Similarly, the late Jerry Falwell described the September 11th terrorist attacks as a tragic but inevitable, divinely ordained response to rampant immorality and Godlessness on the national scene. “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve,” he said during a hugely controversial television broadcast (for which he subsequently apologized). He singled out immoral ideas and behaviors spiraling out of control across the country, accusing those who insisted on “throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked.” Three days later, trying to explain his comments to John F. Harris of the Washington Post, Reverend Falwell more modestly observed: “When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture… the result is not good.” On many other occasions, the affable preacher from Lynchburg, Virginia, drew bemused chuckles with the observation: “If God doesn’t wipe out San Francisco some time soon, He’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” His words conjure up a compelling vision of the Environmental Protection Agency someday striving mightily to clear the sulphur, brimstone and salt pillars from the Golden Gate.
And speaking of San Francisco, Michael Savage (nee, Michael Weiner), the perpetually enraged talk radio Jeremiah of Baghdad by the Bay, joins the Loonie Left in seeing the impending onset of Naziism. “I am more and more convinced that we have a one-party oligarchy ruling our nation,” he warned in “The Savage Nation,” his 2002 national bestseller. “In short, the ‘Republicrats’ and 'Demicans’ have sacked our Constitution, our culture, our religions, and embarrassed the nation…Again, the last years of the Weimar Republic of pre-Nazi Germany come to mind – where decadence completely permeated a free society.”
While activists and academics on the political left have always played the lead role in passionately promoting the many pernicious lies about America’s allegedly guilty past, it's mostly commentators on the cultural right who enthusiastically embrace the lies about the nation’s guilty present and doomed future. Looking down on previous generations and condemning our Founding Fathers as Indian-slaughtering, slave-owning, Euro-centrist, money-grubbing elitists can bring obvious psychic rewards to those who endorse such caricatures. If our ancestors deserve more condemnation than reverence, we face little obligation to live up to their ideals or examples and can feel free to make our rules, shape our own values, with an unshakable sense of greater wisdom and moral superiority. It’s much harder, however, to see the emotional or practical payoffs in apocalyptic hysteria about our current condition.
Smearing prior generations can enhance our sense of unique and unprecedented excellence (“Never trust anyone over thirty,” the notorious Baby Boomers once declared). Perhaps, in the same sense, the militant alarmism about our current moral state can promote the conviction that confirmed gloom-and-doomers are much smarter, more righteous, more attuned to horrifying realities than the obtuse people (or “sheepel,” as they are derisively designated) who refuse to acknowledge looming disaster.
This doesn’t mean that selfish or insincere motives always shape the outlook of those who see America as corrupt beyond redemption. Most moral alarmists nurse the forlorn hope that their stern warnings will somehow motivate the society to abjure its evil ways before we pass the final point of no return. For many reasons, however, common sense dictates that exaggerating our decadence, dysfunction and desperation will make revival and renewal less likely and more difficult.
Even so, it’s impossible to deny that those who regularly wail about The End Of American Civilization As We Know It. (TEOACAWKI) take their part in a long and (mostly) honorable tradition that goes all the way back to the earliest days of Colonial settlement.
NEARLY FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OF “THE END IS NEAR”
We prefer to think of William Bradford, the long time leader of the Pilgrim Separatists and for thirty years the elected governor of Plymouth Colony, as a courageous man of faith who calmly overcame every obstacle to establish his profoundly significant settlement in the Massachusetts wilderness. Some twenty-five years after taking shore at Plymouth Rock, however, Bradford himself became the first major American commentator to see evidence of deadly moral decay and a betrayal of his society’s heroic past.
In 1645, he made one of the last significant entries in his journal while in an obviously mournful mood: “O sacred bond, which inviolably preserved! How sweet and precious were the fruits that flowed from the same! But when this fidelity decayed, then their ruin approached. O that these ancient members had not died or been dissipated (if it had been the will of God) or else that this holy care and constant faithfulness had still lived, and remained with those that survived, and were in times afterwards added unto them. But (alas) that subtle serpent that slyly wound himself under fair pretenses of necessity and the like, to untwist these sacred bonds and ties….It is now a part of my misery in old age, to find and feel the decay and want thereof (in a great measure) and with grief and sorrow of heart and bewail the same. And for others’ warning and admonition, and my own humiliation, do I here note the same.”
