Most people who look at the cultural decline of the United States will say it started in the 1960s with the sexual revolution and the drug culture. But according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, it began not in the psychedelic Sixties, but in the frumpy Forties.
"By the fall of 1945," Brooks writes, "Americans had endured 16 years of hardship, stretching back through the Depression. They were ready to let loose."
As Brooks notes, this led to a shift from a more self-denying culture to one that celebrated individualism, and we could add, libertinism. And it actually started in pop culture, advertising, and, interestingly, books.
Notions of sin and service were out. Self-actualization and self-expression were in. A 1946 book by Rabbi Joshua Liebman titled "Peace of Mind," topped The New York Times' best-seller list for 58 weeks and told readers to relax and start loving themselves. Liebman even offered a new list of commandments, including "Thou shalt not be afraid of thy hidden impulses."
Then in 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published "The Power of Positive Thinking," which, as Brooks notes, "rejected a morality of restraint for an upbeat morality of growth." Rev. Peale's book was the No. 1 seller not for 58 weeks, but for 98.
Brooks writes that we've gone "from a culture of self-effacement, which says, 'I'm no better than anybody else and nobody is better than me,' to a culture of self-expression, which says, 'Look at what I've accomplished. I'm special.' " A quick glance at today's social media environment confirms Dr. Brooks's diagnosis.
And I think this "look at me, I'm great" philosophy also provides much of the underpinnings of the gay-rights movement, which is becoming ever more aggressive. Just think about it: We've gone from "gay pride" parades that celebrate what used to be considered deviant sexual behavior, to threats against Christian business owners. The idea is, "I'm so great, you have to approve of me—or else."
This attitude also may explain why people tend to be so easily offended these days. Self-worship never stops at self. It eventually looks for the worship of others, too. The god of self is a jealous god, a black hole that draws others into its deadly orbit. No one is allowed to pass. All must worship at its altar.
So how can Christians respond to this tectonic cultural shift?
Robert George, the great scholar from Princeton, says we must begin to rebuild "the character—or soul-shaping role of culture." He sees two avenues to improving what he calls our "moral ecology," or what is sometimes called public morality. One is establishing political and legal boundaries, which certainly have their place. The other primary one, however, is supporting society's cluster of private institutions—those "little platoons," like families, churches, and other institutions of civil society.
Dr. George says, "Despite the fact that public morality is indeed a public good, its maintenance depends far more on contributions of private institutions, beginning with the family, and then the other institutions of law and government."
I couldn't agree more. In fact, this is what Warren Smith and I, in our new book, Restoring All Things, call "restoration from the middle." As I've said before on BreakPoint, we will begin to see the tectonic shifts in culture we want to see even as Christian individuals, organizations, and businesses—with renewed intentionality—go about the business of the Gospel: helping the poor, building a culture of life, shoring up families, seeking racial reconciliation, and of course offering the hope of redemption and salvation to sinners.
This article was originally posted here.