Time and time again David Gelernter, a national fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and professor of computer science at Yale, speaks precisely to something that I have been thinking about for some time. It was David Gelernter who argued, in the pages of The Weekly Standard about three years ago, that America needed another great awakening on the college campus and that it just might actually happen. He spoke of the typical campus as “biblically illiterate” and thus a veritable “tinder-box” for a spiritual fire if the Bible were to become relevant again to students. I pray daily that he is right and I work to this end with all that is inside of me.

Well, David Gelernter did it again in a recent (October 6) article in The Weekly Standard. In an article titled: “Obama in Leftland,” Gelernter writes:

"Barack Obama is America’s first major party candidate to have come of age after the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and 70s. Americans who reached adulthood before or during the Cultural Revolution often differ over the big events of recent history. Americans who came of age afterward, on the other hand, don’t necessarily know any recent history. And what they do know is often wrong

[emphasis mine]."

This is the very same point that I have attempted to make on this blog several times in recent weeks. I last made this point regarding the agenda of planned parenthood and the issue of abortion. I referred to how little clarity the younger generation possesses about the history of this ethical and moral issue.

Let me be clear about this. I am not saying that younger Christians do not have moral convictions. Nor am I saying that they do not care about life and death ethical issues. I think they care, and in some ways, they care far more than my generation cared, at least in terms of deeply held feelings about issues and causes. (Their numbers are considerably smaller, and this means that whatever their views are on such issues they will have less cultural and political impact in the end.)

What I am saying is this—this is the first generation entirely shaped by my generation, the one that lived through the Cultural Revolution (CR) of the late 1960s and 70s.

David Gelernter says that we knew what to expect in generation CR. If you grew up in families with strong moral values and a grasp of tradition, patriotism and reality, you held to moral and ethical absolutes. But if not then you tended to have very fuzzy views of history.  Thus these new adults:

"[Have an] unconditional belief in tolerance and diplomacy, and contempt for the military and war-making. Their patriotism (such as it is) tends to focus on the 'global community' or 'the planet' or some other large, meaningless object. (Beyond a certain point, patriotic devotion spread too thin simply evaporates—which is a good way to get rid of it if you are, say, an English intellectual trusting to the European Union to eradicate this primitive emotion.)"

Consider what makes Barack Obama so much like previous leaders in the CR generation that I came of age in when I was in college. Senator George McGovern, who had rock star status with the far-left in the CR, was an affable, moral, sincere and well-spoken gentleman. I can still recall attending one of his campaign stops in 1972 when he spoke at Edman Chapel at Wheaton College. The atmosphere was electric and many young evangelicals swooned, much as they do at Obama rallies today. Like Obama, Senator McGovern also opposed an unpopular war and saw how government could solve major generational issues.

And like George McGovern, Barack Obama is not at all sure where the military fits into our future. In July he listed several past crises that America had faced and referred to “the bomb (sic) that fell on Pearl Harbor.” He spoke also of our “constantly evolving danger” but never of our “enemies.” This, notes David Gelernter, is “a prime specimen of gen-CR thinking.” I think he nails it.

Obama’s announcement that he would met Mahmoud Ahmadinejab without preconditions shows exactly why a president must not merely know history, but have a decently nuanced view of the same. Was it right for Chamberlain to meet with Hitler? Or was it right for John F. Kennedy to meet with Khrushchev? No. I submit history shows that it was not right because the meetings were used to promote anything but peace. Was it right for Begin to meet with Sadat and for Churchill to make long and dangerous journeys to meet with Stalin? I submit that it was, given the nuance of the issues and the historical sensibilities of the moment.

Senator Joe Biden, speaking about Obama’s international notions, said during the primary season: “World leaders should not meet with other world leaders unless they know that the agenda is, so you don’t end up being used.” The point is clear—do not invest American prestige and energy in meeting with culture-leaders who misrepresent history and tell us things like the Holocaust never happened or that they wish to destroy Israel and the United States.

Members of the CR generation who bought into the ideology were trained well, since they had no deep roots to protect them. The majority of teachers from the 1970s onward proudly acknowledged their deep political bias against America and its ideals. They were to the left and they happily admitted it. This is a simple truth. But what makes today’s new left so different is that they do not even know how far left they have actually moved. Gelernter rightly concludes: “As far as they know their ideas are innocuous and mainstream—just like the New York Times!

