Two years ago I wrote about how words are a lagging cultural indicator. We measure economies by leading and lagging indicators. Cultures work the same way. David Brooks recently wrote about what our words are telling us. They’re telling us a lot.
For those unfamiliar with indicators, economies are measured by leading indicators such as bond yields. They are predictive of future growth or decline. Lagging indicators such as the rate of unemployment don’t predict as much as track whether an economy is growing or declining. Societies work the same way, measured by two indicators.
A society’s prevailing images and ideas are some of its leading indicators. Our words are a lagging indicator. Institutions, images, items, and ideas influence our language, although most of us are unaware of their impact. For instance, two years ago I wrote about what the rise in our use of the passive voice indicates:
David Brooks cites some new research on our words. “A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words.”1 Over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.
These lagging indicators tell us American individualism is on the rise. We know this because researchers observe unconscious behavior, how we talk when we’re being unedited. The evidence points to individualism, influencing even Christians. There’s a lot of talk about “community” and “doing life on life,” but studies indicate these words lack any meaningful connection to reality. This is not how American Christians actually live.
Brooks also cites a study by Pelin and Selin Kesebir. They discovered that general moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty” and “patience” were used much less frequently. This fits Paul Johnson’s observation that overlapping 19th century networks, mostly those associated with Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, “formed a knife” that “cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of the Judeo-Christian culture.”2 By the 20th century, words moored in scripture, including “virtue” and “conscience,” were slipping over the horizon.
These lagging indicators tell us that the American faith community, regardless of its suburban growth, is losing influence in the more influential segments of society. The Kesebirs identified 50 words associated with moral virtue and found that 74 percent were used less frequently as the 20th century progressed. Usage of gratitude words like “thankfulness” dropped by 49 percent. Interestingly, in the mid 20th century, many American churches elevated the sermon and relegated the Eucharist (“giving thanks”) to a hurried, end-of-the-service appendage. Is there a correlation here?
Nietzsche introduced the idea of “values” replacing virtues. It was part and parcel with positivism, the assumption that facts trump faith. Facts are propositions; faith is merely “preferences.” Interestingly, Daniel Klein of George Mason University has conducted one of the broadest studies with the Google search engine. He found that the word “preferences” was barely used until about 1930. Its usage has surged since. He also finds a long decline of usage in terms like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence.”
Last – but certainly not least – Brooks cites studies showing the steady rise of phrases like “run the country,” “economic justice,” “nationalism,” “priorities,” “right-wing” and “left-wing.” These lagging indicators are telling us that, as the faith community recedes, the country is becoming politicized and polarized. An increasing percentage of the population is turning to Washington and government to solve our problems.
Politicization is partly due to the evacuation of the church from the public square. In the 20th century, a privatized, “two-chapter” gospel became popular. This coincided with the rise of industrialization, urbanization, and colleges and universities relegating religion to the private life. A privatized faith couldn’t address these developments. The faith receded, but nature abhors a vacuum. The Roaring Twenties roared to life. Greed became good (think stock market). Drug abuse soared. So did divorce rates and crime syndicates. When the market crashed in 1929, the party was over. The church was not taken seriously, so politics became the end-all solution for our problems.2 It was the advent of politicization, where business interests, education, art, science – even the faith community, sadly – often seek legitimacy through the rights conferred by the state.
It seems these lagging indicators are telling us some uncomfortable truths. Fortunately, lagging indicators are not predictive. Over the next 40 years or so, the church could get back in the game. But it would have to take seriously leading indicators – our center institutions, influential individuals, images, items, and ideas. They are predictive of future flourishing or decline. Shaping them is what the faith community ought to be doing.
1 David Brooks, “What Our Words Tell Us,” The New York Times, May 20, 2013.
2 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 5.
3 Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion (New York: Random House, 1967)