Every election cycle we’re told this is the most important election of our lifetimes. In 1992, I was in sixth grade, convinced that the fate of the Republic depended on the reelection of George H. W. Bush. By the time I was in college overseas, I’d begun to raise an eyebrow at the every-four-year fever, and at some point I realized one would need hindsight in conversation with historians (not the sensationalism of political pundits) to determine which of the many elections in my lifetime was actually the most consequential.
Some of my skepticism has been reinforced by the books and blogs I’ve read over the years that portend a dismal future for the evangelical church. It’s easy to cobble together doom-and-gloom statistics about the imminent collapse of evangelicalism, a coming famine for evangelical churches, the diminishment of evangelical influence on culture, or the departure of just about everyone in the next generation, and then gather an audience to hear about the free-fall and what can be done about it. The numbers that paint the bleakest picture grab the most attention. But as I’ve done more work with Lifeway Research, I’ve come to see that many markers of church faith and practice are remarkably stable, and even the disappointing statistics don’t fit the horrible headlines that supply pundits their page views.
Rod Dreher and I have had a couple go-arounds on this subject, not because our moral outlook on the country is all that different, and not because I don’t share some of his pessimism about the state of the country, but because I find an overly pessimistic take to be out of step with certain facts that don’t line up with the narrative. Here’s just one, for example: the craziness on display in certain liberal elite bubbles is matched by a different kind of craziness in certain conservative populist bubbles, and the very existence of these bubbles—where people inhabiting one or the other think the opposition is completely insane––is enough to convince me that we’ve got a long way to go before the entire country succumbs to totalitarianism. (I mean, elected officials all over the country had to work overtime just to get people to wear masks during a pandemic, for goodness’ sake!)
We may have good reasons to be pessimistic, and like many observers, I look with more than a little apprehension to the future as I see alarming developments, especially in regard to religious liberty. There are clear and present dangers on the horizon for Christians who seek to live in accordance with traditional Christian morality and not be forced to offend their consciences. When you have an administration dead set on suing nuns because they don’t want to be implicated in supplying birth control and abortifacients, and when you’ve got mainstream presidential candidates recommending we strip tax exemption from any church or school not on board with the sexual revolution, and when you’ve got accrediting agencies threatening Christian higher education—well, make no mistake, there are real concerns here.
Far be it from me to downplay the seriousness of the challenges ahead or to say we should be optimistic. My goal is more modest. I want to inject a small dose of skepticism before you encounter the next alarmist and sensationally pessimistic voice out there in the Christian media complex.
Pessimism Sounds More Plausible
Let’s jump back to the religious liberty example. To some extent, we can be encouraged. David French has written about ways our country’s first freedom is under attack, but he also shows that many of the walls around this religious citadel are high and strong, at least on the legal front. Our first amendment freedoms have been bolstered and reinforced by the Supreme Court in the past two decades. He writes,
“In the face of progressive control of the vast majority of the legal educational establishment, conservatives have created, sustained, and nurtured an intellectually vibrant and determined community of lawyers, scholars, and judges who have transformed American law to better match the meaning and text of the American Constitution. It has not accomplished all it could (what movement ever does?)—and there have been bitter disappointments—but it has made an enormous impact by securing liberties that American Christians now take for granted.”
That’s not to say that we can rest on the laurels of the conservative movement’s legal strategy, and that’s not to deny future challenges that are on their way. We should note, however, that some of the breathless commentary that is overly pessimistic in its outlook may sound more plausible than it actually is.
