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Prolific author and founder of the Barna Group, George Barna has written a sociopolitical assessment of faith groups (or "tribes," as Barna calls them) in the United States. In its 14 chapters, he sets up a moral portrait of America and its "path to self-destruction," before identifying what he calls the "seven faith tribes" in this country. These include Casual Christians, Captive Christians, American Jews, Mormons, Pantheists, Muslims in America, and Spiritual Skeptics, each group accorded its own chapter. Next, the author devotes six chapters to broader issues of how to move forward in this time of supposed self-destruction, from empowering leaders, to enhancing the roles of family, and revitalizing of power within each individual "faith tribe." VERDICT Barna's research, through his foundation, generated astounding statistics (over 30,000 survey responses between 2000–08). His text, however, conveys the sensitivity of a faith-centered motivational seminar and cannot be considered completely scholarly or definitive despite the unprecedented data collection. Still, the book may be of interest to some readers.—Anthony J. Elia, JKM Theological Lib., Chicago
PERHAPS you have had the heart-wrenching experience of watching helplessly as a loved one-a parent, grandparent, sibling, or close friend-has wasted away due to a debilitating disease or accident. Maybe you have worked for a company that was once vibrant, profitable, and charging into the future-only to lose its way and go out of business.
The United States is in one of those moments. Unless we, the people, can rally to restore health to this once proud and mighty nation, we have a long and disturbing decline to look forward to.
Does it surprise you to hear that our greatest enemy is not al Qaeda or the oil cartel, but America itself? Such an audacious argument is possible, however, because we have steadily and incrementally abandoned what made us a great nation.
The elements that combined to establish the United States as perhaps the most unique and enviable nation in modern history can be restored-but only if we are wise enough, collectively, to focus on pursuing the good of society, not mere individual self-interest. It is this widespread drive to elevate self over community that has triggered our decline.
Some historians have examined the United States and concluded that it rose to prominence because of its world-class statesmen, foresighted Constitution, military might, abundant natural resources, and entrepreneurial spirit. Indisputably, such factors have significantly contributed to the establishment of a great nation. But such elements, alone, could never sustain it-especially for two-hundred-plus years!
A democracy, such as that in the United States, achieves greatness and retains its strength on the basis of the values and beliefs that fuel people's choices. Every society adopts a body of principles that defines the national ethos and fosters its ability to withstand various challenges. Only those nations that have moral and spiritual depth, clarity of purpose and process, and nobility of heart and mind are able to persevere and triumph.
Achieving a state of internal equilibrium that generates forward movement is no small task. It has certainly eluded hundreds upon hundreds of nations and cultures over the course of time. A walk through world history underscores the difficulty of building and sustaining national greatness. Whether we examine the stories of ancient Rome and Greece, more modern examples such as the Soviet Union, Red China, the British Empire, and post-British India, or fascist experiments such as those in Germany and Italy, the outcomes are identical. After initial excitement and cooperation, each of these nations staggered into a dramatic decline, lacking the moral and spiritual fortitude to right themselves.
Among the lessons we learn from observing the demise of formidable countries and cultures are that a nation self-destructs when
its people cannot hold a civil conversation over matters of disagreement because they are overly possessive of their values and beliefs and too unyielding of their preferences;
public officials and cultural leaders insist upon positioning and posturing at the expense of their opponents after the exchange of competing ideas-even though those opponents are fellow citizens with an assumed similar interest in sustaining the health of the nation;
the public cannot agree on what constitutes goodness, morality, generosity, kindness, ethics, or beauty;
a significant share of the electorate refuses to support legally elected officials who are faithfully upholding the Constitution and diligently pursuing the best interests of the nation;
people lose respect for others and refuse to grant them the measure of dignity that every human being innately deserves;
the population embraces the notion that citizens are accountable solely to themselves for their moral and ethical choices because there are no universal standards and moral leaders.
Do these descriptions strike fear in your heart? They should. Increasingly, these are attributes of twenty-first-century America. Such qualities have pushed the world's greatest democracy to the precipice of self-annihilation. No amount of global trade or technological innovation will compensate for the loss of common vision and values that are required to bolster a mighty nation.
The dominant lifestyle patterns of Americans are a direct outgrowth of our beliefs. Operating within the boundaries of our self-determined cultural parameters, Americans live in ways that are the natural and tangible applications of what we believe to be true, appropriate, right, and valuable.