Historians argue about the reasons Bradford looked so harshly at his own prospering and secure settlement. A few years earlier, in the “horrible” year of 1642, a Plymouth youth named Thomas Granger had to be executed for the unspeakable sin of bestiality (along with all the animals he had defiled). Whatever the cause, virtually every subsequent generation echoed Bradford’s certainty that new attitudes, sins and shortcomings proved unworthy of a sacred, noble past.
One of the old Pilgrim’s spiritual successors, the great preacher (and President of Princeton) Jonathan Edwards, wrote that the 1730’s represented “a far more degenerate time…than ever before.” In his immortal 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” he riveted the devout Puritan churchgoers in Northampton, Massachusetts and Enfield, Connecticut, by telling them: “ Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell…The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.”
Almost exactly a century later another New England preacher, anti-slavery firebrand William Lloyd Garrison, denounced the impiety and hypocrisy and degradation of his own temporizing generation: “I accuse the land of my nativity of insulting the Majesty of Heaven with the grossest mockery that was ever exhibited to man,” he thundered. He also denounced the Constitution as “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell” and frequently burned copies of the nation’s founding document to signify God’s righteous wrath.
Billy Sunday, former major league outfielder (for the Philadelphia Phillies and other teams) and famous revivalist, led another moral crusade against the decadence of early twentieth century America: as “the sworn, eternal and uncompromising enemy of the Liquor Traffic. I have been, and will go on, fighting that damnable, dirty, rotten business with all the power at my command,” he fervently pledged in his most famous sermon, “Get On the Water Wagon.” The Evangelist also opposed public dancing, card-playing, attending the theatre, reading novels, and baseball games on Sunday. Even before the “loss of innocence” associated with America’s entry into World War I, he asked one of his huge audiences: “Did you ever know a time in all history when the world was worse than it is now? People are passing up the Church and the Prayer Meeting for the theatre, the leg show and the movies. Oh, Lord, how we need someone to cry aloud, ‘Return to God!’”
In view of our nostalgic view of earlier epochs in U.S. history, these energetic denunciations may look excessive or inappropriate, but they represented men of conscience and character righteously (and mostly rightly) pointing out the sins and shortcomings of the society around them. In some cases, they managed to play positive roles in various awakenings and revivals that periodically changed American society for the better—giving the lie to the common assumption that moral degradation is a one way street that leads year by year, generation by generation, only downhill.
HISTORY OFFERS ABUNDANT EVIDENCE OF MORAL TURNAROUNDS
Most Americans properly revere the remarkable Revolutionary generation and associate lofty moral standards with the spectacularly gifted and energetic colonists who defied an Empire and shaped a durable Republic. Of course, such uncritical adulation of the past must look beyond the highly questionable sexual adventures of many of the most prominent Founding Fathers, including Franklin (an illegitimate son in New Jersey, and numerous romantic conquests during his missions to France), Jefferson (a deep love affair with a beautiful married woman and probable long-term relations with his own teenaged slave, Sally Hemings), Hamilton (a torrid affair with a married woman, while paying blackmail to her husband) and Aaron Burr (literally scores of passionate affairs and persistent rumors of incest with his glamorous daughter). Statistically, a high percentage of first children in Colonial marriages (as much as 30% in some cities) arrived less than seven months after the wedding ceremony ---a powerful indication that strict self control escaped young Americans of more than two hundred years ago much as it escapes too many young people today.
In one area, however, today’s citizens display vastly better discipline and higher moral standards. In their essay “Drinking in America,” historians Mark Lender and James Martin report: “One may safely assume… that abstemious colonials were few and far between. Counting the mealtime beer and cider at home and the convivial drafts at the tavern or at the funeral of a relative or neighbor, all this drinking added up….While precise consumption figures are lacking, informed estimates suggest that by the 1790’s an average American over fifteen years old drank just under six gallons of absolute alcohol a year… The comparable modern average is less than 2.0 gallons per capita.” This indulgence created worrisome problems with public drunkenness in Philadelphia, Boston, New York and other Colonial centers that mirrored, though never equaled, the appalling alcoholism that plagued contemporary masses in London.
