By Rhett Burns
Is it accurate to say that American society has been careening toward a cliff for some time now, and the events of 2020—coronavirus, presidential election, and the social justice riots—have sped it along to the edge?
That’s the question I posed to a historian, a futurist, and a pastor at the recent Fight Laugh Feast Conference.
I wanted to get a sense of where we are as a nation and what might come. Is one with a sense of impending doom just being an alarmist? Or might we be heading into a season of hard times, and, if so, how should Christians prepare? And how did we end up here, and does that give us any guidance as we move forward?
To get answers, I sat down with Rod Martin, Glenn Sunshine, and Douglas Wilson. What follows is a synthesis of their answers and my interaction with them and the above questions.
Toward the Cliff?
So, is our society speeding toward a cliff? Are we on the precipice of a dramatically different social order? The quick answer is yes.
“Yes, I think everything is starting to accelerate,” Douglas Wilson said. “And I believe that the crackdowns, lockdowns, and masking mandates are all beta-testing for the totalitolerance people. How much can they get away with? How compliant are the American people going to be? And thus far, the answer is pretty compliant.”
Rod Martin and Glenn Sunshine agreed, emphasizing the leftward drift in our increasingly polarized culture over many years that is only speeding up.
“The left is in what can only be described as the early stages of a revolution,” Martin noted. “If we allow them to take power at this point, I think you’re going to see that speed up a lot more dramatically. What we have seen over the last four or five years in particular is a growth in not only a belief, but an openness in the belief that there is a necessity of seizing power in the most raw and unvarnished of ways.”
Just how tall is this cliff?
“Stock up on food and ammo” is popular advice in some quarters of the internet. But is it just a cultural meme urging friends to be prepared or are we headed toward something much more serious than most people realize?
“I think the latter actually,” answered Wilson. “I think we’re headed towards something potentially way more serious. I don’t want to say that it’s going to be civil war, but I think that you’d be out of your mind not to be anticipating that as a possibility.”
I stress that Wilson was speaking about possibilities, not foregone conclusions. But given what we know about history, human sin, principles of sowing and reaping, and our own situation, such serious outcomes are not out of the realm of possibility, even if in the back of our minds we think it unlikely.
We think it unlikely because of normalcy bias. Martin explains:
“There is a tendency to believe that whatever you’re seeing can’t possibly be that bad and surely it won’t disrupt life in any meaningful way. And the reason we have that bias is that that’s usually true. When really terrible changes happen, they tend to happen gradually over long stretches of time, such that most people don’t notice them.”
However, Martin pointed out, the left has moved much more rapidly in recent years. Changes are speeding up, and it’s hard to keep up.
To illustrate how quickly things can change, consider this photo of female Iranian college students from 1971:
Eight years later, Ayatollah Khomeini would take power in the Islamic Revolution and reshape Iran in menacing ways for the decades to come.
On the Precipice
Proverbial wisdom says stupid can only go on for so long. Secularism, detached as it is from objective and ultimate reality, must be running out of runway, right?
“Well, I’m consistently surprised that people have been doing so many stupid things for so long, that I think surely this can’t last; and then it keeps going,” Wilson observed. “But I think that we are quite honestly getting near the absolute limit. I don’t think this can keep up. It’s got a break one way or another.”
Sunshine puts this breaking point in historical perspective, comparing our situation to the era of the French Revolution in the late 18th century.
“The only question is whether we’re in England or France,” Sunshine said.
France famously threw itself into the revolution, while England resisted it in part because of residual Christian influence from the previous evangelical revival throughout the country.
The revolution, if it comes to America, will not be a carbon copy of the totalitarianism we witnessed in other lands in other eras. History does not repeat itself, but, as Mark Twain noted, it does rhyme.
In his new book Live Not By Lies, Rod Dreher foresees a soft totalitarianism coming to America, one in which dissenting viewpoints are severely punished, but not necessarily by government commissions or gulags. Rather, surveillance capitalism will be leveraged by a coalition of government, corporations, and media to root out dissenting viewpoints from the new woke world order.
But how did we find ourselves on the brink of this new America?
A Marketing Campaign to Gender Studies Majors
It would be simplistic to settle on just one reason to explain our situation, as many contributing factors exist. But Sunshine and Martin both see critical theories, and critical race theory in particular, as playing a major role in the social transformation of America.
“[Critical race theory] has been taught in various forms, but in increasingly extreme forms in schools for years,” Sunshine explained. “And so you’ve got a generation of people who were brought up familiar with this, thinking this way, being told this, and now it’s being pushed to a greater extreme, but it’s been implicitly there for years.”
In other words, we’ve marinated a generation in the concepts and language of systemic envy, bitterness, and unbelief. What we are now seeing on the streets in Portland is the fruit of what we sowed in schools many years ago.
But it was sown shrewdly. Classical Marxism never took off in America because too many people in America see a path toward upward mobility for themselves or their children through work and education. So, they repackaged the ideas.
