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Observing the modern world, French sociologist Jacques Ellul noted a striking trend: As the Christian gospel permeates society, it tends to produce values that, paradoxically, contradict the gospel. I sometimes test his theory while traveling overseas. I ask foreigners about the United States, the world's largest majority-Christian society.

"When I say the words United States, what comes to mind?" I ask. Invariably, I get these responses:

Wealth. Representing only 6 percent of the world's population, the United States generates more than a third of the world's economic output and dominates global finance.

Military power. We are, as the media constantly remind us, "the world's only superpower." Indeed, our current military budget exceeds the total of the next 23 biggest-spending nations combined.

Decadence. Overseas, most people get their images of the United States from Hollywood movies, which seem to them obsessed with sex and crime.

European nations, with their Christian roots, tend to manifest similar characteristics, which run counter to the teachings and example of Jesus, whose life was marked by poverty, self-sacrifice, and purity. No wonder followers of other religions, such as Islam, puzzle over Christianity, a powerful faith that nonetheless produces the opposite of its ideals in society at large. What accounts for this strange development?

I found a clue in the writings of Gordon Cosby, the founding pastor of Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. He noted that high-commitment Christian communities begin with a strong sense of devotion, which expresses itself in a life of discipline. Groups organized around devotion and discipline tend to produce abundance, but ultimately that very success breaks down discipline and ...

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