Is America Collapsing or Am I Just Being Cynical?
Since teen years I’ve heard adults bemoan America’s moral failings and warn that “America is going to hell in a handbasket”. I’d roll my eyes. But now I’m the one bemoaning America’s moral failings and warning that America’s going to hell in a handbasket. So how can we know if it’s true? Can we like doctors perform a physical on the body politic and get a diagnosis that helps us see our true condition?
I think we can, but it takes unusual wisdom. Most people speak only from their own viewpoint and can’t grasp viewpoints from different races, economic groups, or ideologies. And besides, the only view that matters in the end is the person’s who has enough political power to actually make the needed social changes. That person may be a Hitler, or he may be a Lincoln. Or “he” may be a small group of Christians. Let’s first consider that possibility.
My view is that American society is indeed headed for collapse, and the Church is the only institution that can prevent it. Let me explain why the Church is so key. Jesus uses the analogy of yeast in Matthew 13:33: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast which a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough. In other words, it only takes a little change agent to affect society. For the fragile early Christian communities, this became a powerful slogan. Paul wrote in both Galatians 5 and 1 Corinth 5 that A little yeast leavens the whole lump.
Or consider the prophets, those “army of one” warriors for God. Rarely were any of the prophets validated in their own lifetimes, but in retrospect the truth they spoke sparked repentance and renewal among the surviving faithful. Jews living in captivity in Babylon remembered Jeremiah’s prediction that their captivity would last 70 years and then they’d return to Israel. Jeremiah turned out to be right, and his prophecies galvanized the faith of the exiles who rebuilt the nation of Israel.
So like the monasteries of medieval Europe or the Puritan communities of early America, small Christian communities can profoundly shape society like yeast leavens a big batch of dough. That is the Church’s assignment in our generation.
But now let’s return to the question of whether America is actually collapsing. Can we definitely say that it is?
I would say that sizeable communities on our country have already collapsed. I speak of our inner cities. I don’t want to discourage the good-hearted people, many of whom are Christians, who want to see the good in our low-income urban communities; God is at work there and lovely people do live and thrive there. But I can’t ignore the larger wreckage. Millions of Americans live in neighborhoods that would self-destruct were it not for massive policing and government-funded welfare. And I speak as one who has lived and ministered in such neighborhoods for almost four decades.
One might counter with “But isn’t it normal to have poor people in a society? After all, Jesus himself said the poor are always with you.” Yes, only in utopia are there no poor. (And heaven, of course). But there are so many other troubling symptoms in the body politic. Let’s look at the five social institutions (you learned about them in high school, right?): family, economy, religion, education, and government. I’ll give a single telling statistic for each which points to dysfunction in at least three institutions.
Family: less than half of America’s children grow up with both parents1
Economy: the mean net worth of the “lower class” (bottom 25%) is $12,430; the mean net worth of the “upper class” (top 5%) is $17,550,000. The upper class holds 1,412 times as much wealth as the lower class.2
Religion: U.S. church membership fell below majority for the first time in 20213
Weekly church or synagogue attendance in 1962 was 62%; in 2021 it was 22%.4
Education: “New federal data (pre-pandemic) shows unprecedented drops in math and reading scores and the largest setbacks for students in more than half a century”.
Government: 6.7% of American households are millionaires; 51% of congress are millionaires.6
A sociologist would provide more convincing evidence that some American institutions are in big trouble; I’m just giving the barest outline of the problem. But this is the difficulty with diagnosing collapse: as it’s happening, it usually seems just the way things are. We simply get used to the conditions that cause collapse.
Until a small group of Christians with vision stand up and say: “Wait. This is insane. This is not how God intends things to be.”
And of course they get shouted down by louder voices. But here’s the rule of influence in a media-driven age: whoever shouts the loudest the longest wins. And what that means for Christians is that it will take three to four generations of a deeply-held vision of the good society to influence social renewal. It’s the Christians who will bring renewal out of the ruins.
More on that in the next blog.
1The State of the Family in America, Marripedia 2022
2 The Federal Reserve Survey of Consumers, 2016
3 Gallop Poll, 2021
4 Statista, 2021
5 US News and World Report, September 1, 2022. I have not investigated the truth of this stat.
6 USA Today, September 8, 2021