The optimism of the Anglo-American world of faith is basically a positive quality. But one of the temptations we have to constantly guard against is to let our faith turn into a belief that we understand God's providence, we are the instruments of God's providence, and we're about to accomplish His will once and for all.
We Americans look at the last 300 years of history, and we basically see a world that's getting better and better. The rule of freedom expands. The economy develops. We have risen to become the world's greatest power. The American people are extraordinarily comfortable, affluent, and secure. It's easy for us to make the argument that God's purpose is being fulfilled through history and through the rise of American power. And to some degree, it probably is.
But suppose you are a sincere and pious Muslim. What you see in 1700 marks the beginning of the rise of England and America, the beginning of the great decline and collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Ultimately it will be divided into little pieces. The English are beginning to challenge the great Islamic empire of India. The Persians are beginning to lose their greatness. Over the next 300 years, it just gets uglier and uglier. The Muslims are driven out of Europe and in many cases, ethnically cleansed or persecuted. The English stopped the expansion of Islam in Nigeria. The Spanish colonials stopped the expansion of Islam into the Philippines. What you see is a history that's gone wrong, a very different attitude about the modern era and the values that have shaped it.
If you're someone who believes, as I do, that humanity is fallen and warped in various ways, it's not surprising that there's no such thing as a perfect social system that produces perfect human beings. The Anglo-Americans have exploited their power. They have often treated weaker or poorer peoples with great injustice. In the book, God and Gold, I look at the way the British treated the Irish. You also could look at India, Africa, what happened to the Indians in the U.S., or the Aborigines in Australia.
But I look at the results over these hundreds of years, too. What we see is that human beings have longer life spans than they used to. There are many more possibilities for people. The parts of the developing world today that are integrating most quickly into the system—places like China and India—have seen a dramatic rise in living standards and a fall in poverty rates. Increasingly people who study development and work in places like Africa are coming to the conclusion that the greatest problem the poor face is not the existence of a capitalist economic system, but their lack of access to it. The idea is not to abolish capitalism and replace it with something else, but to find ways that capitalism can start working better for the poor.
That's something that all Americans and especially American Christians need to be thinking a good deal about.