Excerpted from AWAKENING: HOW AMERICA CAN TURN FROM ECONOMIC AND MORAL DESTRUCTION BACK TO GREATNESS by Ralph Reed by arrangement with Worthy Publishing, Copyright © Ralph Reed 2014
The Spiritual Cycle
Are we watching our nation commit suicide?
The United States of America was founded on the principles of limited government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility based on faith in God. Yet it seems we have abandoned those principles to such an extent that it may be too late for this beacon of faith and freedom to turn around.
Is America, like a crumbling modern-day Roman Empire, doomed to inevitable decline and demise?
This is the central question of our time. While things aren’t always as they appear (more on that later), the trends are not encouraging.
“If the Foundations Are Destroyed . . .”
Edward Gibbon argued in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Rome fell not because of military foes but because of its own corruption. Similarly in America, the most lethal threat to freedom today comes not from a foreign military opponent. It comes from within.
Consider the following facts that define our time:
A United States president passed government-run health care that includes taxpayer-funded abortion and regulations that force Christian charities to pay for services that violate their religious beliefs. He also is the first major-party presidential candidate to support same-sex marriage. Yet despite taking these extreme positions, Barack Obama was easily reelected. Twelve years after the United States declared war on terrorism, the Middle East is in flames and the forces of terror are on the offensive. The sole priority of U.S. foreign policy since 2009 has been the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel is surrounded by hostile nations. Egypt fell to radical Islam, then descended into chaos and bloodshed. Terrorists murdered a U.S. ambassador in Libya as our own government stood by helplessly. Iran, the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, stands on the threshold of a nuclear weapon. America now leads from behind, an oxymoron for any global power.
The longest economic slowdown since the Great Depression has left many countries in the European Union on the verge of default, threatening the global economy.1 The U.S. suffers from high unemployment, a low labor participation rate, ballooning public debt, anemic growth, and swelling welfare rolls.
In 1960, the federal budget was $92 billion, and the federal government ran a surplus of $300 million. In 2013, the federal budget skyrocketed to $3.8 trillion, and the federal government ran a deficit of $900 billion. The national debt stood at $17 trillion, 37 percent of which had been run up since 2009.2
Historian Niall Ferguson argues that the U.S. and Western Europe are suffering because of a ”Great Degeneration.” Throughout history, the West’s contributions to humanity have been representative government, free markets, the rule of law, and a vibrant civil society. As these four civilizational institutions have withered and decayed, Ferguson contends, Western economies have stagnated and the culture that made prosperity possible has lost its way.3
The Bible puts it this way: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3). Is there anything we, as concerned citizens who love our country, can do to slow or reverse this trend and restore America to moral greatness before it’s too late? I believe there is, and the foundations of a society—including our own—can be rebuilt.
Alarming Social Trends
Leading U.S. cultural indicators also flash urgent warning signs.
Opinion elites treat abortion-on-demand as the civil rights issue of our time, ignoring the unborn child’s competing claim to life. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, took a leave of absence from the pro-abortion group in 2012 to promote Barack Obama’s reelection. Obama showed his gratitude in 2013 when he became the first sitting president to address Planned Parenthood, proclaiming to cheers, “No matter how great the challenge, no matter how fierce the opposition, if there’s one thing the past few years have shown, it’s that Planned Parenthood is not going anywhere.”4 The not-so- subtle message is that people who advocate abortion-on-demand are considered acceptable, while those who take the opposite view are labeled intolerant or misogynist.5
Marriage defined as the union between a man and a woman has been supported by presidential hopefuls of both parties throughout U.S. history and as recently as 2008. Barack Obama changed his position in 2012 to energize his base and, according to blogger Andrew Sullivan, to raise more campaign funds from the gay community.6 The New York Times celebrated Obama’s flip-flop as the dawn of a new era of tolerance.7 Nor was the Times alone in its liberal bias. When the Supreme Court took up the California Proposition 8 marriage case in 2013, one study found that media coverage favored the pro-same- sex marriage argument by a factor of five to one.8 Little wonder that the first public statement Hillary Clinton made after stepping down as secretary of state was in support of same-sex marriage.
