The total of U.S. federal, state, and local debt, in combination with future spending commitments, foreshadows the most predictable financial disaster in human history. Washington’s obligations, growing at an estimated $1 trillion annually, now exceed $23 trillion, while neither of America’s two largest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, are on sound footing.
Going down to the state and local levels, a May 2018 report by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government reveals that public pension funding in New Jersey and Kentucky is already at “high risk of insolvency,” with California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and several large cities close behind. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, at least 20 state public pension programs have no more than half the assets they need to pay promised benefits.
Ominous trends, to be sure. Yet to say America appears headed for a destabilizing debt crisis is not the same as saying every cultural consequence will be negative. History records many economic and social upheavals that ironically sparked a renaissance of neglected moral and spiritual values. Could our approaching brush with national insolvency really produce anything like a religious revival? There are admittedly good reasons to be skeptical.
Secularism has become so prevalent in the United States, especially within academic communities, it’s hard to imagine it ever dissipating. Mainline religious denominations have long been in retreat, with the percentage of self-described Protestants down from 51 percent to 43 percent in just the last decade and of Catholics from 23 percent to 20 percent over the same period. There also do not appear to be any contemporary theologians capable of doing what charismatic evangelists, such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, accomplished during the Great Awakening revivals of the 1730s and 1740s.
Yet the statistics on declining church attendance are too often confused with the number of believers. For while the percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has jumped to 26 percent from 17 percent since 2009, more than half of these so-called nones say they still believe in God. Noting that outright atheists and agnostics make up only 9 percent of the U.S. population, Baylor University’s distinguished professor of history Philip Jenkins cautions against equating “no religious affiliation” with “no religious belief” or with the capacity of organized religion to reform and regenerate.
Fewer Government Programs Aids Character Development
If, indeed, the cultural pendulum, which has always swung between established faith and institutional skepticism, is more susceptible to a reversal than generally supposed, aspects of the debt crisis could both hasten and magnify the turn.
The first was anticipated nearly 35 years ago by Democratic New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in an address to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester, New York. Public borrowing, he warned the congregation, differs from private borrowing in a fundamental way: The government officials “who do the borrowing … are not the ones who will do the repaying.” As a result, they are tempted to use debt “not as a form of investment [in the country’s future],” but to buy votes from the beneficiaries of new programs.
At the time, Moynihan was primarily concerned that irresponsible politicians promising their constituents an insupportable array of handouts would jeopardize America’s economic well-being. But he also worried that the more government tries to provide for citizens’ material needs, the more it undermines the public’s faith in character development and in serving some idea of God. Instead of validating the precepts common to all religions, he warned, debt-fueled public spending “can, and frequently does, [promote] just the opposite.”
Moynihan never described the specific spiritual benefits that would arise from the kind of cutbacks needed to solve a future government debt crisis. But in explaining how excessive public spending undermines traditional values, he was clearly suggesting subsequent belt-tightening could have the reverse effect.
Debt Downfall May Encourage Traditional Religious Beliefs
A more recent study by Connecticut hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, for his book “Principles for Navigating Big Debt Crises,” suggests a second spiritual effect of the coming debt crisis. After closely examining every recovery from the brink of a sovereign bankruptcy since ancient Greece, Dalio concluded all successful government bailouts have one necessary characteristic: The various social factions within the distressed country, from wealthy taxpayers to recipients of entitlement programs to public workers, must agree to put aside long-standing differences and share in the rescue. Not because the factions think their own sacrifice fair, but because dividing the financial pain is the only way to stop their habitual squabbling from morphing into a catastrophic civil war.
The implication for resolving our fiscal crisis is that the energies which today we so relentlessly focus on defeating perceived political enemies — be they progressives or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, government bureaucrats or wealthy corporate executives — will eventually have to be redirected toward a stoic acceptance of mutual forfeiture. For many, this will mean being reconciled to higher taxes. For others, it will mean smaller government benefit checks, reduced public pension payouts, higher interest rates, reduced subsidies, or some combination of these.
