This Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the "Great Society," a comprehensive set of domestic government programs launched by President Lyndon Johnson. On May 22, 1964, speaking at the University of Michigan, the president stated: "The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice. . . . [It] is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents." It would be built "in our cities, in our countryside, and in our classrooms."
The Great Society became the largest reform agenda since Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal, producing the Civil Rights Act and launching the "war on poverty." How is the Great Society working today?
Washington Post Columnist George Will points out that in 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing "just about always or most of the time"; today, 19 percent do. Do you? In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned about a spreading "tangle of pathologies" with regard to family disintegration, welfare dependency and "flight from work." Was he right?
The proportion of men 20 and older who are employed has fallen from 80.67 percent in January 1964 to 67.6 percent 50 years later. Out-of-wedlock births have increased from 7.7 percent in 1965 to more than 40 percent in 2012, including 72 percent of African-American babies. Michael Lindsay, in his fascinating new book, View from the Top, notes that children growing up without both biological parents are twice as likely to be poor, to have a child out of wedlock, not to graduate from high school, and to have behavior and psychological problems.
Clearly, our society is not yet Great. We can blame Johnson's programs and the "big government" they spawned. Or we can claim that without these programs things would be even worse. What we cannot claim is that we are where we need to be.
Today's Cultural Commentary was sparked by a sentence I read yesterday in a first-century theological treatise called "First Clement." The bishop of Rome wrote the church in Corinth to address issues of internal division. But first he complimented his Corinthian readers, living in a famously immoral society, because "you judged their shortcomings as your own" (First Clement 2:6). Since they were the only salt and light in their culture (Matthew 5:13-16), they took responsibility for the moral condition of their society. Rather than condemn and criticize, they engaged their culture with intercession, initiative, and compassion. So can we. So must we.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared that "we have the power to shape the civilization that we want." He was wrong about government programs and all other human attempts to change human hearts. But he was right about the Holy Spirit's ability to transform every soul and society that is yielded to him.
Will you pray and work today for a Great Society birthed by the Spirit of God?
Publication date: May 20, 2014