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When were the “golden years” in America?

Don’t get too nostalgic—every era has its own pattern of sin

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When were the “golden years” in America?
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If every single generation in American history has one thing in common, it’s nostalgia. Sooner or later, it infects us all. The 82-year-old still remembers when gas was a quarter. The 42-year-old still remembers a world without cell phones. From the eldest to the youngest, we all know how to harken back to a mythical golden age when things were just … better. Nostalgia can be comforting and even humorous, but it can also be harmful.

Was there ever really a “golden age” in America? Was there ever a time in our nation when virtue was the law of the land? Nostalgia tells us that things were very different (and probably better) way back when. Every generation thinks it is uniquely sinful.

In 1991, The Wall Street Journal ran an article called “The Joy of What?” Its findings were incredibly similar to what we find in 2024: “The United States has a drug problem and a high school sex problem and a welfare problem and an AIDS problem and a rape problem. None of this will go away until more people in positions of responsibility are willing to come forward and explain, in frankly moral terms, that some of the things people do nowadays are wrong.”

Twenty-seven years ago, many believed the United States had a problem with moral relativism, leading us to ask: Should we go back even further? What about the so-called “greatest generation”? Were the noble Americans who experienced the Great Depression and fought for our freedom in World War II able to sustain a level of godliness long gone in today’s culture? Nostalgia says yes, but not every pastor in the “golden years” thought so. According to one leading minister in the 1930s, “In the old days people went to preachers for consolation, information, and inspiration. They still come to us for consolation, but go to newspapers for information and inspiration.”

It would seem that the “greatest generation” didn’t always appear so to the spiritual shepherds charged with overseeing their souls. Once again, nostalgia and history don’t always align. While our grandparents and great grandparents certainly set a benchmark in terms of bravery and fortitude and work ethic, they were still sinful, and as such they still had to be reminded of the supremacy and sufficiency of God’s Word.

Nostalgia blinds us to the real problem that haunts human history and keeps us from the solution that presents itself before our very eyes today.

So, if the so-called “greatest generation” could not pass the test of Biblical perfection, what about our founding fathers? Better yet, what about the Puritans? Surely, the Puritan generation was immune to “liberal drift.” However, nostalgia once again plays tricks on us. In 1720, Puritan father Cotton Mather lamented the state of gospel-less preaching in the American colonies:

And shall they who call themselves Christians, and would be honored as Ministers of the Christian Religion, preach as if they were ashamed of making the glories of Jesus, the subject of their sermons; and so rarely introduce Him, as if it were an indecent stoop to speak of Him! God forbid! I make no doubt of it, that the almost epidemical extinction of true Christianity … in the nations that profess it, is very much owing to the inexcusable piety of overlooking a glorious Christ, so much in the empty harangues, which often pass as sermons.

It appears that even 50 years before American Independence, even in the midst of a rigorously Puritan culture, pastors were convinced that a spirit of worldliness had gripped America. In 1720. While the controversial issue of the day certainly wasn’t immigration or abortion or Russia, to those who lived in the early 18th century the issue of theological liberalism was no less sinful and no less appalling. Nostalgia tells us these men and women were spiritual giants. And in so many ways they were. However, they were also sinners gripping with their own idolatry and pride.

From the lips of Americans themselves, it appears there were many times in American history when great sinners did great things, even in the name of Christ. However, from those same lips it becomes increasingly evident that at no time was there a moral “golden age.” At least not to the people who lived in their own skin. And yet, should this really surprise us as sinners saved by grace through faith? At no point in time, in no generation in history, did people need Jesus any less than they do right now.

Stepping back for just a moment, we realize that American history bears out what we recognize all too clearly in human history itself: fallenness. Only six chapters after God created the world, Moses writes, “The Lord saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) Every intention of the heart was evil. Continually. Talk about the golden years! Our American heritage is laced with this same Adamic heritage. For this very reason, mere nostalgia won’t help us in our current political moment. Nor will a revisionist history that insists upon treating certain groups as less sinful due to their skin color or social status or political affiliation. Nostalgia blinds us to the real problem that haunts human history and keeps us from the solution that presents itself before our very eyes today.

Not one single person in the history of the world, barring One, has any righteousness or goodness or holiness or love in their hearts apart from grace. Not one—even in America. And that’s why nostalgia is a potential hindrance to faith. It often keeps us from seeing God’s goodness until it’s passed, and it gives us an exalted view of past human goodness that none of us ever possessed. In some sense, the only nostalgia a Christian is ever truly permitted to indulge is the kind that harkens back not to 1950 but to Genesis 1 and 2. When things were “good” and “very good.” Christians are called to look ahead and to look unto Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. The only perfect age is the age to come.

Obbie Tyler Todd

Obbie Tyler Todd is pastor of Third Baptist Church in Marion, Ill. He serves as adjunct professor of theology at Luther Rice College & Seminary and adjunct professor of history at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books on American religious history, including Let Men Be Free: Baptist Politics in the Early United States (1776–1835).

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