Signs of America’s cultural decline extend far beyond the push for abortion and same-sex marriage. Consider these alarming social trends:
In 2010 the out-of-wedlock birthrate reached 40 percent of all births, 50 percent of all Hispanic births, and 70 percent of all African-American babies born in the United States.9
After declining during the administration of George W. Bush, drug use is back on the rise. Fully 25 percent of all eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old Americans are categorized as regular users of marijuana or other illegal substances. After Colorado and Washington State legalized marijuana at the ballot box in 2012 and in direct violation of federal law, the Justice Department declined to enforce the law, announcing it would not prosecute those who grew or distributed pot.10
Pornography is a $97-billion-a-year industry; its U.S. revenues rival the film industry’s annual box-office take. Forty million Americans regularly visit porn websites, and 10 percent of the U.S. adult population is addicted to pornography. Though treated by our society as a benign source of entertainment, pornography wrecks marriages and encourages the sexual exploitation of children.11
Human trafficking generates an estimated $9.5 billion a year in the United States, and the FBI estimates that up to three hundred thousand children annually are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. Many are forced into prostitution between the ages of thirteen and fourteen years. Cybersex slavery thrives on the Internet, which has surpassed brothels and strip joints as a marketing tool for pimps and organized crime.12
Legalized gambling is a national epidemic, boasting $93 billion in annual revenues. Today forty-eight states have some form of legal gambling, and eighty-two casinos have opened in the past decade. There are an estimated six million compulsive gamblers in the U.S.13
Violence, foul language, and sexually explicit material that once shocked sensibilities and sparked societal resistance no longer even raise eyebrows. Popular late-night comics like Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart have their profanity bleeped with a knowing wink to younger viewers in case parents are watching. Others, like Bill Maher, refuse to make even that concession to decency. At the Video Music Awards in 2013, Miley Cyrus stripped to latex underwear and began “twerking,” a fad best described as dance simulating sex. Previous performances on the same show by Lady Gaga and Britney Spears were no less explicit.
Not Hearing or Understanding
We are living in a time of moral, social, and economic decline. But people of faith have always lived among the sinful and rebellious. That is nothing new. Still, God does not abandon the faithful. Throughout the Bible, God promises men and women of faith that we will be granted insight into the mysteries of His kingdom, and thus we can know and understand our times in ways that elude others.
In ancient Judea, when asked by His followers why He spoke in parables, Jesus replied, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. . . . Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:11, 13).
While seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. This is an extraordinary statement. Jesus told His disciples He used parables to obscure the truth from those whose hearts God had hardened so they would not grasp that the kingdom of God was at hand. Conversely, to those of faith God had granted the right to know the “mysteries of the kingdom” so they could be effective and faithful followers themselves.
As believers, then, it is possible for us to know the mysteries of an unseen world, the truths of a kingdom that is both here now and is yet to come—but we must seek and understand this knowledge. As we learn the things of God’s kingdom, we will see the realities of our world more clearly and understand what we must do as believers and citizens to ignite a moral renewal that will restore our nation to its founding faith.
City of God, City of Man
As Augustine put it in City of God, his stirring defense of Christianity after Rome’s decline, there are two worlds: one visible and the other invisible. The visible world is of the flesh, while the invisible world is of the Spirit.
This Augustine classic was one of the most influential books in history, shaping Western thought for millennia. In it Augustine calls the unseen world the City of God. He calls the seen world the City of Man. To Augustine, the City of Man is just a temporary way station on the path to eternal life where believers are to work for the creation of a just and virtuous society.
As he defends Christianity against the critics who blamed it for Rome’s decline, Augustine builds a larger argument that the counsel of God governs the affairs of nations and that the celestial kingdom of God makes superior claims on us. The Roman state’s pagan gods had failed it, he pointedly observed, while the heavenly City of God remained safe and secure because “it is preserved (or rather purchased) by faith” of believers.14
This distinction between the temporal and the eternal has special relevance today as we begin to examine our own nation—and our world. As people of faith, we desire to be effective as citizens of both the City of God and the City of Man. We may experience setbacks and defeats in our political and social efforts here on earth, but the kingdom of God is eternal and transcendent. This is our hope, and we must never give up.
The Spiritual Cycle
Taking a historical view, we notice that political systems—for example, fascism, Soviet communism, and modern liberalism—seem to collapse at the peak of their influence and power. Why is that?
