On the eve of America’s Independence Day celebration, I’m eager to share with you an excerpt from mt friend and colleague Tim Goeglein’s new book, American Restoration: How Faith, Family and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation.
There’s no question that the heart and soul of America are ailing. It’s easy to become discouraged and to believe that our country’s best days are behind it.
In American Restoration, however, Tim Goeglein and his co-writer, my friend and former colleague, Craig Osten, paint a hopeful picture of the future that lies ahead if the people of this great nation will do the hard work necessary to restore freedom, family, and self-sacrifice to the center of America’s values.
So, please enjoy the introduction to the book – and let me know how you and your family will be celebrating the July 4th weekend!
One of the most common and recurring conversations across America today is the fate of our country’s culture. There is a belief in some quarters the United States has now passed itsmaturity and started the long, slow decline to eventual death. As a nation, we have divided ourselves into “red” and “blue” camps that bicker at each other like two elderly men playing checkers in the park.
The result is many Americans have concluded that, like many other great civilizations, our nation is crumbling from within. Many surmise that our physical, moral, and cultural infrastructure—once the envyof the world—is dying a slow death of abuse and neglect.
In their view, our institutions have become not only rigid, sclerotic, and unresponsive, but also openly hostile to the Judeo-Christian values that served as the basis of America’s foundation. Our educational system seems to undermine deliberately the values parents are trying to instill in their children while cranking out graduates who can barelyread or write, let alone critically think about any issue. Our national debt is out of control, leaving a legacy of crippling financial nightmares for our children and grandchildren. Generations of children have never known the loving stability of the two-parent home, resulting in a continually downward spiral of hopelessness, poverty, and despair.
Most of all, many perceive there is no cultural agreement on even the most fundamental issues of values and morality, which are left more to individual whim than national consensus. This has resulted in a national discourse often so vile and venomous it seems to be beyond repair.
To those who observe these breakdowns, America’s demise seems imminent. Much like an aged and diseased body, our foundational institutions—along with our respect and civility toward each other— are withering. Thus, for approximately half the country, a sense of hopelessness and impending doom permeates the land because they perceive that we, as a nation, are abandoning faith-based values. For the other half, they believe the future will only be bright if we completely abandon what they perceive to be “oppressive” and “regressive” elements of American society—namely, our Judeo-Christian heritage—and put our faith in government solutions for every aspect of our lives. They have a feeling of doom and gloom because we are not abandoning that heritage or embracing an all-encompassing government fast enough.
This fatalism is lamentable. Those who argue we have abandoned our Judeo-Christian heritage have come to accept there is no reason to believe our nation is exempt from the larger historical forces of decadence. In their minds, America’s historical moment in the sun has ended and darkness is rapidly approaching. They have concluded that the 250-year great American experiment in ordered liberty—while representing a glorious and unprecedented chapter in world history— is fundamentally over. In their minds, America’s visionary and revolutionary form of government—the constitutional republic—is wheezing down the road like an old car. And rather than try to squeeze a few more miles out of it and risk a complete breakdown, it may be time to trade it in for a new model—whatever that model may be.
For those on the other side of the debate, that 250-year experiment cannot end quickly enough. They despair that people continue to cling to what they view as outdated belief systems and impede what they perceive to be progress in achieving their vision of a utopian society.
Is this truly America’s fate? Has our nation reached the end of its life span, destined unavoidably to pass away in the near future? Or could it experience a restoration? What acts of renewal can we take in our personal and national lives to help bring about this regeneration?
These are the questions we seek to answer in this book. Unlike those who believe America is staring helplessly at the raised blade of the Grim Reaper for our nation, we take a more hopeful view. We believe American restoration is not only possible, but also probable, if we act now.
We do not subscribe to the “Benedict Option,” at least as it is under- stood by many: the retreat of Christians into private communities to await the inevitable collapse of a corrupt society, eventually reemerging to rebuild it.8 While we would agree that the foundations of our society are indeed in a state of decay, there is much we can still do to restore those foundations in our communities and reverse the decay before it is too late.
There has been a great deal of debate over the Benedict Option in political and academic circles. Its author, Rod Dreher, insists that he is not calling for a total Christian withdrawal from politics or the broader culture, but is calling on Christians to strengthen their families and faith communities so they can survive the dark times that are upon us.
