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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

America Rising, America Falling

May 26, 2015

The greater anything is, and the higher it rises, the greater the fall if it does fall. There is no question that this can be said about the late great country known as America. Once a mighty nation and a morally good nation, it is now in free fall, thanks in large part to those who hate it and are actively seeking to bring about its ruin.

America is one of the more unique nations on earth, with a unique beginning. This was a nation specifically founded in the search for religious liberty. The idea of being a “light on the hill” in the biblical sense was integral to who and what this early nation was all about.

Of course revisionist historians seek to downplay the deeply ingrained religious aspects of America’s founding. They want to pretend biblical and Christian values and beliefs had little or nothing to do with the great success of America. I wonder how many American school kids today even know about the religious roots of their nation.

I have written before about the vitally important religious makeup of the American experiment, and will continue to do so. One such earlier piece is this: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/05/08/obama-versus-the-founding-fathers/

But I happen to be back in America again at the moment, and the contrast between what I now see in America, and what I used to know when younger is quite profound. The earlier tremendous rise of America is today so starkly contrasted with its rapid decline.

I have written plenty of pieces documenting this decline, so no need to repeat myself here. But a pleasant purchase at a second-hand bookshop offers a chance to recount the story once again. Although I have a number of terrific works by English historian Paul Johnson, for some reason I never had acquired his 1997 tome on the US.

Image of A History of the American People
A History of the American People by Array Amazon logo

So I just found it at a greatly reduced price, and snapped it up immediately. (The major downsize is that it is so big and heavy that I may need a separate suitcase just to get it back home!) I refer to his magisterial 1100-page volume, A History of the American People.

Because Johnson is both a conservative and a Catholic, he is not afraid to do what so many fail to do: highlight the extremely important role religion has played not just in America’s founding, but in its long growth and development. All I can do here is feature some of his opening remarks about all this, and then focus on the war on religion as discussed toward the end of his book.

Religious sentiments were evident from early on in this land. The Elizabethan sea-farers were mainly strong Calvinists. Sir Francis Drake for example “held regular services on board his ships, preached sermons to his men, and tried to convert his Spanish prisoners. Next to the Bible itself, his favourite book was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.”

Most of the early settlers were steeped in the Christian faith: “they read the Bible for themselves, assiduously, daily. Virtually every humble cabin in Massachusetts colony had its own Bible. Adults read it alone, silently. It was also read aloud among families, as well as in church, during Sunday morning service, which lasted from eight till twelve.”

Their search for a new spiritual home was also a search for liberty: To the pilgrims, “liberty and religion were inseparable, and they came to America to pursue both. . . . They associated liberty with godliness because without liberty of conscience godliness was unattainable.”

The political theory of someone like John Winthrop was clear: “Man had liberty not to do what he liked – that was for the beasts – but to distinguish between good and evil by studying God’s commands, and then to do ‘that only which is good’.”

Godly education was also a part of this. Thus we had people like the Rev. John Harvard who came to the colonies in 1635 to found a college to train ministers. He left £780 and 400 books for that purpose, and Harvard university was birthed the following year.

The Great Awakening, fuelled by Christians like Edwards and Whitefield, prepared the way for the nation’s independence: “The Great Awakening was thus the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment in American history. . . . The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background.”

The creation of the new nation was another affair soaked in religion. While some, like Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson were more deists than Christians, most of the Founding Fathers had clear biblical convictions. Says Johnson, this was “true for the great majority of those who signed the Declaration of Independence, who attended the Constitutional Convention, and who framed the First Amendment.”

So much more can be said about the Christian basis of American life, and Johnson spends hundreds of pages on this. But let me fast forward to the end of the twentieth century, and examine the great turnaround which sadly took place. Instead of celebrating and promoting religion, a war was declared against it by so many of the ruling elites and leaders. He notes how vital a role religion played in Western societies, then says:

In the light of this, it may strike future historians as strange that, in the second half of the 20th century, while public sin, or crime, was rising fast, the authorities of the state, and notably the courts – and especially the Supreme Court – did everything in their power to reduce the role of religion in the affairs of the state, and particularly in the education of the young….
We have seen how important, right from the outset, was the force of religion in shaping American society. Until the second half of the 20th century, religion was held by virtually all Americans…. Whereas in Europe, religious practice and fervour were often, even habitually, seen as a threat to freedom, in America they were seen as its underpinning. In Europe religion was presented, at any rate by the majority of its intellectuals, as an obstacle to ‘progress;’ in America, as one of its dynamics.
From the 1960s, this huge and important difference between Europe and America was becoming blurred, perhaps in the process of disappearing altogether. It was one way in which America was losing its uniqueness and ceasing to be the City on the Hill. For the first time in American history there was a widespread tendency, especially among intellectuals, to present religious people as enemies of freedom and democratic choice. There was a further tendency among the same people to present religious beliefs of any kind which were held with certitude, and religious practice of any kind which was conducted with zeal, as “fundamentalist,” a term of universal abuse.

