Religion & Liberty Online

Escaping Life in a Too-Negative World

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A new book argues that the hostility evangelical Christians face is something most were unprepared for, having lived through times when the faith was either viewed positively or at least neutrally. So how does one survive a “negative world”? And is it really all that negative?

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Being a Christian in ancient Rome was not easy. Stories and legends of the martyrs of this period are not for the faint of heart. Recall that, according to tradition, only one of the 12 apostles died a natural death. St. Stephen was stoned to death, Lawrence grilled, and other Christians in the first three centuries of the church were pressed between stones, beheaded, or crucified. At least one, St. Bartholomew, is said to have been skinned alive. St. Lucy was burned, stabbed, and had her eyes plucked out. The Roman emperor Diocletian demanded that Christians relinquish their holy books and sacrifice to the Roman gods. Those who did not were killed and had their property confiscated by the empire.

The persecution of Christians did not stop when Constantine legalized the faith, as believers spread around the world. In the Abbasid Empire and in 17th-century Japan, Christians were brutalized. After the European reformations of the 16th century, we then beheld the spectacle of the large-scale persecution of Christians by other Christians. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union and communist China also murdered and imprisoned Christians, and such treatment continues in the latter. And as of 2023, over 62,000 Christians have been killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria, where Christians in the north already live as second-class citizens under the local laws there.

So when Aaron M. Renn, a senior fellow at American Reformer and the Manhattan Institute, in his new book Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture, describes how to confront contemporary challenges in what he calls the “negative world” and “anti-Christian culture” of the United States, it is important to keep in mind this historical and cultural perspective. “If they persecuted me,” said Jesus to his followers, “they will persecute you.” True. But persecution clearly comes in many forms, and not being allowed to speak at a seminary or university pales next to beheading or being flayed alive.

Renn is clear from the outset that his “focus is evangelicals specifically.” He employs what he says are the common categories sociologists use to define an American evangelical. An evangelical, says Renn, is a Protestant Christian who belongs neither to a mainline denomination nor to the black church tradition. In other words, American evangelicals are majority white, unless Renn also means to include, for example, Hispanic Pentecostals, Asian Presbyterians, and black members of confessional Protestant churches.

In order to understand the status of evangelical Protestants in today’s American culture, Renn proposes a framework of the three “worlds” they have occupied since the 1950s: the positive, the neutral, and the negative. In the 1950s, “Christianity and church attendance had normative force in society.” The American upper class was WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) and the United States was “a Christian, specifically Protestant, nation.” Being a Christian boosted one’s social and political status. That the injustices of this time period, like the legal discrimination against blacks, came under fire from evangelicals who drew on their own traditions, says Renn, proves his point. The similarity here is that while prior to the Civil War there were pro-slavery arguments that relied on selective exegesis of biblical texts, the abolitionist movement was primarily an evangelical reform movement. So, too, was the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The normativity of this Protestant Christian culture began its slow unravelling in the 1960s, especially after immigration reforms.

Thus, the “positive world” in Renn’s formulation was to be found in the 1964–1994 time period, when most Americans viewed Christianity positively, attending church was something that good people did, and the leading moral norms of society were substantially Christian. The “neutral world” began in the 1990s, when the culture no longer privileged Christianity but still did not preclude its important social role. “Christian moral norms” still existed, even among non-churchgoers, but these were coming to be seen as one dish in a smorgasbord of moral choices.

Around 2014, and especially in consequence of the 2015 Obergefell U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing “gay marriage,” this neutrality slipped into the “negative world,” says Renn, where evangelicals find themselves today. “Christian morality is expressly repudiated and now seen as a threat to the public good and new public moral order.” When one violates “the new secular moral order,” there are adverse consequences, including social “cancellation,” job loss, and public shaming. Merely holding to biblical teaching on sexuality is enough to get one condemned or shunned by a suspicious aristocracy. This new aristocracy is not only secular but hostile to religion, and so bears little resemblance to the WASP elite of the past. Moreover, even evangelicals who in the neutral and positive worlds would have cited adultery (Bill Clinton) and lying (again, Bill Clinton) as reasons not to support politicians do not have these qualms about Donald Trump.