In terms of building the nation’s wealth and providing for the comfort of its citizens, American progress has been inexorable in one direction. In terms of any measure of morality, however, the nation has experienced a dizzying roller-coaster of steep ups and downs, zig zags, climbs and reverses, and even loop-the-loops. Religious historians refer to four distinct “Great Awakenings” that profoundly impacted the course of history and the ethical outlook of the populace: the first (from the 1730’s through the 1750’s) led by fiery preachers like Jonathan Edwards and British visitors George Whitfield and the Wesley Brothers, spread from rural districts to the largest cities and helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution. The second (from 1800 through the 1830’s) brought camp meetings that drew tens of thousands even in remote frontier settlements, the founding of pious, non-conformist sects (including the Mormon Church), and new energy for the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements. The Third Awakening (1880’s through 1900’s) brought the Holiness movement, the beginnings of American Pentecostalism, Christian Science, the Social Gospel, Progressive politics, and the resurgent Temperance movement. Many sociologists and theologians see a Fourth Awakening beginning in the late 1970’s and continuing to the present day, evidenced by the power of the so-called “Religious Right,” the growth of Evangelical “Mega-Churches” and a vastly expanded Christian influence in popular culture. Regardless of how one evaluates the significance and lasting impact of each of these periods of revival and turbulence, they give evidence that the nation’s moral and religious history has hardly followed a straight line toward degeneracy and shattered traditions.
In her supremely valuable book “The De-Moralization of Society,” historian Gertrude Himmelfarb focuses on the British model to show that reformers can exert a profound impact on a nation’s manners and morals, virtues and values. The Victorian Era, popularly identified with stuffy, restrictive and judgmental codes of behavior, actually represented a conscious reaction to the excesses and debauchery of the 1700’s. The raising of social standards (readily apparent in statistics on illegitimacy, drunkenness, crime, abandonment of children and more) resulted from conscious efforts by mobilized moralists. “In addition to societies for the promotion of piety and virtue,” Himmelfarb writes, “others were established for the relief of the poor and infirm- for destitute orphans and abandoned children, aged widows and penitent prostitutes, the deaf, dumb, blind, and otherwise incapacitated….The idea of moral reformation also extended to such humanitarian causes as the elimination of flogging in the army and navy, the abolition of the pillory and public whipping, the prohibition of cockfighting, bull-baiting, and bearbaiting, and, most important, the abolition of the slave trade…Less formally, but no less effectively, they promoted those manners and morals that have come to be known as ‘Victorian values.’….The ‘moral reformation’ initiated in the late eighteenth century came to fruition in the late nineteenth century.”
The inspiring story Himmelfarb tells represents one of the most spectacular examples of self-conscious social betterment in all of human history –an improvement in which the United States without question followed the British example. As Himmelfarb concludes: “At the end of the nineteenth century, England was a more civil, more pacific, more humane society than it had been in the beginning. ‘Middle-class’ manners and morals had penetrated into large sections of the working classes. The traditional family was as firmly established as ever, even as feminist movements proliferated and women began to be liberated from their ‘separate spheres.’”
In addition to such sweeping changes of direction, the United States has experienced more limited periods of disruption or renewal. In the Twentieth Century, two world wars undermined the stability of family life and traditional mores, while the 1950’s and its era of American dominance, prosperity and religiosity, saw dramatic improvements in divorce rates, criminality, drug and alcohol addiction, and access to higher education.
The counter-cultural explosions of the 1960’s, viewed by many as the final blow to parental authority, sexual self-discipline, sobriety, and the work ethic, gave rise in less than twenty years to the era of Reaganism and “Morning in America.” Some of the same Baby Boomers who sang drug anthems by the Stones or the Beatles in 1968, came back to church and suburb by 1988, enrolling their children in religious schools and honoring the patriotic and entrepreneurial values the Hippie era so colorfully scorned.