The answer is the spiritual cycle: the tendency of human societies to move from faith to prosperity to pride to destruction, and then regeneration.
This was true of ancient Israel, and it has been the case in the United States, which may be thought of as a kind of New Jerusalem whose history imitates that of Israel.15 (The concept will be fleshed out in chapter 2.)
The spiritual cycle moves through a series of six stages:
Faith leading to obedience to God’s laws
Obedience creating abundance
Abundance leading to pride
Pride leading to apostasy
Apostasy leading to defeat and judgment
Repentance leading back to faith
Unlike Marxism’s view of the stages of history, though, the spiritual cycle is not set in stone. Free will, leadership, and individual choices still affect human events. We are not mere cogs trapped in a fatalistic machine. We can affect our destiny through our own choices. If we, as men and women of faith, repent and call out to God, we can see America return to faith and obedience, bringing her back to the fullness of His blessing and protection.
Good and Evil
What causes the spiritual cycle? Ultimately the Fall, which introduced evil into the world. Sin and evil have produced conflict, brokenness and violence in human affairs since the Garden of Eden.
Consider the parable of the wheat and tares, which can be seen as Jesus’ view of history. Jesus taught that evil would always exist but would not ultimately triumph:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. . . . And [the landowner] said to [the slaves], “An enemy has done this!” The slaves said to him, “Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?” But he said, “No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-30)
In Christ’s parable, the landowner is our heavenly Father, the enemy is Satan, the wheat is the saints, and the tares are the sinners. Jesus makes it clear that God has allowed the wheat and the tares to grow together according to His sovereign will and in order to fulfill His purpose. Until the final ingathering, neither good nor evil will completely triumph.
The French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain cited this parable to argue that “good is not divided from evil in history—they grow together.”16 The saints follow Jesus, engage in works of charity and goodwill, and are bound for heaven. The sinners follow the enemy, engage in evil, and are headed for hell. Both engage in the conflict inherent in their earthly journeys. People of faith will experience triumph and defeat—incremental advances followed by crushing and perplexing setbacks—but they are not to lose heart or quit, for their compass points ultimately to heaven.
Until we get to heaven, good and evil will coexist in this world. We will see miraculous medical breakthroughs occurring side by side with acts of genocide; millions coming to faith in Christ even as dictators oppress their people and persecute Christians and Jews; amazing technological advances coexisting with the threat of nuclear annihi- lation. Here on earth we are to contend with evil, seek justice, advance virtue, and trust God in the process.
Ronald Reagan underscored this idea in his 1983 address to the National Association of Evangelicals, in which he called believers to resist evil and tyranny and trust God for the outcome. “There is sin and evil in the world, and we’re enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might,” Reagan said. Critics denounced him as a simpleton for holding to this view. Nevertheless he urged evangelicals to resist the temptation to label each side in the Cold War equally at fault “and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” In that struggle, Reagan asserted:
Communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man.17
How Evil Empires Perish
Reagan was right. The spiritual cycle turned, and he and a resurgent West helped bring about the downfall of the “evil empire.” How were communism’s last pages written?
Throughout the Cold War the Soviet Union aggressively expanded, tightened its grip on eastern and central Europe, gained satellite nations in Latin America and the Middle East, and built a formidable nuclear arsenal. The West, checkered by self-doubt and plagued by weak political leadership, was in retreat. After suffering defeat in Vietnam, the U.S. slashed its military spending, delayed or terminated critical weapons systems, and, through a combination of cooperation and appeasement, failed to rise to the Soviet challenge.
The Soviets, meanwhile, pursued a strategy of small wars, training and arming guerrilla forces, and seeing country after country fall to communism in the 1960s and 1970s. Motivated by a Marxist-Leninist ideology of global domination, the Soviets deployed missiles in Europe, engaged in covert disinformation campaigns, and toppled pro-Western governments across the globe.
Yet just when the Soviets appeared to be at the pinnacle of their power, in the blink of an eye, communism came crashing down. The Berlin Wall fell, the Warsaw Pact disbanded, the Soviet Union disinte- grated, former Soviet republics declared their independence, and the liberation of Eastern Europe lifted 250 million people out from beneath the iron boot of Soviet oppression.
