America seems to be struggling for life from its own success. Having identified “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a national ideal, the result for many generations was greater freedom and prosperity. But the advance of free society had the guardrails of religion and morality. We have been undone by making freedom from dissatisfaction into an absolute, not to be corrected by any authority, even common sense, and certainly not by religion or morality.
The pursuit of happiness as the ultimate value to be honored in life has been with us for a long time. Sin is finally lawlessness that seeks to fulfill the desire of the self to the exclusion of other considerations. The incorrigible self began to be respectable with the democratic revolutions of the modern era. This revolutionary ideal came to a head in the 1960s, when America and the West were past the life threatening struggles of the 1930s and 40s, and American civilization could dominate a devastated world. The ideal of the good life for everyone on their own terms has been working itself out ever since.
The freedom from oppression that was advanced before the mid-twentieth century was not something Christians and revolutionaries necessarily disagreed on. In principle, Biblical faith requires justice, and encourages peace, health, and prosperity by virtuous living. And so Christians justifiably participated in struggles against disease, slavery, and tyrannical governments. Christian faith is compatible with many forms of government. But it directly addresses personal life, and so demands for change here can conflict with faith, and have, because a life without dissatisfaction is the ideal of modern societies, and it cannot be had because of the human desire to sin.
At this point in the early twenty-first century, the goal of happiness is eating up life and liberty. This happens because where a common dissatisfaction in personal life is identified as having been caused by a restriction from some traditional authority, lives and liberties that depend on the restriction are sacrificed. Thus unborn children, and now even infants, the aged, and perhaps the terminally ill are held to be a burden, and may be disposed of. Similarly traditional sexual morality humiliates people for what they often want, and so those choosing to adhere to traditional morality may not do so because humiliation impairs peace of mind.
Social conservatives bemoan the loss of traditional social structures, principally the family and faith communities. People can exist without religious faith, but life without it seems barren to many. Yet faith, family, and children have all become endangered because they impeded common immediate desires that people have. With ever greater force, people in the post-World War II years wanted to know “why can’t I?” (fill in the blank). Common wishes were why can’t I have sex outside of marriage, get rid of the pregnancy I hadn’t planned, take non-addictive (or even addictive) drugs, wear long hair (if a man), wear a short dress (if a woman), listen to rebellious rock music, slack off school assignments, eat at that restaurant, or sleep at that motel? The last two items, which pertained to racial discrimination, were indeed the demands of justice, since race is indeed a superficial aspect of human beings. But the others go to who we are as human beings. The “discrimination” here was just, and it was (and is) the difference between civilized and barbarous living.
The world of continual entertainment, without faith and family, and with social trust greatly diminished, is a world being brought about by focusing on gratification rather than duty. It is not sustainable because it has stripped away culture in pursuit of adult happiness. It has long been observed that highly developed societies are characterized by a low birth rate and a high suicide rate. This is what would be expected where children are seen as a burden, the maximum pleasure is sought for the longest time, and the warmth and meaning given to life by traditional culture is gone.
Atomized individuals in the impersonal world of work, and joy in life gotten from entertainment rather than family, these are the realities today’s highly developed societies are moving toward. The natural result is below replacement level birth rates. It is especially noteworthy that that this is true even in Japan, which has no Christian heritage to be dissolved by the acids of modernity, but where the desire for family, children, and even sex seems to be lost on many young people.
For several generations, America and the West have struggled to protect freedom against foreign threat, and the free enterprise necessary for prosperity from collectivist proposals. But the end result of the struggles for freedom in the past — in World War II from dictators bent on world conquest, and in the Cold War from a potent ideology promising paradise on earth and delivering hell on earth — in all cases seems to have been a society turned away God and neighbor, and toward self.
Today those still committed to classical liberalism struggle to protect freedom against those who seek to use the idea of freedom to subvert freedom. What is lacking is a common conviction about the meaning of life which both protects Christianity and supports classical liberal freedoms. There seems to be an anomie in secular, developed, societies. And the common culture is lacking because the leadership classes in contemporary liberal democracies have become highly secular, and continually press for a meaning of life which cannot be had on a secular basis.
While the Bible promises peace and prosperity as at least the common result of obedience to God (Psalm 1, Jn. 10:10), Scripture also teaches that our first duty is obedience to God and love of neighbor. And in pursuit of that, it recognizes that the righteous suffer. If we are not happy in the course of our duty as disciples of Christ, we must realize that happiness is not what is most important. And we can take satisfaction in doing our duty to God and neighbor, even if life isn’t particularly pleasant.
We can argue to the wider world that sexual immorality and/or promiscuity, alcohol, drugs, entertainment conducive to sin, vulgarity, disobedience to parents, etc. are harmful socially and psychologically. But if people are not persuaded of a God behind these rules, and instead think human happiness is the only final justification for restricting human behavior, the restrictions will be seen not as absolute boundaries to virtuous life, but as mere taste or convention. From the standpoint of human happiness alone, secularists can propose “solutions” to the problems that exist in setting aside traditional morality. What they want may not be well for people over the long term as the traditional morality of religious and natural law would be. But they will seem compelling to people who want what they want, and are committed to a sustained effort to get it. And even a life lived within the confines of traditional morality can seem boring if one does not have a God to give it meaning.
We cannot offer people the gospel which gives the true meaning of life apart from Christian doctrine. There may be people who respond to the simple proclamation of the gospel, but we also have a Biblical duty to defend that Christian doctrine as being true. We must show how reason and facts agree with it. Inescapably, this means advancing apologetics in the modern world. Only if people are convinced of the truth of Christianity will it make sense for them to remain within the confines of Christian morality (especially on the issues of sex and substance abuse, where there is always an exception for one’s self).
Any merely “cultural Christianity” (Christian morality and the historic cultures rooted in the Christian past, held in the absence of Christian theology) cannot survive over time. People want happiness, but if that is all that is in view, they will not know that it is right. People will want happiness without justification rather than accept restrictions only out of respect for Christian culture.
But over the long term, they do not really want a pleasant life without knowing that it is right. Many persons had that kind of happiness in the 1950s, and it wasn’t enough. People must really believe that Christian faith and morals are true and correct. While in the last analysis, faith is a gift of God, it is also Biblical to show that reason and evidence agree with Christian faith. Our duty as Christians is to be ever faithful to him, believing his Word, and obeying him in all things, regardless of social or legal consequence to ourselves.