Spiraling Downward

Having ventured into the realm of high generalization about cultural systems, in my second entry I wish to raise my game to a still higher level.

We have heard many warnings recently from Church leaders about American and world culture spiraling downwards. While this diagnosis can be debated (it is always the best of times and the worst of times), a pessimistic mood has prevailed at Church headquarters. Some relief was granted in this last conference when a few talks struck the theme of “Don’t Despair.”

I believe there are grounds for adopting the pessimistic stand because morally and religiously our culture has been hollowed out. Neither our theological beliefs nor our moral standards are supported in the cultural systems that dominate our society: capitalism, democracy, and science.

I do not mean to say no men and women of faith and high moral standards remain in American society. Just the reverse is true. We meet people everyday whose integrity and moral conduct put most Mormons to shame. These are our allies in the effort to uphold faith in a disbelieving world. What I do mean to say is that the prevailing cultural systems, the ones acknowledged as valid by the official institutions of the country like the government and the schools, do not validate our fundamental beliefs. Strong religious institutions with parallel beliefs and standards to ours exist, but they are sectarian. They are not universally acknowledged as valid. They are the convictions of part of the people.

At the beginning of the century it was not so. Protestant culture, as Jan Shipps has argued, remained an unofficial religious establishment. You need only tour the Columbia campus, viewing the stone inscriptions on buildings erected in the first two decades, to realize how religious language was used to express a university’s highest ideals. At that time it was explicitly Christian. By the middle of the century, Christianity had expanded to Judeo-Christian. Sometime in the last fifty years, Judeo-Christian disappeared and no explicitly religious language remains. Now the cross on the Columbia seal is an embarrassment to the university.

What remains, science, democracy, and capitalism, have powerful moral values of their own. Science with its open pursuit of truth, democracy with its equal rights for all, and capitalism with rewards to industry and skill, but none of these require belief in God or observance of what we call moral standards. You need not be generous or chaste to thrive in any of these cultures, and you certainly need not believe. They are all godless in the sense of not requiring faith of successful practitioners.

This detachment from religious belief and moral standards seemed innocuous for a long time. Religion throve in the interstices. It was not necessary for official validation when most people of good will still embraced religious belief and the official cultures did not officially attack religion. But the hollowness of the religious culture was revealed in the sixties when pressure on the ostensible religious and moral structures of the nation led to a collapse. I am not one to blame the sixties for everything wrong in society, as right-wing commentators are wont to do. I am simply saying that the sixties were a revelation. Insomuch as moral standards fell in that decade, it was a sign that the official culture offered no support. The ideological foundation of belief had been gutted. The democratic value of equality came to prevail over all others.

For all these reason I foresee a continuation and perhaps growth of unbelief at the heart of the culture–in the media and in the universities. There will be resurgences of religious faith; the need to believe is too strong to be permanently obliterated. But those who disbelieve will have the greatest confidence in their position. They will say that reason offers no basis for believing, where the word “reason” stands for the prevailing wisdom of the culture which indeed offers no basis for belief. That basis is not present in science, democracy, or capitalism. Mormons will have allies, friends, and admirers, but we will face unrelenting criticism and opposition from those who argue that our beliefs and our moral standards are unreasonable. More and more of our brothers, sisters, cousins, and children will wander off into the fields of unbelief while the inhabitants of the spacious building point and laugh.

31 comments for “Spiraling Downward

  1. Kristine
    April 14, 2004 at 1:31 pm


  2. Grasshopper
    April 14, 2004 at 1:38 pm

    Richard wrote:

    “They [science, democracy, and capitalism] are all godless in the sense of not requiring faith of successful practitioners.”

    Faith in what/whom? All these systems require faith, just not faith in the God we choose to worship. There are other gods competing for our worship.

    How are Richard’s feelings different from the feelings of Muslims who decried the Christian “infidels” who conquered the Middle East?

  3. Gary Cooper
    April 14, 2004 at 1:45 pm

    Yes, Brother Bushman, you are right, and the Scriptures, when speaking of the Last Days, point to the scenario you have described. Yet, in such a struggle between belief and unbelief, many will be compelled to choose between God and the world who otherwise might have “sat on the fence” quite contentedly in earlier times. Being compelled to choose, many will choose right, and be saved, even if others choose wrongly. I am reminded of one of the principles of medieval chivalry, “War is the flowering of Chivalry”. Taken in this context, the very war we see brewing here on this subject provides the opportunity to us to gain and exercise faith and courage, help others so to do, and to serve. Ultimately, this war’s outcome has already been decided; it was settled at two great battles fought and one by One who stood alone, whom we did not help and would not have even if we could have. At Gethsemane and Golgotha, Christ crushed the Serpent’s head, and all else that follows is merely God, in love and mercy, allowing all of us to choose between His Son and Satan. Our choices will not effect the final victory of Good over Evil; it only effects what side we choose to be on in this conflict. This encourages and comforts me, despite all I see in the world today.

