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Back to square one

If you could fix America by rewinding history, how far would you go?

Back to square one

(Peter Vahlersvik/iStock)

I’ve asked the same question in this space half a dozen different ways—but here it is again: If, by merely snapping your fingers or waving a magic wand, you could take the society and culture you live in today back to some earlier point, what date would you choose? If you could rewind the video recorder we call “America’s History” and be awarded a second chance, what would you pick as your new starting point?

Or, to put it more succinctly—and more bluntly—where did we go so wrong?

That’s not really hard, many folks argue. Let’s just get back to the “traditional values” that made America so great.

For many Americans, just going back to the 1950s would give them most of what they think they’d like. After all, we prayed in the public schools. People used condoms in private but didn’t talk about them much even there. Drugs were mostly something to chase away an infection. And the worst musical lyrics you could think of were still quotable in mixed company. John F. Kennedy had not yet been assassinated; indeed, that was an event that, for many of us, even if he wasn’t our man in the White House, was a watershed entry to an unpredictable, unknown, and often grim future. For these folks, backing things up to a pre-Sputnik date just might help us get things right.

Just going back to some America-can-do-anything optimism isn’t enough.

Not many WORLD readers, I feel certain, are so naïve. They have already asked the question and then realized that just going back to some America-can-do-anything optimism isn’t enough. But even we too often look wistfully in the rearview mirror.

What did we hope to see? The era just before Woodrow Wilson began pushing his “one world” ideas with his League of Nations, diminishing the role of the United States? Or the period when science and God still seemed capable of coexistence, without either having to step aside in deference to the other? Was it the time before Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. so profoundly changed society’s concept of law, suggesting that there are no enduring principles but only what 51 percent of the voters say law ought to be?

Or should we go back to pre-Darwinian days, when most people believed everything and everyone had come from the creative hand of God rather than by evolving by chance? Or before that, to the writers of the Declaration of Independence, who found it advisable to refer in a public document to “Nature” and “Nature’s God,” but who deliberately and specifically refused any mention of Jesus Christ? Or do you want to go all the way back to the Puritans, much maligned but brimming over with vision and resolution?

Out of all those images, scattered along America’s timeline, whose “traditional values” are you going to claim as those that do the most effective job of redirecting our nation’s cultural traffic? What persons or movements, if we latched on to them again, might help rescue us from our present free fall and anchor us with stability for the future?

To the extent we talk only of “traditional values,” without bothering to say what we mean by them, we deserve the skepticism so many secularists hurl our way.

It’s not an easy assignment. And just sorting out a few great figures from our notable history will hardly cut it. There’s plenty of competition out there for the right to say which “tradition” we should return to.

For Christians, the task is especially tough. To what extent do some of our historic heroes really represent Biblical worldview thinking—and practice? And how much of what we call a Biblical worldview does God expect us to carry into public policy? Or into a political platform? Have we ever sat down with a group of fellow believers to explore thoughtful and Biblical answers to such basic questions?

I haven’t, and that embarrasses me. But with a serious election coming up in a bit less than nine months, I just may take on such an assignment.


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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Tue, 02/20/2018 01:34 am

    We can never look for heaven on earth, but there were times past where we as a nation were much more holier. In fact, I suspect we will be judged severely for our outright rebellion to God like Europe has. There is always the remnant who faithfully slogs on in spite of the great falling away and subsequent persecution, but I pray that my children will stand no matter what comes their way. We should be preparing the youth for the day when Christianity is no longer tolerated and persecution is rampant. It is shortly coming so we should prepare wisely by living thriftily and storing assets. Do we buy up rural properties so we can live away from the glare of the hostile officials? Do we buy properties in foreign lands stashing away money too? Do we build settlements under the sea or in the Antarctic like the Puritans who came to America? How about settlements in space or on distant planets or moons? The Puritan voyage was in many ways that extreme.  Or do we stay put, live holy lives, faithfully bringing the gospel and let what will be, be, boldly standing our ground? I pray we have wisdom! 

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 02/20/2018 07:58 am

    Good morning Cyborg3.

    The first step is acknowledging that there is nothing new under the sun. No matter whence we flee, sin will follow us to the End of Days.



  • James C Williams
    Posted: Tue, 02/20/2018 01:33 pm

    How much of the biblical worldview can be translated into public policy or a political platform?  This is the sort of "Christ and Culture" question that will be debated until Christ returns, but, for what it's worth, Living in God's Two Kingdoms by David VanDrunen (professor at Westminster CA) is a book that I've found helpful for discussing these questions with fellow believers.  It tries to strike a balance between optimistic transformation and pessimistic retreatism.

  • DCal3000
    Posted: Wed, 02/21/2018 10:03 am

    The key is to pursue Christ and His Kingdom above all.  I tend to idealize different parts of history too much, but the truth is that each era had good and bad threads running through it.  We should not ignore either.  Glossy versions of American and Christian history that ignore sin are problematic.  The Bible presents no such vision of human history; other than Christ (who is God), the Bible's most prominent human characters were almost all guilty of dark misdeeds.  The same holds true in American history.

    But we also should not become cynical about the past.  In the Bible, some of the same people who fell into sin were also people that God used for good.  Some of them ended up in the so-called Hall of Faith in Hebrews.  And in the United States, there have been shining strands of human character that have helped make the world a better place.

    As for public policy, I believe that the Bible gives us much more extensive freedom of choice than most of us, including a hardened conservative like myself, would like to admit.  What concerns me about American evangelicalism today, though, is that I sense our vision for culture has faltered.  Insofar as we say we support "traditional values," we should mean that we support the idea that there is a morality, built by God into human nature and reflective of His own nature, that transcends all of humanity.  But beneath the surface, I sometimes sense a postmodern waffling even in our most orthodox churches--a waffling that is reflected in identity politics, the adoption of secular terminology on gender and sexual orientation, and a desire to earn academic respect at the expense of the less-intellectual in our pews.  For that reason, I am not so much concerned about America's historical strength or weakness.  I am concerned about the currents running within American evangelical theology.