OCTOBER 17, 2001
Pat Robertson and the Rhetoric of Decline
-- Andrew R. Murphy
Commenting on the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, Pat Robertson warned that "[t]he Lord is getting ready to shake this nation....God Almighty is lifting his protection from us." Citing abortion and pornography as just two practices that have incurred divine disfavor, Robertson called on Americans to "live the way the Bible tells them to live" in order to avoid future attacks.
Such a position is extreme, of course, but should hardly surprise those who have been listening to religious voices in recent years. Setting aside the offensive and theologically suspect aspect of Robertson's remarks enables us to see the kernel of an enduring religio-cultural question that lies at the root of the American experience, and at the heart of his concern.
According to Robertson's view, American society has seen a marked decline in moral behavior, and a corresponding increase in radical individualism and value relativism, in recent years. But he is hardly alone. William Bennett, Robert Bork, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Richard John Neuhaus, Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Joseph Lieberman and, from a more secular standpoint, many communitarians and neoconservative critics of contemporary liberalism have painted similar portraits of a nation just now waking up to the effects of a dramatic moral and spiritual wrong turn. Their accounts of American society are arresting. Their statistics and figures are often disheartening. Their calls for revival and renewal are serious.
When we cast our eye a bit more broadly, however, we find claims that declining piety threatens America's unique role as a "redeemer nation" to be more the norm than the exception in American history. Many voices throughout the years have described misfortune and disaster as signs of divine displeasure. [Indeed, no] sooner had Puritans arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony than clergy began warning that waning piety would incur God's wrath. With many of the original settlers likely listening, William Stoughton wondered in 1677, "Were our fathers as a noble vine, and shall we be as the degenerate plant of a strange vine?" According to Samuel Hooker, "Sins more than enough have been found with us to deserve all our sufferings, that we sin no more lest a worse thing come to us is the duty incumbent." Puritan clergy preached dozens of such sermons in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Most concluded with a call to revitalize the religious beliefs and practices of the colonies' inhabitants as a way of regaining God's favor.
Such tales of pietistic decline are hardly unique to the Christian tradition, let alone to our time. Augustine's City of God represents a grand response to the claims that turning away from traditional Roman religion had incurred those gods' wrath. He described the City of God as a "reply to those who hold the Christian religion responsible for the wars with which the whole world is now tormented, and in particular for the recent sack of Rome." And although I am not an expert on other traditions, colleagues assure me that narratives of declining moral and pietistic conduct bringing divine judgment on human communities appear in the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian traditions as well.
What shall we make of the fact that previous generations of Americans located their own contemporaries in a process of moral and spiritual decline that had gradually worsened down to their own day? More specifically, if contemporary declinists like Pat Robertson look for examples of a godly society exhibiting ordered liberty in the founding era, or even in a purported pre-1960s Protestant-Catholic-Jewish religious consensus, what do we make of the fact that one hundred years prior to the nation's founding, New England clergy were lamenting how far their society had fallen?
There seems a propensity, perhaps even a compulsion, of people in all times to create narratives of a Golden Age in the past and decline in the present. We should, however, not take such accounts at face value without requiring their authors to grapple with the difficult problems of history and recurrence -- without clarifying what difference (if any) it makes that strikingly similar arguments were made three hundred, fifteen hundred, even two thousand years ago.
Pointing out this recurrent rhetoric of spiritual decline will surely not dissuade Pat Robertson from seeing the terrible events of September 11 as evidence of God's displeasure with contemporary America. But rather than criticizing his suspect theology, or condemning his callous willingness to subsume the deaths of thousands under some notion of God's anti-liberal disgust, we might reflect more deeply on the widespread and somehow deeply American idea that they voice.
Significantly, the lament over New England's, and later the United States', spiritual decline was made all the more poignant by its inscription within a rhetoric of America as the "chosen nation," the "New Israel." Along with Puritan laments of spiritual decline and corruption went the notion that this land is steeped in providential promise. Abetted by the experiences of revolution, nation-building, westward expansion, the civil war, and the liberationist movements of the twentieth centuries, the notion became even more deeply ingrained that America possessed some special relationship with, and a special responsibility to, the Creator and that Creator's plans for the unfolding of sacred history.
Until we are willing to question seriously, if not discard, these claims, Pat Robertson's views will remain just the most explicit articulation of a highly problematic, highly persistent political theology.
-- Andrew R. Murphy is a Senior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center at the Universityof Chicago Divinity School, and a lecturer in social sciences in the college. He is the author of Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (Penn State University Press, 2001). He is writing a book on the rhetoric of moral and spiritual decline.