On looking back upon the idyllic past with rose-colored glasses

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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Excerpt

I think that the world generally remains as sinful as it always has been, though I do not deny that the tide of morality (and immorality) can ebb and flow, wax and wane. There can be periods of peace and serenity, but there can also be periods of intense evil and unrest. We might look back upon history and think that things were better, there was a greater sense of corporate morality and people had respect for authority. I think we tend to look at the recent past through the lens of television rather than history. We look at the recent past through the lens of TV shows, like, “Leave It to Beaver” instead of history books that record, in all its glory and gore, the best and worst of the past.

There is a reason why back then we had "Leave It to Beaver" and today we have "Desperate Housewives," etc. The shared moral convictions of our society really did change. They've been changing gradually since the Enlightenment and explosively (here) since the 1960s. It's important not to understate the reality and importance of the culture war.

Our hope, on the other hand, does not lie in somehow building a perfect utopian future—that we can eradicate societies’ ills. Rather, our hope lies in the “better country, that is, a heavenly one,” Zion, which God has prepared for his people (Heb. 11.16).

This is true, if by "our hope" we mean the redemption of the creation and establishing The Kingdom on earth.  Not true if we mean a better world for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. So the post suggests a false choice between aiming for a better society now and trusting in a perfect society Then.

But there's no incompatibility in the following set of ideas:

  • Christian principles were once dominant.
  • They aren't anymore.
  • We're way worse off morally (and maybe even economically) as a result.
  • We'd do far better as a society to return to those ideas.
  • That "far better" does not equal more genuine conversions to the faith or The Kingdom being established on earth, nor does it reduce the need for the "better country" Christ will establish Himself directly.
Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think it does. But it has arguably already been fulfilled many times over. Those who take Revelation as prophetic of real events expect something a good bit more dramatic at the end.

Related....

A Tale of Two Kingdoms http://wscal.edu/resource-center/resource/a-tale-of-two-kingdoms

His view is not completely my own, but Horton has some helpful comparisons and contrasts between the Anabaptist attitude and the "two kingdoms" attitude.  The view is overly complex on some points but at least explains how we can be citizens of heaven while still taking seriously the work of improving life on earth.

Jim's picture

I don't need to be persuaded about this: "be citizens of heaven while still taking seriously the work of improving life on earth."

In my view technology has tremendously increased (not much to debate about that)

while in general the quality of life has not

My inlaws (now gone ... both born in the 1910's) lived in a house with no indoor toilet or indoor running water. I mean outdoor outhouse and pump well. My wife was born at this house in the early '50s. (farm location: Mattoon Wisconsin)

Ma (as I called her) baked her own bread, bottled her own wine, grew her own vegetables, milked the cows, canned, etc. The happiness factor (or joy of living) was as good as any have today

 

JobK's picture

"The shared moral convictions of our society really did change. They've been changing gradually since the Enlightenment and explosively (here) since the 1960s. It's important not to understate the reality and importance of the culture war."

Funny that you talk about the 1960s. Because in the 1860s, a significant portion of our population was given over to either brutally enslaving people, or killing Native Americans and taking their land. And the people who vocally opposed such practices were for the most part not the ones that would be considered fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals today, but were rather theological liberals ... Unitarians, Quakers and such. So declaring that "Christian principles were once dominant" requires defining such principles after a very limited fashion that falls very short of some very basic things that the Bible actually says.

There is a reason why back then we had "Leave It to Beaver" and today we have "Desperate Housewives," etc.? Sure. But there is also a reason why Jim Crow was legal and the Ku Klux Klan was more popular than the Republican Party in many parts of the country also. Sure, abortion was illegal, homosexuality was not publicly accepted, and illegitimacy and divorce rates were low, and there were far fewer people relying on public assistance, but there is a lot more to legitimate Christian principles than that.

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

MShep2's picture

This discussion reminded me of this article by Michael Medved concerning American Teens:

Quote:
Why do so many otherwise reasonable people feel an odd compulsion to embrace the illogical and unsupportable notion of the nation's total moral collapse?

