The West has made some remarkable steps forward culturally in the past several generations, as, for instance, in the areas of civil rights (the unborn being a notable exception), race relations, and cooperation among Christians of different traditions. We shouldn’t indulge a false nostalgia that overlooks this progress. That being said, you can visit almost any major city in the free world today and find evidence of cultural decay on a host of fronts: malls dripping with images of sensuality and hedonism; girls from respectable, law abiding families dropped off at school dressed like prostitutes; boys sitting beside them in class able to pull up a world of pornography on their smartphones and often doing so; chronically high divorce rates; a plummeting number of homes with the biological father present; commercials telling you, implicitly or explicitly, to Obey Your Thirst; recreational drug abuse—on and on we could go.
The challenge extends even to what many of us would characterize as “good homes.” In place of the warm-toned ideal of the Norman Rockwell family gathered around the Thanksgiving table, saying grace and genuinely savoring the meal, laughing and talking together, instead many of us decide to move the affair into the living room to eat over a commercial-laced football game while simultaneously surfing the web on as many smartphones as there are individuals in the room. Then, when the game is over, it’s off to the mall for a Thursday evening sneak peak at the “Black Friday” shopping frenzy.
So the signs of cultural decay are various. Some are subtle and aesthetic, others measurable, overtly immoral and palpably tragic. But taken together, they invite the question, why? That is, why is Western culture decaying in certain crucial ways? What’s driving it?
Many people, including some social conservatives, blame global free market capitalism. According to this view, the West wandered into a cultural wasteland because we embraced a system based on greed, mindless efficiency, unbridled production, and restless consumption. American poet and essayist Wendell Berry, for instance, suggests that capitalism’s obsession with radical individualism and economies of scale leads it to break up communities and families, uprooting them from supportive relational networks and driving them from small towns into large cities where they lose contact with the natural world, their loved ones and, eventually, themselves.
If capitalism is the primary culprit for cultural decay, as some suggest, an obvious response would be to discard capitalism and opt for a highly planned economy in which the government tames the people’s greed through periodic and aggressive redistribution and, in the more extreme scenario, owns or controls the means of production. This approach has a superficial plausibility about it: get ordinary people out of the sordid business of accumulating wealth, all that endless shopping and selling, and find some conscientious civil servants in government to take care of dividing up the wealth equitably, freeing up the rest of us to focus on putting in a good day’s work, raising our families, and enjoying a little leisure time.
Is the solution that simple? Well, it’s been tried, multiple times, and the results weren’t pretty. Whether in Russia, Eastern Europe, or other parts of the world, that strategy tended to fuel political corruption, crowd out civil institutions and replace an ownership culture with a rental culture characterized by a declining sense of personal responsibility. The results were accelerated cultural decay, not cultural renewal.
[Part 2 of 12 here]
[Note: Part 1 is the first in a serialized presentation of my chapter from a forthcoming collection of essays exploring various Christian critiques of capitalism, published by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.