Why the West Is (Likely) Doomed

In his famous Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln said the Civil War was a conflict that would test “whether a nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. More than 150 years later, we’re once again seeking the answer to that question.

It’s no secret that American society is polarized and fractured. As we’ve moved further right and left, it seems many have lost sight of the ties that bind—those indispensable elements that created and shaped our common life. And all this leads to a single question: What kind of future awaits an increasingly fragmented society?

Enter Jonah Goldberg, who in his latest book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, attempts to wake us from our stupor in hopes of averting disaster. Goldberg—senior editor at National Review, fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, syndicated columnist, and frequent Fox News pundit—is one of America’s leading conservative intellectuals and a keen observer of politics and culture.

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy
Jonah Goldberg

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Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy
Jonah Goldberg
Crown Forum (2018). 464 pp. $28.00.

With his trademark blend of political history, social science, economics, and pop culture, two-time New York Times bestselling author, syndicated columnist, National Review senior editor, and American Enterprise Institute fellow Jonah Goldberg makes the timely case that America and other democracies are in peril as they lose the will to defend the values and institutions that sustain freedom and prosperity.

Instead we are surrendering to populism, nationalism, and other forms of tribalism.

In the book, he musters wit and wisdom to make the case that our current trajectory is nothing short of an existential threat to the survival of Western society and that only a fundamental course correction might save us.

Modern Miracle

Goldberg writes in defense of a miracle, one he claims transformed the Western world. Using economics to illustrate this change, he argues that until the 18th century, poverty was a nearly universal human experience, but as a result of “the Miracle” humanity has taken a “quantum leap out of its natural environment of poverty” over the last 300 years (7).

He defines the Miracle as a new way of thinking about the world. It was “an unplanned and glorious accident,” which sprung from the Enlightenment, specifically the revolutionary ideas of English philosopher John Locke (105). As Locke’s ideas—centered on limited government, the sovereignty of the individual, and the natural rights of man—began to work their way into the popular sentiment, a radical shift took place in the way that “humans thought about the world and their place in it” (8).

Ultimately, Locke’s theories formed the basis of classical liberalism, and Goldberg posits that the combination of liberalism and free market capitalism created the Miracle. He not only credits the Miracle with the formation of the modern West, but also claims it brought about the single greatest period of human progress, innovation, and achievement in history.

From the outset, Goldberg’s concern is clear. The Miracle created the modern West. The United States of America is the Miracle’s most visible triumph (11). And all of it is in peril.

Sweeping Argument

Suicide of the West is provocative and formidable, a sweeping three-part narrative of the development of contemporary American culture and what ails it. Goldberg begins by introducing the Miracle and chronicling the destructive power of human nature. In part two, he discusses the makings of modern America, tackling the formation and history of capitalism and liberal democracy. And in the final section, he turns his attention to present threats to the Miracle’s survival.

Goldberg is at his best when he speaks of human nature. He understands the innate moral sense every person possesses. He discerns the weaknesses of our fallen state (e.g., pride and greed). He recognizes our inclinations toward tribalism are more than learned behaviors but exist at the level of instinct. Most importantly, Goldberg grasps humanity’s quest for meaning—our compulsory habit of imbuing the world around us with “significance beyond the rational and material” (44).

As he tells the story of the Miracle, we learn that Goldberg views civilization as the “collection of stories we tell ourselves” (88). And he’s right; the status of our common life is largely determined by these stories and conversations. The West hasn’t only taken shape against the backdrop of clashing ideas (e.g., Locke vs. Rousseau, capitalism vs. Marxism), but as it developed, the United States in particular has been undergirded by a common moral sense arising from widespread religious convictions. Religion has loomed large in America’s “stories,” and Goldberg describes with precision its indispensable role in the Miracle’s success.

The book’s subtitle, How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, names specifically the movements and ideas that threaten the Miracle. And in part three, Goldberg delivers devastating critiques of each. But in his final analysis, he offers a more basic explanation for the Miracle’s predicament: ingratitude. Though we are all beneficiaries of the Miracle, we’ve simply failed to appreciate it. Indifferent to its unparalleled achievement, we’re willfully allowing it to slip into the abyss.

Absent Foundation

The book begins with a stunning introduction: “There is no God in this book” (3). For the sake of argument, Goldberg jettisons any pretense of religious belief and seeks to persuade readers purely on the basis of “facts grounded in reason and decency.” But as he makes his case, it’s clear time and again that he has saddled himself with an unbearable burden.