“Wokeness is a marketing campaign,” said Martin. “Critical theory, radical feminism, all of these things that constitute basically Frankfurt School Marxism are about the repackaging of classical Marxism wherein you just change the terms in a way that sells better to a 19-year-old gender studies major.”
So, we have the implicit formation of a populace through education, advertising, and media over many years combined with the attractive new language of critical theory set to highly emotional social issues. The result is explosive.
But the fact that we are staring down the edge of the cliff is not just a failure of philosophy, but of religion.
Sunshine summarized what he sees as a reduction of the gospel in the American evangelical imagination:
“We reduced the Gospel severely, starting in the 20th century. So it became a matter of personal salvation—maybe personal morality, but not much more than that. Later on, we had abortion as an issue, but other than that, we don’t really see the gospel’s implications for the world. We’ve lost completely the idea of the Gospel of the kingdom.
And then the result is: racism is a real problem, and the Gospel has answers for it, but we’ve forgotten them. And now that it’s being pushed in our face in the culture, we don’t have any alternative ways of even thinking about it besides the ones that the culture is giving us, because we have completely ignored and forgotten the Gospel of the kingdom.”
Dominion in an inescapable concept. Because humanity is made in the image of God, men will rule the earth and seek to shape it to particular ends. The only question is whether men rule in faith or in folly? Will they exercise dominion for the glory of God or in rebellion against him? Changed and motivated by a comprehensive Gospel, Christians are to apply the Word of God to every facet of life, teaching the world to submit to Jesus. But in the absence of such robust religion, false religions and vain philosophies arise to train the nations in rebellion.
Mass Organizations of Atomized Individuals
Failing to cohere around the Word of God, our society has devolved into detached loneliness, making it ripe for totalitarianism. Writing in the aftermath of World War II, political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that totalitarian movements are “mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.”
How did we become so individualistic?
One major contributing factor has been the decades of sexual licentiousness: pornography, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and transgenderism. To these overt and explicit sexual sins we’ve added the socially acceptable sexual transgressions: no-fault divorce, unbiblical remarriage, chosen childlessness, refusal to marry, and androgyny.
These deviances destroyed the cohesiveness of society by weakening the natural family and household. For millennia, the household has been the foundational unit of civilization. Peoples were held together by the bonds and duties of kin and community.
But we have elevated the individual to pride of place.
And those individuals, because of the sexual libertinism mentioned above, are guilty. Guilty people are easy to manipulate. Add to that the massive amounts of student and consumer debt people carry, and they are doubly influenced. Guilty and indebted people are easily steered and, thus, are susceptible for totalitarian regimes.
In Live Not by Lies, Dreher argues that America is ripe for soft totalitarianism, drawing parallels between our society and pre-Communist Russia. Besides sexual perversion, Dreher argues that the atomization of our society manifests itself in a breakdown of civic trust, loss of faith in institutions and hierarchies, and embracing “useful lies,” which are obvious falsehoods that serve the prevailing narrative. These were also present in Russia in the years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution.
Squander Not Thine Civic Inheritance
So, what is a faithful Christian to do? How do we prepare for hard times, or even act to head them off?
Martin suggests we begin by not squandering our republic through a failure to engage something as simple as voting:
“It should start by working within the system and dragging everyone we can to the polls. The people are sovereign in this country under God, and they have a way to do this. And the fact of the matter is half of evangelicals still don’t vote. We complain about how we’re losing the country; well, we can start by not surrendering the country. We could actually show up.”
Martin is optimistic that if we can keep the wolves at bay long enough, we give logic an opportunity to reassert and show the foolishness of leftist ideology. He believes Americans still have a general Christian outlook about the world, and that given time, they will awaken to the folly and reject the encroaching leftism.
One way to buy time is to re-elect President Trump. “If we can get past November 3rd successfully, I’m optimistic about the decade to come,” Martin said.
One does not have to share Martin’s optimism about the potential awakening of the American mind to recognize the strategic value of his tactic. President Trump’s first-term judicial appointments alone have bought us more time than any of us might realize, and another four years of a Trump Administration would head off the leftward acceleration of a Biden presidency.
One other practical political move Christians ought to make regards the use of artificial intelligence and synthetic media in legal proceedings. “I believe that Christians ought to start pressing for the exclusion of electronic evidence, for example, in trials,” said Wilson. “So at the very least, if you introduce electronic evidence in a trial, the burden of proof should shift to the person producing that evidence, that it wasn’t deepfaked.”
The time for protecting ourselves from the malevolent use of doctored, deepfaked audio and video evidence is now—not when we are in the dock watching, along with the jury, our likeness do things we never actually did.
The Blood of Jesus Makes You Clean
We saw above that guilty, indebted, and atomized individuals are easily steered and ripe for totalitarian movements. To set up a bulwark against the coming tide, we must work to reverse these trends within our ranks.