  4. Lyle
    April 14, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    Richard: So, how do we “ally,” with other like-minded or like-valued folks, whether they be secular or religious? Or do we? While many of my attempts to befriend Evangelical’s, for example, have been only quasi-accepted, others I count as very good friends & rejoice that they seem to be taking the Bible seriously in their daily lives.

    However, there seems to be a significant stream in the LDS community that Evangelicals (insert whatever group that has common beliefs, but don’t necessarily “like” us for other reasons), are a danger & threat to the LDS church; as these groups will turn on us the first chance they get.

    What say ye?

  5. John H
    April 14, 2004 at 2:11 pm

    Beautifully written, Richard. My question is, is there a way to correct this dilemma? You seem to think not, and mention that pessimism might be warranted.

    What will be the fallout from this lack of religious faith? Do you think it’s possible that society will continue on despite this lack of faith – recognizing that good can still come from morality and values, even if they are based on humanism rather than religious faith? Or is this lack of religious faith merely a prerequisite to a second coming of Christ?

  6. April 14, 2004 at 2:16 pm

    “More and more of our brothers, sisters, cousins, and children will wander off into the fields of unbelief while the inhabitants of the spacious building point and laugh.”

    Maybe this is the downward spiral — not that the world is getting more wicked, which we already knew would happen, but that there will be less true believers. People are more apt to worry about their wayward brother, pointing and laughing, than the amorality of today’s culture, and yet they don’t realize that one is the direct result of the other. So the question is, where do we concentrate our efforts? On our culture that defies belief and morality? On our own little “sphere of influence”? Have we really understood the connection Patriarch Bushman is making here? The decline of belief and morality in our culture is resulting in lost souls — our family members, our loved ones, our neighbors. The amorality of culture does not exist in a vaccuum — it has affected, and will continue to affect, you. Even if you think you’re strong enough to know better, is your daughter? Is your daughter’s daughter?

  7. April 14, 2004 at 2:39 pm

    While I’ve long been critical of the idea of the world being more wicked in the past (I think it’s the best its ever been) I do agree with Richard’s comments. I’d add in that generally when societies are condemned in the scriptures, they are condemned due to their relationship with God and not necessarily their ethical acts. i.e. a culture that perhaps has more violence and what we’d term corruption might be more recognized simply because they include God more.

    Now that dichotomy sometimes in troubling to me. For instance I have a very difficult time reconciling Utah life in the 1860’s as being more righteous than today, when I read what life was like then. Yet, at the same time, God definitely played a bigger role in their lives. I’ve had long discussions and debates on this issue. And, to be honest, I haven’t really reconciled things in my mind. Part of me, for instance, questions why science should need to invoke the name of God in analogies or the like or even mention him. It seems rather superfluous to science. Yet, in the 19th century as Richard mentions, most scientists did. Even a person we’d probably call an atheist, Einstein, frequently discussed God, even though his “god” was Spinoza’s god and not a personal God.

  8. April 14, 2004 at 2:45 pm

    I suppose Protestants look back on the days of informal Protestant establishment as “the good old days” with everything going downhill since the turn of the century, and Mormons tend to agree with that view. Of course, they weren’t that good if you weren’t a white Protestant male. For many groups, including Mormons I think, things are better now.

    Furthermore, I think the “rising tide of immorality” story depends on what morals you make central to your morality. If tolerance and reverence for life and the environment are your central values, things are getting better, not worse.

    I did note that the Conference speakers did seem to stress hope for the future, a nice change. Perhaps Fall’s October Conference should be reserved for doom and gloom, and Spring’s April Conference should regularly stress hope and renewal, matching the annual procession of the seasons.

  9. Sean C.
    April 14, 2004 at 4:03 pm

    We are definitely living in an increasingly post-Christian society, but this is discouraging only to the believers. Those relieved from the oppression of cultural artifacts secured in the Bible, believers among them, have only benefited in their actual, if not their eternal, lives. Slavery (which the Bible accepted), women’s subordination (which the Bible encouraged), and gay persecution (which the Bible demanded) are quickly fading into history. Yes, America is definitely becoming more permissive, so there is less hiding of sexual sin, but there isn’t more sexual sin. You only have to read Catcher in the Rye once to see there was also high school sex back in the 50s, even if Ricky and Lucy had separate beds.

