Good News from a Bad World
Preachers might have to get some new material, because the demise of American culture may have been grossly exaggerated. Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin recount the remarkable comeback in their article "Crimes, Drugs, Welfareand Other Good News" for Commentary magazine.
Surveys over the last 15 years show improvement across the board on a host of benchmarks, including crime, the number of welfare recipients, and academic scores. The news has improved for teenagers with declining drug abuse, birthrates, and binge drinking. College-educated Americans are leading the way in dropping divorce rates, apparently responding to research that shows their children will suffer if they separate. Abortion rates have fallen, and a Harris poll from September showed that Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 oppose abortion more than any other age group.
"In attitudes toward education, drugs, abortion, religion, marriage, and divorce, the current generation of teenagers and young adults appears in many respects to be more culturally conservative than its immediate predecessors," Wehner and Levin write. "To any who may have written off American society as incorrigibly corrupt and adrift, these young people offer a powerful reminder of the boundless inner resources still at our disposal, and of our constantly surprising national resilience."
These young people may also demonstrate the power of therapeutic appeals. Don't binge drink, do drugs, or smoke, because you'll hurt yourself. But when the therapeutic arguments are less compelling, the news isn't so good. That's the case with homosexuality, where youth buck their elders' reticence.
Even so, these signs of sustained cultural improvement could precede significant theological changes, if American church history is any guide. During two great awakenings before the Civil War, American Christians favored postmillennialism, a belief that the kingdom of God will expand during a millennial age of gospel preaching and social progress. Only after this age, either a literal or figurative 1,000 years (see Rev. 20), will Jesus Christ return and bind Satan.
But this view became much less popular as the revivals faded, the Civil War dragged on, and theological liberalism spread in America and Europe. Premillennialists saw these developments as signs of the end, when Christ would finally return to rule. Evangelist D.L. Moody expressed this view when he said, "I don't find any place where God says the world is to grow better and better."
"Whereas postmillennialists were habitually optimistic about the course of events, believing that the Almighty was overruling human affairs to establish his kingdom on earth, premillennialists were characteristically pessimistic, supposing that the only remedy for the evils of the day was the return of the king," historian David Bebbington wrote in The Dominance of Evangelicalism. "Despite their confidence in the power of the gospel to save souls, they put no faith in the secular world around them. The newer school of opinion dropped the earlier evangelical confidence in the steady advance of civilization, replacing it with belief that the present was bad and the future was worse."
These days many evangelicals talk like premillennialists but act like postmillennialists. They expect the world to get worse and worse but preach the gospel, lobby politicians, and fight for social justice in order to make it a better place. Jim Wallis laments poverty and Jim Dobson worries about homosexuality, but they combat these problems nonetheless. Theology often shapes the way Christians engage their world, but sometimes the world shapes how Christians form their theology. If the trends identified by Wehner and Levin continue, it's possible evangelicals will see another paradigm shift in their eschatology.