When were the "Golden Years" in America?
If every single generation in American history has one thing in common, it’s nostalgia. Sooner or later, it infects us all. The eighty-two-year-old still remembers when gas was a quarter. The thirty-two-year-old still remembers a world without cell phones. From the oldest to the youngest, we all know how to harken back to a mythical golden age when things were much different. Nostalgia is humorous. But it can also be harmful.
Is there really a “golden age” in America? Was there ever a time in our nation when decency was the law of the land? Nostalgia tells us that things were very different way back when. But nostalgia also tells us that American culture was much less sinful and worldly. And that’s when things get a bit…well…relative.
In 1991, the Wall Street Journal ran an article called “The Joy of What?” And its findings were incredibly similar to what we find in 2018: “The United States has a drug problem and a high school sex problem and a welfare problem and an AIDS problem and a rape problem. None of this will go away until more people in positions of responsibility are willing to come forward and explain, in frankly moral terms, that some of the things people do nowadays are wrong.”
Twenty-seven years ago, many believed the United States had a problem with moral relativity, leading us to ask: should we go back even further? What about the “greatest generation”? Were the noble Americans who experienced the Great Depression and fought for our freedom in World War II able to sustain a level of godliness long gone in today’s culture? Nostalgia says yes, but not every pastor in the “golden years” thought so. According to one leading minister in the 1930s, “In the old days people went to preachers for consolation, information, and inspiration. They still come to us for consolation, but go to newspapers for information and inspiration.” (Revive Us Again, 91)
It would seem that the “greatest generation” didn’t always appear so to the shepherds charged with overseeing their souls. Once again, nostalgia and history don’t always align. While the “greatest generation” was certainly our nation’s benchmark in bravery and fortitude and work ethic, they were still sinful, and as such they still had to be reminded of the supremacy and sufficiency of God’s Word.
So if the so-called “greatest generation” could not pass the test of biblical excellence, what about our founding fathers? What about the Puritans who committed their entire existence to studying the Scriptures and living out rigorous lives of self-denial and faith? While men such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were by no means “Christians” in the traditional, orthodox sense, one would certainly think that the “golden age” of America lay with those who established our country on the bedrock of the Bible. However, nostalgia once again plays tricks on us. In 1720, Puritan father Cotton Mather lamented the state of Gospel-less preaching in the American colonies:
“And shall they who call themselves Christians, and would be honored as Ministers of the Christian Religion, preach as if they were ashamed of making the glories of Jesus, the subject of their sermons; and so rarely introduce Him, as if it were an indecent stoop to speak of Him! God forbid! I make no doubt of it, that the almost epidemical extinction of true Christianity…in the nations that profess it, is very much owing to the inexcusable piety of overlooking a glorious Christ, so much in the empty harangues, which often pass as sermons.”
It appears that even 50 years before American Independence, even in the midst of a Puritanical culture, pastors were convinced that a spirit of liberalism had gripped America. In 1720. While the controversial issue of the day certainly wasn’t immigration or abortion, to those who lived in the early 18th century the issue of theological liberalism was no less sinful and no less appalling. Nostalgia tells us these men and women were spiritual giants. And in so many ways they were. However, they were also sinners gripping with their own idolatry and pride.
From the lips of Americans themselves, it appears there were many times in American history when great sinners did great things, even in the name of Christ. However, from those same lips it becomes increasingly evident that at no time was there a moral “golden age.” At least not to the people who lived in their own skin. And yet, should this really surprise us as sinners saved by grace through faith? At no point in time, in no generation in history, did people need Jesus any less than they do right now.
Stepping back for just a moment, we realize that American history bears out what we know all too clearly in human history itself. Only six chapters after God created the world, Moses writes, “The Lord saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5) Every intention of the heart was evil. Continually. Do we really expect Americans to be exempt from that kind of heritage? Do we think that somehow we're any less sinful or in need of divine mercy? After Adam rebelled against God in the Garden and plunged the world into utter darkness and shame, there has never been a time on this earth when human beings did not need the full measure of God’s truth and grace. (John 1:14-18)
Not one single person in the history of the world, barring one, has any righteousness or goodness or holiness or love in their hearts apart from grace. Not one. Even in America. And that's why nostalgia is tricky. It often keeps us from seeing God’s goodness until it’s passed, and it gives us an exalted view of past human goodness that none of us ever possessed. Ultimately, the only nostalgia a Christian is ever really allowed is the kind that harkens back not to 1950 but to Genesis 1 and 2. When things were “good.” Only then will we know our deep need for Jesus, the One who gave away his "golden years" that we might have ours in the age to come.