Despite irrefutable evidence of dramatically declining rates of crime, divorce, drug abuse, traffic accidents, smoking, abortion and even environmental pollution in the last twenty years, most Americans insist that the ethical state of the nation has never been worse. Doomsayers love to repeat the portentous line: "If God doesn't punish America sometime soon, He's going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah."

In fact, no chapter in my current bestseller THE 10 BIG LIES ABOUT AMERICA has inspired more controversy and indignation than the final one, in which I argue against the claim that "America is in the Midst of an Irreversible Moral Decline."

Not sure how all this could be true with metal detectors required in schools, the pushing of alternate forms of marriage, the banning of God from our society, etc., but Medved usually knows what he is talking about.

MS
--------------------------------
Luke 17:10

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

JobK wrote:
Funny that you talk about the 1960s. Because in the 1860s, a significant portion of our population was given over to either brutally enslaving people, or killing Native Americans and taking their land. And the people who vocally opposed such practices were for the most part not the ones that would be considered fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals today, but were rather theological liberals ... Unitarians, Quakers and such. So declaring that "Christian principles were once dominant" requires defining such principles after a very limited fashion that falls very short of some very basic things that the Bible actually says.

The influence of Christian principles has always been a matter of degree, and never 100%. So yes, some glaring exceptions are easy to find. But Christian principles ended slavery. Although those who favored slavery were often Christians, their efforts to back the practice with principle were always frauds.

The glaring inconsistencies of the past don't alter the fact that at one time nearly every American believed several things:

  • God exists and created the world
  • God is the moral authority over the world
  • Everybody will stand before God some day and answer for how he lived
  • The Bible communicates right and wrong to us
  • The role of government is to protect the security and property of its citizens
  • The role of government is not to secure an artificial equality of outcomes on its citizens

Along with these, a solid majority believed for a long time that fornication and adultery are serious sins, that marriage should be for life, that certain kinds of language constitute bad manners and are not suitable for ears of children and ladies, that men should lead in their homes as the primary providers and protectors, that wives should be the primary care providers for children, that reputable women should not be seen in public with 2/3 of their skin exposed... and much, much more.

There is no longer any strong consensus on any of these things.

Do some overstate the quality of the good old days? Sure. But to claim that there is no meaningful difference between now and earlier times is simply inaccurate. The sexual revolution was not the only revolution in the 60s, but it's called a "revolution" for good reason.

Wayne Wilson's picture

Funny that you talk about the 1960s. Because in the 1860s, a significant portion of our population was given over to either brutally enslaving people, or killing Native Americans and taking their land. And the people who vocally opposed such practices were for the most part not the ones that would be considered fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals today, but were rather theological liberals ... Unitarians, Quakers and such. So declaring that "Christian principles were once dominant" requires defining such principles after a very limited fashion that falls very short of some very basic things that the Bible actually says.

Though it had its defenders, conservative, orthodox Christians certainly had a large role to play in opposing slavery.  One example: I actually own a copy of the lightweight Book of Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church published in 1860 which every circuit-riding preacher carried in his saddlebags along with his Bible.   It reads... 

Ques. What shall be done for the extirpation of the evil of slavery?

Answ.  We declare that we are as much as ever convinced of the great evil of Slavery.  We believe that the buying, selling, or holding of human beings, to be used as chattels, is contrary to the laws of God and nature, and inconsistent with the Golden Rule in our Discipline which requires all who desire to continue among us to "do no harm," and to "avoid evil of every kind."  We therefore affectionately admonish all our Preachers and People to keep themselves pure from this great evil, and to seek its extirpation by all lawful and Christian means.

But you are right, brother, that every age has its sins.  Few nations struggle in a death grip to end them, as America did. 

Speaking more broadly, when Christian principles are dominant in a culture, sins tend to show up as pharisaical judgmentalism and moralism, but that moralism actually strengthens a society because God's rules are respected and honored.  It may not be saving in terms of more people possessing eternal life, but there is more honesty, fidelity, volunteerism, and self-control.  (I certainly remember a time when no one locked their doors at night, adults were respected, and it was shameful to get pregnant out-of-wedlock. And how many young people today would even care to do as many underage soldiers did in 1861 and even 1941...put the number 18 in their shoe so they could "honestly" say, "I'm over 18, sir.")  Modern sins, having thrown off all respect for such rules, tend to societal decay.  It is all around us.  The out of wedlock birthrates alone are staggeringly high.