Think about the resignation of Harvard’s president Lawrence Summers in 2006. What was his crime? He said that the fact that there were a greater number of male scientists females might have something to do with gender differences. After numerous apologies his administration was finished, and he still resigned. (And Lawrence Summers is no conservative!) Gelernter notes that “In the gen-CR now approaching, such embarrassing accidents will no longer happen. Forbidden ideas simply won’t occur to the Harvard presidents of the future.” Bulls-eye!

Thus Barack Obama is the perfect role-model for this generation. He would make a great Harvard president. He looks back at the nation’s history and sees things very differently than I do. He is sincere, honest and shaped by a different worldview. What makes him even more appealing to young Christians is that he has faith and speaks of his relationship with Christ, a relationship I have never questioned (to the chagrin of my more conservative friends). He knows how to approach issues from several angles and how to see various shades of opinion. (There is much here to like in contrast to hard-nosed, opinionated wing-nuts on the right!)

Gelernter concludes: “America’s future has been intellectually housebroken.” Yes, it surely has. What is tragic is that intellectual and moral turpitude has become mainstream in the modern church. The results are nothing less than catastrophic when it comes to moral clarity and our collective future. I am much more concerned for the church than for America. (The church is to act as salt, and if we lose our saltiness we have no proper role remaining
in the wider culture.) I think we have lost our nerve and the consequences call for a massive reformation of morals and doctrine inside the typical American church.

Younger Christians move me, to my depths, with their commitment to missional thinking and practice. But many of them miss the historical realities of how we got here and where we should be going, as a result of learning their lessons from teachers who were shaped by my CR generation.

We do need a “new kind of Christian” but the one we need looks a lot more like a mix between the missional present, which I celebrate, and the moral and social past, which saw truth as truth and historical facts as facts. 

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  1. Adam S October 8, 2008 at 8:15 am

    You may be right about some of this. But what drives me nuts about much of the baby boom generation is that everything comes back to them. Even your criticism of my generation comes down to your generation. In my mind that is really the myopic view of the world. Everything is not primarily about the baby boomers.

  2. jls October 8, 2008 at 8:16 am

    Good morning, John.
    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. These observations are spot-on. You ended it with a call for “a new kind of Christian.” How can we accomplish that? Let me offer a modest suggestion.
    I am the same age as Barack Obama and was educated in some of the same institutions of higher learning as he. I was exposed to all of those CR ideas and found them appealing. Surrounded by friends and ex-hippies who were reading Noam Chomsky, I was headed for Leftland. But I rejected most of those ideas and ended up with a very different worldview. How did it happen?
    In my college years, I was approached by a group of devoted evangelical Christians who helped me to study the Bible systematically and inductively. Despite being raised in the Roman Catholic Church, I was almost biblically illiterate. In that day, what usually passed for “Bible study” was a quick reading of a few verses, invariably taken out of their context, followed by some namby-pamby discussion of how they make you feel. Everything in those days, even the Bible, was supposed to be “all about me.” In contrast, these Christians showed me by example how to approach a passage of Scripture on its own terms, to read it in a thoughtful and prayerful way, to try to discern its objective meaning, to understand it in the context of God’s redemptive history, and then apply it to myself. This serious study of the Scriptures was difficult to keep up, given the demands of my coursework and the busy college social scene. But God, by his grace, enabled me to do it with the encouragement and prayer of those who mentored and discipled me. I was not changed overnight. But gradually, over a period of many years, my worldview, my understanding of history, and—most importantly—my character were reshaped by the Bible. I discovered the historical truths of Christianity. I discovered that God had a plan for my life which went far beyond my own personal salvation. God was calling me to participate in his plan for world salvation.
    God’s word is alive. It conveys truth in a way that no other book can. It is a seed which, when planted in good soil and carefully cultivated over time, bears lasting fruit. It does not merely change someone’s opinions or worldview; it actually transforms the person.
    Now I am in a pastoral position, trying to help students on campus as others have helped me. Today’s young people, through no fault of their own, are not grounded in the lessons of history. They have been taught to be reflexively distrustful and even disdainful of the past. This is a handicap. But it is also an opportunity. They are virtually a blank slate on which God’s word can be written.
    Pope Benedict XVI recently said that the world’s financial systems are built on sand. He said that the only solid reality that we have is God’s word. I agree. We don’t need to destroy the CR worldview either, because that too built on sand and will collapse on its own. Some conservative Christians seem to think that we are fighting a culture war between the generations. But we are in a spiritual battle between light and darkness. We don’t have to recreate in our young people the mindset of a previous generation. It wouldn’t work anyway. Instead of playing around with conventional weapons, we ought to go nuclear. We ought to show our young people by example how to go back to the Bible.