    And science is displacing faith as the describer of natural events and even creation. But this is not the fault of science. There is no Science verses Religion, but only Religion versus science. Scientists are merely piecing together the information they can accumulate through observation and experimentation, not trying to unseat God. It is God’s responsibility to see to it that His written Word conforms to the outward evidence of His physical Creation.

    Yet the world is relatively calm and peaceful. Anxiety is high, but where are the Signs of the Times? The Signs of the Times are obviously in the eye of the beholder. Because they are definitely not in the world. There has never been less famine. There has never been less pestilence. There is even much less war. It’s utterly heart-breaking when a bus blows up in Tel Aviv or when bastards blow up the sky scrapers across the street from my office, but Magyars aren’t charging over the hill to slaughter villages on a weekly basis while the Tartars overrun Moscow. “There is madmen and there are terror,” as a great leader once said, but there are fewer of them, even if they have bigger guns.

  10. Kevin
    April 14, 2004 at 4:43 pm

    I agree with Richard’s view that religious belief is waning, and with Dave’s view that secularly defined morality is increasing. It seems that we’re migrating from the celestial and telestial into the terrestial. Whatever happened to the wheat and tares division that is supposed to be taking place?

    My guess is the triumvirate of capitalism, democracy, and science will, at some point, be dramatically challenged by the true Godhead. Consider that the church already rejects these systems to some extent. Our epistemology is not based on the scientific method, we aspire to consecration rather than capitalism, and our governmental principles are not democratic. The church’s position will appear increasingly anomalous as these three systems continue their monotonic upswing. At some point, the difference between religion and secularism may be so stark that we’ll be forced to choose between them. I’m not looking forward to that trial, as I enjoy living in both worlds.

  11. Adam Greenwood
    April 14, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with the post, and with Clark Goble’s emendation. I think the answer is, as Lyle says, a conscious effort at allies and alliances. It will probably fail, but our Lord rewards the valiant, not the victorious.

    Br’er Fox:
    Do you remember which post prompted a long discussion on whether the world was going downhill or not? I can’t seem to recall.

  12. Adam Greenwood
    April 14, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    If I could add a thought to Clark’s emendation: I’m not sure how to go about evaluating the moral state of a society, as seen from the inside. Things are better today with respect to violence, certainly, and probably with respect to the honesty of the official culture, but probably not with respect to sexual morality and self-sacrifice. Hard to say.

    But I do think we can say something about the moral state of our society, as seen from the inside. Our society today is much better off because it is richer, freer, more open, more orderly, more predictable (when was the last time your house was looted or you were enslaved?) and so on. It is exactly these conditions that give a greater scope for wickedness and make failures to do good more blameable.

  13. April 14, 2004 at 5:34 pm

    I am not sure that I completely buy into Brother Bushman’s restatement of the secularization of society. To be sure, I think that he correcty describes the fate of the well educated and affluent segment of society. As it happens, this is the segment with which I spend most of my time and hence his descritpion rings true to me. On the other hand, it is not clear that this segment of society is necessarily representative, nor is it obvious to me that secular elites are necessarily in the vanguard of history on these issues. My understanding is that sociologists have been waiting around a long time for the withering of religion, which despite the predictions of the secularization thesis refuses to go away. It is not clear to me that the decline of the sort of thin, public Protestantism that Brother Bushman describes is necessarily evidence of declining religiousity. To be sure the sexual revolution is a more powerful exhibit in defense of the secularization thesis, but it is important to remember that the sexual revolution has also percipitated a counter revolution of sorts among the religious. For example, Evangelical Christianity, which had a negligibable public presence prior to the 1970s has emerged as the 900 hundred pound religious gorilla of American politics.

  14. Greg Call
    April 14, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    I think Nate’s right. In Finke and Starke’s _The Churching of America_, they argue that trend of shrinking, withering mainline religion versus growing, dynamic “fundamentalist” religion has been happening for centuries. In addition to Evangelical Christianity, just look at Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, uh, Mormons.

  15. ed
    April 14, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    Has anyone noticed that this thread about the decline of religious belief comes right after a thread about “The Passion” becoming one of the top grossing movies of all time?

  16. April 14, 2004 at 7:07 pm

    I think Ed makes a good point. What I think is different is that the “elites” are less religious. i.e. those who tend to be the movers and shakers in culture, science, and so forth. I think that the lay populace is about as religious or areligious as ever.

    We probably shouldn’t confuse organized religion with religion.

  17. Cal
    April 14, 2004 at 7:22 pm

    What is it about humans that make us so obsessively comparative? Does it really make any difference if our society is more or less Godly than societies past? Moreover, how can we determine such a thing as a collective religiousity? Is it possible to compare the state of our hearts now days with those of the past?

