One of my favorite books — and one I regularly challenge private schools to make mandatory faculty reading — is Dr. James Burnham’s 1964 classic, “Suicide of the West” (Encounter Books, 2014).
The book’s primary thesis is that cultures “commit suicide” when they buy into unworkable ideologies. Burnham called his book, “a set of variations on a single and simple underlying thesis, that what Americans call ‘liberalism’ is the ideology of Western suicide” (p. 26).
Even in my 1985 edition of the book, Burnham expressed his belief that Western civilization was already nearing this tragic end.
“The contraction of the West cannot be explained by any lack of economic resources or of military and political power. We must conclude that the primary causes of the contraction of the West — not the sole causes, but the sufficient and determining causes — have been internal and non-quantitative: involving either structural changes or intellectual, moral and spiritual factors” (pp. 23, 24).
“Even today , when the Western dominion has been cut to less than half of what it was in 1914, Western economic resources — real and available resources — and Western military power are still far superior to those of the non-Western regions” (p. 23).
Burnham considered World War I a tipping point.
Prior to July 1914, “the domain of Western civilization was, or very nearly was, the world,” he said, citing the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the beginning of the West’s geopolitical disintegration. In the near-century since, Western influence has steadily waned, and the moral and spiritual forces that have long undermined our society are now on public display.
“If the process continues over the next several decades more or less as it has gone on during the several decades just past, then — this is a merely mathematical extrapolation — the West will be finished; Western civilization, Western societies and nations in any significant and recognizable sense, will just not be there anymore. In that event, it will make a reasonable amount of sense to say: ‘The West committed suicide’ ” (pp. 24, 25).
The world has now passed through “the next several decades” Burnham wrote about, and if anything, the West is swirling faster and faster down into a Postmodernist abyss, where, in the name of multiculturalism, national identities are not harmonized but erased.
Since 1988, our Nehemiah Institute has conducted onsite worldview testing at American churches and Christian high schools, and the 7 million data points we have collected reveal an ongoing “worldview shift,” as more and more American youth reject traditional Christian values in favor of what they perceive as a more socially just system of socialism.
The picture painted is remarkably similar to what Burnham predicted in 1964. The West has become unmoored from its Judeo-Christian heritage and is adrift in an emulsifying sea of Postmodernism, or what author Chris Stefanick calls “absolute relativism.”
My organization would not conduct such testing if we thought all hope was lost.
Neither are we content to watch American conservatives fight cultural battles at the polls when they’ve already lost their children in the classroom and on the Internet. We truly believe that our great Land of the Free can be restored … if we’ll focus on winning the culture, not the culture war.
My colleague, James Gilbert, co-founder of our sister organization, worldviewguys.com, has observed that “a sleeping man never sets his own alarm.” To that end, the aim of the Worldview Guys is not to sound a call to man the lifeboats, but to grab an oar, so that together we can guide America’s youth back to better, brighter shores. Ours is a big boat, and it flies the flag of the Cross. We hope you’ll join us.
• Dan Smithwick is the founder of NehemiahInstitute.com, a nonprofit organization specializing since 1986 in worldview assessment and curriculum for churches and high schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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