In the course of researching the moral and cultural decline of the Western world, I have come to realize that what I am studying is closely related to the rise and fall of the British Empire.
The story of America begins within the context of the nascent British Empire in Virginia and Massachusetts. Before and after the American Revolution, the key cultural developments in American history are never really separate from developments in the metropole. The Great Awakening in the 18th century was brought to the American colonies by George Whitfield and John Wesley’s preaching. The British Enlightenment with its rhetoric about liberty had a massive cultural impact on the future United States. Romanticism was similarly influential on both of the Atlantic.
The abolitionist movement triumphed in the British Empire before it triumphed in the United States. Britain had its Olaudah Equiano and America had Frederick Douglass. America later followed the British down the road of imperialism in Spanish-American War. The United States followed the lead of Britain and was drawn into the First World War and Second World War.
In Niall Ferguson’s six hour documentary Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World, you can see two contending forces in the British mind that played out over the course of four centuries. On the one hand, the British (and later the Americans) could be quite ruthless in conquering and dominating others, which alone explains how Britain accumulated the largest empire the world had ever seen. On the other hand, the British (and also later the Americans) want to feel good about their empire and have a tendency to moralize and act self-righteous about it. A good example of this which is brought up in the documentary is the ruthless conquest of the Boers in the Boer War, a truly disgraceful war motivated by greed for gold, and how the British public was scandalized by the concentration camps.
The moral compass of the British middle class is largely the product of Enlightenment liberalism and evangelical Christianity. In the 20th century, that evangelical Christianity died and was replaced by post-evangelical atheism, which has produced the cultural degeneration we see today in Britain.
Note: If you have been following what is going on with the Southern Baptist Convention, you should be worried that America is headed toward a British-style “post-evangelicalism.”