This mutual acceptance of reduced economic expectation may not lead to a mass outbreak of “loving thy neighbor as thyself,” but it will require culturally elevating many traditionally religious beliefs: that people should be at their best when times are bad, that no one escapes a worldly trial, and that human institutions are never to be fully trusted. The spiritual wisdom of biblical figures who suffered unfairly — Joseph sold into slavery by his own brothers, Daniel locked in the lion’s den, and the Apostle Paul thrown into the late-night ocean — will likely have a much wider appeal.
Religion will also prove more attractive in a practical way. One of the underreported stories of the 2007-2008 financial crisis was the critical role various churches played in helping people cope with the abrupt collapse of home values, the big drop in retirement savings due to falling stock prices, and the subsequent tsunami of pink slips and salary cuts. Not only did every major denomination offer free classes on how better to handle money, but a February 2009 Lifeway Research survey of 1,000 American churches found that one-third had instituted or expanded food banks, employment bureaus, inexpensive medical services, or low-cost after-school programs for parishioners’ children.
A Better Public Education For a Third of the Price
A third spiritual consequence of the coming debt crisis will be the pressure it creates to lower the cost of local governments’ biggest expense, K-12 education, by subsidizing children to attend parochial schools. Although the argument for such a policy has traditionally been based on the superior academic quality of many religious schools, especially in big cities, the economic case is also remarkably compelling. In Hartford, Connecticut, for example, the per-pupil cost of a public elementary or middle-school placement is more than six times that of the average Christian or Hebrew school.
Of course, subsidizing families to voluntarily elect a religious education for their children would probably do little to advance religion if nonbelieving parents had no interest in the option. But research conducted by Christel J. Manning, a professor at Sacred Heart University, found that many adults who have stopped attending church or have rejected a belief in God still see religious schools as a better defender of the values they hold than typical public schools.
Grateful for any help they can get to counter mass media influence and student peer pressure, many such parents gladly elect a parochial placement for their child if a district or state policy subsidizes the option.
The Debt Crisis Raises Suspicions of Secularism
The final way in which the coming debt crisis will advance religion is by creating a terminal suspicion of what the philosopher Max Weber long ago recognized as secularism’s biggest selling point: the supposed ability to replace spiritual conceptions of reality with scientific laws powerful enough to improve not just the manufacturing of consumer goods, but society’s organization. “The fate of our times,” Weber famously wrote, is to be persuaded “by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”
Even though a century of government social engineering has consistently failed to deliver on secular promises to end poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, and many other problems — as Amity Shlaes documents so well in her new book “Great Society” — the belief in scientifically guided policymaking endures. All that is required to make its programs successful, the thinking goes, is more generous funding.
But how well can this argument hold up when there is no more money to spend? In other words, if what it takes to make social engineering effective exceeds what it takes to push a federal, state, or local government to the edge of bankruptcy, how is a secular culture any better than one relying on the moral and spiritual development of its people?
As the debt crisis unfolds, the idea of allowing social science to drive public policy, even if it were somehow affordable, will prove increasingly objectionable. For as Americans are already learning, many government programs are based on grossly misleading academic research, conducted by professors more interested in pleasing funders and colleagues than in getting to truth.
Are We on the Path to a Great Awakening?
So tenuous is today’s secular worldview, in fact, that the vast majority of supposedly “settled discoveries” in psychology, politics, anthropology, sociology, and even medicine cannot be replicated. “Most published research findings [in these areas] are false,” says John Ioannidis, co-director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford University.
Thus far, the consequences of what appears to be an astonishingly fictionalized reality have been mostly limited to conferences on how to salvage the academy’s tarnished reputation. But how will the public take to the idea of social engineering — and, more importantly, to the secular assumptions on which it is based — as the bill incurred for decades of fraudulently justified government regulation comes due? When science’s irreproducibility crisis meets the government debt crisis, must there not be a third crisis about the nature of conventionally accepted reality?
The effects of government belt-tightening on beneficiary values, the need for shared sacrifice, a resurgence of religious schooling, the economic limitation on social engineering, and the deeper unreliability of the pseudo-science upon which that engineering is based — will the combined consequences of America’s looming debt crisis be enough to spark its next Great Awakening? This is not a question we can answer until it happens, but neither is the prospect as far-fetched as it initially sounds.