Here’s something people have been asking me to weigh in on for quite a while, but I’ve been putting it off, because … well, what’s the point? But here at last I am.
You know that argument by Aaron Renn about “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism”? Well, it’s wrong. Let me explain … no, there is too much. Let me sum up.
I can sum up just by quoting one of the first parts, because that is where the argument goes wildly off the rails:
Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man remains part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian is a status-enhancer. Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences.
The “pre-1994” timeframe is obviously wrong. Few of the Founding Fathers held anything remotely approximating orthodox Christian faith; Abraham Lincoln had famously unknowable and shifting religious beliefs, and never joined a church. At the time of the Founding probably no more than 10% of Americans belonged to any church. You can get the details on all this in Mark Noll’s magisterial America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln; America became a markedly more religious country in the 1950s, a process described by George Marsden in another authoritative history, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. Turns out that for much of America’s history, and in most of America’s places, whether someone was demonstrably a Christian or not really didn’t matter all that much. You can find that out, if you take the time.
So, you see, we’re already in the midst of major difficulties. Renn has begun with a big historical claim that is demonstrably untrue. If instead of “Pre-1994” he had written “1945-1994” then we could at least have proceeded. So let’s pretend he did and come to his first sentence.
That sentence is the general claim, the next three unpack it. Sentence 2 strikes me as being generally correct, but irrelevant or ambiguous in import. (Was Jesus considered “an upstanding citizen”?) Sentence 3 would be correct if the phrase “being a Christian” were replaced with “professing Christianity.” Sentence 4 would be correct if its first word were “Some,” but because it isn’t, the sentence is incorrect, and incorrect in a way that destroys the entire argument.
Here’s what I mean: Some Christian moral norms carried social authority in many though not all parts of America. For instance, generally speaking, a married person could not openly conduct extramarital affairs, nor could an unmarried one be openly promiscuous. Certainly homosexuality was almost always seen as a sin. Whether divorce damaged you socially — well, that varied a lot from place to place. Renn doesn’t cite any examples, so I don’t know what else he might have in mind. Maybe “honor your father and mother”? — That certainly was a commandment held in far higher regard before the social upheavals of the Sixties.
But for much of America’s history there were very large sections of the country in which, if you wanted to argue that all human beings are made in the image of God and the laws of America should in this respect follow the law of God, you were, shall we say, unlikely to get a respectful hearing. (And as David French recently pointed out, those problems, and other related ones, haven’t altogether gone away.) Does Renn seriously think that the slaves in the cotton fields singing their spirituals were living in a Christianity-positive world? But wait — that’s pre-1945, sorry. Does Renn think that six-year-old Ruby Bridges, praying for those who cursed and reviled her, was living in a Christianity-positive world? (And, to me anyway, this ain’t ancient history: Ruby Bridges is just four years older than I am.) Or Jonathan Daniels, who stood between a black woman and a deputy sheriff and got himself shot dead for his trouble — and whose killer was acquitted and lived out his life in peace?
Now, I’m sure many of those who screamed abuse at Ruby, or voted to acquit the murderer of Jonathan Daniels, would have insisted that they were good and faithful Christians — which takes me back to the distinction I made above, and that Renn failed to make, between “publicly professing Christianity” and “publicly being a Christian.” Those who hated Ruby may have professed Christianity, but did they live it?
If they had not professed Christianity they probably would have suffered social disapproval; if they had sought to practice it in relation to Ruby Bridges and their other black neighbors they certainly would have been excoriated — or worse. (Look at what happened to my old colleague Julius Scott, for the crime of saying that Black people should be welcomed into all-white churches.)
What David French means when he says that “It’s Always a ‘Negative World’ for Christianity” is simply this: Professing Christianity is what Renn calls a “status-enhancer” when and only when the Christianity one professes is in step with what your society already and without reference to Christian teaching describes as “being an upstanding citizen.” If you don’t believe me, try getting up on stage in an evangelical megachurch and reckoning seriously with Jesus’s teaching on wealth and poverty. Even a sermon on loving your enemies, like Ruby Bridges, and blessing those who curse you, can be a hard sell — as many pastors since 2016 have discovered. News flash: if you make a point of never saying anything that would make people doubt your commitment to their preferred social order, they’ll probably think you an upstanding citizen. (Who knew?)
There are pretty much always some elements of Christian teaching that you can get away with publicly affirming; but you can never get away with affirming them all. If American Christians sixty years ago felt fully at home in their social world, that’s because they quietly set aside, or simply managed to avoid thinking about, all the biblical commandments that would render them no longer at ease in the American dispensation. Any Christians who have ever felt completely comfortable in their culture have already edited out of their lives the elements of Christianity that would generate social friction. And no culture that exists, or has ever existed, or ever will exist, is receptive to the whole Gospel.
As I said at the outset: What’s the point even of writing this? Renn saw French’s essay, and he simply congratulated himself on getting attention. He didn’t answer any of the arguments made against his scheme, and I doubt he ever will. He’s articulated a tall tale that some people want to live by, and that seems to be good enough for him.
But there’s another reason why I doubt the usefulness of this whole debate: It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter one whit. I’ve said this over and over again: Whether it’s a positive world or a neutral world or a negative world or a multiverse or just a crazy old world, my job is the same: to strive for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. What I hear him saying is, “What is all that to you? Follow me.” And following him is hard, because I am subjected to precisely the same pressures against faithful Christian witness that every other Christian faces. I’m fighting for my spiritual life here. So I’m done with this topic; my time is better spent in other ways.