Evangelicals withstood secularization better than the mainline denominations, but to thrive in the new America they will have to change their tactics.
Credit: Alexey Fedorenko
Life in the Negative World, by Aaron Renn, Zondervan Reflective, 205 pages.
In February 2022, First Things published an article titled “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” Written by management consultant and author Aaron Renn, the piece argued for a new schema to describe the decline of Christianity in modern America, one depicting that decline in terms of status. Subscribing to orthodox evangelicalism in 2024 is low status. How did we get here?
Renn’s thesis in that article would become his new book, Life in the Negative World. In it, he fleshes out the “three worlds” of evangelical Christianity: the positive world, the neutral world, and the negative world. In the positive world, roughly from the 1960s to the early 1990s, being a Christian gave one prestige and non-Christians were viewed with suspicion. This era was followed by the neutral world, from around 1994 to 2014, when being a Christian no longer bestowed positive benefits but neither did it make one an outcast. The neutral world was followed by the negative world, the one in which we now live. In the negative world, the same faith that once made an American man great is his greatest stigma.
While Renn is not the first to argue that American Christians are at a disadvantage in recent years, he is one of the first to propose a timeline for how this change has occurred, laying out concrete incidences of how Christianity has been treated economically, socially, politically, and institutionally before and after each era of decline.
This change is especially notable when examining elite institutions, where the WASPs once ruled and where evangelicals today hold almost no influence. (Following sociologists, Renn defines evangelical churches as those that belong neither to mainline denominations nor to the black church.) Even in places where Christians are prevalent, such as socially conservative think tanks in Washington, D.C., evangelicals find themselves in the role of the junior partner while Catholics take the lead. As Renn writes, “This shift to the negative world poses a profound challenge to American evangelicals and their churches and institutions. It also helps to explain why there’s been so much turmoil and conflict within the evangelical world and even why some believers have ‘deconstructed’ their faith.”
Importantly, Renn calls the positive world “the peak of evangelical influence within U.S. political conservatism,” not necessarily the era when evangelical Christianity was healthiest. Like the postliberals, Renn recognizes that the midcentury consensus had begun to disintegrate before the 1960s. Renn does not say this moral decline was baked into the cake of the American political system from the beginning. Instead, he identifies a few proximate causes that accelerated the decline: the collapse of the WASP establishment of the 1950s, the 1960s social and sexual revolutions, the end of the Cold War and ensuing moral laxity, corporate consolidation, and digitization.
While the mainline Protestant denominations have been dying for decades, evangelical churches stayed relevant much longer, due to their ability to adapt to a changing landscape, Renn argues. A broad description of moral decay is not nearly so useful, then, as Renn’s closer look at how evangelical churches adapted to their waning influence while the mainline went the way of the rotary phone.
Within these adaptations were three primary strategies: seeker sensitivity, cultural engagement, and culture war. Renn mines each for its strengths and weaknesses but argues that they are unfit for the new negative world landscape. Seeker sensitives and cultural engagement types have to reckon with their dependence on the moving target of progressive approval, and culture warriors must also come to terms with the reality that the culture they hope to transform is not at all amenable to their efforts, even if conservatives are able to win elections (hardly a given).
Renn proposes a new approach, one much older than the 1980s: thinking like an explorer. Christianity is fundamentally unknown to most modern Americans, and the territory of being a minority is likewise unknown to most modern American Christians. Thus, evangelicals will need to venture into this unknown with both eyes open, studying the alien terrain and learning how they might, once again, adapt.
Renn has recommendations for this strategy of exploration at three levels: personal, institutional, and missional.
The personal level is simple: Become obedient to orthodox Christianity. Nothing less will equip evangelicals to stand firm in a world that is opposed to their existence. Evangelicals must also seek to become personally excellent; the anti-intellectual, anti-elite strain of Protestantism has only hurt Christians by precluding them from a seat at decision tables. “A lack of orientation toward leadership has meant evangelicals have effectively ceded leadership to those who don’t share their values,” Renn writes. Lastly, Christians must become personally antifragile, borrowing concepts from Nassim Taleb’s book of the same title about mitigating personal financial risk.
The institutional strategy is where Renn lays out some of his most interesting ideas. Christians must pursue institutional integrity, he says. This does not simply mean trustworthiness, but also structural integrity, the ability for institutions to “retain their shape when the pressures of the world bear down on them hard.” This requires a “long-term, intergenerational perspective,” a radical thought for evangelicals, whose churches rarely “stay effective for more than a generation or so.”
Aside from trustworthiness and competence, which should be a given at Christian institutions but unfortunately are not, Renn exhorts his readers to bolster their institutional strength by thinking like a minority group. Just as the early church in Rome did not view itself as responsible for the institutions of the Roman imperium, Christians living in the negative world today ought to direct their primary focus to teaching the core tenets of the faith and developing their cultural identity, which in turn strengthens their communal bonds. In other words, Christians should follow the behavior of other American minority groups and build their own counterculture. Renn advocates taking a page from American Catholicism: “Catholics built their own churches, their own schools, and their own universities. They held catechism classes for their youth and created their own social organizations like the Knights of Columbus. They long held to uniquely Catholic practices like abstaining from eating meat on Fridays, traditional practices that set them apart from the rest of the country. They had distinct visible symbols like rosaries and crucifixes.”