As the American novelist John Dos Passos, a convert from communism to Christianity, observed, “Often things you think are just beginning are coming to an end.”18 The Soviet dissolution was the most stunning and sudden collapse of a state in history, and few saw it coming.
One of the most influential books in the early 1980s among conservatives was Jean-François Revel’s How Democracies Perish, which reached the chilling conclusion that Western democracies were incapable of defeating communism. Revel believed the very things that made Western democracies so virtuous—pluralism, openness, tolerance, basic freedom of speech and association—made them vulnerable. “Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does and thinks will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself when its existence is threatened,” Revel concluded.19
But this theory failed to account for the willingness of free people to defend their freedom, for free will and the counsel of God, or for the difference leaders make. Those leaders included Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa in Poland, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, who changed the course of history and won the Cold War.
The lesson of the Cold War is that political and economic systems that deny God’s law contain the seeds of their own destruction. At the threshold of realizing their goals, they collapse under their own weight, especially when pushed by the prayers and deeds of the faithful and courageous. Once the spiritual cycle turned in the U.S. and the West, the Soviets faced a formidable adversary and lost one of the most consequential struggles in human history. These leaders made a difference in their time, and so can we. With God, all things are possible. With faith and moral courage, we can spark an awakening in our time and see the spiritual cycle turn until America is once again restored to greatness.
Destined to Decay—or Ready for Awakening?
So how does this lesson from the Cold War relate to our question of whether America is like a modern-day Rome? Some contend the United States is just another civilization like all the rest, destined to decay and perish. But such an analysis ignores how different America is from ancient Rome and previous civilizations.
Unlike America, Rome had no Constitution or Bill of Rights, no right to freedom of the press and speech and religion, and no right to keep and bear arms to resist tyranny. Also, whereas Christianity in the United States is a mass movement, with more than fifty million Bible-believing evangelicals and faithful Roman Catholics, Christianity in the Roman Empire was an underground movement of a small band of believers combined with a top-down movement of elites. The pagan gods that Romans worshipped prevented a true embrace of Christianity; Jews were systematically persecuted. The moral rot, political corruption, military repression and brutality, and overextended empire that brought Rome to its knees had no faith-based constituency to reverse its decline.
However, there is no denying that the United States, like Rome, is experiencing the downward spiral of the spiritual cycle today. As Americans have sought pleasure and comfort, they have rejected God and His law and substituted the twin idols of self-gratification and government.
A society oriented in this direction cannot long endure, but it need not perish. We can reverse this decay, renew our country, and see God heal our land.
There have been times in U.S. history when immorality was followed by repentance and social renewal. The spiritual cycle turned. There is reason to hope that the current state of social decay in America will lead to an awakening that sparks spiritual searching, revival, and a rediscovery of the principles found in the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution. As long as there is a faithful remnant who repents and seeks forgiveness, and as long as God’s character remains constant in granting forgiveness to those who seek it (and it will), societies can and do regenerate. Like the dry bones prophesied over by Ezekiel, we can see this sleeping giant— our nation—rise again.
In the spiritual cycle, like the weather pattern or the business cycle, the momentum in one direction can produce a turn in the opposite direction. So we must keep the faith, for spiritual darkness does not necessarily portend hopelessness; it can be a prelude to a new dawn and a spiritual awakening.
Throughout our history America has frequently moved through these cycles of national apostasy, chastening, repentance, and restoration. There is nothing especially unique about the current sad state of affairs. The victories of the secular liberal agenda, like the City of Man, are temporary, while the City of God transcends all human systems and will ultimately triumph.
Some saw in the reelection of Barack Obama the final and irreversible victory of the radical, secular progressive agenda, signified by bigger and more intrusive government. But as Obamacare has creaked under its own weight, and as the multiplying failures of his agenda become clear, the opposite is occurring. Instead of signaling its triumph, Obama’s second term is beginning to look more like a disaster for secular progressivism.
So take courage! America will not perish as long as faithful men and women repent and humble themselves before God, call the nation back to its founding principles, and fight to restore the moral foundations of our society.
But as we move forward in faith to spark an awakening in our nation, we must be “shrewd as serpents” as well as “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In other words, our spiritually wise response must be based on a full knowledge of the reality we face—starting with understanding the present from the vantage point of the past.
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