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:
- either become less Christian, i.e., change your traditional opinions about morality, or
- 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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