JobK's picture

"God exists and created the world

God is the moral authority over the world

Everybody will stand before God some day and answer for how he lived

The Bible communicates right and wrong to us
The role of government is to protect the security and property of its citizens
The role of government is not to secure an artificial equality of outcomes on its citizens"

There is more to Christian principles than that. A lot more. Evidence of this is the fact that those principles could just as easily be Jewish principles, Roman Catholic principles, Mormon principles, Jehovah's Witness principles, oneness Pentecostal principles, freemason principles, Muslim principles, or mainline liberal Protestant principles as Christian ones. Are we forgetting that Barack Obama professes belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on the cross for sins and was resurrected on the third day? Those are things that Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and a number of our other founding fathers specifically rejected, along with their failure to make any reference to God, even a vague one to some general idea of a deistic deity, in our (very humanistic and Enlightenment-driven) Constitution. 

As for your paragraph that began with "Along with these", first off let me restate that I never said that things weren't getting worse. Quite the contrary, my reading of the Bible, which I admit is heavily influenced by premillennial dispensationalism (though I am no longer officially in that camp) predicts that things will get worse. But I am just saying that there is a lot more to legitimate Christian principles than a few selected cultural markers like sexual morality, public decency and welfare dependency. I go back to the Native Americans ... the reason why fewer than 5% of them identify with any form of Christianity has a whole lot to do with our treatment of them when this nation did a much better job of adhering to some Christian principles, but a lot worse job of adhering to others. 

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

GregH's picture

I agree with JobK. There are numerous ways that things are better today in the U.S. than a hundred or two hundred years ago.  Sanctity of life would be one of them. 

Joel Tetreau's picture

Enjoyed these thoughts!

Straight Ahead!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

There is more to Christian principles than that. A lot more.

This is not in dispute. The article in the OP seems to take the position that things are not better than they were... that earlier days simply had different sins but just as bad and just as many. The title identifies moral progress and decline as a myth. This is what I'm disputing.

Moral decline is reality. And on the whole things were better morally before the 60s.

So my view is that there was once a consensus in Western society in which Christian ideas (yes, these overlap with Romanist, Jewish, and Mormon ideas to a large extent) were dominant. The ideas that most greatly influence a society are the ones I have in mind--the ones that have to do with the perennial Big Questions of where we came from, why we are here, how right and wrong are determined, what is the nature of a human being and the slightly smaller but still huge question, what is government for.

GregH...

It's hard to see how sanctity of life is better respected in the US today than it was 200 years ago. Two hundred years ago nobody thought killing an unborn baby was OK for any reason, even though some did it. And nearly everyone thought life mattered enough that a murderer ought to be promptly executed.

GregH's picture

Sanctity of human life is about more than unborn children.  I could cite numerous examples of how violence and murder was tolerated in this country in the past in ways we cannot imagine.  For example, how about the cold-blooded murder of workers when they began to unionize?  How about slavery and the murder that went on? How about the Salem Witch Trials where people were murdered with no justification?  How about the fact that labor conditions in the coal mines were knowingly not safe and workers were treated like disposable cattle?  How about the vigilantes that took the law into their own hands in rural areas? And on top of that of course, abortion still happened as well.

No, today's society is far less violent and values human life much more.  We watch violence in movies; two hundred years ago, people lived it.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

I don't think you can identify the Salem Witch Trials as a sanctity of life issue. Same with the vigilantes, who often operated as the earliest form of law in region. These were not instances of life being cheap as some of the other situations you cite. Even then, I don't think any of your citations come close to the 3,700 daily U. S. abortions - for instance there were approx 12,000 coal mining deaths between 1911 and 1915; terrible, but hardly on a par with the 1.37 million abortions in the U. S. in 1996 alone.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

GregH's picture

I am not referring to raw numbers--that is the wrong way to compare attitudes about sanctity of life for any number of reason.  The real issue is the attitude toward human life.  

There is no way that our society today would allow the Salem government to put innocent people to death in the way it did.  