Only six years prior to Obergefell, the same Californians who voted to elect Barack Obama (who at the time went on record opposing “gay marriage” for religious reasons) also voted to ban “gay marriage.” Renn calls this transformation “an incredible sea change” in morality, but it is more than that. For it is not just moral sentiments that have changed but also the use of reason. The result has been that even reductionist forms of reason like those that equate reason with empiricism alone have been overshadowed by a nonjudgmental ideology that is intrinsically un-Christian because it is unreasonable as much as it is unbiblical. The result is that males now compete in women’s sports (usually winning), while feminists and supporters of Title IX are left with a lot of explaining to do. Since explanation can lead to cancellation, silence often reigns instead.

We now live not just in a post-Christian culture but in a culture that has rejected much of the natural law. All this, Renn argues, is “unfamiliar territory” for American Christians generally, and evangelicals specifically.

But how unfamiliar is it, really? Historically speaking, not unfamiliar at all, but within recent memory Renn makes a good point. Still, one difficulty with Renn’s formulation is this kind of presentism. He takes the 1950s as normative in American history, the high point of a long march of Protestantism. The reality is that evangelicals were long a marginalized subculture dismissed by America’s WASP leaders who attended mainline churches on Sunday. Abolitionists in the 1830s and 1840s, for example, were dismissed as religious fanatics by most American Protestants.

One particular difficulty with Life in the Negative World is that it seems to confuse the pre–negative world/public Christianity with the Christian faith. The American civil religion that took shape in the 1830s and 1840s amid the Second Great Awakening fused Protestantism with political values to form a sense of American identity as white, Protestant, and republican. This civil religious sentiment ebbed and flowed afterward. The WASP class, to varying degrees, believed in this fusion of the racialism and Protestant triumphalism of Anglo-Saxonism with the view that Protestants were the best protectors of republican government.

Equating being a WASP and only a WASP with being a good American remains the central temptation of American Christian nationalism. Another is the tendency to jettison subsidiarity in favor of well-intentioned state controls meant to promote biblical values. If we want to restore an American tradition, we ought to restore federalism. Merely swapping out the secular elites now in places of authority and power with evangelicals will help neither America nor the church thrive. How can Catholics and the black church (let alone, non-Christian religious people) get behind a vision that laments the loss of the WASP aristocracy but seeks to replace today’s mostly white secular elites with mostly white evangelicals? This question needs to be addressed from the standpoint of the prudence and practicality that Renn advocates for evangelicals.

There have been other periods when evangelicals were looked down on by the WASP elite; tolerated, yes, but looked down on nonetheless. In some ways, then, this “negative world” is a return to the past. But Renn is right in that rather than being condescended to or criticized by academics and civic leaders who adhere to a loose American civil religion embedded in a Christian culture and dutifully attend Sunday services, they are being condescended to by pretentious, secular haters of religion, the kind of folks who post signs announcing that they “believe in science” but who also think they can create their own reality and are unable to define male and female.

Whether being boiled in oil is a real prospect for Christians or not, one still has to navigate this culture. Renn’s book is meant to be practical in broad terms—strategy not tactics. Acton Institute co-founder and president emeritus Fr. Robert Sirico often points to Etienne Gilson’s insight that “piety is never a substitute for technique.” Indeed, one needs both, because “if we’re going to bring the glory of God to our world, then we’d better understand how this world really functions and operates.”

Along these Gilsonian lines, Renn recommends against older models of “seeker sensitivity,” “cultural engagement,” and “culture war.” These strategies are holdovers from the past that will not work in an age when even a winsome culture engager like the late Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller can get cancelled by a mainline seminary. Renn aims to wake up evangelicals to this new reality. Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” of withdrawal was rejected by evangelicals not because it was too Catholic, says Renn, but because evangelicals had not yet come to terms with how marginal they had become in a now hostile culture. It bears repeating, and I wish Renn had done so, that Dreher is arguing not so much for “withdrawal” as an interdependent web of distinctly Christian communities. In this sense, the “Benedict Option” has more in common than not with Renn’s prescription for living in the negative world.