Therefore, we may not be pleased, but we ought not be surprised by the cultural chaos and moral disintegration we see and experience every day. Such conditions are the inevitable outcomes of the choices we have made that are designed to satisfy our self-interest instead of our shared interests. For instance, when we abandon sound financial principles and take on personal debt in order to satisfy our desires for more material goods, we undermine society's best interests. When we allow our children to absorb countless hours of morally promiscuous media content rather than limit their exposure and insist on better programming, we fail to protect our children and society's best interests. When we create a burgeoning industry of assisted living for our elderly relatives we don't have the time or inclination to care for, we redefine family and negate a fundamental strength of our society. When we donate less than 3 percent of our income to causes that enhance the quality and sustainability of life, our lack of generosity affects the future of our society. When we permit the blogosphere to become a rat hole of deceit, rudeness, and visual garbage, we forfeit part of the soul of our culture. When we allow "no fault" divorce to become the law of the land, as if nobody had any responsibilities in the demise of a marriage, we foster the demise of our society. When we choose to place our children in day care and prekindergarten programs for more hours than we share with them, we have made a definitive statement about what matters in our world.
Do we need to continue citing examples? Realize that all of those choices, and hundreds of others, reflect our true beliefs-not necessarily the beliefs to which we give lip service, but those to which we give behavioral support. And as we experience the hardships of a culture in transition from strength to weakness, we are merely reaping the harvest of our choices.
What has redirected us from what could be a pleasant and stable existence to one that produces widespread stress and flirts with the edge of disaster from day to day?
A country as large and complex as the United States relies upon the development of various institutions to help make sense of reality and maintain a semblance of order and purpose. For many decades, our institutions served us well. They operated in synchronization, helping to keep balance in our society while advancing our common ends.
But during the past half century many of our pivotal institutions have reeled from the effects of dramatic change. Briefly, consider the following.
The family unit has always been the fundamental building block of American society. But the family has been severely challenged by divorce (the United States has the highest divorce rate in the developed world); cohabitation (resulting in a decline in marriage, a rise in divorce, extramarital sexual episodes, extensive physical abuse, and heightened numbers of births outside of marriage); abortions; increasing numbers of unwed mothers; and challenges to the very definition of family and marriage brought about by the demands of the homosexual population and the involvement of activist judges.
The Christian church has been a cornerstone of American society. But research shows that churches have very limited impact on people's lives these days. The loss of influence can be attributed to the confluence of many factors. These include the erosion of public confidence due to moral crises (e.g., sex scandals among Catholic priests, financial failings among TV preachers); the paucity of vision-driven leadership; growing doubts about the veracity and reliability of the Bible; a nearly universal reliance upon vacuous indicators of ministry impact (i.e., attendance, fundraising, breadth of programs, number of employees, size of buildings and facilities); ministry methods and models that hinder effective learning and interpersonal connections; innocuous and irregular calls to action; and counterproductive competition among churches as well as parachurch ministries. Fewer and fewer Americans think of themselves as members of a church-based faith community, as followers of a specific deity or faith, or as fully committed to being models of the faith they embrace.
Public schools have transitioned from training children to possess good character and strong academic skills to producing young people who score well on standardized achievement tests and thereby satisfy government funding criteria. In the process, we have been exposed to values-free education, values-clarification training, and other educational approaches that promote a group of divergent worldviews as if they all possessed equal merit. In the meantime, our students have lost out on learning how to communicate effectively, and they consistently trail students from other countries in academic fundamentals such as reading, writing, mathematics, and science.
Government agencies have facilitated the acceleration of cultural dissonance. An example is the values-neutral admittance of millions of immigrants. Historically, immigration has been one of the greatest reflections of the openness of America to embrace and work alongside people who share the fundamental ideals of our democracy and are eager to assimilate into the dominant American culture. Over the past quarter century, however, a larger share of the immigrants seeking to make the United States their homeland has come ashore with a different agenda: living a more comfortable and secure life without having to surrender their native culture (e.g., language, values, beliefs, customs, relationships, or behaviors). Rather than adopting the fundamentals that made America strong as part of their assimilation and naturalization process, growing numbers of them expect America to accept their desire to retain that which they personally feel most comfortable with, even though it is at odds with the mainstream experience that produced the nation to which they were attracted.
Our institutions have been further challenged by other cultural realities. For instance, digital technology-computers, mobile phones, the Internet, digital cameras, video recorders, and the like-has created an opinionated population that has become more narrow-minded and isolated even in the midst of an avalanche of information and relational connections. That same technology has fostered an unprecedented degree of global awareness and interactivity within generations, while at the same time birthing new forms of discrimination and marginalization. Even the nation's economic transformation, moving from a world-class manufacturing nation to a country that consumes imported products and demands personal services, has altered our self-perceptions, national agenda, and global role.