  3. Chris Criminger October 8, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Hi John,
    Powerful words . . . I am pondering the words “missional” and “transformative.”
    1. On a personal and corporate level: My greatest need is to focus on intimacy with Christ and the greatest need of the church has been disobedience to God’s Word.
    And until faith is put into action, desperation will lead to revelation but God is calling all of us to more radically live out our faith now (a holy revolution).
    2. As I work with other Christian leaders, a strategy is beginning to unfold for me. The priorities start with unity which leads to discipleship, and finally outreach. Progress will only happen as these three chords work and relate to one another.
    So the word is “Go.” Churches and leaders have got to turn to a missional paradigm over the current expensive monetary maintenance one.
    Go to the internet and set up a community calender for your congregation and what is happening in the congregations in your area.
    Go to work and to the community transforming the culture and not just the institutional church.
    But one also has to go to church because incarnational transformational Christianity and missional churches are neither grasped nor understood by most people in most churches.
    Here’s freebies one can do locally and with other local Christians and other churches. Go prayer walking . . . Have concerts of prayer together with other churches . . . Do outreach ministries and pray for the people and their concerns and just don’t give them bread—give them God’s Word.
    I could go on but that’s a start . . .

  4. George C October 8, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    While you are correct to state that many people of my own generation do not look to the facts to form their world view, I think it is equally true that your generation generally assumes that it has the facts and that they have come to the right conclusions based upon those facts.
    I think what we see as facts and the conclusions we come to are often colored by our desires, assumptions, comfort level with the consequenses, ect.
    It seems to me that the only way to deal with any issue is to have both a love of the truth and a healthy dose of self doubt. The both seem to be high priced, low demand virtues in a society that is fighting for more power to control others.

  5. John H. Armstrong October 8, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    I love your spirit but you did not pay careful attention to what I said or how I said it.
    My generation does assume that it knows the facts but my generation taught the schools where your generation got its education. That is my point. We radicalized your generation.
    Second, look at the photo of the author. He is very young! Also, I do not think he is a Christian, but Jewish.
    Third, I totally agree that our conclusions are made based upon our desires, assumptions, etc. But the desires of my generation and yours are toward the pleasure principle (hedonism) and the assumption both both generations hold is that we can and should pursue it. The one difference is that there are more solid displays of “sacrifice” in your generation so this is a huge plus, though again the numbers are small. But “sacrifice” can be both misled and misused.
    Finally, a love for the truth and a healthy dose of self doubt? You bet. I promote this in everything I write and teach. If you doubt it check out the conservative blogs who shred me on this point.
    I think you protest too much and may need to read my words more carefully. I love the points you made and find almost nothing that contradicts what I said. Help me if I miss something here.

  6. John H. Armstrong October 8, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    I never suggested what you seem to me to read into my words. My generation did influence your generation, but that doesn’t mean that it is still all about us. Isn’t it obvious that we passed something along and that some of it is rejected (rightly so) but some is used and expressed in new generational forms? What generation was not shaped (in some sense) by the one that came before it, for whatever reason and by whatever means?
    And I completely agree that everything is not about my baby-boom generation, though I also agree that my generation thinks it is really important. It is a generational dominated by hubris if ever there was one since our parents doted on us and told us how great we were and we sacrificed almost nothing to get here. Throw in the failed Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, the obligation to take from the rich and give to the poor and you have a deadly mixture in every way. Reaganism broke this for a short political season but without real change in the generation. Even with the Reagan years it was still “it’s about me” in the emphasis.
    You will never meet a more resolute critic of my generation than me. I am often attacked by that generation for telling them the truth that you point out here.

