On March 19th, the Pennsylvania Pastors Network hosted U-Turn: A Conversation with Pastors on Society, Culture, and Leadership at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. The conference focused on the alleged fallen state of the U.S. and the importance of politically active pastors and Christians. After Paul Blair's talk, George Barna of the Barna Group delivered a talk on politics and values in America. In a talk entitled "The Necessity of Engagement: A Statistical Perspective", Barna depicted an America devoid of vision and mired in political passivity, a situation he urged religious leaders to correct.
At this moment in history, people must reflect on what made America great, he told the audience. The source of America's historical greatness, he claimed, was a dynamic partnership between the family, church, and government. All three institutions once shared a common vision that provided people with purpose, hope, leadership, and accountability. The result of this partnership, Barna claimed, was that the government was based on biblical values and limited its intrusion into the family and church, while the family obeyed the rule of law.
Today, the strength of the U.S. is being dissipated due to a lack of a shared vision among its people, he said. Most Americans believe that the U.S. is in decline, the government will not change for the better, and being politically active is efficacious, Barna told the audience. Parents no longer believe that they have a duty to raise children to be good citizens, preferring to let schools teach citizenship. However, declining public schools are failing to teach children to be good citizens, he claimed. Pastors, for their part, are reluctant to engage in matters of politics and citizenship for fear of running afoul of the IRS, he said, adding that churches are abdicating their political influence.
Barna depicted the U.S. as a country losing its Christian faith (ignoring the fact that people of many faiths and no faith make up its citizenry). According to Barna Group research, fewer Americans see faith as important or espouse a "biblical worldview", he told listeners, adding that many pastors don't even embrace a "biblical worldview. The growing numbers of "unchurched Americans" troubled him, as did the decreasing influence of the Bible in America.
There's more to this country than just fundamentalist Christians, you know, I thought. The rest of us are Americans too. Barna's America was a Christian America, it seemed, and his moral vision encapsulated only conservative Christians.
Government, he lamented, is not guiding the American people toward a shared vision. Citizens increasingly have little confidence in the three branches and agencies of the federal government. Many voters are insufficiently informed to make educated voting decisions, he claimed, and born-again Christian voters are no exception. Plenty of Christians do not vote and have not registered to vote, he complained.
Is this about getting out the Religious Right vote for the 2016 election? I wondered.
Barna was disappointed that few churches are allegedly using "biblical" teachings to influence public policy. As a result, America has passed legislation that is supposedly incompatible with the Bible.
"What happens is, we wind up putting policies into place that look like this, things like removing the Bible and prayer from public schools, legalizing abortion, legalizing same-sex marriage, allowing the government to spend way beyond its means, allowing people to work on the sabbath, protecting pornography as free speech, facilitating divorce, penalizing families, reducing religious liberties, instituting unprecedented expansion of entitlement programs, enabling government eavesdropping and data collection on all citizens and businesses, pursuing foreign policies that continually and severely weaken our economy and our global relationships and our security, creating countless laws through judicial rulings and executive orders in disobedience to the Constitution. You see, nobody's holding these people accountable."Barna complained that voters are not advocating for limited government, despite allegedly wanting to see limited government. He also disapproved of the supposed abandonment of early American values in favor of new, ungodly values, which he blamed for America's alleged decline.
"To what do we attribute the wholesale abandonment of principles and practices that made America great? I suggest that a lot of it lies in the shift in our core values that we have allowed to take place. See, the primary values of early Americans were diverse in their coverage. In comparison, America's values today are much more narrowly focused. We embrace a larger number of values and they're clustered within a smaller number of categories, and the reason for that is today's values are much more self-centered and less other-centered ... As you look at early America's core values, there are a number of them ... Things like contentment and hard work and recognizing and living up to civic obligations and duty, truth and honesty, recognizing and living the importance of the rule of law, frugality, chastity, simplicity. That's something you build a strong country out of because it's common sense and it's based on God's core principles. But when you look at that other list of current American values, what do you see? Things like comfort and entertainment, experiences, expressiveness, individuality, personal control, self-reliance and independence, speed, things that have nothing to do with honoring God and living the way that he's called us to live."These drastic changes in values have created a culture in which divorce, premarital sex, and same-sex relationships are considered moral, Barna fumed.
