For example, when I observed the Hilltop Conference in Arlington, VA this spring, George Otis Jr. delivered a talk on America's alleged decline. He painted a dark picture of an America ravaged by "moral decomposition", crime, addiction, sexual immorality, and loss of faith. At Vision Forum's History of America Mega-Conference this summer, various speakers slammed the modern era and its imagined boogeymen -- "statism", secularism, abortion, feminism, evolution, and same-sex marriage -- as fallen and evil. Mainstream culture was caricatured as a corrupting influence from which homeschooling must shield children.
I encountered yet another example of this pessimistic view recently. While writing a prior post on IHOP's Joseph Company, I listened to archived talks from the 2012 Marketplace Conference. Among the workshops was a talk by Les Woller entitled "For Such an Hour as This". Like Otis, Woller painted a picture of a world spiraling downward, in which the family is disintegrating, citizens are losing confidence in their governments, education is getting more expensive, and Christians are succumbing to spiritual apathy. Revealingly, Woller ignored signs that society is improving, such as advances in technology, science, and medicine, as well as greater rights for formerly marginalized groups such as women, children, LGBTQs, and people with disabilities.
At the 32:32 mark, Woller attacked the usual fundamentalist boogeymen -- abortion, lack of school prayer, and society's alleged relativism -- while reminding listeners of the supposedly fallen state of society.
"The awareness issue here is that people you're encountering, people you're being salt and light to in the marketplace ... they are not where I think they are ... They believe they've got everything they need, and the problems are economic with a political solution, when in fact there's a God and a moral solution. I mean, we got here with 54 million abortions, innocent blood spilled on a worldwide basis ... Not to mention the teachings in our universities ... There are many who believe this has been a slow descent for us. The economists believe the economic descent started in the seventies, and the behavioral researchers believe that after World War II, as we started the postmodern movement is -- everything's relevant, if it's in my experience, then we move to if it's my experience, it's truth, then we move to truth can be anything I want it to be, that we've slowly moved through legislation, through whether it's taking the prayers out of our schools, we have slowly moved to where we are today, and as we're seeing the Lord's redemptive judgments play out on a worldwide basis."At the 52:24 mark, Woller claimed that language is morphing into something degraded, a reflection of a declining world.
"[In] the society we're confronted with, there's been language inversion. Words don't mean what they used to mean. When you can get from murder to pro-choice, when you can get from your social security benefit has now become your government entitlement check--the language that is shaping our culture is becoming inverted to reflect the values of the culture versus godly values, and the meanings of words are no longer what we thought or certainly what reflect a lot of our Christian values."Why do fundamentalist Christians feel the need to describe modern society as a world in decline? I suspect that several causes lie at the root of this thinking. First, fundamentalists depict the modern world as wicked and fallen so as to contrast in to a holy golden age in the distant past. Whether this golden age existed in Biblical times or more recent history -- and whether it existed at all as they imagine it -- it allows them to create the myth of a holier time to which society must return.
Second, the view of a declining modern world helps fundamentalists feel like members of an exclusive, counter-cultural group. The modern world becomes a wicked force that fundamentalists must unite against, strive against, define themselves in contrast to. By envisioning the modern outside world as wicked, fundamentalists foster cohesion among themselves.
Finally, believing that the modern world is in decline, fundamentalists justify their social and political agenda. If fundamentalists see the modern world as evil, they can justify attempts to remedy its "evils" and mold society in their image. Unfortunately, such black-and-white thinking leaves little room for nuance or dialogue, making it difficult for non-fundamentalists to engage in discourse with fundamentalists.
We must remember that the fundamentalists' scathing take on the modern world is false. There was never a golden age in the distant past. There is no corrupt, monolithic outside world that wars against Christians; rather, the modern world is a dizzying array of people, groups, and cultures that is anything but monolithic.
Those who see today's world as depraved and decayed ignore its many wonders, such as advances in medicine, science, and technology, greater rights for previously marginalized groups, vast access to information, vast means of communicating and traveling over long distances, and so forth. This is not to say that war, crime, addiction, oppression, and ignorance have been eradicated -- to the contrary, these are devastating problems that demand our immediate attention. However, these problems have always plagued humanity, and are not necessarily signs that the modern world is uniquely evil. To ignore the modern world's flaws or its treasures is to paint a false picture of reality.
In conclusion, when fundamentalists decry modern society's sins, we must recognize their rhetoric as part of a larger strategy. And, we must be ready to counter their rhetoric with evidence to the contrary, evidence that the modern world has both flaws and strengths.