In constructing his argument, he assumes that “it is incumbent upon all of us to fight for a better society, to defend the hard-learned lessons of human history, and to be grateful for what we have accomplished” (6). As a Christian whose worldview is tethered to the Bible, I’m able to affirm that statement. But on what basis could others affirm it? The assertion certainly fails in Darwinian terms and, absent any theological moorings, is left floating in thin air.

Additionally, Goldberg’s functional atheism plagues his defense of the Miracle. He lays much of the blame for society’s ills at the feet of Romanticism, not only holding Romanticism responsible for our indifference toward the Miracle but also asserting the two are fundamentally incompatible. Thus, even as he rightly exposes the problems with our attachment to Romanticism—for instance, its promotion of the primacy of feelings or excessive idealism—he fails to recognize that what he describes as humanity’s “romantic” quest for significance isn’t actually a liability. He claims “we cannot improve upon the core assumptions of the Miracle” (15). But on this point the Miracle, at least in Goldberg’s reckoning, is fundamentally in conflict with God’s good design of human beings, who were created with an intrinsic longing for meaning and transcendence.

Such is the book’s devastating flaw. Though he rightly understands the essential function of religion in society, Goldberg denies its critical importance to his argument. And while I agree with Goldberg in the main, a biblically informed appraisal of both Locke’s ideas and also the Miracle’s core elements would certainly yield a more helpful analysis. For example, such an evaluation of the Miracle’s success might move beyond the quantitative to ask how our escape from poverty has affected us in non-material ways. Moreover, Goldberg’s promotion of capitalism would benefit from the scrutiny of the biblical categories of justice and human dignity.

On these points and many others, this significant volume would’ve been strengthened with a different approach.

Uncertain Future

Appreciating the Miracle requires us to view the present through the lens of the past. But we can’t stay stuck in the past; this appreciation needs to be passed on to future generations. Goldberg is correct; the Miracle is worthy of preservation, and we must do our part to tell its story.

In 1838, long before he was a presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech about the future of political institutions in the United States. In that speech, he uttered these words:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Goldberg’s book is aptly named. Should the Miracle soon meet its end, its death shall come by suicide.


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Review: Newton on the Christian Life

The following editorial reviews were gleaned from Amazon.com

Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ by Tony Reinke

Editorial Reviews

Review

“Through Newton’s words and Tony’s words—one voice—God does eye surgery on the heart, so that we see Christ more fully. And more fully means seeing him as more precious. And more precious means more powerful to heal us and change us. Relentlessly focused on the sweetness and the greatness of Christ as the Savior and Satisfier of our souls, over this book flies the banner of John Newton: ‘None but Jesus.’”
John Piper, Founder, desiringGod.org; Chancellor, Bethlehem College and Seminary

“Here is mastery! As the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and reigning, was the life-giving focus of the Evangelical Revival, and as George Whitefield was its supreme awakener, and John Wesley its brilliant discipler, so ex–slave trader John Newton was its peerless pastoral counselor and perhaps the greatest Christian letter writer of all time. In his 768- footnote digest of the spiritual wisdom in Newton’s thousand-plus published letters, along with his published sermons and hymns, Reinke distills a vast flow of pure honey for the Christian heart. This is a book to read over and over again.”
J. I. Packer, Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology, Regent College

“Linger long here. The depths and riches within these pages are truly rare and answer what your soul most hungers for: life in Christ. I will be returning to this book many, many times over.”
Ann Voskamp, author, New York Times bestseller, One Thousand Gifts

Newton on the Christian Life is a magnum opus (though Tony still has plenty of time to surpass it). A bold project, beautifully done. You know about John Newton; now you can be pastored by him. You will feel known by him. You will be encouraged that your struggles are like his and his congregants. And you will discover again that huge helpings of the beauty and love of Jesus are the perfect antidote for our self-consumed lives.”
Ed Welch, counselor and faculty, The Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation

“The Christian life is Christ, as John Newton clarified so helpfully. If you are still treating Christianity as a strategy for your own self-improvement, this book will not satisfy you. But if you have despaired of yourself and are now clinging only to Christ, this book will refresh you. Newton’s practical counsel, brought vividly to life again by Tony Reinke, will lead you into the green pastures and beside the still waters that are, at this moment, awaiting you in your all-sufficient Savior. For some readers, this book may just become the most important book, outside the Bible, they will ever read.”
Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Lead Pastor, Immanuel Church, Nashville, Tennessee