"One of the kinds of decisions that these types of values drive has to do with our perceptions of what's acceptable morality, and so when you look at what people believe without morality in America today ... 69% of Americans say that getting a divorce is a moral behavior. 67% say an unmarried woman having a baby is a moral behavior. 66%, two-thirds, say that a sexual relationship between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is morally reasonable. It goes on and on. Stem cell research, gambling, sexual thoughts or fantasies about people you're not married to, cohabitation, the death penalty. People think all of these represent godly morality. Look at the fact that six out of ten [people] say gay or lesbian relationships, doctor-assisted suicide -- the majority of people say this is acceptable morality.""Everything is permissible" in American society now because "we've allowed degradation of our religious beliefs," Barna insisted. According to Barna, the American Dream has been replaced by the New Millennium Dream, characterized by tolerance, "customized family", entitlement to rights and services, working only as hard as necessary to get by, and situational truth. Present-day America is different from the America of the 1600-1800s.
Barna partially blames the media and entertainment industry on this alleged shift in values. Ironically, he claimed that the media is feeding people a false version of reality. I'm more concerned about how the Religious Right misrepresents reality, I thought.
"Most Americans do not actually experience reality. What they do is they wait for the media to explain to them what reality is, and so we're being fed a perception of reality that bears no resemblance to what our dreams have been or what the future could be."American churches need to measure transformation rather than money, square footage, or attendance, Barna told listeners. Religious leaders need to shape people's priorities, lest they fail to take voting seriously and become disengaged from what the government is doing.
Barna's simplistic picture of the American moral landscape sugar-coated the past and dismissed the many positive values of the present. First, in his eagerness to exalt America's past, he ignored the many ugly values that infused that past: racism, ethnocentrism, tolerance of slavery, Manifest Destiny, sexism, and religious intolerance. We should not blindly glorify a past in which women were second-class citizens, blacks were slaves, whites colonized Native American lands and subjected indigenous populations to ethnocide, and people were oppressed for their religious beliefs.
Second, Barna was so eager to demonize the present that he ignored the moral progress than 21st century Americans have made. If Americans are supposedly failing to be other-oriented, how do we explain the abundance of charitable giving and the millions of Americans who volunteer? The countless people who advocate for social justice -- racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, fair conditions for workers -- suggest that other-oriented values are alive and well. The passion with which many people engage politics and legislation could not burn among a passive populace. The America I live in is not a cesspool of selfishness and apathy, but a country with millions of engaged, enlightened citizens. What America is Barna living in?
Barna's caricature of modern morality focused heavily on family and sexuality, suggesting a certain discomfort with relationships that do not fit a married, heterosexual, childbearing mold. It is revealing that family and sexuality issues consumed so much of his attention, rather than other moral issues such as corporate corruption, poverty, interpersonal violence, climate change, and environmental harm. Morality encompasses much more than bedroom habits, but these other moral issues do not rile up Religious Right audiences quite like same-sex marriage and divorce do.
For a speaker who waxed poetic about religious freedom, Barna grossly misunderstood the concept. He listed IRS limitations on clergy politicking, bans on school prayer, and labor on Sundays as signs of American moral decline, rather than examples of healthy church-state separation. If Religious Right figures despise "big government" intrusion into citizens' lives, why would they want government to impose religion on its citizens?
It appears that Barna was trying to encourage his audience to be more politically active by depicting their present world as morally impoverished. To inspire them, he reminisced about an early American golden age that never truly existed and offered a moral vision that was inappropriate for the 21st century.