Renn’s book is most helpful in insisting that both withdrawal and the isolation that results from the “culture war approach” are no longer options. Engaging in the culture as an evangelical relying on civil rhetoric also will not work, for one can never be “winsome enough” nowadays to avoid criticism and cancellation.

The solution, says Renn, is prudential engagement in culture, politics, and business. This prudence will mean avoiding identifying evangelical causes with one political party or another. After all, what does one do when both parties run candidates with positions antithetical to Christian moral principles? But again, this is not so much new as it is a return to the past, for prior to the Civil War evangelicals were pretty much evenly distributed in whichever two main parties existed at the time. This continued to be the case up through the rise of the Religious Right.

The culture war approach inadvertently led to too much focus on national politics. Meanwhile, anti-Christian curricula infiltrated public schools and local government. “The truth is politics matters to evangelicals” in an age whether everything, public or private, has been politicized due to a radically individualistic, egalitarian ethos. Renn is unfortunately unnuanced when he condemns “the culture warriors’ laissez-faire approach to economics, taken from libertarian or classical political theory and not the Bible or Protestant tradition” as the cause for evangelical ineptitude in opposing corporate America’s promotion of “the secular left social policy line.” Economic freedom does not preclude one’s action as a moral agent in the market place. Moreover, the companies to which Renn alludes engage in government favoritism through lobbying. This is not a hallmark of a free, “laissez-faire” economy.

Perhaps he is recommending an evangelical New Deal. After all, the opposite of a laissez-faire approach to economic matters is government regulation and interference. An enlarged U.S. government, in the name of the Bible, would mean entrusting with further power the same government that in the name of humanitarianism and fighting climate change funded 432,952 abortions in 2022 on behalf of the UN and the World Health Organization. This is the same state apparatus that enforces the mores of the “negative world” as if they were the orthodox components of an established natural church. Economic liberty brings with it both rights and duties, as does all authentic freedom. The kind of prudence we truly need is for Christians to support both the subsidiary role of government and economic liberty as two necessary limits on the damage and corruption inevitably produced by human sin. It is counterproductive and misguided to recommend against classical liberalism’s support, rooted in natural law, for small government and economic freedom.

The most interesting recommendation in Life in the Negative World is for evangelicals to own midsized businesses. Renn does not mean just overtly Christian businesses, like the radio stations and publishing houses evangelicals have built up over the past several decades, but businesses more broadly—not ministries but instead real wealth generators that fill a public need. The benefit of this model is that it gives Christians financial standing and influence in these communities.

Urban evangelicals find themselves surrounded by a culture that embraces secularism and an ever-evolving sexual and gender ideology. One cannot eat at a restaurant, buy a cup of coffee, or enter a store in some neighborhoods without walking a gauntlet of totems, signs, and flags that signal one’s adherence to today’s pagan virtues. Renn calls these “third place” gathering spaces. A Christian coffee shop does not have to be explicitly Christian, Renn argues, it just has to be a good business that people want to patronize. In fact, many people might appreciate getting to shop for clothes or to eat lunch in a comfortable, neutral space that has no political or cultural agenda attached to the delivery of its product. In the end, just being able to have a cup of coffee without traversing an obstacle course of secularist totems would be a welcome respite in a “negative world.” Whether that’s possible in an age of wokeist bullying remains to be seen. Baby steps.

John C. Pinheiro

John C. Pinheiro is director of research at the Acton Institute and lectures nationally and internationally for Acton on topics such as the American founding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Tennessee, degrees in history and religious studies from California State University, and he studied Italian at Universitá per Stranieri di Perugia. Dr. Pinheiro currently serves on the advisory board for the Ferris State University Economics Program, the editorial board of the Journal of Markets & Morality, and as consulting editor on James K. Polk for the American President resource at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.