ENTER THE NEW VALUES
The weakening of our institutions has freed the public to seize upon a revised assortment of values. An examination of the entire cluster gives a pretty sobering perspective on the new American mentality. As you will quickly realize, most of the elements in the emerging values set lead to the new focal point for America: self.
Consider the values transitions described below, along with the shifts in behavior that accompany the newly embraced perspectives, and ask yourself if any of them ring true.
From voluntary accountability to belligerent autonomy
Freedom traditionally implied that we were responsible to those whom we placed in authority-although we still had abundant opportunities to express our views and concerns, and to replace those whose leadership failed to live up to our expectations. In recent years, however, our perspectives on authority and accountability have changed to the point where many of us consider ourselves to be free agents, responsible only to ourselves. We resent others-individuals, family, public officials, organizations, society-who place restrictions and limitations upon us, no matter how reasonable or necessary they may be. When people agree to be held accountable these days, such interaction is not so much about being held to predetermined standards as it is about providing explanations and justifications for the behavior in question, in order to produce absolution. Anyone who gets in the way of our autonomy runs the risk of being called out for such audacity and being cited for offenses such as censorship, fundamentalism, prudishness, narrow-mindedness, or intolerance.
From responsibilities to rights
From the earliest days of the republic, our nation's leaders accepted the notion that the freedom we fought for in the establishment of the nation could only be maintained if people were willing to accept the responsibilities and duties required to extend such freedom. Consequently, for many decades Americans have carried out the obligations of good citizens: obeying the law, supporting social institutions and leaders, mutually sacrificing, committing to the common good, exercising personal virtue and morality, and the like. To advance freedom, the health of the society must supersede the desires of the individual. But things have changed dramatically. People's concern these days is ensuring that they receive the benefits of the rights they perceive to be theirs. Standing in the way of such rights brings on threats of legal action; a lawsuit is now the default response to conditions that limit one's experiences. Ensuring the exercise of personal rights is the primary concern; exercising and protecting community rights are of secondary consideration.
From respect and dignity to incivility and arrogance
Historically, we have maintained that every person is worthy of respect and dignity. In contrast, increasing numbers of Americans these days are more likely to treat people with suspicion, indifference, or impatience. Americans have long had an international reputation for rudeness, but our levels of impolite behavior have escalated substantially in recent years. Beyond discourtesy, we have become a society that is frequently and quickly critical of others. Rather than searching for the goodness in people, we are quick to point out their flaws and weaknesses. We have little patience with those who fail to live up to our expectations, and we have no hesitation in expressing our disapproval, regardless of the circumstances.
From discernment to tolerance
One of the most undesirable labels in our society is that of being judgmental. To avoid that critique, we have moved to the opposite extreme, allowing people to do whatever they please, as long as their choices do not put us directly in harm's way. In essence, we have abandoned discernment in favor of a self-protective permissiveness. This practice, of course, pushes us to the brink of anarchy, made all the more possible by our adoption of belligerent autonomy.
From pride in production to the joy of consumption
For decades, American citizens derived great satisfaction from the fruit of their labors and extolled the virtues of productivity. However, the source of pride now is in what we own or lease-the material goods that define our station in life and reflect our capacity to consume. In the past, a job was something that allowed us to add value to society and to participate in the work of a unified team. Now, growing numbers of people perceive their job to be a necessary evil, little more than a means to the end of acquiring the tangible items that may bring pleasure or prestige. As a result, the quality of our work efforts is seen as being less important than the rewards generated by those efforts. The hallowed concept of excellence has been left in the dust in our haste to embrace "adequacy" as the new standard for performance.
Excerpted from THE SEVEN FAITH TRIBES by GEORGE BARNA Copyright © 2009 by George Barna. Excerpted by permission.
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Chapter 1 America Is on the Path to Self-Destruction 1
Chapter 2 Casual Christians 29
Chapter 3 Captive Christians 41
Chapter 4 American Jews 55
Chapter 5 The Mormon Expansion 69
Chapter 6 Pantheists: People of Different Gods 79
Chapter 7 Muslims in America 89
Chapter 8 Spiritual Skeptics 99
Chapter 9 Calibrating Our Values and Worldview 111
Chapter 10 Empowering Values-Driven Leaders 129
Chapter 11 Recommissioning the Media 149
Chapter 12 Stepping Up the Family's Contribution 165
Chapter 13 Faith Tribes Must Pull Their Weight 179
Chapter 14 A Vision for Restoring America 195
Appendix 1 A Summary of Common Worldviews Held by Americans 207
Appendix 2 Selected Survey Data Comparisons across Tribes 211
Appendix 3 America's Shared Values 217
Appendix 4 Description of the Research Methods 219
About the Author 235
Posted June 8, 2009
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Posted July 5, 2009
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