    To me, pessimism is symptomatic of a lack of faith. Obviously, it is possible to warn about problems facing our sociey currently without lacking faith–tactics are important in anything, including matters of faith. However, unless we happen to be a prophet, or some would say a sociologist, we can’t know who has faith and who doesn’t. So, we should listen to the prophets and adjust our tactics, but as to who’s worse than who…we should leave that up to those that are in the know.

  18. Susan
    April 14, 2004 at 11:25 pm

    “What remains, science, democracy, and capitalism, have powerful moral values of their own. Science with its open pursuit of truth, democracy with its equal rights for all, and capitalism with rewards to industry and skill, but none of these require belief in God or observance of what we call moral standards. You need not be generous or chaste to thrive in any of these cultures, and you certainly need not believe. They are all godless in the sense of not requiring faith of successful practitioners.”

    This paragraph focuses difficulties I have in sorting through a discussion like this one. The conjunction of “moral” and “belief.” Though here it’s obviously more mixed than that. Those without God can have “powerful moral values” but religion has “moral standards.” I start wondering if “moral standards” means sexual chastity–but then I’m brought up by the notion of “generous” as being somehow associated with belief in God.

    I have a very difficult time sorting through what it means to require belief in God to be truly moral. Always wonder what is loaded onto that term when it is tied necessarily to a belief in God–and especially to a belief in a very Mormon God. I understand that choices have consequences. I just keep wondering where my thoughts are going to be necessarily “morally” deficient if they don’t flow always from a belief in God.

  19. Ben Huff
    April 15, 2004 at 3:05 am

    Does the fact that irreligious populations are everywhere in decline, not replacing themselves, factor in here? I think there’s a trend within certain societies, and it may go as Richard says, but I’m not sure the trend holds as far as global populations go.

    I also am somewhat sympathetic to those who associate the established religion of the past with racism, sexism, etc., and challenge its overall moral soundness on that basis. I wonder whether religion can undergo a purification in this era of true disestablishment and be reborn with new vigor.

    Or be replaced by true religion — the LDS church is still growing; will it grow to fill the earth?

  20. lyle
    April 15, 2004 at 3:21 am


    Hm. Interesting idea. If population trends continue…the less religious & those that don’t value raising children with lessen. While the evanagelicals, catholics, Mormons, etc. will increase in numbers. Hm…

    Also, conflating established religion with past moral problems doesn’t necessarily affect LDS theology as much. Racism & Sexism are artifacts of the apostasy, right?

  21. April 15, 2004 at 3:46 am

    In answer to Adam’s question waaay up there, here is the older thread that discusses this topic. It was entitled “The Worst of Times.”

    This statement by Richard is most telling: “What remains, science, democracy, and capitalism, have powerful moral values of their own.” We might agree with Clark that these are the best of times in many ways, and we might also agree with Nate that large segments of American society remain devoutly religious. Nevertheless, has there ever been a time when religion had so many viable competitors? To be sure, temptations of the flesh (sex, money, fame) have always posed challenges, but for the most part, official society has recognized the evils of excess in these areas. Science, democracy, and capitalism, by contrast, enjoy widespread and explicit endorsement at the highest levels of organized society.

    Finally, Richard wrote, “relief was granted in this last conference when a few talks struck the theme of ‘Don’t Despair.'” I find these the most depressing talks of all. The message is not a call to arms, but resignation and resolve. These talks embrace the idea that our society is headed for a crash landing, and the message of hope is that the righteous will be spared the worst of it.

  22. Adam Greenwood
    April 15, 2004 at 10:15 am

    Here’s the link:

    I ultimately find less hope in demographic triumphalism than some because, as the Grey Fox implies, those who are not born in the World can always be recruited to it. And are, often.

    For these and other reasons, I echo Gordon Smith’s understanding of the Conference messages. An apocalyptic message of encroaching enemies, vivid doom, etc. is always a call to arms. When we cease to call, it is either because victory is assured or defeat is certain.

  23. April 15, 2004 at 1:23 pm

    A few comments. First putting us in with the fundamentalists is a mistake. I don’t have the link handy but our growth has flattened off significantly the last five or ten years. Even in nations like Russia or in Africa our growth is relatively small relative to fundamentalist groups like Assemblies of God. The reasons are probably more complex than “we’re not fundamentalist.” And I don’t think this spells “doom” either.

    I also think that warning against apocalyptic fervor doesn’t entail “defeat is certain.” It may just be a reaction to various groups in the church who perhaps offer that aspect of the gospel undue focus, especially since 911.