“Best known for the iconic hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ John Newton deserves to be equally known for his tremendous corpus of spiritual letters. In them, Newton’s gifting as a pastoral cardiologist with few peers is on full display. Many of the main struggles and joys of the human heart have not changed. And, as Reinke ably shows, Newton’s advice, given in a world somewhat different from ours, is still potent and relevant. Very highly recommended.”
Michael A. G. Haykin, Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Newton’s pastoral letters are a unique and rich resource for Christians today, and both of us owe them a debt too great to describe. However, they constitute a notoriously difficult body of work in which to navigate. Many a time you can remember some gem you have read in these letters but now can’t locate. Here we have a guide to Newton’s main themes and topics, as well as considered treatments of many of his most valuable letters. This is a welcome tool for Christian growth and discipleship.”
Tim and Kathy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City

“This book is worth every minute of your time, whether or not you have any interest in John Newton. Reinke brings out Newton in all his cheer to minister to readers. The result is a Christ-exalting manual for growth into Christian joy, freedom, and fruitfulness. No, more than a manual, this is a work of beauty to be read again and again.”
Michael Reeves, Director of Union and Senior Lecturer, Wales Evangelical School of Theology; author, Delighting in the Trinity, The Unquenchable Flame and Rejoicing in Christ

“John Newton mentored his young friend William Wilberforce into politics, which eventually led to the abolition of the British slave trade. To this day, Newton’s letters continue to disciple generations of Christians. This book draws together Newton’s key life lessons in a way every Christian can apply. As a state governor, a former member of Congress, and a Christian in public service, I am reminded by Newton that we are never more valuable to our society than after we have been humbled by the amazing grace of God.”
Mike Pence

“Reinke takes us well beyond the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ to explore John Newton’s stirring pastoral ministry and soaring vision of the believer’s life in Christ. I am delighted to recommend this book.”
Thomas S. Kidd, Professor of History, Baylor University; author, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America

“This book, by one of the brightest writers in contemporary evangelicalism, examines the life lessons of a hymn writer, a freedom fighter, and a gospel preacher. Even if you don’t think you like church history, you will love this book. Reinke ties Newton’s life and thought to practical applications for every believer. I encourage you to read and savor anew the grace that saved wretches like us.”
Russell D. Moore, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; author, Tempted and Tried

“You may think you are acquainted with John Newton: converted slave trader, pastor, writer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ Get ready to meet the man you only think you know. Reinke guides us on a tour of Newton’s theology through his life and letters. This book is pastoral theology at its finest. Newton was a man captured by Christ, exalting Christ, and caring for God’s people by pointing them to Christ and him crucified.”
C. J. Mahaney, Senior Pastor, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

“Although he authored what would become America’s best-loved hymn, John Newton’s contemporaries thought his best gift was letter writing. Rarely, if ever, has so much wisdom, love, sanity, balance, genuine affection, and wonderfully down-to-earth-because-full-of-heaven practical counsel been expressed in letters written in the English language. Underneath them all runs knowledge of the Word of God, a devotion to the Son of God, and a love for the people of God. Newton makes us feel, even two centuries later, that he was writing for us, and that he knew us well. Reinke has done the whole church a service by recovering Newton’s letters from obscurity. Newton on the Christian Life is a taste of spiritual manna that will make us want to read the letters of Newton for ourselves.”
Sinclair B. Ferguson, Professor of Systematic Theology, Redeemer Seminary, Dallas, Texas

“This book presents valuable lessons from the ministry of John Newton. His perception of grace permeated his theology, his thinking, his experience, his hopes, his ministry, and even his dying. As Reinke writes, grace was ‘the air he breathed.’ Here we catch glimpses into the workings of Newton’s heart as he focused unreservedly on living for and through the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Marylynn Rouse, Director, The John Newton Project

About the Author

Tony Reinke is a staff writer and researcher for desiringGod.org. He is the author of Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books and Newton on the Christian Life.

Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. Previously, he served as research professor of Christianity and culture at Lancaster Bible College. He is an editor (with Justin Taylor) of the Theologians on the Christian Life series and is the author of several books, including The Reformation, For Us and for Our Salvation, The Church History ABCs, and Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life.

Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worlds—hosted by the Gospel Coalition.

John Piper (DTheol, University of Munich) is teacher and founder of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. He served for 33 years as pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God, Don’t Waste Your Life, This Momentary Marriage, Bloodlines, and Does God Desire All to Be Saved?

  • Series: Theologians on the Christian Life
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway (May 31, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1433539713
  • ISBN-13: 978-1433539718

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free as a gift from a dear friend. – Moe