Importantly, Renn notes, American Catholics have also maintained an intellectual elite where American Protestants have not. For Renn, this is due to institutional strength, but he does not note that in many ways this has depended on the hierarchical nature of Catholicism, to which too many Protestants are allergic. Can evangelicals pursue institutional excellence while remaining evangelical? Recent history, at least, has found that elite types more often leave evangelicalism, either for high church Protestantism, Romanism, or Orthodoxy, rather than sticking around to change it.
Another challenge in creating this counterculture is a lack of physical real estate. Evangelicals in America today “exist almost entirely inside space owned by others—legally owned in many cases, but more importantly, socially and culturally owned.” Christians who hope to forge a strong minority should not limit their efforts to cultural influence and media platforms, Renn says, but must acquire physical real estate, too. Here again, Renn urges Christians to think like a minority, acquiring medium-sized businesses explicitly for the sake of employing their fellow Christians. Evangelicals might also consider implementing a Christian form of ESG, Renn suggests, as a way of credentialing businesses aligned with Christian objectives.
Missional influence, the third leg of Renn’s new strategy for evangelicals in the negative world, involves overcoming Christianity’s status problem. Because we no longer live in a world where Christianity is basically familiar, “conveying the truths of Christianity today…is more akin to the work of a cross-cultural missionary introducing the gospel for the first time to a foreign culture.” Renn advises Christians speak the truth about orthodoxy clearly (the seeker-sensitive bait-and-switch on controversial issues only fosters mistrust), build trustworthy enterprises, and create healthy communities attractive to unhealthy, atomized individuals.
“Never underestimate how attractive countercultural living can be to women stuck on the Tinder treadmill or to men who believe they are forever doomed to being an outcast and ‘incel,’” Renn quips.
As might be guessed from his popular newsletter and previous writings on Christian masculinity, Renn is at his strongest when diagnosing the problems of the modern evangelical sexual ethic. The church has failed in no small part because Christians have been barely better than the world, and sometimes no better at all, when it comes to issues like women initiating divorce, use of pornography, and articulating the differences between men and women. In the latter case especially, Christian leaders have accepted the feminist argument that men and women are essentially the same and are thus unable to provide any useful advice to young Christians struggling to find and keep a spouse. Young Christian women have accepted egalitarianism wholecloth, while men turn to “morally dubious online gurus” such as Andrew Tate. Some of the work of repairing this sexual economy will fall to pastors, but Renn is keen to emphasize the necessity of lay leaders, too, pushing back on the institutional laziness that can lead to burnt out pastors and disengaged churchgoers.
While Renn favors honest, transcendent teaching about the Biblical principle of male authority, he is not a patriarchist. To him, the idea of Christian patriarchy in 2024 is little more than historical roleplay that requires a woman’s willing participation to work, since men do not have legal patriarchal authority as they had in the Roman paterfamilias. Though Renn does not call patriarchy opposed to Christianity and avoids discussing male headship theology in detail, he does suggest that whatever scripture mandates about authority does not require patriarchy per se.
More importantly, he sees this “neopatriarchy” as an unhelpful tool for Christians living in the negative world. Neopatriarchy is “an attractive short term option,” he says, but one that “seeks a return to a world that no longer exists—and likely can’t coexist in any meaningful way in the contemporary American culture and legal environment.”
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Renn’s positive solution is vague, perhaps unnecessarily so. He recognizes the need to cultivate productive Christian households as the backbone for several of his recommendations, yet the key voices advocating for this method and providing Christians with plenary tools and resources to do it have been some of the same neopatriarchy crowd he mocks. The Christian strongholds at Pastor Douglas Wilson’s church in Moscow, Idaho, and a similar, smaller group at New Christendom Press in Ogden, Utah, may not be successful exclusively because of their theology of Biblical headship, but undeniably it is a primary piece of the puzzle. These experiments have borne much fruit of precisely the kind Renn hopes to inspire. For example, the Moscow Christians have purchased much of their town’s main street real estate, creating both physical Christian strongholds and real cultural influence of the kind Renn describes (and for which Renn praises them by name).
In a recent Substack post, British commentator Mary Harrington contends that Christianity is unlikely to ever be high status again: “There is no way in the world to make going to church cool, and the most cringe thing of all is trying.” The only way to overcome the Christian status barrier, in her treatment, is to stop caring about status altogether and become actively anti-cool. This is not altogether different from the counterculture Renn advocates, one in which Christians consciously align themselves with an outgroup at the expense of secular elite status. Renn rightly recognizes that the outgroup can also confer its own status. In other words, living as an orthodox Christian has the power to be high status within a Christian counterculture regardless of the church’s secular status.
To be successful in converting this enclave status to real world influence would require evangelicals to set some barriers of exclusivity, too—something missing from Renn’s treatment and indeed from evangelical Christianity for the past several decades. In minority enclaves, including the Catholic church, admittance must be earned at some level: The blessing is given to all, but the mass is given only to those who have joined the church. This exclusivity is part of what makes the ingroup appealing to the outgroup. The power of a minority is dependent on this distinction, and the future of the evangelical church in America will require embracing it.
This article appears in the March/April 2024 issue