Christians Shouldn’t Run from a ‘Negative World.’ But They Can Depend on It Less.

Rarely does an essay cause such a stir as Aaron Renn’s “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” Published in First Things in 2022, Renn’s framework for describing Christianity’s fall into cultural disfavor since the 1960s elicited a wide range of responses, from wholehearted agreement to sympathetic skepticism to vociferous disagreement, and seemingly everything in between.

Renn’s essay categorizes the recent history of evangelicalism in the United States into three periods, or worlds. In the positive world, Christianity was in a position of cultural dominance; most Americans, even those who were not particularly religious, recognized the importance of Christianity to the country’s collective moral fabric. In the neutral world, the broader culture came to see Christianity not as uniquely good, but still as a belief system and worldview doing more good than harm.

Since the early 2010s—the dates themselves, Renn admits, are not binding—evangelicalism has been in the negative world. Here, culture and its elites are inherently suspicious of evangelical Christianity, especially when it challenges or conflicts with emerging, more attractive ideologies. Christians in the negative world, according to Renn, will encounter resistance to previously acceptable beliefs and behaviors. This resistance could take many forms, from simple yet pronounced disagreement all the way to the dreaded C-word: cancellation.

Less than two years after his essay, Renn’s book, Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture, updates and elaborates on his framework and provides tangible resources for Christians concerned about this cultural transformation. Renn’s work, he admits, is not pastoral, nor is it necessarily prescriptive. Rather, drawing on his experience in the world of management consulting, he proposes a way forward for American evangelicals wanting to adapt to the new normal in faithful and prophetic ways—that is, to be in the negative world while refusing to be of the negative world.

After briefly recapping his “three worlds” framework, Renn pivots to strategies for theologically conservative evangelicals finding themselves gradually alone in and at odds with the negative world. Renn organizes these strategies around three elements of evangelical identity: the personal, the institutional, and the missional. In the three chapters for each element—Renn is apparently a fan of trios—he advises Christians in a variety of contexts, from individual choices to organizational decision making.

In his section on personal living, for example, Renn exhorts Christians to remain obedient to Christian orthodoxy in the years and decades ahead, even as the larger culture continues to disincentivize such obedience. This sort of obedience, he believes, could bring real consequences to Christians in particular industries, including loss of work. This is why, Renn later argues, Christians should also seek to become less dependent on the world around them, shrewdly managing finances and networks to provide a sort of “cancellation insurance.”

Directing his attention to evangelical institutions, like churches and businesses, Renn warns Christians that there may come a time to “rethink their relationship with mainstream institutions, adopting a less transformational approach with less investment in them.”

Renn is adamant that he is not arguing for a “head for the hills” strategy in response to the negative world, but rather, as Rod Dreher proposes in The Benedict Option, a reorientation toward local, thick communities. Not only does this approach insulate orthodox Christians from prevailing cultural pressures, but it also encourages investment in congregations, neighborhoods, and communities, traditional incubators of the social capital necessary for a flourishing civil society.

Concluding with words on mission, Renn encourages Christians to boldly stand for truth. In this context, he spends a lot of time critiquing some evangelicals’ inordinate attention to gender and sexuality. He is skeptical of the wisdom of debating complementarianism and egalitarianism, even as he applauds thinkers who speak clearly and simply on these questions. (Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, Renn notes, “has attracted millions of followers” for his brand of “folk wisdom.”) Evangelicals, Renn believes, should develop thicker skin when making claims that were taken for granted as recently as the last 30 years, lovingly yet boldly being people of the truth in a progressively post-truth environment.

Reasons for optimism

When I read his First Things essay two years ago, I was skeptical of Renn’s “three worlds” framework. I thought it was a blunt instrument that ascribed questionable motives to leaders embracing an engagement model for Christian political and cultural participation. But in reading Life in the Negative World, I found myself nodding along far more than I had anticipated. Renn does not write as someone who has an axe to grind against Christian actors with whom he disagrees. He is, at the very least, trying to make sense of our undoubtedly changing cultural environment, and generally does so graciously and humbly.