Therefore, the very first thing we must do is confess our sins.
We will be in no position to resist our cultural overlords if we are carrying the weight of our sins. An unclean heart silences your voice and crumples your spine. It rationalizes a way to live by lies and go along with the crowd.
As Toby Sumpter preached at the Fight Laugh Feast Conference, you cannot have a brave heart if you do not have a clean heart.
Do you feel your sins are too great to confess? Do you doubt the shame could be covered? Hear the words of Charles Spurgeon:
“Great as are thy sins, the blood of Christ is greater still. Thy sins are like great mountains, but the blood of Christ is like Noah’s flood; twenty cubits upwards shall this blood prevail, and the top of the mountains of thy sin shall be covered.”
So, keep short accounts. Confess your sins, for God is faithful and just to forgive you.
The blood of Jesus makes you clean.
Getting Your House in Order
Debt enslaves a man and makes him an easy target for manipulation. Therefore, one powerful way for Christians to prepare for hard times and resist soft totalitarianism is to get their finances in order. Martin noted,
“It is hard to imagine a better thing for Christians to do, in terms of getting their own house in order, than getting out of debt and getting some money in the bank. That’s a lifelong thing that doesn’t happen overnight, but that is needful, and if more Christians would take that part of stewardship seriously, they would, first of all, have a lot more ability to have a strong voice in society. They’d also be taken more seriously in society.”
Toward this end, C.R. Wiley’s books Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos are helpful resources for thinking about how to bring economic production back home so that one’s ability to pay his mortgage is not dependent on the most recent political whims of that gender studies graduate now working in HR.
Therefore, Wilson counsels men to think of jobs and skills that are portable, in case you have to move. He also believes there is something honest and corrective about being skillful and cunning with your hands. So, it would be a good thing for men to know how to build a house and women to know how to furbish it.
Regardless of what the skills are, the Christian willing to work should be able to provide for their families. Wilson continued:
“Something I’ve been fond of saying for many years is when the first settlers got to Idaho, there were no jobs. When the first settlers got to Massachusetts, there were no jobs. There was a lot of work, but no jobs. So if you have a Christian worldview, a Protestant work ethic, and skills, then wherever you go, you’re going to be able to provide.”
Do Not Die on the Vine
If Arendt is right that totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized individuals, then one bulwark against them would be strong Christian communities. Christian families need to cultivate robust relationships with other believers, creating a sense of loyalty and belonging. There really is strength in numbers.
But not everyone lives in Moscow, Idaho. What should a Christian do who is in a decent church, but does not have a fully orbed Christian community yet? Or maybe it’s a solid church overall, but its members do not quite grasp the seriousness of the coming cultural moment. What to do then?
“If you’ve got a decent church that doesn’t have any trace of woke, no hint of woke, then they are going to come along at some point,” Wilson said. If they show they don’t want to come around, however, at some point a Christian family will need to be somewhere else.
If you go somewhere else, Wilson counsels you to prioritize a vibrant church. You could escape wokeism by moving to the hinterlands of South Dakota, but your family could shrivel up because sin and temptation are everywhere you go. We all need the community of God’s people, not just to resist totalitarianism, but to resist our own sins and temptations.
“Don’t go someplace you’re going to die on the vine,” Wilson said.
How to Christianize an Empire
Let us return to the 18th century for a moment. If we are on the precipice of the French Revolution, what is a faithful Christian to do?
Sunshine answers: Faithful Christians do what they always do; they remain faithful. He elaborated,
“It’s worth noting that in the Roman empire, Nero rolled Christians in pitch and lit them on fire to illuminate public gardens. The fact that they remained faithful through that led Tertullian in the next century to say the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. And the century after that, it led to the Christianization of the empire.”
Earlier in this essay I mentioned the Islamic Revolution in Iran as an example of how quickly things can change. We now point to Iran as an example of how the Christian church can thrive in areas of outright hostility. In 1979, when Khomeini seized power, there were 500 Muslim-background believers in Iran. Today, there are several hundred thousand, maybe even 1 million.
“For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”— 1 John 5:4
So, how do we resist the soft totalitarianism headed our way? How do we win the West again?
We believe in God the Father, the maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his Son, and in the Holy Spirit. We confess our sins and trust God to forgive us because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We worship God in spirit and truth, in reverence and awe on the Lord’s Day. We bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters, and share in the fellowship of the saints by faith.
We live by faith in every practical area of life. We parent by faith, work by faith, live as men and women by faith. We put the Proverbs into practice because we believe God and what he says about how he made us and the world.
And, by faith, we preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Jesus Christ and him risen.
The West may be dead, but Jesus knows the way out of the grave.
So, standing on the precipice of dramatic changes to our nation, what do we do?
We do what Christians have always done: remain faithful.
Rhett Burns (@rhett_burns) is an associate pastor and small business entrepreneur living in Greenville, SC with his wife and four kids.
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