If 12,000 coal miners died within 5 years in this century, there would be massive repercussions and mine owners would be in jail.

Nor would our society for one second allow vigilante justice.  Note what happened with Trayvon Martin.  You would not have to go back many decades and few would have blinked an eye at what happened there.

Nor would we value a African American as 3/5ths of a person and treat him like an animal.  

And while we all probably disdain the Chicago teachers union at the moment, our society would not accept an orchestrated effort to murder union workers like you might have seen in our past.

And by the way, homicide rates have been on the decline since colonial times though we have the same murder rate today that we had in the 1960's.  http://thepublicintellectual.org/2011/05/02/a-crime-puzzle/

This is not really a debatable issue unless you throw abortion into the mix.  There is no question at all that the US population values life today more than it did 200 years ago.

 

 

Rob Fall's picture

What happened with Trayvon Martin was not vigilantism in the classic sense.  I'll not go into details on the case because that would cause a rabbit trail.  Remember Vigilance Committees were born in San Francisco.  Do not conflate them with a lynch mob or person.

I agree on the question of anti union violence.  E.g. just ask anybody who had kin living in the coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia.

As for violence on American citizens of African descent, I find the toleration of Jim Crow laws and Klan (lynch mob) appalling.

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Joel Shaffer's picture

Back 100 years ago and even earlier, street prostitution and brothels were legal.  Over 200 brothels were located in lower Manhattan right before the turn of the 20th century.  

The Wild western frontier was engulfed with violence.  Genocide among Native American Indians, Range wars, and even vigilante violence was the norm in western towns such as Tombstone Arizona 125 years ago.     

Our inner-cities of America with all of the gang and drug violence is pretty bad too.  I have students that Jesus changed that were former drug-dealers and gang-members who have lost somewhere between 20-30 of their friends to the streets of Grand Rapids because they were murdered.    

So I believe that it was bad then and it is bad now.   

Charlie's picture

It can be difficult to know what "people" thought back whenever, because much of our historical evidence comes from an era's cultural elite, whose values influence the broader populace but may not match it. For example, we know that the cultural elite in colonial and post-revolutionary America were Christian, with some heterodox theist and deist views thrown in. But it's not entirely clear that that the American populace was deeply committed to Christianity.

In The Churching of America by Finke and Stark, statistical evidence abounds that church membership rates were very low in the colonial era. In fact, they have for the most part trended upward since America's founding to the present day. In 1776, only 17% of the populace were registered church members. In 1860, 37% were. In 1980, 62% were. So... that's interesting. (To be fair, I think these numbers actually indicate registered membership in any organized religious group.)  Here's a tiny article summarizing some of the points of the book: http://c457332.r32.cf2.rackcdn.com/pdf/the-freeman/skousen0402.pdf

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I wonder how these rates are measured? Modern historians have an agenda, too, and a good bit of the time it's the very thesis of the OP... They have a goal of creating the impression that moral direction of the civilization is "progressive."

At the same time, the "elites" who lead the formation of the nation were leaders because people followed them. This in itself tells much about how people thought. What they were reading and listening to was reflective of their values and what they read and listened to was mostly Christian.

It's important too when looking at pretty much any group or period, not to think that what stands out as a dramatic example was typical of the time. Though murders occurred, sometimes heinous ones, this is not evidence that most people believed the behavior was right. All the murders that did not happen (despite everyone pretty much leaving their houses unlocked) don't make the history books.

But these are, in any case, categorically different from abortion. In the case of the former, you have a failure in the administration of justice--the law not being properly applied. In the case of abortion, you have murder of helpless humans being exalted to the level of law of the land and precisely because of a rejection of the idea that there is a moral code that transcends human opinion. Legalized abortion is a fruit of modern ideas about "progress" --specifically anti-Christian ideas.

GregH's picture

I suppose some will never believe that the good ole' days may not have been so good.  I could probably give dozens of examples with no hope of changing a person's mind.  But you Aaron could not be more illogical on this.  Look at the chart in the article I linked to of murder rates during the history of the US.  A clearer trend could not be evident and that chart shows what is "typical of the time."  The fact that some murders "did not happen" has nothing to do with it.  What we know is that the murder rate has dropped very dramatically.

