The decline-and-fall narrative

3PictureRomanConstantineMuseumA lot of Evangelical Christian prophecy concerning the United States runs like this: we had a godly start, we’ve sinned and have gotten away from it, and we’re going to be judged for it soon. Even ignoring challenges to the merits of these three claims, which I do throughout this post, the narrative is reprehensible.


First, the decline-and-fall narrative is an historicist prophecy that disarms man of his greatest God-given weapon on behalf of self-government – his reason. If the forces of history are stronger than a community’s ability to govern itself, then the resulting fatalism cedes the argument over the possibility of self-government that Hamilton and Lincoln said was the central drama of our republic.

This narrative is like Marxism’s central prophecy because it discourages the use of reason – indeed, it discourages the resort to any kind of action. Here’s Karl Popper’s description, found in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, of Marx’s central prophecy’s effect:

Although itself not a moral decision, since it is not based on any system of morality, it leads to the adoption of a certain system of morality. To sum up, my fundamental decision is not (as you suspected) the sentimental decision to help the oppressed, but the scientific and rational decision not to offer vain resistance to the developmental laws of society. (410)

In other words, the narrative itself is not immoral, but it leads to a decision not to act, which in a given case may be immoral.

Second, decline-and-fall narratives, at their core, are vehicles to return us to tribalism. Plato was the first to advance decline-and-fall narratives, one to characterize the fall of the Greek city-states in his own day and a second to characterize the decline and fall of the earlier Persian Empire. (We see a parallel here to today’s most popular current and past decline-and-fall narratives concerning, respectively, the United States and the Roman Empire.) Popper points out that Plato worked out his dualism in the political realm to contrast a perfect past (the unity and purity of tribalism) with the corrupted present (democracy):

Plato was longing for the lost unity of tribal life. A life of change, in the midst of a social revolution, appeared to him unreal. Only a stable whole, the permanent collective, has reality, not the passing individuals. (75 – 76)

Plato’s narrative was, to Popper, “the beginning of a long series of Decline-and-Fall dramatizations of the histories of empires and civilizations” (53). This series has stretched beyond the publication of Popper’s World War II-era book.

Twentieth-century political theory was dominated by this desire to return to a pure and tribal past. In his book Terror and Liberalism – his explanation for the rise of fundamental Islam as a political force – Paul Berman finds the same myth and historical struggle behind the Bolsheviks, the Stalinists, Mussolini’s Fascists, Franco’s Phalange, and the Nazis:

There was always a people of God, whose peaceful and wholesome life had been undermined. . . . The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and its abominations. (48 – 49)

While the decline-and-fall narratives don’t share these twentieth-century groups’ messianic claims for their nations or movements, they share their view of an idyllic and tribal past that contrasts with a corrupt present.

Third, the decline-and-fall narrative, as a practical matter, amounts to a pair of glasses with which to view and disparage any proposed change from the way things were in the idyllic past. Popper, like Berman, finds in Marx’s doctrine a dangerous historicism, but Popper approves of Marx’s ability to make Christians question their own reliance on historicism. (Popper finds “a wide gulf between Marx’s activism and his historicism” (408).) Popper summarizes Marx’s discussion about an influential eighteenth-century author:

A typical representative of this kind of Christianity was the High Church priest J. Townsend, author of A Dissertation on the Poor Laws. . . .‘Hunger’, Townsend begins his eulogy, ‘is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure but, as the most natural motive of industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.’ In Townsend’s ‘Christian’ world order, everything depends (as Marx observes) upon making hunger permanent among the working class; and Townsend believes that this is indeed the divine purpose of the principle of the growth of population; for he goes on: ‘It seems to be a law of nature that the poor should be to a certain degree improvident, so that there may always be some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid, the most ignoble offices in the community. The stock of human happiness is thereby much increased, whilst the more delicate … are left at liberty without interruption to pursue those callings which are suited to their various dispositions.’ [Townsend] adds that the Poor Law, by helping the hungry, ‘tends to destroy the harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order, of that system which God and nature have established in the world.’ (406)

Of course, people who believe in a decline-and-fall narrative disagree on what the idyllic past looks like. But while the application of the narrative in any given situation is debatable, the narrative’s specifics relative to any issue at hand usually rely on the same logical fallacy that Townsend employs – ad antiquitatem.