  7. Jessica Bullock October 11, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    I’d appreciate a little more clarification. I guess I’m a little confused as to what evidence there is to support the idea that “younger Christians … miss the historical realities of how we got here and where we should be going.” In addition, it sounds like your underlying premise- and please correct me if I’m wrong- is that younger Christians support Sen. Obama because they lack historical clarity of moral and ethical issues. As someone who falls into the demographic that you are describing, I find this assumption a little offensive. I also graduated from your alma mater with a major in history 13 yrs ago. I “converted” to the Democratic party in the 1990s, mostly in reaction to the “hard-nosed, opinionated wing-nuts on the right” as described. If this is indeed the assumption, I think as Christians we can afford to be a little more nuanced than assuming that all Christians must adhere to a conservative ideology. There is no “perfect” political party … much as there is no “perfect” church (little c). Does that mean that I think there aren’t moral absolutes, absolutely not. Have I taken the time to think through my positions in a historical and biblical context, absolutely. As Christians, we are called to transform this world. I think we can allow that we accomplish this –equally- by participating in the political process on both sides of the aisle. I guess I agree with what you were trying to stress- the importance of historical and biblical knowledge in informing our political decisions. I’m just a little confused as to some of how you got there. Thanks.

  8. John H. Armstrong October 11, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    You have written one of the most civil and respectful disagreements, with substance, that I have seen in a long time. I will respond in kind, or so I hope.
    1. The statement re: younger Christians is based on various polls on religion and society as well as admittedly anecdotal evidence gained from teaching and traveling extensively. I may be wrong but I am persuaded that my claim is not rooted in some kind of prejudice or high-handed boomer claim.
    Illustrations of this abound re: reading habits, examinations on the knowledge of historical facts, the almost complete lack of historical awareness about core Christian teaching including the creeds, etc.
    2. You are right about my underlying premise. This is where you make a point that is corrective of my own I will confess to you. I have assumed that this lack of historical awareness translates into a movement for Obama. That connection is not entirely fair on my part. I do think, however, that most Obama supporters among those under 35 have no “experience” of hyper-inflation, defeat in a long war overseas, a time before legal and easy abortion, etc. This lack of experience is a factor in my view.
    3. I do not say all Christians do or must adhere to conservative political philosophy, though I could wish they did since I am a serious conservative who once was more liberal. And, for the record, I think the Republican Party sold itself out to power and thus deserves all it will likely get this year, a sweep. So I agree no party is the biblical party in any sense. What I cannot, however, shake is the commitment of all the leading Democrats to the “culture of death.” Perhaps the Republicans hold the opposite view purely for political reasons but they do fairly consistently support a system of justice that is openly committed to protecting unborn humans. This is where my point about ethics comes in Jessica. The Democrats sold themselves out to the “culture of death” as much as the Republicans sold themselves out to big business historically. And just as the Democrats were the party of racism, and opposition to Civil Rights, until the 1960s. This is historical fact as well. The party of Lincoln was the party that ended slavery, not the Democrats. And ti was Ike who used the federal government to first enforce integration in Little Rock. And the same was true about voting rights until LBJ changed the whole scene in a remarkable and welcome way in 1964-5.
    What I really desire is two parties where life is a real priority. I am not sure we will solve the problem until both are moved to support life and not simply for votes. I cannot know God’s view of the “end” this takes us toward as a culture but I am sure that heaven is grieving over the deaths of so many of our fellow human persons who are helpless to speak and defend their cause.
    I am an egalitarian feminist in my philosophical views so this is an even greater irony for me. Women, in the name of choice, are being led down a road that is disastrous for them and for the society. I can still recall Tipper Gore holding to a pro-life view and being forced to change those views by her husband’s party for the larger cause. The same for Jesse Jackson and others who once were pro-life but were moved by party partisanship to be pro-choice. This is again the history I have in mind that I think most young voters do not know at all. I could pile up stories but I will stop there for now. Thankfully a few Democrats have been elected in recent years who are pro-life. I wish the number would grow but Obama is so ardently opposed he is, in fact, the worst Democrat of all on life. He is, in fact, an open advocate for a type of infanticide and the record here is unambiguous.
    4. I really agree that Christians are called to “change the world” and thus they will be found in many parties, including Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, etc. What I do think is that regardless of the party they should bring Christian values to bear on that party and its process. One could make a strong case that this is done by very few Christians in either party at the end of the day. I will not elaborate but some members of Congress who also went to our alma mater are a huge disappointment to me on this very point and they were not Democrats!
    I hope I have helped explain “how I got there” without simply employing empty rhetorical devices. This medium does not allow us to talk as we should but maybe this helps.
    Thanks for writing and again thanks for a thoughtful post. I would enjoy talking to you personally I am quite sure.

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