The answer is simple: eschatology. Eschatology is the doctrine of last things, and most Christian conservatives these days continue to be premillennial in their eschatology. Premillennialism is often described as a pessimistic eschatology, one that expects conditions to get progressively worse until Jesus comes back and establishes his millennial kingdom. (In contrast, postmillennialism is often described as an optimistic eschatology because it expects things to improve progressively until Jesus returns while amillennialism is described as realistic since it thinks we’ll progress and regress — two steps forward, one step back; one step forward, two steps back — until Jesus returns.)
Incidentally, the assumption here is that the progression or regression of which we speak is moral in nature. Obviously if we’re talking technological progress alone the postmillennialists would have won the debate long ago. But admittedly if you shift the discussion to the question of moral progress the space for debate opens up. After all, there is no shortage of societies in history that have been on the vanguard of technological progress and yet have also been morally brutish.
I am not a premillennialist, and I find premillennialism disturbing for one important reason: it tends to breed passivity in those who accept it. If things are expected to get worse, then what’s the use of trying to make them better? Indeed (and this where things can get really perverse), one could even get to the point of reasoning that seeking to reduce the misery in the world and increase acts of justice and mercy could effectively be postponing the return of Christ since he won’t show up until things get really bad. And which Christian wants to delay Christ’s return?
I’m not saying that a premillennialist cannot consistently fight for justice whilst holding this pessimistic theology. But every theology has dangerous tendencies, and in this case the tendency toward passivity is a serious concern.
This leads to another problem. Premillennial Christians often expect that Christians will become a specially targeted minority as history devolves toward Armageddon. As a result, ever instance of Christians being targeted as Christians feeds into the interpretive framework and provides more evidence for the “persecuted minority” trope. Consider, for example, the “war on Christmas” that Fox News plays up every autumn. The vote of one town council not to have a creche on the front lawn of the town hall suddenly becomes another sobering sign of the tightening noose on God’s persecuted elect.
There are many dangers with this kind of thinking. Here’s one: if you always think of yourself as the persecuted minority you are that much more liable to miss the moments when you are in the wrong. Do you have any idea how many Christian conservatives in 1950s Alabama interpreted the rise of the civil rights movement as evidence of their status as a beleaguered, persecuted minority of God’s people? A sobering thought indeed. On what issues are Christian conservatives currently on the wrong side of history? And to what extent is their premillennial eschatology blinding them to that fact?
I was raised in this tradition so I know it from the inside. Christian conservatives often exercise a clear confirmation bias as every major disaster (e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis, wars) and every attack on Christians (e.g. the removal of the creche from the lawn of the town hall) is marshalled in support of the “Things are getting worse” thesis.
But what is counted for the “Things are getting better” thesis? If you start counting from this side then things become decidedly more ambiguous.
This is what I challenged my students to do last week when I was teaching a course in Christian worldview. After hearing that things were getting worse in Canadian society, I presented them with a challenge based on John Rawls’ “original position” thought experiment. I put it as follows:
Imagine that you could choose to be born into Canadian society in the year 1800, 1900 or 2000 while not knowing what your gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status would be. Which year would you choose to be born into?
While I didn’t call for a formal vote, the response of the class seemed unanimous. Contemporary Canadian society — for all its great faults — is still on the whole a far more just society today than it was one or two hundred years ago. In many ways we are a far more compassionate and civil society than we once were. Now extend the thought experiment. What about being born in Canada in 1800 or Assyria in 800 BC? To ask the question is to answer it. In almost all cases ancient societies were far more brutish than modern societies.
If a person wants to retain a pesimisstic premillennial eschatology, that’s up to them. I’m not denying that there is a theological case to be made for such a theology. But I do think we need to challenge the facile assumption that contemporary society demonstrates some kind of gradual moral devolution which provides empirical support for premillennialism, because it doesn’t.