And of course, people as a rule did not believe that murder was OK.  But they were much more callous on the issue of human life.  That is why for example, a few centuries ago in Europe, people took their children to view disgusting executions of people and considered it entertainment.  The very fact that the people in our country put up with the large scale murder of African Americans, Native Americans and groups (such as union workers) tells us that the people did not value life as we do.

It seems to me that for many, the only yardstick is abortion.  While legalized abortion is a very bad thing, it is far from the only thing that should be considered.  There has been real progress in our country on the sanctity of life.  Denying that fact is an insult against all the groups that have been violently abused through our history.  

 

 

Charlie's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I wonder how these rates are measured? Modern historians have an agenda, too, and a good bit of the time it's the very thesis of the OP... They have a goal of creating the impression that moral direction of the civilization is "progressive."

If you read their book, they have a whole chapter on methodology. But it's pretty simple. All the major religious groups since colonial times kept really good records, and most of those records are readily accessible. So, any inaccuracy is more likely the fault of the records than the historians. They do have an axe to grind, but it's in their interpretation of the data more than in their hard numbers. They think religion obeys the laws of free market economics.

Aaron Blumer wrote:

At the same time, the "elites" who lead the formation of the nation were leaders because people followed them. This in itself tells much about how people thought. What they were reading and listening to was reflective of their values and what they read and listened to was mostly Christian.

I think you unreasonably discount the level of disconnect between a progressive cultural elite and the majority of the populace. This is true especially in early modern Protestant countries, which remained majority Catholic for several generations after complete Protestant takeover of the government and educational systems. It's true in America because of the frontier effect; most of the people coming to America were not pious Puritans. Finke and Stark discuss the demographics of colonial America to explain the low church membership rates.

Aaron Blumer wrote:

It's important too when looking at pretty much any group or period, not to think that what stands out as a dramatic example was typical of the time. 

I agree. One example would be rampant economic exploitation. For example, the old mill town or mining town was a horrific affront to human dignity. Corporations built an artificial town around a valuable resource, then recruited people to work for them. The company business was the only work in town. The workers lived in company housing, purchased all their goods from the company store, and were paid in company (not federal) currency. The system was rigged so that the "money" the workers earned was a bit less than the cost of living. So, the company drained their own employees of money quite like how the employees stripped the landscape of resources. When the resources were exhausted, the company just moved elsewhere, leaving their employees broke and with no recourse. Today, economic exploitation still exists, but there are more opportunities to fight it.

 

[/quote]

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I agree with the OP- there is nothing new under the sun. There may be an ebb and flow, but it's all the same thing. Our ability to communicate quickly with other parts of the world gives us a bigger picture, and possibly the impression that things have gone downhill morally like a ball-bearing on a greased plank. We know that 'when the wicked bear rule, the people mourn', and when the 'righteous' are in charge, things are better. But what has really changed on the ground, so to speak? 

Nothing much. Man's heart has the capacity to be wicked and deceitful beyond measure, and we have many examples, from Cain to Susan Smith to Ted Bundy, that when the opportunity to commit evil knocks, some people are happy to answer the door.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Greg, I think you're not understanding what I'm saying. I've already granted that the "good old days" were not as good as some think. What I'm saying is that the nation has undergone an ideological shift. We do have more law and order in most places--hence lower murder rates.

The ideological shift is real as is a correlating moral change.

Aaron wrote:
The glaring inconsistencies of the past don't alter the fact that at one time nearly every American believed several things:

  • God exists and created the world
  • God is the moral authority over the world
  • Everybody will stand before God some day and answer for how he lived
  • The Bible communicates right and wrong to us
  • The role of government is to protect the security and property of its citizens
  • The role of government is not to secure an artificial equality of outcomes on its citizens

Along with these, a solid majority believed for a long time that fornication and adultery are serious sins, that marriage should be for life, that certain kinds of language constitute bad manners and are not suitable for ears of children and ladies, that men should lead in their homes as the primary providers and protectors, that wives should be the primary care providers for children, that reputable women should not be seen in public with 2/3 of their skin exposed... and much, much more.

There is no longer any strong consensus on any of these things.

Is the quoted part really in dispute?