Dr, Allen C. Carlson and Paul T. Mero, authors of “The Natural Family: A Manifesto” see these advances and setbacks as part of a long, indecisive struggle to preserve “the natural family – part of the created order, imprinted on our natures, the source of bountiful joy, the fountain of new life, the bulwark of ordered liberty.” Industrialization brought the “great disruption” that undermined “the natural ecology of family life” when “family-made goods and tasks became commodities, things to be bought and sold” with the factory and “mass state schools” taking children away from their previously home-centered lives. When the French Revolution gave ideological basis to these changes, “advocates for the natural family –figures such as Bonald and Burke – fought back. They defended the ‘little platoons’ of social life, most of all the home. They rallied the ideas that would show again the necessity of the natural family. They revealed the nature of organic society to be a true democracy of free homes.” After the British-led alliance crushed the revolutionary forces of France, “families reclaimed authority. The new, growing middle class soon crafted a moral order centered around the hearth and the mother in the home. More broadly, religious leaders and social reformers worked successfully to tame the industrial impulse.”
Of course, other pendulum swings rapidly followed – with the all-powerful state of Communist and Fascist ideology declaring open war on the family. When ‘60’s free-spirits intensified their own struggle, Carlson and Mero report, they never won the expected easy or sweeping victory. “As the culture turned hostile, natural families jolted back to awareness. Signs of renewal came from the new leaders and the growth of movements, popularly called ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-family’ which arose to defend the natural family. By the early twenty-first century, these – our- movements could claim some modest gains.”
While many social conservatives perversely refuse to recognize such gains, they need to be acknowledged and solidified to facilitate further progress in the future.
EVIDENCE OF IMPROVEMENT, ALONG WITH DECAY
Those who insist on the recent moral collapse of the United States as a dogmatically unchallenged article of faith need to consider a shocking report in the New York Times on November 23, 2007.
“New York City is on track to have fewer than 500 homicides this year, by far the lowest number in a 12-month period since reliable Police Department statistics became available in 1963,” noted America’s Journal of Record. “But within the city’s official crime statistics is a figure that may be even more striking: so far, with roughly half the killings analyzed, only 35 were found to be committed by strangers, a microscopic statistic in a city of more than 8.2 million.
“If that trend holds up, fewer than 100 homicides in New York City this year will have been strangers to their assailants. The vast majority died in disputes with friends or acquaintances, with rival drug gang members or –to a far lesser degree- with romantic partners, spouses, parents and others…In the eyes of some criminologists, the police will be hard pressed to drive the killing rate much lower, since most killings occur now within the four walls of an apartment or the confines of close relationships.”
The stunning enhancement of public safety in America’s largest city represents a stinging rebuke to those who persist in viewing the nation as a victim of one-dimensional moral breakdown and spreading anarchy. The change could hardly be more dramatic: New York recorded its greatest number of killings in a single year in 1990, with 2,245, and a majority of those deaths involved terrifying violence between strangers. Seventeen years later, the city saw only 428 killings by mid-November – a projected reduction in the murder rate of more than three-fourths, with a likely total of well under 100 victimizing strangers.
Other major cities may boast less spectacular progress than New York (with its two successive—and successful – crime-fighting Republican mayors) but they all show less violent and property crimes from their peaks in the 1970’s or ‘80’s. The criminal ethos regularly associated with social chaos and moral disorder has sharply retreated across the country, while other indicators also show a nation struggling to improve its spiritual and cultural health.
In July of 2007, the Associated Press reported on more encouraging numbers involving the next generation of Americans: “Fewer high school students are having sex these days, and more are using condoms. The teen birth rate has hit a record low. More young people are finishing high school, too, and more little kids are being read to, according to the latest government snapshot of the well-being of the nation’s children. It’s good news on a number of key wellness indicators, experts said of the report being released Friday by the National Center for Health Statistics…. In 2005, 47% of high school students – 6.7 million – reported having had sexual intercourse, down from 54 percent in 1991.”
