Sometimes the current situation seems hopeless. Political gridlock with the parties deeply divided seems to prevent negotiation and compromise. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor with the richest 1% having about twice as much wealth as the bottom 90%. A radical self-centered individualism and widespread decay in family life prevail. And the number of Americans who claim to have religious faith has declined dramatically . One is tempted to feel that there is no achievable solution to this interlocking complex of problems.
But a recent book by Robert D Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett offers hope for genuine improvement. (Putnam, Author of Bowling Alone, is a distinguished professor of public policy at Harvard and Garrett is a former student of Putnam.) In The Upswing (2020), they point out that all the major factors that prompt despair today were also present in the 1890s with equal intensity, but that in the next 70 years, things improved dramatically.
Around 1900, huge corporate monopolies successfully fought unions, oppressed workers and made vast wealth for a tiny few. Substance abuse was widespread and family life was decaying. A radical individualism made selfishness a virtue. Political platforms moved toward the extremes as politicians demonized each other rather than seeking compromise. “Inequality, political polarization, social dislocation and cultural narcissism prevailed” (p.8).
Then in the 70 years from 1890 to 1960, things changed slowly but substantially. Economic inequality decreased dramatically. Negotiation and compromise grew much stronger in politics. Social life became more cohesive, strengthening community and family ties. And concern for “we” rather than “I” became much stronger in the culture as people focused more on responsibilities to one another rather than narrow self interest.
Economic equality grew in this period. In 1913 the richest 1% of Americans received 19% of the national income. But in 1976 their share had dropped about 50% to10.5% of total income. After taxes and transfers, the richest 1%’s share of national income dropped from 18% to 8%. While the real income of the top 1% rose 21.5% in this period, the average family income of the bottom 99% grew 300%!
The Upswing shows how similar improvements happened in politics (more collaboration), stronger family life, increased religious engagement and a much stronger sense of “we” and the common good.
Then about 1970, things began to reverse. Economic inequality dramatically increased. 0.1% of American families today hold 20% of household wealth and the top 1% have nearly twice as large a share of national wealth as the bottom 90%. Between 1974 and 2014, the inflation adjusted income for the bottom 10% rose a mere $388 while the income for the top 1% rose by $929,108 – – and $4,846,718 for the top .1%!
The Upswing traces the same kind of decay in most other areas from 1970 to the present. Politics has become increasingly divisive and unable to compromise. Radical individualism has increased as family life, religious institutions and labor unions decayed. Divorce and cohabitation have soared. And the culture has largely abandoned a sense of “we” and returned to a radical individualism.
I find The Upswing deeply encouraging. It shows that a radically unjust, politically dysfunctional, socially disruptive and radically individualistic culture slowly improved from 1900 to about 1970. Putnam and Garrett suggest that the same thing can happen again.
Read the book and be encouraged.
This book, however, does not suggest what would cause such a change for the better. I believe Christians who truly believe and live central biblical principles can play a crucial role. The Bible’s vigorous demand for justice for the poor certainly calls us to structural changes that empower the bottom 50%. The biblical teaching on human selfishness (and the resulting political fact that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely) calls for structural changes that reduce the political and economic power of the very rich. Jesus’ command to love the neighbor as oneself certainly points to actions that emphasize “we” as much as “I”. Biblical teaching on sex and marriage can restore family life.
I beg God to raise up a generation of Christian activists who model and promote biblical principles so winsomely that they slowly transform today’s broken society.
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