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Why America Doesn’t Work
by Chuck Colson and Jack Eckerd
Word Publishing, 227 pages, $16.99

In Why America Doesn’t Work, Charles Colson and Jack Eckerd retell the Jay Leno joke about a character dressed up as Uncle Sam who can’t linger for an interview because he’s on his way to open up a new Toyota dealership. Jokes and more serious predictions of America’s decline have grown into a virtual cottage industry in recent years. “Declinism,” as it has come to be called, is much in vogue in the United States. Not surprisingly, a counteroffensive has been mounted by some intent on disproving the declinist thesis. So, for example, when the declinist argues that the United Slates’ share of world exports has dropped from 27 percent to 20 percent, the anti-declinists counter that America’s percentage of world GNP is roughly the same as it has been throughout the post-World War II period (approximately 24 percent).

The statistical evidence marshaled by both sides amounts to a blizzard of information that most people find bewildering. Moreover, the mound of contradictory statistical evidence gives the impression that neither the declinists nor the anti-declinists can make a convincing case. The result is that Americans seem to accept that their country is no longer on the cutting edge economically and technologically, but they feel, nonetheless, that life in America is still pretty good.

In Why America Doesn’t Work, Colson and Eckerd make a compelling case that something is wrong with America and the good life may not last much longer. But the analysis of this book is different in two significant respects from others of the declinist genre. First, the authors are not primarily concerned with describing the nature and extent of America’s decline. This book is more than a collection of apocalyptic horror stories; it is in the authors’ characterization a ‘can-do’ book: a book about what you [meaning all of us] tan do to help restore the work ethic.”

The title, Why America Doesn’t Work, is meant to suggest the obvious: namely, that America is in danger of losing its economic dominance. But the book’s emphasis on the work ethic also provides a second perspective that sets it apart from other declinist arguments. The ambiguity of the title is meant to suggest something even more central to the authors’ argument, and that is that many—perhaps most—Americans have lost sight of work as a calling.

Colson and Eckerd are careful to acknowledge that a host of factors account for the disturbing trends that have become evident in recent years. Tax structures and governmental regulations, for example, certainly have an impact on economic productivity. Neglected, however, in the popular diagnoses of America’s ills is the relationship between the habits of the American people and their beliefs and values. It was once self-evident, say the authors, that thrift, industry, diligence, and perseverance were values to be cultivated and respected. Not any more: the dynamics of modernization, accompanied by a growing secularism, have produced a new breed of Americans, epitomized by Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, who “have no transcendent values, and no goal other than pleasure or work for work’s sake.”

Moreover, the authors argue, America’s economic decline cannot be separated from its other serious problems—drugs, crime, the breakdown of the family, etc. All are the consequence of the nation’s having lost its spiritual moorings. “The death of the work ethic in America,” Colson and Eckerd write, “is a direct result of the loss of a spiritual center in our society. [And] since our view of work flows out of our view of life, we must change the underlying values by which people choose to live.” This is a message not likely to be well received by those secular elites that shape much of American cultural life. But it is a message that the authors persuasively develop throughout the four parts that make up Why America Doesn’t Work.

After reciting a litany of what are by now well-known shortcomings of America’s economy, the second part of Colson and Eckerd’s book contains a brief but enlightening discussion of what might be called a theology of work. Drawing upon the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition, the authors remind us that work not only defines who we are, but that it is a moral imperative as well. “Work,” the authors write, “is much more than just a need to keep busy or bring home a paycheck . . . . [It] is a fundamental dimension of human existence, an expression of our very nature.” Like much of Colson and Eckerd’s book, this discussion bas a familiar ring to it; yet these simple truths are ones with which many of us need to be reacquainted.

The third part of the book focuses on the destruction of American education and family life. Once again, this description of the plight of America’s schools and urban underclass is not novel. What is refreshing about Colson and Eckerd’s discussion is the argument that these problems are, at root, moral problems. Indeed, it is simply remarkable that those people responsible for educational and social policy during the past three decades cannot make the obvious connection between the deplorable state of education, the multiple tragedies of the inner cities, and the virtual elimination of religiously informed values from American public life. Colson and Eckerd are surely right: far from “freeing” children and the urban underclass from the “oppressive” influence of religion, the “value-free” solutions mandated by our social engineers are robbing America of those transcendent values necessary for the cultivation of habits of responsibility, accountability, and personal achievement.

Colson and Eckerd devote the bulk of their book, the fourth part, to suggesting ways in which the values by which people choose to live can be transformed. Their answer is moral education—in the home, the church, the schools, the media, and throughout all levels of our national life. Much of what the authors argue for here makes great sense—for example, injecting “a healthy dose of competition” into our educational system through the use of educational vouchers. On other matters, however, the authors are less persuasive. While Colson and Eckerd are certainly correct to argue that the church is not the only institution capable of addressing the moral vacuum in American society, their conclusion that “basic moral concepts . . . are mounting a comeback” among secular cultural elites—Norman Lear is cited as an example—is certainly overstated.

The authors conclude their joint effort with a long chapter entitled “Restoring the Market Place.” Here they develop six values that they believe will get the American economy back on track. In telling a number of interesting success stories, they emphasize the importance of, among other things, employers respecting the value of their workers.

Why America Doesn’t Work is written in a popular, conversational style, in which the authors move quickly from point to point. This, plus the fact that the book is published by an evangelical publishing house, might limit the book’s readership outside of the lay evangelical world. It would be a shame if this were the case. Colson and Eckerd may not have written the definitive scholarly treatise on America’s woes, but they have something important to contribute to our public argument.

Dean C. Curry is author of A World Without Tyranny: Christian Faith and International Politics.