Even the Guttmacher Institute, affiliated with Planned Parenthood, reported similar declines in teenaged sexual activity. In September, 2006, the Institute observed that “teens are waiting longer to have sex than they did in the past…The proportion of teens who had ever had sex declined …from 55% to 46% among males” in just seven years between 1995 and 2002.
The reduced sexual activity has also brought about a sharp reduction in rates of abortion. The Guttmacher Institute (May, 2006) acknowledges that abortion rates peaked in 1981, just as our most outspokenly pro-life President, Ronald Reagan, entered the White House. In that year, doctors and clinics performed 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. Twenty years later, after tireless efforts by pro-life activists and educators, that number had dropped steadily, year by year, all the way to 21.1, a reduction of nearly 30%. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. abortion providers also declined by 11% in just four years between 1996 and 2000 and, according to all recent reports, continues to decline.
In terms of family structure, common assumptions receive little confirmation from available statistics. The divorce rate, for instance, certainly soared in the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s, reached its peak in 1981, then has gone down steadily (if slightly) since that time. Despite worrisome increases in out of wedlock birth, that phenomenon also began to recede in the 1990’s (most notably in the African-American community). Though the much derided “Ozzie and Harriet” family no longer looks as solid or ubiquitous as it did fifty years ago, the Census Bureau’s most recent statistics (2003) show a surprising total of 68.4% of all children below the age of 18 (of all races) currently living in households with two parents; among white children that number reaches 74.2%. Despite its battering in the media, the family remains the normal, prevalent unit of social organization for the purpose of child-rearing.
Moreover, the characters on “Desperate Housewives” may display attitudes and behaviors that represent today’s realities as poorly as some of the idealized family TV shows (“Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver”) portrayed the complexities of real-life relationships in the 1950’s. In their enormously helpful book “The First Measured Century,” scholars from the American Enterprise Institute report: “The declining incidence of extramarital sex may seem implausible to television viewers who see a world of wholesale promiscuity in which marital fidelity is the exception rather than the rule. The data tell a different story….The remaining bars on the chart, based on the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey, show an unmistakable decline in extramarital sexual activity during the latter part of the century, especially among married men.”
The various numbers and analyses hardly paint a portrait of some golden age of moral rectitude, or even of functional families: not at a time when nearly thirty per cent of all American children enter the world without the benefit of married parents, or when cohabitation before marriage (despite indisputably increasing the likelihood of divorce) has become vastly more common (and even the norm to many young people).
Nevertheless, the notion of a nation falling apart – “decomposing,” in Pat Buchanan’s pungent phrase – also fails to emerge from any honest examination of the data. The effort to “remoralize” America after the eruptions and disruptions of the ‘60’s has met with some success, but its future will depend to a great extent on the continued vitality of traditional religious faith.
KEEPING THE FAITH
During the heralded “New Age” of the Woodstock Generation, various celebrities and influential intellectuals pronounced the death of old-style American religiosity, and heralded its replacement with assorted cults, fads, and crackpots. Time magazine ran a cover story in 1969 that featured a black background with stark white lettering, proclaiming simply “God Is Dead.” A generation later, the Deity might authorize His representatives on earth to paraphrase Mark Twain: “reports of My demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
Few oracles predicted the stubborn resilience of Christian religious faith, with the most demanding and scripturally rigorous denominations showing the greatest vitality of all. Triumphal talk about the “Fourth Great Awakening” may have begun to evaporate between the Bush re-election of 2004 (with its much discussed emphasis on “Values Voters” of traditionalist religious leanings) and the countervailing Democratic triumph of 2006 (featuring Congressional leaders and prominent candidates openly hostile to the priorities of the so-called “Religious Right”).
Nevertheless, the United States remains an incurably religious society, with levels of belief and participation vastly higher than our counterparts in Western Europe. For instance, Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Wall Street Journal (November 24, 2007) reported regular attendance at religious services in the United Kingdom at 7% (and a pathetic 2% for the official Church of England). The lowest comparable figures for the United States (reported by Professor Robert Wuthrow of Princeton in a Heritage Foundation Lecture of October 4, 2007) ranged between 30 and 35% of the adult population.
