Published October 14, 2022
Although often accused of boastful nationalism, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” contained a tacit admission: By some measures America was not so great anymore. This rare manifestation of national humility and introspection was soon drowned out by the hollow boast of 2020, “Keep America Great,” but it is worth reflecting on anew, as evidence of national decline continues to pile up. According to newly released data, in 2021, U.S. life expectancy dipped to just 76.1, a drop of almost three years since 2019, and the lowest level since 1996.
To be sure, much of this was a temporary effect of COVID-19, which took the lives of about one in 300 Americans, among the highest rates in the world. But while the pandemic may have worsened the picture, it simply accentuated a worrying trend. U.S. life expectancy had already stagnated over the previous decade, and even before the pandemic stood at 20th among large countries worldwide. By contrast, in 1960, America ranked 6th among large countries, and in 2000, 13th. Most ominously, 2021 marked the first year that life expectancy in China surpassed that of the United States. What should we make of these trends?
First, we must not live in denial. The duration of our earthly lives isn’t everything, of course, as Christians should know more than anyone else. But it is more important than many other metrics on which America has often had cause to boast, such as the size of our military or our income per capita. In the last analysis, there is “no wealth but life,” as essayist John Ruskin observed, and nations with low life expectancies are generally unstable, unhealthy, and unhappy places.
For two centuries, Western nations—and developing countries eager to imitate them—have measured their technological, economic, and political advances by their increasing life expectancies, and few have ever gone backward by this measure. The current decline in U.S. life expectancy reflects a broken healthcare system, rampant addictions, and an increasing fragmentation of society that leaves many to die alone and forgotten. Our national decline is real, and we had better face up to it.
Second, though, we must not give way to despair. While we are often enamored of “decline and fall” stories, the fact is that nations, just like individuals, can experience renewal as well as decline. The Roman Empire did indeed decline and fall, but only after twice experiencing great revivals of power and culture—one of which coincided with the reign of the Christian emperor Constantine. And indeed, what we now call the “Fall of Rome” came before the eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, rose to its heights of glory.
America’s current decline—moral, military, political, economic, and physical—is real, but it is also reversible, if we are willing to grapple seriously with it instead of simply blaming others for it, as so much political discourse invites us to.
Third, we must put this arc of national decline in its proper context. There are some, particularly on the cultural left, who might ask why it matters at all if America recedes into global irrelevance. Why should we think our country is special? Well, there are lots of reasons. For one, simply because it is ours—God has given it to us to steward, and we should want to leave a better life to our children and grandchildren. For another, because despite its faults, it has clearly been a crucial tool of God’s good purposes in the world, especially in some of the darkest moments of the 20th century.
That said, there are some, particularly on the cultural right, who forget that God can raise up whoever He wants, and He has made no promise that the gates of Hades will never prevail against America. Our country has certainly had its time in the limelight of history, but it is folly to presume upon God’s blessings.
Denial and despair are often the fruit of pride. If we stake too much on the fame and flourishing of our country, we may, paradoxically, contribute to its collapse by refusing to face the signs of decline, or by losing our nerve when they become too real to ignore. The fact is that while our nation, like all nations, has a finite life expectancy—it is not destined to endure forever—we would be foolish if we did not take reasonable steps to prolong it.
We should care as Christians about reviving America’s flagging fortunes, but we must do so in humble acknowledgment of the facts. The true patriot is the one willing to name his country’s failures, and also willing to learn from other nation’s successes. Just imagine a world without the power and influence of the United States of America.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.