You don’t need to look far to see that we’re in the middle of a cultural outcry—about almost everything. A few months ago, it was same-sex marriage and Kim Davis. Today the big outcry comes from debates about who gets what access to public restrooms. If you’re on social media, this loud and impassioned conversation is familiar to you.
I came across this comment on a social media thread the other night: “This country is in moral decline. I just wish we would return to our Christian values and turn back to God.” And as a Christian, it made me more than a bit nauseated.
I hear this sentiment from fellow believers often, and whenever I do I always wonder just what “Christian values” they’d like America to return to. Are they wanting to go back to when women couldn’t vote? Are they thinking about the good old days when people owned slaves? Segregation, maybe? Or are they wanting to return to street pistol duels and packs of vigilantes meting out justice in a town square? Perhaps they think we need more organized crime running urban police forces?
Are these the days when America was apparently more reverent, more righteous and more godly than it is today?
Nothing New Under the Sun
This idea of our country’s present moral decay has become a go-to Christian trope for decades. It’s an attempt at a literal self-fulfilling prophecy, where the world is falling hopelessly apart and the Church is the lone, faithful remnant standing in the face of a heathen culture’s rebellion. But the truth is America is not in decline any more than at any other time in its history.
Often, this is just lazy religious-speak that seeks to paint the picture of everything being terrible so it can drop “last days” language and leverage the ensuing fear. But everything isn’t terrible—at least not more terrible.
–Some people have always been bigoted, petty and ignorant, they just all didn’t have free, 24-hour self-promotion machines where they could advertise on a regular basis.
–There have always been corrupt governments, contemptible politicians and hypocritical religious leaders, only now we have more people armed with the resources to unearth and expose them.
–Gross injustices against the poor, the LGBTQ community, women, immigrants and people of color have been around since America was a newborn. We just didn’t have phone cameras to broadcast it to the world and make it seem commonplace.
–Teenagers have always followed the rush of their hormones into all sorts of regrettable messes, they just didn’t have Snapchat to preserve it for posterity.
In other words, there really is nothing new under the sun.
The Christian Witness in the World
It’s reckless for Christians to keep playing the decay card, and irresponsible for the Church to wring its hands and shout doom and damnation from a distance—instead of looking for the beautiful, redemptive work already happening in the world, and joining in.
We may actually be a fairly substantial mess right now in America. No one can deny that. But that doesn’t mean our current messes are more so than we’ve ever been in. It’s a sad indictment of our religion that we need to perpetuate the narrative of an ever-deteriorating humanity in an effort to ratchet-up urgency and to galvanize the faithful into action. Worse still, is when our Christian witness in the world, is marked by contempt for so much of the world.
I don’t believe we’re all slowing sliding off into the abyss. I’m out here every day and I see heroic, compassionate, reckless acts of beauty all the time. I see and speak to lots of good people doing their best, slipping and then getting back up again. We’re all flying and failing simultaneously—gaining and losing ground and doing it again and again.
There have always been people who will do horrible, despicable things. There still are.
There have always been people who live with unthinkable kindness. This is still true.
And almost always, they are the very same people.
American Christians need to stop pretending that the “good ol’ days” were so wonderful and that everything’s gone to Hell now. That sunny-in-the-rearview narrative simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, history or reality. And it cheapens how far we’ve actually come together. It also discounts what God is doing in this place and time that is so very worthy of celebrating.
These are not perfect days, but they are good days. And they’re the days that God, in his wisdom, has for us. No, America is not yet the thing it could be—but that has always been true. Yes, the world has its darkness, but light is still our default setting.
This essay appeared in an earlier form at johnpavlovitz.com http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/05/16/the-christian-myth-of-americas-moral-decay/. Used with permission.
is a pastor, writer and activist from Wake Forest, North Carolina. In the past four years his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said has reached a diverse worldwide audience. A 20-year veteran in the trenches of local church ministry, John is committed to equality, diversity, and justice—both inside and outside faith communities. He recently released his first book A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.