He further describes in quite a sobering fashion this great reversal which occurred:

There was a kind of adjectival ratchet-effect at work in this process. The usual, normal, habitual, and customary moral beliefs of Christians and Jews were first verbally isolated as ‘traditionalist,’ then as ‘orthodox,’ next as ‘ultra-orthodox,’ and finally as fundamentalist (with ‘obscurantist’ added for full measure) though they remained the same beliefs all the time. It was not the beliefs which had altered but the way in which they were regarded by non-believers or anti-believers, not so much by those who did not share them as by those who objected to them.
This hostile adjectival inflation marked the changed perspective of many Americans, the new conviction that religious beliefs as such, especially insofar as they underpinned moral certitudes, constituted a threat to freedom. Its appearance was reflected in the extreme secularization of the judiciary, and the academy, and the attempt to drive any form of religious activity, however nominal or merely symbolic, right outside the public sector. Such a change was new and potentially dangerous for it was a divisive force, a challenge to the moral and religious oikumene or consensus which had been so central a part of America’s democratic unity and strength.

That was certainly a major turnabout. Religion was once everything for the American people. But now our elites, intellectuals, majority of leaders, media outlets, and other movers and shakers see religion as the enemy of everything good and of value.

War has been especially declared against biblical Christianity, the very thing that helped give birth to this once great nation. Thus the remarkable rise and rise of American society is now being offset by a tragic and even more rapid decline.

The question which remains is this: is America finished, her doom now all but inevitable, or is there hope for renewal and rejuvenation? Johnson, writing nearly 20 years ago, was optimistic, believing its great strengths would shine through again:

The story of America is essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence. America today, with its 260 million people, its splendid cities, its vast wealth, and its unrivaled power, is a human achievement without parallel….
The great American experiment is still the cynosure of the world’s eyes. It is still the first, best hope for the human race. Looking back on its past, and forward to its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity.

I suspect that Johnson would be much more morose and pessimistic about America today, especially after the rule of folks like Clinton and Obama, and all the radical changes which have transpired in just the past few years. I too love America, and I too hope it well.

But as an evangelical Christian, at this juncture I can only say that unless the church there engages in massive repentance leading to massive revival, America may well be doomed, at least for the immediate years ahead.

[1626 words]

6 Responses to America Rising, America Falling

  • Australian matter but vital; Tony Abbott is facing renewed pressure on ‘gay marriage’:

    https://au.prime7.yahoo.com/n7/news/a/-/national/28214229/abbott-faces-pressure-on-gay-marriage/

    Contact him to encourage him to hold the line:

    https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm

    Also for Australians, contact your local MP’s and senators to encourage them to hold the line:

    http://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Parliamentarian_Search_Results?q=&sta=WA&mem=1&sen=1&par=-1&gen=0&ps=12

  • In many ways, this article is bit like a summary of the history of Israel in the Old Testament. Just as the United States was founded on Godly principles, and has often been a beacon of light in the midst of darkness, so Israel had its moments of glory, as in the early reigns of both David and Solomon, and revivals as in the times of Hezekiah and Josiah. There were also centuries of darkness when God punished the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah for their disobedience and idolatry. Yet God is merciful, and as those famous words in 2 Chronicles 7:14 state so clearly, if and when his people (including the leaders) repent, he will restore their land and their leadership among the nations. And his words are just as relevant today as they were two to three millennia ago.

  • I, too, am pessimistic about America. In my travels there I find the average American is still warm and welcoming and generous. But I notice church attendance is falling, and that in itself is a good litmus test. I always found Americans to be doers. But these days they, like Australians, complain a lot about their politicians and policies but seem afflicted with a similar kind of inertia. Yes Bill, I’m worried too.

  • Perhaps the sad reality is that democracies have never been founded by democracy. They have always needed a helping hand with military action. King Alfred, the barons, Oliver Cromwell, Washington, Wellington and Churchill, none of these used a parliamentary process to establish freedom from tyranny. So bearing in mind that Western nations have forfeited their ancient freedoms hard fought for by their ancestors, I cannot envisage any other means of winning them back except by some kind of military intervention.

    David Skinner UK

  • Brilliant as always Bill, but so sad to see the demise of the country you love, just as I see the same in England, the country I love and come from.

    I think of Isaiah 5:20…Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
    Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness;
    Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

    How true that is for today. I think about how Christians can respond to this new national atheism. Do we stand in defense with our shields and armour? Do we attack with the Sword? Do the same Biblical moral and ethical arguments still work?

    It is a challenge, may God give us wisdom and strength.

  • Hi Bill – I thought maybe this might lift your hopes a bit. I know things are bad, but some of us here in the US are still hopeful. I know she is a long shot in the upcoming presidential race, but I have been enjoying what Carly Fiorina has to say on various topics. Even if she is not nominated, I think it is good to listen to such people and I hope other GOP candidates learn to speak clearly as she is doing on moral topics. Some may say she is bending to current winds to some extent, but I think the compromises she proposes make sense and recognize we have to play the hand we’ve currently got with respect to our position in the larger society. Anyway I’ve enjoyed listening to her and hope you do too:

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