Aaron Renn and the Negative World

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In a recent article at First Things, in a piece entitled The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism, Aaron Renn does an admirable job hunting for the black box that will explain for us what happened just before the airplane of evangelicalism crashed into that mountainous slope in a remote wilderness location. In fact, he found that box and filed his report with the FAA, which was then published in First Things. The problem was that we had three pilots, not two, and one of them was high on meth and going woke, the second was fighting with the one who was high on meth and going woke, and the third one thought that the woke pilot had made some good points that were at least consistent with human flourishing. Anyhow, into the mountain they went.

Aaron didn’t use that metaphor, of course—he was writing for First Things, for pity’s sake—even though I would have given him that metaphor for free if he had only called me. The fact that I would have given him that metaphor for free is probably why he had sense enough not to call me.

The article is a fine analysis of where we evangelicals have been, how we got here, and the nature of our divisions, and so I commend it to you. I have a yeah, but that could be inserted here or there, but in the main it is good, solid analysis.

At the same time, it made me think of a few other things, and hence this post. P.G. Wodehouse once said that some minds are like the soup in a bad restaurant—better left unstirred. So this is not so much a rejoinder to his article as it is a display of some of the vegetables that have floated to the top of my mind as a consequence of his article. And okay, maybe a yeah, but. But I have no real reason to think that Aaron would differ with my additional comments. Although he might—free country and all that, at least for another ten minutes.

The Onset of Negative World

Aaron traces the development of the outside world’s attitude toward Christianity through three phases. They are positive world (pre-1994), neutral world (1994-2014), and negative world (2014-present). The first was an era when being a Christian was socially advantageous. This is true enough, but what this actually meant was that being a mild Episcopalian was socially advantageous, but more on that in a minute.

The second era was when the outside world was more or less ambivalent about Christianity, neither hostile nor appreciative. And now we have moved into negative world, where being a Christian at all is considered to be a real problem. Within the context of these transitions, the three major groups within evangelicalism are those who are making their peace with the new negative world (“You aren’t really intersectional until you are woke on meth.”), the culture warriors (“Hey! What are you doing?” ), and the cultural engagement johnnies (“He’s got a point, you know.”).

Aaron notes in passing that Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer had fundamentalist backgrounds, and that this is something they brought to the fray, and was part of the reason for their culture warrior combativeness. I would have liked to see a lot more on Schaeffer, in that he was the one who moved the Overton window within evangelicalism, especially on the pro-life issue.

My Three Additional Things

First, when we talk about the relationship of “the world” to evangelicalism during positive world time, we have to remember that Roe was decided twenty years before the end of positive world. Roe was decided in a climate that was largely friendly to evangelicalism, while simultaneously being overtly (and murderously) hostile to the evangelical world and life view. This could only be accomplished because of the relative benignity of evangelicalism at that time. At that time, so long as evangelicals did not get in the way of their “progress,” the world was prepared to be friendly, or better said, to act friendly.

Roman Catholics knew what they thought of abortion from the get go, but evangelicals had to figure it out. Francis Schaeffer, in my view, was largely responsible for the development of a pro-life ethos within evangelicalism, and as that ethos began to set and harden, the attitude of the outside world toward evangelicalism began to wend its way downward. They had been prepared to be okay with us, at least for a time, but not if we were going to be difficult.

I grant what Aaron is saying about positive world, and I remember those times. But I also remember—from my conservative evangelical upbringing—that we always thought of the world negatively. It has been negative world the whole time. In other words, when the world beamed at us, there was a cadre at the center of evangelical belief that did not believe them at all. It is an article of faith with us that the world never loves Christians who mean it. Ask A.W. Tozer.

Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

James 4:4 (KJV)

Consequently, if the world lavished praise on someone in our ranks, unless it was obviously a begrudging sort of praise, that was grounds for us being suspicious of that someone. “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26, NKJV). To put all this another way, the transition from positive world to negative world (with neutral world in between) was not a true transition, but rather the point where the mask came off and the villain said bwa ha ha ha. Positive world was simply a temporary armistice, not real peace.

Second, accepting these three worlds as a helpful set of rough and ready markers, we still have to remember that the worlds are distinguished by more features than just their attitude toward evangelicals. There are many variables, but one of the most significant is that the leaders of positive world were comparatively sane pragmatists, more or less, and the leaders of negative world have all apparently lost their minds. In other words, we are not being treated negatively by a group of leaders who think the same way they always have about everything else. They are negative toward us because they have embraced the authority of the Void, and the Void has lunatic opinions on more things than just evangelicals. They don’t like evangelicals any more, but neither do they like fixed biological sex, or the law of supply and demand, or the law of non-contradiction for that matter.

And so, to be blunt, this means that the leaders of positive world were leaders of a stable world. The leaders of negative world are leaders of an extremely unstable world. And it is not an unstable world because the evangelicals are destabilizing it (although we are admittedly part of the show). This is a time of high hubris, mismanagement, incompetence, and conceited ineptitude. And the relationship between their conceit and their competence is a perverted and inverse one, like a lot of other things.

How bad is it? Have I used meth in my illustrations too many times for one post? I don’t think so—plenty of room for one more. The leaders of negative world are trying to rule the entire world in clean defiance of Hayek’s knowledge problem, and—to be frank—Hayek’s knowledge problem is a huge alligator with sharp teeth that is in the process of biting them on the collective hiney. That is not the meth illustration. Hold on a minute. I am getting to that, and I think you need to work on your patience a little bit.

Our ruling elites are like a roving band of chimps who broke into a meth lab, helped themselves liberally to what they found there, and who then settled down for a long afternoon of legislating sunshine, as a result of which they were going to fix the pandemic, stop climate change, eradicate transgender hate, and provide free chocolate milk for everyone.

The third and last issue has to do with doctrine. By this I mean the doctrine in the deep DNA of Americans, as well as the explicit doctrine of many of the thinkers behind the resurgence of evangelical activism. The foot soldiers of the religious right are largely dispensational, Arminian, baptistic, and pragmatic. But the thinkers and theologians behind the scenes, the ones writing the books and providing the theological ammo, are largely Reformed, Calvinistic, paedo-baptist, and postmillennial. This was the case back in the seventies and eighties, if you look at the relationship between the reconstructionists and the Moral Majority types, as mediated by Francis Schaeffer, and it is also the case now. This is often missed because the “shadowy” figures behind it all are kept in the shadows for a tangled nest of practical reasons.

A Final Yeah But

As the screen shot above shows, Aaron places me in the company of culture warriors like Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and Eric Metaxes. And while I am sure that we would get along great if seated together at some banquet or other, I would want to describe our project here in Moscow as being of a very different nature. Aaron mentions that such evangelicals never really picked up on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, and he attributes it (correctly, in my view) to the fact that many of them are fighting to retain or recover their former position in “positive world.” But we have been in negative world across the spectrum of all three of Aaron’s categories, and have consequently been working on what I like to call the Boniface Option. Think of this in terms of my third point above. We are seeking to build a viable alternative, and have been doing so for decades. Wish us luck or, for my fellow Calvinists, wish us a providential sunbeam or two.