In The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel juxtaposes two “predictions” from different time periods, to show how reasonable a pessimistic viewpoint can sound in contrast to a wildly optimistic prediction. At the end of 2008, as the global recession intensified and unemployment numbers surged, a well-known publication featured a front-page story that quoted a Russian professor named Igor Panarin:
Around the end of June 2010, or early July,… the U.S. will break into six pieces––with Alaska reverting to Russian control … California will form the nucleus of what he calls “The Californian Republic,” and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texas will be the heart of “The Texas Republic,” a cluster of states that will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington, D.C., and New York will be part of an “Atlantic America” that may join the European Union. Canada will grab a group of Northern states Prof. Panarin calls “The Central North American Republic.” Hawaii, he suggests, will be a protectorate of Japan or China, and Alaska will be subsumed into Russia.
Sound crazy? Yes. And yet this seemed plausible enough in 2008 to make the front page of The Wall Street Journal.
What about a forecast that seems outrageously optimistic? Housel turns to Japan and wonders how people would have responded in the 1940s—after the devastation from WWII, the famine of 1946 and the economic and cultural fallout from the country’s defeat—if a professor had written this in their newspaper:
Chin up, everyone. Within our lifetime our economy will grow to almost 15 times the size it was before the end of the war. Our life expectancy will nearly double. Our stock market will produce returns like any country in history has rarely seen. We will go more than 40 years without ever seeing unemployment top 6%. We will become a world leader in electronic innovation and corporate managerial systems. Before long we will be so rich that we will own some of the most prized real estate in the United States. Americans, by the way, will be our closest ally and will try to copy our economic insights.
“They would have been summarily laughed out of the room and asked to seek a medical evaluation. Keep in mind the description above is what actually happened in Japan in the generation after the war. But the mirror opposite of Panarin looks absurd in a way a forecast of doom doesn’t.”
So why do we gravitate toward the pessimistic take? It “just sounds smarter and more plausible than optimism,” Housel writes. “Tell someone that everything will be great and they’re likely to either shrug you off or offer a skeptical eye. Tell someone they’re in danger and you have their undivided attention.”
Housel also points to the rewards brought by attention-grabbing pessimism:
Say we’ll have a big recession and newspapers will call you. Say we’re headed for average growth and no one particularly cares. Say we’re nearing the next Great Depression and you’ll get on TV. But mention that good times are ahead, or markets have room to run, or that a company has huge potential, and a common reaction from commentators and spectators alike is that you are either a salesman or comically aloof of risks.
The Allure of Pessimism
Some of you may think I’m putting my head in the sand regarding the real challenges our country and our churches face right now. I am not. And I’m not trying to make you an optimist. I’m simply pointing out the allure of pessimism, an appeal that easily overcomes certain facts that do not align with the narrative. What Hans Rosling writes in his book Factfulness—“Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless––in short, more dramatic––than it really is”—applies to many conservative Christians today. And it shouldn’t.
Nearly a century ago, in opposition to the overly optimistic secular theories of progress and the overly pessimistic thundering of would-be prophets, G.K. Chesterton wrote:
“The world is what the saints and prophets saw it was. It is not merely getting better or merely getting worse; there is one thing that the world does; it wobbles.”
Chesterton was right. And if we are going to be faithful Christians in our time, in whatever circumstances, we must figure out how to keep our bearings when the world goes wobbly.
Likewise, John Piper cautions:
“Don’t assume any specific historical trajectory of good or evil is fixed and unchangeable. God evidently loves to do his surprising work in hard and unlikely times.”
That’s good counsel because it gets to the heart of our faith. The gospel shows God doing the most amazing things in the most unlikely times. We see this theme unfold throughout the Old Testament but especially in the New when God launches the main event in His rescue plan. In charge of this wobbly world is the King of kings, which is why the storyline of the world we inhabit should be the great story as described by the gospel and embodied in the church, not the lesser narratives of career, economy, country, or political party.
Not Optimism, But Hope
The gospel should be the internal clock that keeps us from falling for extreme optimism or extreme pessimism. The church’s message is one of neither progress nor demise, but of hope. Our different vision of history must be on display.
The allure of pessimism is real and seductive. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? When Lesslie Newbigin was asked that question, the wrinkled missionary smiled and said, “I am neither. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”
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