Meanwhile, the Gallup Organization offers its own “Index of Leading Religious Indicators,” measuring a variety of variables: belief in God, the importance of religion in lives, membership in churches, weekly worship attendance, confidence in organized religion, confidence in ethics of clergy, and relevance of religion in today’s society. Gathering data on these issues going back to 1941, Gallup (like other surveys) shows 1957-58 as a peak year for religiosity, followed by precipitous declines, then another rise between 1977 and ’85. After another thirty point decline between the Reagan Era and the Middle of the Clinton Era (1996) religion resumed its upward march, with another twenty point rise. The headline for the overall study appropriately proclaimed: AMERICANS MORE RELIGIOUS NOW THAN TEN YEARS AGO, BUT LESS SO THAN IN 1950’S AND 1960’S.
In any event, the quickening of religious enthusiasm and the growth of evangelical denominations remains an undeniable fact of American cultural life. Professor Wuthrow of Princeton, generally skeptical of all talk of a religious revival, unequivocally acknowledges the swelling power and influence of conservative forces in scriptural interpretation. “First, as a proportion of the entire U.S. public, evangelical Protestant affiliation grew from around 17 to 20 percent in the early 1970’s to between 25 and 28 percent in more recent surveys. Second, because the affiliation with the more liberal or moderate mainline Protestant denominations was declining during this period, the relative strength of conservative Protestantism was even more evident. For example, conservative Protestantism had been only about two-thirds as prominent as mainline Protestantism in the early 1970’s but outstripped it by a margin of 2 to 1 in some of the more recent surveys.”
This phenomenon has produced an increasingly common generational contrast: young people (and especially young couples) who embrace a more fervent, more impassioned, more rigorous religiosity than their parents or grandparents. The clichéd melodramas in the ancient style of “The Jazz Singer” (1927) – where a youthful, assimilated, show business-crazy American rejects the pious, immigrant orthodoxy of his parents – have given way to distinctive Twenty First Century tales of a new generation renouncing pallid secularism and re-discovering long-forgotten traditions associated with an earlier era. USA TODAY reported on this new pattern and indicated that “clergy of all stripes say they are seeing a small wave of young adults who are more pious than their parents. And they’re getting an earful from boomer moms and dads who range from shocked to delighted.”
In other words, religiously as well as morally, Americans refuse to march in lock step along a single parade route, at the same time that we find ourselves unable to stand still. All measures of morality show a complex, multi-faceted, dynamic and, to some extent, turbulent nation. Some Americans (unfortunately concentrated in the entertainment industry, academia and other centers of major influence) explore decadence and experimental values with more daring or abandon than ever before. At the same time, many others flock to our churches and synagogues (where religious services regularly draw four times more participants than all feature films every weekend) and affirm faith-filled values with energy, self-confidence, and dedication that continue to energize the religious conservative movement. In a sense, most Americans have boarded one of two express trains racing in opposite directions – toward more radicalism, or more traditionalism; heading to greater skepticism and secularism on the one hand, or to more spirited religious commitment on the other.
In all cases, no passage is final: life-long skeptics and cynics may embrace Biblical truth in their ‘70’s or ‘80’s (like the celebrated and controversial case of the British professor Antony Flew) or prominent religious leaders, especially when tainted by scandal or tagged with hypocrisy, may walk away from the faith of a life time. Choice remains an option, both nationally and individually – even for those who believe that a Higher Power ultimately forces our hand.
Moreover, in the United States no story concludes with a single generation. Those raised in strictly religious homes will, on famous occasions, throw over the faith of their fathers with an angry and dismissive attitude while pursuing other sources of satisfaction. More frequently today, many children of un-churched, disillusioned and disaffiliated parents may become religious leaders and teachers – and even go home to recruit various siblings or elders.
America remains, as always and in all things, on the move. Those who have already written off this great and good society as the victim of inevitable moral disintegration or unstoppable degeneracy don’t understand the unfailing national capacity for fresh starts and new life.