Welcome to the Negative World

Why We Need American Reformer

Why is American Reformer needed? Why yet another organization and publication for Protestants?

There are many answers to this question, but one is that American Reformer is the only organization squarely focused on helping Christians and the church navigate the new and unprecedented world we live in, what I call the “negative world.” 

In recent decades, the church has passed through three eras or worlds in terms of how American society perceives and relates to the church. These are the positive, neutral, and negative worlds, with the names referring to the way society views Christianity. 

  1. Positive World (Pre-1994). Christianity was viewed positively by society and Christian morality was still normative. To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms was a social positive. Christianity was a status enhancer. In some cases, failure to embrace Christian norms hurt you.
  2. Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute.  It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person was not a knock either. It was more like a personal affectation or hobby. Christian moral norms retained residual force.
  3. Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is now a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways is seen as undermining the social good. Christian morality is expressly repudiated.

This is a heuristic framework or tool to help us make sense of the world we are in. It should not be seen as covering every circumstance or nuance of society or the church. But it captures something important about what has happened in recent years.

How has the church adapted to these changes? Each of these worlds has had a characteristic response or strategy by the Evangelical Protestant church.

Positive World Strategy: Culture War

The positive world reached its high water mark in the 1950s, where going to church was what one did as a part of being an upstanding member of society. Since then, and especially after the upheavals of the 1960s and the sexual revolution, the status of Christianity in society began eroding. The response of the church to this erosion of its status was the culture war or religious right movement, originating in the 1970s.

The very name of one of the leading organizations of this era, Moral Majority, speaks to the positive world. Whether or not the church really did represent the majority at this time, like Nixon’s silent majority, it was at least a plausible claim in this era.

The culture war strategy and participants had a number of general characteristics:

  • It was highly combative and oppositional vs. the emerging secular culture
  • By and large the people we associate with it today were located far from the citadels of culture, often in backwater areas.
  • They tended to use their own platforms such as paid for UHF television shows as the primary means of reaching and influencing people.
  • They were initially funded primarily by donations from the flock, giving them a marketing driven style
  • They migrated away from the Democratic Party towards the Republican Party and became a key Republican voting block during the 1980s.

Culture figures include people like Jerry Falwell of Liberty University (Lynchburg, VA), Pat Robertson of CBN (Virginia Beach), and Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition (Atlanta).

A second strain of positive world strategy was the seeker sensitive suburban megachurch as exemplified by Willow Creek Church in Barrington, Illinois and Saddleback Church in Orange County. These were in a sense a proto-type of the neutral world to come, but note the term “seeker sensitive.” This assumes people are actively seeking and thus in some sense predisposed to Christianity.

Neutral World Strategy: Cultural Engagement

The characteristic neutral world strategy was much different and can be summed up under the heading cultural engagement, a term many of its practitioners use themselves. Its characteristics were very different from the culture war strategy:

  • It was positive, not oppositional, towards secular culture. Its practitioners sought to confidently engage with secular culture in a pluralistic public square.
  • It downplayed area where Christianity is in conflict with the secular culture (e.g., abortion), and preferred to highlight areas where Christianity was seen as in agreement with secular culture (e.g., care for the immigrant). 
  • Its leading lights were heavily located in urban and global city areas, and exhibited a multicultural emphasis. 
  • Neutral world leaders had their own platforms, but sought strategic influence through access to elite secular media outlets.
  • They tended towards being publicly apolitical, though many did denounce Donald Trump.
  • They tended to become increasingly hostile towards the religious right. In effect, they engaged in a culture war too, but against the religious right, not society at large.

Key neutral world figures and institutions include Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Hillsong Church (in NYC, LA, and elsewhere), and James Davison Hunter at the University of Virginia. 

While there is nothing magical about the starting and ending dates for these worlds, I chose 1994 as the starting year of the neutral world in part because that was when Rudolph Giuliani became mayor of New York, sending the urban resurgence into overdrive. The neutral world can be seen in part as an emerging Christian cultural participation in America’s urban renaissance.

Negative World Strategy: None

The emergence of the negative world should have prompted the emergence of new strategies for the church. This need not have meant the end of the existing strategies. After all, the culture war/religious right style is still here, as is the seeker sensitive model, as is the cultural engagement model.  

Yet the market is signaling that they are often not as effective as they once were. For example, Tim Keller has received significant critique in recent years, which is new for him, even though his message has remained the same. This is in part because the world has changed, while Christian strategies of engagement have not changed to nearly the same degree. We also see growing conflict within Evangelicalism today, in part representing conflicts between the adherents of these various models.

But there has not been a specifically negative world strategy that has emerged in Evangelical Protestantism. Probably the most well known description of, and approach to, the negative world that has been proposed to date is the “Benedict Option” from Rod Dreher, a former Catholic who is now Eastern Orthodox. 

Evangelicals seem to have rejected the Benedict Option, however. This seems not to be simply because of its non-Protestant elements, but because the Evangelical establishment appears to be in deep denial about the new negative world in which we live.

Instead of new strategies, there is a doubling down on the old. The culture war people look to reestablish old alliances by rallying behind Trump. Neutral world promoters have become cultural epigones, loudly trumpeting the latest woke fads with a thin Christian veneer on top. 

American Reformer is different. It was conceived and developed entirely within the negative world. Its mission is to fill the gap in the Protestant world and develop new thinking and new strategies for today’s realities, drawing on the best of the Protestant tradition in doing so.

As the world becomes more explicitly hostile to Christianity and its beliefs, it’s critically important that we create ministry strategies that reflect today’s unprecedented realities. Every Christian must ask himself what it means to live in today’s negative world. American Reformer will be seeking to help provide answers, both through superior diagnostics about the realities of our new world, and by the development of a distinctly Protestant approach to living in it.

*Image credit: Unsplash.

A more complete exposition of the positive, neutral, and negative world is available in Masculinist #13: The Lost World of American Evangelicalism.

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Aaron Renn

Aaron Renn is Cofounder and Senior Fellow at American Reformer. He also writes on cultural topics at aaronrenn.substack.com. Renn was previously an urban policy researcher, writer, and consultant. He was a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research for five years. His work has been featured in leading publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.

5 thoughts on “Welcome to the Negative World

  1. Protestants rejected “The Benedict Option” because “Benedict, ewww, Catholic.” I believe many Protestant “thought leaders” simply couldn’t get past the title.

    Renn is correct though, contemporary Protestantism seems to have no Negative World strategy beyond “Hunker down in the church building, crank the sound board to 11 to drown out the sounds of what’s happening outside, and hope the crocodile eats our congregation last”

  2. Would you consider home schooling a Benedict option-style response? It certainly is driven in part by the desire not to have children influenced by public school policies and both peers and teachers who have grown up in a post-60s culture.

  3. Have you seen thebenedictoption.com? It seems to reach out to Protestants as much as Catholics and the Orothodox.

  4. This is a useful framework which describes the downward trend in our culture (a fairly recent phenomenon in terms of redemption history and the history of the Christian Church, a hiccup). One thing it seems to presuppose is that the culture does what the culture is going to do (please correct me if I am wrong on this point). This begs the question “how have the deeds of the Christian subculture played a role in our society’s moral and spiritual devolution, and how should this impact our strategies, particularly in light of our Scriptural inheritance and the foundation of our confessional faith, against which the gates of hell will not prevail?”

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