  24. Matt Evans
    April 15, 2004 at 5:40 pm

    It should be specified that most of the formal secularization of the past 50 years has been accomplished by our 9 kings in black robes, and not democracy. If we were a democracy, public school students would still be able to offer voluntary prayers, teachers would be allowed to have a bible on their desk, unborn children would be protected by law in most states, pornography would prohibited from hotels and TV, etc.

    The kings aren’t the only problem, but a good example of why Mosiah said kings are likely to foster immoral societies.

  25. Grasshopper
    April 15, 2004 at 6:59 pm

    Funny how the Book of Mormon contrasts kings and judges, while Matt here equates them. (This is *not* intended as a criticism of Matt, merely as an interesting observation.)

  26. Matt Evans
    April 15, 2004 at 7:20 pm

    The difference, of course, was that Mosiah’s judges were chosen by and accountable to the people, ours are appointed for life and accountable to no one.

  27. Ben Huff
    April 15, 2004 at 7:32 pm

    “So the question is, where do we concentrate our efforts?” says Michelle

    I am excited about the emphasis on retention we hear from President Hinckley. I saw way too many of my friends at BYU leave the Church. I think we LDS as a Church are still working out how to adjust to the new secularism, and to our new dispersion across the globe. Along the lines of Clark’s point on growth, I think our efforts have been too much focused outward, and we have baptized lots of converts, but not retained enough, while not enough of our children have stayed in the Church. But we are making changes; I think time will tell in our favor.

    As for the nine kings, it seems to me we may read some recent events as a large-scale regrouping effort to resist their undemocratic influence. And I am hopeful that the media elites as well are evolving to be less nihilistic, though it’s hard to say. Anyway there are movies with really great messages. I am not ready to assume that the trends of the last few decades will continue monotonically.

  28. Davis Bell
    April 16, 2004 at 12:34 am

    Sean C. says, “Yes, America is definitely becoming more permissive, so there is less hiding of sexual sin, but there isn’t more sexual sin. You only have to read Catcher in the Rye once to see there was also high school sex back in the 50s, even if Ricky and Lucy had separate beds.”

    I’m not sure that this is the case. While it’s true that people have always engaged in behaviors their societies deemed innapropriate or deviant, I tend to believe that if a society decides to approve a formerly forbidden behavior that the incidence of said behavior will increase dramatically, for several reasons:

    1. Logistics: It’s just much easier to pursue your desire when no one cares that you’re doing it. Homosexuals used to have to meet in parks and rest rooms. Surely the inconvenience and danger involved reduced the incidence of homosexuality. Contrast that now with the ease of access to gay bars.

    2. Exposure: It’s quite possible that a child growing up in pre-WWII America may never be exposed to homosexual behavior. Such is simply not the case. I believe that regardless of what behavior we’re speaking of that exposure will increase incidence.

    3. Validation: Most important, the validation available to those who engage in behaviors that were once unacceptable surely increases incidence of those behaviors.

    For me, the real question is which arrangement is better?

  29. Cal
    April 16, 2004 at 1:28 am

    In regard to the comments about the nine kings in black robes…Does that comment mean to imply that the nine men just came up with those rulings out of thin air? Surely the Constitution has something to do with it, or I’m just being naive?

    I’m actually quite pleased we try to keep the Church and State separated…though not nearly enough, i.e. George W. Bush, the axis of evil, and so on. There’s nothing worse than Government acting on the behalf of religion. Am I the only one who’s thankful to have not been born in the the Dark Ages or the Middle East?

    But alas, I’ll concede the abortion issue…the nine kings blew it on that one.

  30. Adam Greenwood
    April 16, 2004 at 5:57 pm


  31. April 17, 2004 at 1:44 am

    Are things spiraling down? Which meaningful quality of life indicators are pointing down in the U.S. today? A quick visit to the website of the Bureau of Justice Statistics will demonstrate that crime rates, for instance, have been falling for the better part of 25 years. Moreover, sociologists note that rates of church membership are actually higher now than they were when the nation was founded, and church attendance rates have probably been stable for over a century. Many sociologists would also say that the demise of Protestant establishments was one of the best things that ever happened to American religion. (And led to the social conditions that gave rise to the LDS church . . .) Indeed, the rise of the church from 6 U.S. members to nigh unto 6 million could be interpreted as evidence that things have gotten better. That’s the way I see it. People may be looking at pornography online, but the brothels that once operated in Salt Lake City at the turn of the 20th century are gone. I’d call that improvement. Rather than see our society as one in decline, I think it is more fruitiful to see it as one that is polarized, and perhaps becoming more so.

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