In response to Renn’s original essay, critics pointed out that his framework seems to ignore the long history of prejudice and suffering among other elements of the American church—most notably, of course, our Black brothers and sisters. To claim that conservative Christians are at an especially perilous period in American history is, for these critics, shortsighted and obtuse.

To be fair, Renn confronts this criticism head on, claiming that Black Protestants faced discrimination and violence not because of their religion but because of their race. Renn does not discount the struggles of the Black church for most of American history, but he doesn’t think that comparison to today’s challenges for conservative evangelicals is exactly fair.

Still, there are reasons American Christians may be more optimistic than Renn about our futures in a changing cultural environment. Consider, for example, today’s legal and constitutional landscape. While Renn points to the same-sex marriage decision in Obergefell v. Hodges as indicative of an emerging negative world, he doesn’t acknowledge other Supreme Court decisions, before and since, more favorable to Renn’s conservative evangelical audience. These cases, which have strengthened personal and institutional religious freedom protections, include 2012’s Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, 2018’s Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2020’s Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 2021’s Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, and 2022’s Carson v. Makin, to name just a few.

Now, Supreme Court decisions do not necessarily follow the broader cultural trajectory; conservative evangelicals may be protected from legal discrimination and government persecution and still face social costs for adhering to Christian orthodoxy. And Renn’s book is certainly not a legal analysis of the state of First Amendment jurisprudence pertaining to religious freedom. But considering the Supreme Court’s solid 6–3 conservative majority and years-long trend toward accommodating religious exercise, evangelical Christians might have more reason for optimism in the negative world than Renn lets on.

There is a lack of empirical rigor in Life in the Negative World that is at times frustrating. For example, some of Renn’s claims are questionable without supporting evidence—he calls Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood controversy “a forty-eight hour blip of scandal,” argues that a holistic pro-life position is evidence of a “softened” cultural engagement, and claims that “evangelicals especially hold few top positions in important institutions.” Renn may be advancing his own opinions throughout his book, but they are too often presented as matters of fact. And if they are bolstered by evidence, Renn does not often support them as such.

Additionally, as a political scientist, I was discouraged to see just one short chapter focused on Renn’s proposal for Christian political engagement in the negative world. The crux of Renn’s advice in this area is that “evangelicals must remain prudentially engaged,” demonstrating “expertise and wisdom.” But what this means in practice is not specified. Coming after chapters rife with practical recommendations, I was disappointed to see such a comparatively light chapter on how Christians should consider their political engagement amid an increasingly suspicious culture.

New models for new challenges

Despite these criticisms, I am convinced that Life in the Negative World is an important book at an important time. It should age well, as American culture—and evangelical Christianity’s place in it—continues to evolve, either deeper into the negative world or into something else entirely. For my money, Renn’s positive-neutral-negative world framework is among the most thought-provoking ideas pertaining to American evangelicalism this century. You don’t have to be convinced by every element of Renn’s framework to appreciate it.

Crucially, Renn’s book is not a jeremiad against models of Christian political and cultural engagement with which he disagrees. To be sure, he does think these models are going to be ineffective in the years and decades ahead, singling out the culture-war and cultural-engagement models of the 1980s and 2000s, respectively, as popular but ill-suited to our present challenges.

The negative world, Renn predicts, will require more (and different) ideas from evangelicals than can be found in earlier models.

But Renn’s negative world strategies are not condescending or tinged with superiority. Instead, he approaches the negative world with an eye for creativity and fresh ideas to match the seriousness of this moment. Indeed, his advice seems to be offered with sincerity and a desire to help his fellow Christians. And whatever you think of Renn’s three-worlds framing, I think it’s fair to say that evangelicals need all the help we can get.

Daniel Bennett is an associate professor of political science at John Brown University and assistant director at the Center for Faith and Flourishing. His forthcoming book is Uneasy Citizenship: Embracing the Tension in Faith and Politics.

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button