Coming Face to Face with Negative World

Why Aaron Renn’s Book is so Important

I predicted recently that Aaron Renn’s new book, Life in the Negative World, would be the most important book of the year. Here is why.

Renn argues persuasively that faithful Christians are now a tolerated minority rather than a tolerating majority for the first time in American history. I see this new state of affairs producing an effect very similar to the psychological phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance.” Despite common misconceptions about this term, cognitive dissonance simply denotes a mental disturbance in an individual arising from a situation in which he is conscious that his beliefs and actions are in contradiction. A tension arises that is unpleasant and which can only be relieved by changing either the belief or the actions in order to bring them both into accord again. 

During the Korean War, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army experimented with this phenomenon by forcing captured American soldiers to say on record negative things about the United States and capitalism that those soldiers did not believe. For some, the ensuing guilt they felt could only be relieved by refusing to continue doing the action (i.e., lie on record), but others chose instead to change their beliefs. The latter cases led to the phenomenon that came to be known as “brainwashing.”

For this analogy, I do not mean to imply that Christians in the Negative World are living as hypocrites in contradiction—professing belief in one thing and acting antithetically to that belief. I mean, rather, that on a collective level, Christians live in a culture the authoritative opinions of which are contrary to that of individual faithful Christians. We feel, for example, a kind of guilt that the laws we live under, in many cases, allow for things we find morally abhorrent (e.g., abortion). The action of our culture, in other words, is in contradiction to our beliefs.

Drawing out the analogy with cognitive dissonance, if Renn is right, Christians today will feel two very forceful temptations to an increasing degree:

  • The temptation to change their beliefs by nuancing and hedging orthodox opinions, thereby justifying to themselves a forced reconciliation with regime-approved opinions at the cost of their orthodoxy
  • The temptation to retreat from the public square in order to feel less connected to and therefore less responsible for the authoritative cultural opinions that orthodox Christians find morally abhorrent

Renn is on the record for not adopting the term “Christian nationalism,” and his arguments are all more or less reasonable. I believe, though, that the logic of Renn’s book points to the prudential conclusion that the term should be embraced.

Stephen Wolfe—among others—has gone to great lengths to provide a concrete definition of the term “Christian nationalism.” Nonetheless, many critics complain that the term has never been adequately or honestly defined. Meanwhile, however, the term has come to be defined for us by the conditions of the Negative World. As Miles Smith artfully described in a meme recently, more or less any traditionally orthodox Christian position is derided as “Christian nationalism” today by the majority culture that has relegated traditional Christian views to the extreme and distasteful edges of acceptability in polite—i.e., political—society. So the effective definition of a “Christian nationalist” arises as just this: a politically engaged Christian who holds traditional, orthodox Christian beliefs on morality. 

To return to the cognitive dissonance of the Negative World, another way to describe the temptations for Christians that are inherent to the tension of the Negative World is thus: 

  1. either become less Christian, i.e., change your traditional opinions about morality, or 
  2. become less nationalist, i.e., retreat from the public square and accept the minority, tolerated position of something like Amish-adjacent. 

An effective way to defang these temptations, to shake loose from the social pressure to give in to either of them, is simply to embrace the term “Christian nationalist.” Let it mean nothing more than a resolute decision to remain both a staunch defender of traditional Christian morality and a politically engaged citizen who advocates for corresponding laws. You can then watch the arrows bounce off of you when your enemies hurl “Christian nationalist” in your face in an attempt either to make you hedge your opinions or disengage from politics altogether.

Renn’s book is so valuable because it brings to the surface the cause of this tension that Christians now feel in the Negative World. Further, by uncovering the nature of these temptations, he accordingly makes the choices ahead for faithful Christians more stark: which way, Christian man?

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Clifford Humphrey

Clifford Humphrey holds a doctorate in political science from the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He is a 2024 Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow. He is on X at @cphumphrey.

5 thoughts on “Coming Face to Face with Negative World

  1. The first paragraph needs some revision. Yes, Christianity is a tolerated minority. But Christianity, though it tolerates more groups now than ever before, has never been a tolerating majority. At least conservative Christianity has not. One only needs to ask if conservative Christianity supports full equality for the LGBT community including the acceptance of same-sex marriage in society only and does it support full equality for those who are transitioning or have transitioned. Thus we could ask ourselves whether those who are tolerating us are more tolerant of us than we have been of others.

    Also, Humphrey does not give the best definition of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance was a favorite concept I learned over 50 years ago in a social psychology class. A better definition is that cognitive dissonance is the tension one feels when long held entrenched beliefs are confronted with new factual evidence that challenges those beliefs. The tendency is for people to relieve the tension by expending the least energy possible. See, opinions don’t compel us to consider changing our entrenched beliefs, factual evidence does; but factual evidence does. We could look at the Church’s initial reaction to Heliocentrism as an example of how many Christian leaders from long ago tried to relieve the tension caused by the evidence for Heliocentrism.

    And so it isn’t that the mere hearing of contrary opinions causes cognitive dissonance. Certainly the prevalence of those opinions disturbs many of us religiously conservative Christians. But opinions are easier to deal with than factual evidence. And thus facts such as the existence of Same-Sex Behavior (SSB) in over 1,000 species of animals and that that there are possible physical causes for gender dysphoria cause cognitive dissonance. Such factual evidences causes cognitive dissonance in our religiously conservative Christians because of our entrenched beliefs that homosexuality and gender dysphoria are the sole products of our sin nature.

    Humphrey is actually dealing with the decision us religiously conservative Christians face on whether to compromise Biblical beliefs in order to get along better in the Negative World. But Humphrey goes way too far in saying that not holding to Christian Nationalism is one of those compromises which we are tempted to make. Many of us religiously conservative Christians oppose Christian Nationalism because we believe that democracy with equality is the preferred way of sharing society with unbelievers. One reason for that is that Christian Nationalism prefers an authoritarianism with group hierarchy as the way to share society with those who are different and that puts us religiously conservative Christians into the position doing what Jesus prohibited us from doing: ‘lording it over others.’ Also, Christendom and Christian Nationalism sabotaged rather than enhanced our carrying out of the Great Commission. Consider that the reactions by Critical Theory and Post Modernism to Christendom because of the how intolerant Christendom was to many have hurt the reputation of the Gospel. In addition, we might also want to consider the examples provided by the Apostles on how to carry out the Great Commission. For the Apostles used only teaching, preaching, the Church community, and Church discipline to make disciples rather than to use the state as a proxy to discipline unbelievers.

    1. Excellent post. You can expect a few bags of doritos in the mail with this month’s check for all your hard work.

      1. NS,
        I get a check this month? Is it from you?

        Tell me why is it that you and most others who have responded here do not address any of the specific points made.

    2. …”that there are possible physical causes for gender dysphoria …”

      I guess that explains a 1000% rise in gender dysphoria in a generation. Physical causes.

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