Back in the late 70s Jeremy Rifkin and Ted Howard put out their assessment of American culture. Coupled with it was a bit of futurism — some predictions about the future of American society. I am not about to diminish the work on account of any errors in their predictions. I was instead curious to re-read it with a look at their assessments and compare them to what actually happened since it was published 38 years ago.
The twilight of liberalism is upon us because the basis for liberal society no longer exists. Liberalism is founded on one overriding precondition — the possibility of unlimited economic growth.
That observation is basic to the U.S. economy. When it comes to policy it is even more evident. Government people like to tinker in the lives of the populace, especially with their wallets. Economic tinkering has come in a variety of situations. For instance, if not for the home loan qualification rules changes in the early or mid 1960s your house would likely cost about 1/3 of what it does now.
How is that, you say? There was a time when a down payment was 1/4 to 1/3 of the price of the house. But with the inflation of the 1950s it became harder to save. Inflation makes money worth less. Add to that the number of women entering the workforce. That change resulted in more liquid dollars for people to spend — on their houses. Add again the change to qualifying which would now include the wife’s income. All of a sudden a couple could not only afford the monthly payments on a house they could actually afford the house of their dream. No starter home for them.
What’s a home builder to do? Or a banker? Well, all that money and easier credit. You guessed it — price increases. Now a $30K home goes to $50K and up. It took a few years but that’s where we are at.
You hear this every time you listen to economic reports. Their key factor is this: Housing starts. There’s durable goods, too. But housing starts is key.
Of course a population that isn’t growing is also not building a lot of new houses. So what does one do? Open immigration, legal and illegal. Add people and automatically add a demand for housing. There are other reasons, of course, but this is certainly among them.
It is a complex formula but not too complex to understand. It comes down to a principle used in Europe for decades: A managed economy can maintain prosperity. It’s called a Keynesian economy. (It’s not fascism, but they do hold hands.)
What I’m saying here is that the liberal economy that we enjoyed during the post-war boom and the .com boom were temporary. What lies in between is the evidence of liberalism’s economic decline and its reversion to power for enforcing it’s place in society. Our sense of economic liberty is just an illusion. Perhaps even liberty itself.
The old order had disparaged temporal life, maintaining that the only important task for men and women was to seek salvation by obeying God’s will. Liberalism decisively broke with this tradition, and for the first time in history sought to prove that the individual could fulfill his role and achieve ultimate satisfaction right here on earth.
This is one of those statements that could send my head spinning, if I let it.
On the one hand the rise of liberalism replaced the church with the individual. That is, the authority of the church versus teh authority of the individual in determining one’s destiny. (If this sounds a lot like the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution, that’s no mistake.)
Then again the authors speak of the Reformation with specificity but leave liberalism as a vague generality here. Let’s remember that the Reformation was in the north of Europe. There was something going on in the south. It was a thing called the Renaissance and it was about a lot more than trying to find a way to fund and pay Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The Renaissance people had money in surplus — the foundation for capitalism. They owned ships. Lots of them. They could even spare one to fund an exploratory trip by a guy named Columbus.
Let’s call this period formative liberalism. It was coming into its own as a movement but was not precisely defined. What it represented was the principle of individual sovereignty against the church. It’s intellectual and academic counterpart is known as Rationalism. This represents the freedom of the individual mind and reason set against the limits established by the church.
The result has been a mixed bag. To whom does the sovereign individual owe allegiance if not only to one’s self? One answer to this led to the U.S. being, initially, a confederation of states acting like sovereign nations. That didn’t work so well and we fought a nasty war over it.
The collapse of liberalism into a new totalitarianism stems from its inability to answer its own question of allegiance.
Chapters 3 & 4
The evidence is overwhelming. We are exhausting, in absolute terms, our store of fossil fuels and minerals and depleting our available crop- and grazing land, forests and fisheries.
This is where I depart from the authors in a serious way. It is not because of the obvious error but rather because of the philosophical tendency. The error belongs to Malthusian economics. For all of my adult life the cry has become one of fear and impending doom — unless the government takes it all over.
In the 1990s we had a “crisis” in day care availability, or so the news people told us. They prodded the populace and the government to do something about it. That’s what economic managers do. They fix things.
We had a crisis of fear wrapped around nuclear weapons. (Except somehow we trust Iran.) A crisis of over-population. A crisis of persecution of minority groups (homosexuals, trans, Muslims). Let’s not forget ozone. There was a crisis recently about whether free speech should be done away with. And most recently the supposed Electoral College crisis.
We live in a crisis-driven society. Solutions are rarely achieved by putting out short-term fires. They need put out but they’re not the core issue.
With the liberal ethos in decline, the evangelicals are finding an even more fertile environment than in the 1960s for their theological doctrine. The country is turning to evangelicalism at the very time that it is beginning to question many of the basic assumptions that have underscored the American age …
They were right. There is no theological vacuum. But there’s more.
That Keynesian economy that we discussed earlier — that principle applies to other areas of life. The “diversity” doctrine is such. It says that those in power have the right, responsibility, and even the duty to manage what people believe, what people teach, how we educate our children, and what our beliefs may direct us to do.
If you get the impression that government wants to do in our lives what it complained about the church doing 500 years ago, you are not mistaken. Liberalism is no longer liberal. It has become illiberal and has set a course toward a new totalitarianism.
Meanwhile the authors give some predictions about how evangelicalism might develop. (Remember: This is 1979 so there was no Internet available, no religious radio or TV network, nothing. Just a lot of mail.) I’ll only note the final one, the only positive one, for the same of discussion.
The evangelical Christian communication system is more highly developed and effective today than at any time in American history. The same holds true for the evangelical infrastructure. [This structure] may, as was the case during America’s two great spiritual awakenings of the past, serve as a base of operations for a challenge to the existing order or a catalyst for a revolutionary vision of society.
The authors saw the possibilities. In a section that I didn’t quote, of the rise of the religious right, either formally or informally. What is visible here is something resembling the growing evangelical engagement of social needs. We have reinforced our infrastructures with better education (Sunday School) than ever before. Many churches are even becoming mini institutes within themselves. Even elementary and secondary education, coupled with home schooling, have proven themselves as significant points of impact on American society. We are challenging the existing order.
My hope for this is for the continued rise of a true evangelical eccumenism that would allow us to work together better while maintaining distinctives separately. There’s plenty of room.
Evangelicals will often identify with populist outbursts against existing authority but seldom engage in either discussion or implementation of alternatives to that authority.
This is an area where we have improved. Of course when we do it the competition cries “theocracy” and gets all paranoid. But it makes for some interesting reading.
This book is about ethics. The authors use the term “ethos” all through it, but they’re really the same thing. Ethics is not just about situations and choices but about the principles that drive those choices. That’s where we are at. The liberal ethos has failed. It provides no answers of substance. The failure of the far left ethos was seen in the violence of the late 60s and early 70s. It was seen in the inauguration protests of 2017 against President Trump.
There is no ethical vacuum. Christians have the opportunity to inform by engagement. Complaining is not enough. Attendance at meetings, even having personal meetings with elected officials, these things bring about positive change. Real progress.
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