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Downgrade nation

Are U.S. economic doldrums tied to a spiritual downturn?

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

Remember when America owned the future? Now we are a pessimistic bunch and not only with regards to the economy.

Our president may say that "we will always be a Triple-A country" but many of us know the leading indicators say otherwise. As economists look to the three tenets of growth-capital, labor, and productivity-they see trouble in the West. And as leading demographers take the temperature of the church, they find American evangelicals in downgrade status as well.

In the United States large debt burdens-70 percent of GDP-hamper capital formation. The retirement-age population in the West will nearly triple in the next 50 years, raising pension and medical costs just as our labor force shrinks. And while U.S. productivity is steady, the quality of our labor force and industrial savvy suggest that our competitiveness already may be waning. (If you've called customer service lately regarding your phone service, your dishwasher, or your mortgage balance, you know what I mean.)

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As economist Dambisa Moyo puts it, "Without actively re-skilling the population and meaningfully redirecting capital towards constructive investment rather than parasitic consumption, America will remain on a perilous path of long-term economic decline."

Moyo believes that our loss of economic muscle will forfeit U.S. military might and political supremacy-downgrades already hinted at. The cover of her 2011 book, How the West Was Lost, depicts a $100 bill with Chairman Mao on its face instead of Ben Franklin. Economic downturn, she suggests, is tied to a downfall in moral will: "The story of the West's rise and fall is primarily a tale of how it has viewed, stored, and wasted its capital," she writes, as the West has behaved in the last 50 years like "a profligate son, squandering the family wealth garnered over the centuries."

It's perhaps then not a coincidence that this month's comprehensive study of global evangelicals shows Western-and particularly American-evangelical leaders to be among the world's most pessimistic.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted the survey at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town last year. It found that evangelical leaders from the Global South are especially upbeat about their future, while leaders from the Global North are notably downcast. Of those surveyed from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Central and South America, 71 percent say they expect progress for evangelical Christianity in the next five years, but only 44 percent of leaders from the Global North-Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand-expect the same.

Most leaders in the Global South-58 percent-say that evangelical Christians are gaining influence in their countries. By contrast, 66 percent of leaders in the Global North say that evangelicals are losing influence where they live. U.S. evangelical leaders are especially downbeat-82 percent say evangelicals are losing influence in the United States. To everyone surveyed, the rise of secularism and emphasis on consumerism are seen as the greatest threats to evangelism-much more threatening than government restrictions on religion or, say, the influence of Islam.

Pew conducted the survey in nine languages among more than 4,500 delegates from 197 countries. That's a unique set of respondents who are geographically, culturally, and ethnically diverse, and among the most engaged church leaders around the world. Having attended the Cape Town event, I saw a Congress that reflected the sunniness of church leaders from what we used to describe as the Third World, or the have-nots. During breaks the Brazilians were the most boisterous in the hall, and the Africans were everywhere back-slapping one another. Even our dress divided us, with dark-skinned delegates in flowing, colorful tunics and robes, while we Northerners trended black or khaki.

Beyond those superficials, the pessimism of American evangelicals is perhaps understandable, but not particularly biblical. Economically and spiritually, we are beset by our material plenty, yet somewhere along the way have lost the confidence shown by our poorer brethren, or to say with the psalmist, "I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!"

Listen to Mindy Belz discuss whether U.S. economic doldrums are tied to a spiritual downturn on The World and Everything in It.

Email Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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