As I’ve said on this site elsewhere (applying my own logical fallacy, that of ad nauseam), Christianity’s influence on America’s founding goes beyond piety, charity, hypocrisy, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Its chief claim is the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause, a dynamic, universal truth worked out over two thousand years of Greek, Jewish, Christian, and agnostic thought. “All men are created equal” rejects any form of tribal ideal. The clause is dynamic because it represents not the past but an aspirational standard. Lincoln, after all, compared the Equality Clause to Jesus’ injunction to be “perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”: “let it be nearly reached as we can.” The cause is universal because, as Lincoln said, equality is an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” It is applicable not just to twenty-first-century Evangelical Christians.

In fact, the spirit behind the decline-and-fall narrative isn’t Christian at all, as Popper points out:

This kind of ‘Christianity’ which recommends the creation of myth as a substitute for Christian responsibility is a tribal Christianity. It is a Christianity that refuses to carry the cross of being human. Beware of these false prophets! What they are after, without being aware of it, is the lost unity of tribalism. (446)

To Popper, “the cross of being human” is the willingness to act, to make mistakes in acting, and to learn from those mistakes through the criticism of the greater community of mankind. The decline-and-fall narrative discourages the taking up of that cross.

It may be – it’s likely, in fact – that the United States is headed for a world of trouble. But if Christians confuse Platonism for prophecy, they’ll only contribute to the problem.


  1. Interesting, though a quick look at the Joseph Townsend page on Wikipedia suggests he was pretty Low Church, given his connections to “the Calvinist wing of Methodism.”

    This yearning for tribalism seems to be present on the left as well as the right. I,’m sure you’ve head the argument that humankind made its biggest mistake when we abandoned the “idyllic” life of hunter-gatherers for agriculture.

  2. Stephen, I’m writing a longer post on Popper, who is quickly becoming a bright star in my political science constellation. He has a lot to say about universalism vs. tribalism. I got into that dichotomy again this year by having to teach Classicism and Romanticism for the first time. John, I haven’t, though it looks to be right up my alley. I’m reading Robert Alter’s Book of Psalms, that that led me to put his book on biblical narrative on my wish list. Frye’s book will now follow it.

    1. The basic problem with the tribal mentality, whether it is in the form of loyalty to the nation, culture, political party, gender, church, or even football team etc., is that all tribes are essentially conservative. The chief characteristic of conservatism is that it loathes change, even though change is essential for growth.

      You say that people who believe in the decline-and-fall narrative disagree on what the idyllic past looks like. With this I agree because such people are looking at that past from their several and various ego-stances. I would go further and say that the pasts for which they hanker are their present states of unreality.

      When the past dies, which is the natural state of things, perhaps we need to recognise the truth of that demise to maintain our awareness of living reality. There must indeed be a willingness to act, and accept that we will make mistakes, because the greatest mistake is to do nothing except hang onto a decaying corpse in whatever guise it appears. That is simply a form of spiritual necrolatry.

  3. Peter, you are brilliant. Good, great read. Our Founders were active and certainly not passive receivers of wisdom. “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.” Thomas Paine. There’s a monument to him in New Rochelle where he had a farm and was buried (then his body stolen) – but, he’s often forgotten by our modern patriots who find his thinking inconvenient.

  4. Al! I read Common Sense last summer, and I waited the entire book (? pamphlet?) to hear “These are the times that try men’s souls.” I found out later that the line starts The American Crisis.

  5. Ha. I lived in New Rochelle and it is sad to see his monument so ignored. Now that I think back – I should have been the one to lay a wreath on the 4th .

  6. Tom, yes. A culture’s relationship with its past is as interesting as an individual’s with his or hers. I love myth, for instance, but I don’t like a political ideology that suggests we ought to, or are doomed to, return to one. I guess ideologies considered left-wing can have their own versions of inevitability. Marx believed in an inevitable future unexampled in the past. It’s the inevitability — the taking of the ball out of reason’s hands as time expires — that bugs me. And Popper ties that lack of reason and power to act with some pretty bad indices: the loss of equality, for instance, and even of individuality in favor of the good of the class (which inures, in Plato (right wing) and Marx (left wing), to the good of the community).

    We really do need to “recognize the truth of that demise,” as you put it. Ideas seldom die, though they go dormant. But so much is shoved aside in many organizations and cultures. A period of acknowledging the passing of a season, a regime, an emphasis, or an approach — a period that would include a suitable honoring and mourning, would allow people to buy into the new with more trust and (eventually) enthusiasm.

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