S. Michael Craven
Center for Christ & Culture
It has become all too easy for Christians to fall into a state of pessimism—even despair—over the state of our culture today. This is in some way understandable in light of the last fifty years. The once Christian character of the nation seems to have all but disappeared. While Christianity remains a visible presence in American life, clearly its influence on the culture is negligible.
Large segments of the church have become apathetic, conformed to the culture, or completely at odds with historic orthodox Christianity. While most Americans describe themselves as Christian in some way (77 percent), closer examination indicates that this is grossly overstated in terms of representing historic orthodox Christianity. Many simply describe themselves as Christians because they happened to be born into that tradition or they aren’t consciously and admittedly atheist.
Despite the widespread veneer of religiosity (or spirituality), religion in general and Christianity in particular finds itself increasingly shut out from the public square, stripped of any real social and cultural significance. Christianity remains tolerated (for now) but the course of our society no longer finds itself under the guidance of serious Christian thought. And the evidence for this abounds in everything from widespread moral decay, changing values relative to human life and dignity, to the rise of Orwellian scientific ventures, and shifting economic and political theories. In short, there is scant evidence indicating that we are headed toward a better future; our historic social, economic, and spiritual gains are suffering a sharp reversal.
So is it easy to despair? Sure. Is there reason to hope that anything will change? Can the tide of immorality, paganism, and general debauchery that threatens to swamp us even be arrested, much less reversed? Can the moral character of the nation—once rooted in a vigorous Christian faith—be recovered? I believe history offers numerous examples where God, in his providence, has done so—and clearly this goal would be in keeping with God’s character. The record of Israel throughout the Old Testament testifies to this cyclical pattern of blessing and prosperity followed by unfaithfulness, which led to spiritual and sometimes real captivity, only to be repeated once the nation repented.
More recently a notable rescue of the church and the nation took place in Great Britain during the latter days of the eighteenth century. This might surprise you. Eighteenth-century England was pagan, debauched, and ungodly? Yes!
There is a tendency to think in linear terms relative to the course of history and the church. In other words, we assume that things were once good, especially in America. But there has been a continuous and gradual descent to a lower condition. To be sure, many things were probably better in some ways in the past, but some things were also worse, and the complex course of redemptive history defies such simple and categorical explanation. History confirms the more cyclical pattern indicated above, in which we see both the blessings and judgments of God poured out on the nations.
My good friend Eric Metaxas underscores this very point, relative to an overly romanticized view of eighteenth-century England, in his outstanding biography of William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace:
Americans have an outsized tendency to romanticize the past, to see previous eras as magically halcyon and idyllic, and of no era would this be truer than the eighteenth century in Britain…. Entirely surprising to most of us, life in eighteenth century Britain was particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar. Slavery was only the worst of a host of social evils that included epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, frequent public executions for petty crimes, public dissections, and burnings of executed criminals, and unspeakable cruelty to animals.
These deplorable social and moral conditions, which Eric’s book reveals in much greater depth, began with the loss of what Wilberforce called, “real Christianity.” Following his own conversion at the age of twenty-five, Wilberforce would write about the state of the church in Britain saying, “With Christianity, professing Christians are little acquainted. Their views of Christianity have been so cursory and superficial that they have little more than perceived those exterior circumstances which distinguish it from other forms of religion. These circumstances are some few facts, and perhaps some leading doctrines and principles, of which they cannot be wholly ignorant. But of the consequences, relations, and practical uses of these principles, they have few ideas—or none at all.” This same statement could easily be applied to the church in our own day in America.
This point is reinforced by Eric Metaxas’ in-depth exposition of eighteenth-century British culture. Eric writes:
When eighteenth-century British society had retreated from the historical Christianity it had earlier embraced, the Christian character of the nation—which had given Britain, among other things, a proud tradition of almshouses to help the poor, dating all the way back to the tenth century—had all but disappeared. The almshouses remained, and the outward trappings of religion remained, but robust Christianity, with its noble impulses to care for the suffering and less fortunate, was gone.
In essence, the moral decadence of eighteenth-century Britain was the result of a process similar to our own. A nation once characterized by its Christian faith had gradually become unfaithful. The church retreated from its mission and the increasingly secularized culture was all too willing to hasten its departure. Christian ideas and values were replaced by secular humanistic schemes and utilitarian values. To the faithful Christians of that era, the situation must have seemed as hopeless as our own.
However, history records that William Wilberforce—buoyed by the spiritual movements of John Wesley and George Whitefield—would live to see his nation and the world utterly changed by God. Not only would the most evil institution in the history of the world be abolished—human slavery—but the world’s superpower, Great Britain, would experience extraordinary moral, social, and spiritual reform that would last for nearly another century. The faithfulness of these few followers who took the Bible seriously and who refused to lay down and die in the face of what seemed impossible would serve to bless the whole world. Beyond rendering slavery an unacceptable evil, the unprecedented missionary activity of the nineteenth century and the formation of countless missionary and relief organizations (some of which still exist) stand as a reminder to Wilberforce and his faithfulness.
S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture. Michael is the author of Uncompromised Faith (Navpress).The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit the Center for Christ & Culture.