The purpose of this book is not to debate Dreher’s thesis, but to suggest that regardless of what he is advocating, this is not a time for good people of faith to withdraw completely from society.
While we would agree the signs of decadence that were part of the Roman Empire are now real and inarguable here in America, we also believe we can arrest that decay and commence an American restoration before it is too late. To do so requires us to understand this is not a time for withdrawal, but instead a time to engage, to continue to be “salt and light.” Therefore, we must remain involved in our communities to transform hearts and lives while remaining engaged nationally to help slow and reverse the decay occurring in those same communities because of the negative impact of policy decisions at the state and federal levels. Thus, with regard to calling on Christians to be intentional about their faith, we have no quibble. Many of the issues we face today are because Christians have not been intentional with their faith in their interactions with others and engagement with their communities.
Our engagement must come with the understanding that restoration and renewal have to come from within. In the words of the late Chuck Colson, “Salvation will not come on Air Force One.” Even in days when we had national leaders—such as Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan—who affirmed America’s Judeo-Christian heritage even when some of their policies or moral behavior may have not, our cultural decay continued on the local and state levels. This occurred as those seeking to destroy our Judeo-Christian foundations continued their assault virtually unabated in our schools, universities, city councils, and state capitols.
That is why we advocate for—as you will see throughout this book—people of faith to be involved in the private communities where real spiritual and cultural transformation occurs, engaging with their neighbors and co-workers while also remaining engaged in the public square. It is not an either-or proposition; it is both. If all of our focus is on national politics while our communities decay around us, we have failed in our mission. At the same time, if our communities are strong, but our national politics make it harder and harder for us to practice our faith, to minister to others, and to have opportunities to succeed, we have failed in our mission, as well.
The renewal for which we speak, hope, advocate, and pray for must be rooted in a reconciliation between the great Judeo-Christian ethos and secular culture. This reconciliation will involve the reweaving of our nation’s tattered and fraying national tapestry into a new garment that once again includes the virtues of faith, family, and personal sacrifice that made America the beacon of hope it has been for the world— the nation the “teeming masses” from around the world traveled to for freedom and prosperity. We believe there are various specific acts of renewal all of us can participate in to make this national restoration possible. Some are very simple; some will take greater effort. But collectively, they can bring transformation.
When we express this view, we sometimes receive vast skepticism. Powering that skepticism is a deeply felt conviction that our national decline will take a long time, dragging along for decades like a grand dowager trying harder and harder to stop the relentless ravages of advancing age.
In our understanding, the West evolved into a civilization with two sources of authority—one divine, the other secular. The first source is the norms and values of Christianity. The second, secular source is rational enlightenment. These two sources—while radically different—acknowledged there were key moral principles and norms upon which healthy societies are built. They also held a joint belief in the existence of a higher authority than our own and the belief that individuals should be free to worship as they choose. It was the acknowledgement of this authority that served as the glue of our civilization.
Unfortunately, many in today’s elite political and cultural world are working overtime to deconstruct America’s Judeo-Christian foundation. While America’s history is not perfect—particularly in the area of slavery, and later civil rights—our culture, imperfect as it may be, still had faith in God and the moral principles laid out in Scripture as its foundation.
The authority that foundation was based on now finds itself replaced by a radical secularism and propulsive postmodernism that rejects with a frightful degree those moral principles. American culture has gone from commending the righteous to condemning them. Too often, vice is celebrated while virtue is disdained.
Thus, faith—previously seen as a positive element in society—is increasingly belittled and openly mocked. Extramarital sex and cohabitation are perceived as normal, and those who believe in faith-based standards for sexual behavior are seen as abnormal. Because of this paradigm shift, this new order possesses a particular animus against people who still adhere to the teachings and values of their faith, particularly conservative Evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews.
By striking at those norms and values, this new order seeks to eradicate our Judeo-Christian heritage. Ultimately, it is striking at the very essence of liberty itself. Thus, in recent years at our nation’s college and university campuses, those who call for tolerance and free speech are actively demonizing and censoring those with whose free speech and beliefs they disagree, thereby showing a lack of tolerance. Groups finding themselves outside the current campus orthodoxy—such as Christian ministries, conservative limited government groups, and others—are denied the ability to even exist.
