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TEXAS FAITH: Is the world getting better?


The following ran on the March 6, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Political scientist Matthew Wilson and Theology Professor William Lawrence contributed expertise for this story.

March 19, 2012

By William McKenzie

Centre College professor Beau Weston operates an interesting blog, the Gruntled Center. He put up a post last week that draws from a lecture he recently gave at his Kentucky college. In the post and lecture, Weston, a Presbyterian, makes the argument that the world has gotten better.

He notes how violence is down in most "competent" nations, authoritarianism is in retreat worldwide, various forms of discrimination have diminished, food production is growing exponentially, air quality has improved, the population bomb has been a dud and transportation costs are cheaper. He lists a number of other indices, which you can read about on this link.

So, here is the question for the week:

Is the world getting better?

We certainly read a lot in, yes, newspapers about things going awry. Republican candidates making the case against Barack Obama offer ample examples of the world being a mess. And many a book has been sold about the next coming crisis....

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

We Americans have an especially difficult time paying attention to extended periods of history. We do our best to recall things that happened within our own lifetimes. But beyond the boundaries of our own personal existence is not a place we like to go. None of us is personally old enough to remember that in the Progressive Era of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, people were spouting maxims like "Every day in every way I am getting better and better." Some religious leaders were promoting the gospel of wealth, convinced that the growth of financial success was evidence of God's blessing. Other religious leaders were promoting the social gospel, certain that it was the Christians' obligation as well as the Christians' expectation to make all of society more just and more educated. Even William Jennings Bryan, most notorious for his opposition to evolution in the Scopes trial, defined himself as a Christian Socialist.

But the onset of the Great War in Europe and the worldwide Great Depression ground that optimism into the dust. Grim realities of economic hardship and yet another world war kept the mood of fatalism and fear lingering.

Where are we now?

Enough of us can remember the fifties and sixties, so those moods of hopeful, happy days that seemed strong enough to overcome fears are still memorable. Enough of us in our own lifetimes can document extraordinary scientific, medical, environmental and technical advances to assure us that it is possible to hope once more.

But only if we ignore the realities of life. In Syria, a government slaughters its own people. In Zimbabwe, a dictator resists external aid. In so many places, the pursuit of happiness is not possible because liberty and justice remain luxuries that are unaffordable. Even in Texas, the insistence on low taxes seems to prevail over the need to educate our citizens, to give them access to health care, and to make their streets safe.

It appears that those at the top of the economic scale are doing better than ever. The rest of the world is not....

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

Weston makes some interesting points, but his thesis ultimately rests on a somewhat myopic view of the world.

If by "the world" we mean the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan, then one could reasonably say that things are getting better. Rates of crime and violence in these societies are relatively low and generally declining, democracy and respect for civil liberties are universally accepted norms (with some disagreements at the margins), and prosperity and access to high-level technology are widespread. There are, to be sure, very real concerns about sustainability. We have all heard about looming environmental problems (stemming at least in part from cheap transportation). The fragility of the credit economy on which much of the developed world's apparent affluence rests has been highlighted in recent years. Severe social, political, and economic strains await these societies in coming decades, as the lavish promises that their governments have made to retirees collide with their increasing debt burdens and paucity of young, productive workers. For those of us who are people of faith, the growing secularism of the developed world, with its accompanying spiritual rootlessness and anomie, is also cause for alarm. Despite these concerns, however, most of the developed world does seem to be enjoying an unprecedented historical moment of widespread tranquility and affluence.

At the same time, we should realize that with each passing year, those places where things are "getting better" represent a smaller and smaller share of the world's population. According to the United Nations, as of 2000, there were 1.8 people in the most developed countries for every person in the least developed countries. By 2100, this ratio will have more than reversed, as there will be two people in the least developed countries for every one in the developed world (and the two will achieve parity much earlier than this, around 2030).

We are talking here about countries like Nigeria, Haiti, Somalia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, North Korea, etc. Are things "getting better" in these nations? Sadly, it seems that tribal and sectarian violence are much more the norm than tolerance in these places, and poverty much more characteristic than affluence. What we in the United States (and especially as people of faith) need to realize is that increasingly, this IS the world.

While trends in Western societies are important, they will become less so globally as we continue to contracept ourselves into demographic decline (a point apparently lost on Weston, who points to shrinking populations in affluent countries as a good thing). This, I think, is a necessary corrective to any overly sanguine view of human progress.