Whether the “advancements” society celebrates are actually moving us forward depends on how we measure progress. Some are unquestionably positive, others are debatable, and many are harmful. Medical advances have contributed to a nearly 30 year increase in average lifespans since 1900. Commercial and fiscal innovations have reduced poverty in the U.S. by 50% since the 1950s, but the wealth gap has increased (the top 1% now owns more than the bottom 90%). The social impacts of some modern technology breakthroughs, like cell phones and Artificial Intelligence, are being called into question. Likewise, America may one day discover that our culture’s recent advancement in self-awareness, self-determination, and self-actualization represents progressivism but not progress.
Even seemingly unassailable objectives of equality, freedom, and justice can undermine rather than improve the social order if their definitions are based on a flawed or biased understanding of those terms. Achieving them for one group often entails removing them from another. Those benefitting from social reforms measure their success by a different standard than those adversely affected. For example, the efficacy of criminal justice reform depends on whether you ask the perpetrators or the victims, each of whom can find statistics to back up their position.
The net effect of progressive thought and policies on the overall advancement of our nation hinges on the standard of measure. The general premise is alluring – faith in mankind to improve the human condition, to strike a delicate balance between environmental and economic interests, and to make decisions that are best for ourselves and others (without competing agendas). However, how trustworthy are human intellect and intentions when top doctors, scientists, Wall Street analysts, university professors, government officials, and corporate executives are so often (proven to be) wrong or unscrupulous?
Underlying faith in mankind to do the right thing is the assumption that people are inherently good. Ironically, postmodernism rejects any standard for “right” (except for attempts to establish one). In contrast, Christianity claims only God is good and human nature is evil, resistant to what the Bible (clearly) defines as right. So the determinants of social progress depend on the reality of mankind’s situation – are we heading toward or away from the truth about human nature? Progressive is regressive if trust in humanity’s goodness is misplaced. If there is a God and we are sinners in dire need of a Savior, then (for example) less law enforcement and more government dependency are not progress.
The following 7 sets of options represent opposing views of what constitutes social progress due to fundamentally conflicting assessments of human nature:
1. Ego or Humility
Continuing the transition from Christianity to Selfism as America’s predominant religion is a step forward in the eyes of atheists and agnostics. Secular humanism sounds people-positive and empowering, attracting idealistic youth, but is it true? Companies and politicians artificially inflate our self-perceptions for profit and power. Is accumulation of wealth, worship of celebrities, and pursuit of happiness actually progress or just progressive?
If, on the other hand, Jesus is Lord then our culture is heading in the wrong direction. Confession, repentance, and revival would be progress – bowing before our heavenly Father and asking forgiveness for overestimating our goodness and asserting our independence from Him. In that scenario, only a society characterized by unconditional love and selfless generosity would be viewed as genuinely flourishing.
To reverse the tide, churches and Christians should lead the way in humility, not incorporating elements of Selfism into our faith (e.g. “cheap grace” of salvation without surrender).
2. Knowledge or Wisdom
If secular humanists are correct about the origins of matter, earth and human life then untethering knowledge acquisition from the shackles of religion will make our society wiser. In their view, our wealthy and educated nation should no longer subscribe or subject itself to the arcane principles and practices of the previously “unenlightened”.
However, is America gaining in intelligence if it’s no longer building on a foundation of truth? If there is a Creator and man is not the supreme arbiter of fact or fiction, then America’s public colleges and high schools are leading students astray. If science is the study of what God made, yet scientists don’t understand it in that context, then the basis for their discoveries is disputable. If business and technology innovations do not align with biblical principles of love, worship, and fellowship then they risk discriminating, distracting, or disconnecting.
Churches and Christians are rarely cited as sources of wisdom today. As believers, we need to be equipped with biblical answers to questions the world can’t answer through intensive discipleship and evangelism training.
3. Equality or Dignity
The progressive goal of ascribing equal value to every human being, treating people of any gender, creed, and race with the same degree of dignity and respect, aligns with Scripture and undoubtedly represents social progress. The humanistic definition of equality departs from Christian values and takes America off track when it signals that our virtue exceeds God’s and fails to recognize the intentional distinctions wonderfully designed by our Creator.
Churches and Christians shouldn’t conform to culture by minimizing the differences in God’s design. Instead, we should highlight God’s goodness by reflecting His unconditional love to those who revile and “cancel” us for not agreeing with their definition of equality.
4. Justice or Unity
Social justice brings true progress, and not political progressivism, only when it recognizes that all people are sinful. No one cares more about justice and the rights of the oppressed than Jesus – it fact it was His mission statement. Yet since only He was sinless, His definition of justice isn’t skewed to claim superiority for Himself or a special interest group. Jesus knew division would be a result of His fight for justice but didn’t pit sides against each other to sow division for personal gain. Instead, His solution was the ultimate injustice, paying the penalty for our sins and asking the Father to forgive His murderers.
The rights of churches and Christians are also being sacrificed unjustly today, but we should respond like Jesus, displaying His goodness and seeking unity (amongst ourselves and across humanity) in the pursuit of justice for all.
5. Government or Accountability
If politicians are trustworthy and government is a good steward of resources, then our nation is progressing forward when we entrust them with more power. Most Americans would reject those propositions, yet federal spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product rose from 3% in 1929 to 30% in 2021. If “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and only God is good then substituting government for Jesus (as our savior) isn’t progress.
Churches and Christians should resume their role on the front lines of compassion to reduce dependence on government handouts that perpetuate poverty. We must model and emphasize personal responsibility, diligence, and reliance on the Lord for provision.
6. Relativism or Reality
If there is no God and mankind is naturally kind and considerate, then doing whatever we feel is right and lifting the veil of religious dogma that’s clouded our vision for centuries make perfect sense. In that case, Postmodernism is right to reject truth claims (except those in the eyes of the beholder). As long as one person’s “truth” doesn’t invade or suppress another’s, then relativism is social progress. However, our beliefs don’t alter facts – atheism does not cause God to cease to exist. The Creator, our loving Father, was kind and considerate enough to give us life and reveal countless truths about Himself and our nature in His autobiography, the Bible.
Churches and Christians can lead America in the right direction by refusing to compromise or soft-pedal principles in God’s Word to appease a relativistic, egocentric culture.
7. Freedom or Guardrails
If human nature is good, a society advances when people are trusted to do whatever they want with their bodies and the world they live in. Activists envisioning a utopia of legalization without law enforcement aren’t moving America forward. However, Jesus understands human nature so He didn’t come to abolish laws. The earth and even our own bodies belong to Him – so we are subject to the rules the Owner established for their care and maintenance. Culture regresses when it operates outside of the Lord’s parameters.
It’s Your Turn
Is America progressing or simply progressive today? How has an errant view of human nature led to the moral, economic, mental health, and spiritual decline of our country?