As James Kurth, professor emeritus of political science at Swarth- more College, put it, “The real clash will not be between the West and one or more of the Rest. It will be between the West and the Post-West, within the West itself.” Or, as it has been put many times by others and documented in history, all great civilizations die not because of an attack by an outside enemy, but because of decay within.
Alexis de Tocqueville understood this as well, writing, “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of [freedom].” Thus, in his view, without faith at the foundation of a nation, freedom cannot flourish.
Therefore, in candor, in our human understanding, the landscape does look bleak and the horizon even more so. We inhabit a culture largely shaped by elites who often see themselves as intellectually superior to the “masses” and who reject objective truth while propelling and embracing normlessness and meaninglessness. Nevertheless, we believe there is hope and a better way forward for the United States.
David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, provides a succinct summary of the differences between those who believe America’s best days are behind us and those who think our nation’s best days are yet to come. He calls the two camps “upswingers” and “downswingers.” He writes that upswingers believe in progress while downswingers have lost faith in progress. As a result, they feel everything is broken, and thus we must start all over again from scratch.
Brooks says upswingers and downswingers can be found on the Left and the Right. Regardless of political beliefs, downswingers are pessimists, and thus lash out in anger, despair, or hopeless resignation to their fate. Some have a great deal of distrust and are prone to con- spiracy theories, while others may also lack civility and seek to silence any speech with which they do not agree.
He continues that while upswingers need to respect the critique of the downswingers, they cannot fall prey to pessimism. He argues there has to be economic, social, and political solidarity with those left behind, as well as “penance,” in his words, for those who “did the leaving.”
Finally, Brooks concludes that there must be a convincing story of where we are in history and a new moral order to affirm the dignity of those “who feel insulted.” He says upswingers will have to conserve our basic institutions so they continue to produce real benefits while reforming them with “a hesitant radicalism,” or moderation. He writes, “There are moments when society goes into decline. But there are many, many transitional moments when some just think society is in decline, when it is really a bumpy pivot. This is such a moment. It gets better.”11
We concur with Brooks on this evaluation, even when we disagree with him on some substantive issues. If America returns to its spiritual foundations, we believe the tumultuous times we live in may be nothing more than a “bumpy pivot” in our nation’s history.
We also concur with the late Neil Postman, who believed that after we exhaust ourselves with entertainment or amuse ourselves to death, as he so powerfully predicted, there would be a series of mini-rebellions among people who want other and better alternatives. We are beginning to see this ever so slightly with the elements of Generation Z and millennials and their quest for authenticity. While many have rejected the institutional church, they are seeking some sort of faith experience, but are still trying to figure out what that experience is. It is our role to come alongside them, listen to them, and gently guide them to the authentic faith they seek.
For example, a recent phenomenon has been elements of these generations ditching their smart phones for old-school, no-frills “flip phones” that just provide the essential functions of calling and texting, and nothing else. After years of having the latest technology and information at their fingertips, young adults are finding out there are things far more important in life, such as making flesh and blood connections that encourage interaction with others, rather than digital ones, which do not.
We believe we have arrived at a pivotal moment in American history—a historic turning point where America will choose one direction or the other. Some feel we have already passed that point and there is no return. We have hope, but we thoroughly understand the scale of the battle. As Winston Churchill said so eloquently during the dark days after Dunkirk at the beginning of World War II—and Franklin Roosevelt reiterated later—we are fighting for the “survival of Christian civilization.” That is a civilization that sees every person as “imago Dei,” made in the image of God.
We are in a battle for our civilization. And for many, the battlefield is filled with fire and despair, rather than hope. However, America also has associations of like-minded people and groups—such as churches and civic organizations, to name just two—who want a restored and healthier national culture and realize there is much we can do to bring about such a result.
The seeds of American regeneration are ready for sowing if we have the national will. These seeds, which in many ways can be thought of as a new counterculture, are alive in the arts, the military, the churches, the universities, and in the law.
They are even alive in politics. But most of all, these seeds can be found in the homes and communities of faithful Americans who still embrace the Judeo-Christian ethos upon which our nation was founded and seek to love their neighbors as Christ commands us.
