simply spoke of decline. The context was his claim that as America continues its track under President Barack Obama, more and more Christians will turn to Reconstructionism as an alternative worldview. But of course, others with more mainstream views have made the same claim about the decline of America. There are plenty of liberals, conservatives and moderates – people across the political and religious spectrums – who worry every day that as a nation we are coming to the end of the road.

In my response to this claim I noted that it is by no means evident to me that America is in decline. I can agree, as I had said in the context of an earlier article comparing the 1960s to the post-revolutionary era, that in certain respects America has been experiencing decline. In particular I’m thinking of what we might call matters of “sex and social justice” (i.e., the collapse of moral norms, as well as social and legal structures protecting the unborn, women and children). I can also understand the feeling of some that as America abandons many of the trappings and moral commitments of Christendom this bodes a form of religious decline.

On the other hand, there are plenty of areas in which America has experienced tremendous progress: racial, economic, moral, etc. It is by no means obvious to me that people who claim to be Christians and then use their Christianity to justify the brutality of racism and violence are somehow superior (in any way) to contemporary “nones” who abandon any claim to Christianity, or to contemporary liberals who claim to be Christians and then use their Christianity to justify sexual immorality.

Whether or not you think the country is in decline politically depends on your place on the political spectrum. Of course, for conservatives there is Obamacare and the growth of the welfare state, and for liberals there is the Bush tax cuts, the War on Terror, and growing inequality. But we need to be careful about assuming that the Fiscal Cliff is the sort of challenge the likes of which this nation has never faced before. That’s why I referenced Jimmy Carter’s famous 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. There have been numerous times in our history in which things looked pretty bleak, and thoughtful people thought surely the country was in decline.

But I’m not convinced. And the reason is not, as a number of people have suggested in reaction to my skepticism, because I am on the moon. I promise. I am not currently on the moon. The reason is that I am a student of history, especially of American history. And anyone who has read extensively in American history knows that ever since the Puritans got off the boat in New England and observed their inability to establish their new colony as a city on a hill, clergymen, philosophers and politicians have been preaching Jeremiads about American decline.

Of course, from the perspective of the early Puritans America was in decline because not everyone was upholding the strictest Puritan ideals about church and society. The generation born in America lacked the piety and enthusiasm of the one that had come from England and it was all downhill from there. But that did not mean America was in decline in anything more than a ‘Puritan’ understanding of decline.

Then again, after the American Revolution many New England Federalists (the descendants of the Puritans) thought America was in decline because the broader population was abandoning its former deference to status and authority. The artisans and shopkeepers who swept the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican Party into power in 1800 believed in a form of equality that required the elites to engage their inferiors in political and economic debates on a level of equality that was viewed as nothing less than anarchy by their social betters, and once again, it was all downhill from there. But that did not mean America was in decline according to anything other than a ‘Federalist’ understanding of decline.

Then, of course, there was the Civil War. When Federal troops descended on the South in 1861-1865, setting the slaves free and wreaking paths of violence and destruction, southern politicians, preachers, and ordinary citizens alike were convinced that it was the end of civilization. The best preachers of the day were sure that the abolition of slavery meant the onset of communism, not to mention the degradation of the white race and the whole world that it had built. If America was ever in decline, no doubt, it was when Sherman’s armies marched through Georgia and South Carolina, throwing just war theory under the bus with impunity, or when former slaves were given the right to vote. But of course, America was not really in decline, except perhaps from a ‘Confederate’ perspective.

We can go on and on of course. The Great Depression supposedly hailed the end of capitalism and democracy. The New Deal brought us fascism and socialism. The Cold War was sure to end everything as a result of Mutually Assured Destruction. Desegregation showed the white supremacists that America really was headed for barbarism, and Vietnam and Nixon illustrated the same thing to the New Left. Stagflation and the miasmic slowdown of the American economy in the 1970s led to Carter’s famous speech – a speech reflective of the assumptions of many American intellectuals that America’s days as the world’s great superpower were numbered. But then came Reagan, the end of the Cold War, and the economic prosperity of the 1990s, and we were all optimistic again.

Of course, in each of these cases there was an element of truth to what the pessimists were saying. In each situation there was some obvious respect in which morality or society could be said to be “in decline.” And yet in every case the pessimists turned out to have a distorted vision, an attitude driven by the failure of their own vision or agenda into one of despair. And yet life goes on. In every example I’ve noted above there was some other respect in which America was actually on the ascendancy – economically, politically, or morally. Does the progress outweigh the decline? It all depends on what you are talking about.

Now we are in another downtime. Is this one really so different from the previous eras in which thoughtful, well-meaning people thought we had finally begun to fall? Maybe it is, but I don’t see how we could know that from our position today. What concerns me is the tendency of some Christian conservatives to fall into the sort of pessimistic ranting about decline that makes us look just like those pessimistic Puritans, rigid Federalists, die-hard Confederates, and other grumpy groups whom history has left behind. If you are convinced that we have taken a wrong turn you are entitled to your opinion, of course. But please don’t implicate Christianity in your pessimism. There is nothing particularly Christian about the feeling that America is in decline, any more than there is anything Christian about the certainty that it is in a period of national and global ascendancy (for which a strong argument could be made; see Walter Russell Mead’s excellent blog).

It’s sobering enough that we have to proclaim to the world that the Lord Jesus Christ will hold it accountable for every word and every deed, coming at the last day to judge the living and the dead. It’s hope enough that by preaching the gospel we can give people the confidence that the injustice and sorrows of life do not hold the last word on the matter. When we get to the business of taking up our cross and following Christ, serving our neighbors in love in our various vocations, let’s not pretend we know God’s immediate plans for (or against) American prosperity. Just as importantly, let’s not proclaim that the decline of the United States (and of our neighbors) is somehow good for our cause because it will lead more people to see the light. Our calling is to pray for and contribute to the peace and welfare of our country. We should convey a spirit consistent with that calling.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on November 27, 2012, in Conservatism, Reconstructionism. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is America in Decline?.

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