The American Jeremiad: Perspective on the Rhetoric of Decline

| December 17, 2014

You don’t need me to tell you that things are not what they once were for Christians in America. Much has changed in the last two decades, let alone the last two centuries. And some of this change hasn’t been good—not for America, not for American Christianity.

But there is a way of responding to declension—real or imagined—that only compounds the problem. We must guard against any response to decline that appeals to a past that never existed or to a future that God hasn’t promised us. In this article, I merely wish to sketch a cautionary tale. Narratives of decline, especially in our American context, build on an approach to history with a long history of its own.

Introducing the American Jeremiad

Scholars use the term "American jeremiad" to describe what political scholar Andrew Murphy, in his 2009 book Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11 (Oxford), has called “a mainstream and deeply American way of thinking about the nation’s past, present, and future.” The term comes from the prophet Jeremiah, who catalogued Israel’s fall from fidelity and warned of the horrible judgments to come.

The jeremiad is a rhetorical tradition—a literary genre, even—that has…

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