Their faith is a confident, muscular Christianity that fuses faith and action, permeating every aspect of their lives, though it is often unseen or ignored. It is not a cruel faith, as it is often portrayed in the media. Instead, this faith is firm, rooted in ancient and unchanging reality, and strong enough to withstand the buffeting of changing social winds rooted in a timeless, unchanging, and transcendent moral order.
Our contemporary culture does not understand this kind of faith— indeed, no human culture has ever been able to grasp it. But the reality is it is this type of faith that will bring about the restoration of the society we seek, which T. S. Eliot described as one “in which the natural end of man-virtue and well-being in the community . . . is acknowledged by all, and the supernatural end—beatitude—for those who have the eyes to see it.”
We see glimpses of this society in our nation today, such as when a Christian furniture shop owner in Houston opens his showrooms so displaced people from Hurricane Harvey can sleep in the brand new beds he was planning to sell.15 We see it when an infertile Christian couple decides to turn their personal heartbreak into ministry, opening their home to and raising six orphans of various races—children who simply want nothing more than a mom and a dad to call their own— and loving them unconditionally through all the peaks and valleys of their formative years.
In July and August 2018, horrible wildfires swept through North Central California, resulting in numerous deaths and massive losses of property and destruction of land. Those affected by the wildfires felt hopeless as they saw everything they worked for go up in flames. The fire was started not by arsonists or careless campers, as is often the case, but by a blown tire on a trailer driven by an elderly couple. The flat tire caused sparks to fly as the exposed rim scraped the road, and one of the sparks ignited brush by the side of the road.
While the names of the elderly couple were not released, a woman named Rachel Pilli learned them from a firefighter at her church who said the couple were neighbors of his mother. They were grief-stricken about the damage caused because of the inadvertent accident, with the wife, in particular, feeling guilty because she asked her husband to take the trailer trip. According to the firefighter, the woman had been crying day and night on her sofa.
After hearing the story, Rachel, who works for a pro-life pregnancy center, decided to do something to help the elderly couple deal with their grief. She gave the firefighter a card expressing sympathy to the couple for the pain they were feeling.
But she did not stop there. Rachel also decided to reach out to her Facebook friends and ask them to send well-wishes she could forward to the couple. The next day, she read dozens of responses wishing the couple well—bringing tears to her eyes. Rachel said it was “an ocean of compassion, of love, and grace.”
It continued. More and more people sent cards. A giant basket was received with envelopes and little gifts. A florist sent a bouquet. Rachel concluded, “I would think, no matter what race, what color, people are kind. Deep down I think that compassion and community are at the core of human beings. I think the fire has caused us to look in each other’s eyes and discover the human kindness in us. . . . It’s a beautiful story of hope and community.”
Such stories of service, compassion, and love arise from a distinct, recoverable religious foundation. This foundation is built upon what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”—vibrant churches, fraternal groups, various neighborhood and community associations, and most importantly, strong, intact marriages and loving families, such as the Larsens.
These “little platoons” can play a critical role in restoring a robust civil society rooted in the common good where people understand that what happens in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities— coupled with a politically engaged and knowledgeable populace—will result in a thriving and healthy society.
Dependence on “little platoons” is a sharp contrast to the contemporary push to elevate the desires and demands of the individual over the well-being of the family, the community, and society as a whole. It was “little platoons” that led to groundswells that transformed society, whether it be the emerging civil rights movement of the 1950s or the abolitionists who laid the pathway to abolish the sin of slavery. Neither one of these movements sprung from government, but from people of faith in their local communities.
Government will not ultimately provide the solutions we are so hungry for and, in some places, are so desperately needed. Instead, the solutions are already there in our churches, our communities, and above all, in our homes. It is our job to identify and begin to implement those solutions as “little platoons,” which is what we seek to do in the following chapters.
So, let us all seek to be part of a “little platoon” in communities, working together to make a difference in our spheres of influence. The light illuminating our path and empowering us to succeed is our faith. As that light permeates the darkness, America will experience a reawakening, regeneration, and renewal that will restore true human flourishing from the tip of Maine to the rugged frontier of Alaska and everywhere in between.