County Christianity

Faithful Local Government in the Negative World

As evangelical Christians in America enter and wake up to the reality of living in the Negative World, accurate and depressing descriptions of the times abound. However, practical prescriptions are few and far between as many begin to think about the prospect of having to navigate these uncharted cultural and political waters faithfully. Much of the counsel being offered to address this, including Aaron Renn’s own, is a most welcome and good start. However, we are admittedly only in the beginning of the conversation, the exploratory phase of discovering and implementing faithful responses to the challenges ahead. Things still need to be spelled out at a more granular level, with many sensing that certain specific, concrete steps need to be taken sooner rather than later. We need options: Benedict, Boniface, and everything in between. Understanding the times isn’t enough. We also need to know what ought to be done. 

Thinking about civilizational decline and the loss of the rule of law at a national or even state, much less imperial, level can beggar the political imagination and leave one at a loss as to what to do, what practical action one can take to prepare for further decline while hoping for the best. Don’t get me wrong, I like to speculate about possible regime change, civilizational collapse, or the outcomes of potential reactions as much as the next guy, but it’s draining and unproductive for me more often than not. Though I am very thankful for the national political and cultural actors representing God and sanity, for most people, focusing on national politics has a tendency to suck the civic oxygen out of the room, leaving little energy or will for much else. 

Conversely, the potential effectiveness of focusing on the local governance of one’s own community, where the political rubber meets the road, can be easily judged based on the reaction these efforts get from mainstream media and broader political interests, attracting the tireless attention of the proverbial Eye of Sauron. People on both the right and the left seem to instinctively know this. Things get scary for those ostensibly afraid of the so-called Christian nationalism bogeyman when it begins manifesting itself at the local level. Examples have abounded in recent years of regime-resisting actions (think local action and policy from the COVID era, or regarding DEI, gun rights, marriage licenses, etc.) of humble county clerks, sheriffs, school board members, and local DAs, faithfully practicing, whether consciously or not, the doctrine of the lesser magistrates. These are too numerous to be listed here, but any even moderately informed reader could easily call several of them to mind. 

Christians pursuing national excellence in politics and culture is a worthy goal, and fostering a counter-cultural elite that represents evangelicals at the state (kudos to Oklahoma State Senator Dusty Deevers, e.g.) and national level is undoubtedly important for the long-term survival of America as we have known it. Though a good aspiration for some, it’s just not a realistic goal for most Christians. Ambition isn’t a bad thing in itself, but we can’t all be great. In the near term, many ordinary Christians are just trying to find a place to live where they can raise their families within a society that at least still acknowledges the Tao. This doesn’t necessarily signal cowardly retreat or ultimate defeat, but it is a realistic and practical assumption to have for most people in evangelical America. There is currently a dearth of high-trust, rooted, and intergenerational communities that facilitate family formation, encourage living out Christian ethics, and support positive, explicitly Christian civic engagement, and is doubtful if urban or other progressive centers, the magnets of the elite, will be anywhere near fostering anything like this anytime soon.

Why Local?

America is an extremely vast country. Less than an hour’s highway drive from almost any town or city in whichever direction usually leads to huge amounts of relatively unoccupied, undeveloped, and minimally governed space. And like the US highway system, another often overlooked and underappreciated yet ubiquitous aspect of American life is local (county or equivalent) government: that political infrastructure quietly existing in the civic background of virtually every American. I will argue in this essay that the already existing structures of American local government, if properly leveraged, are at least theoretically sufficient to serve as the political backdrop of faithful Christian living in a quickly declining America. As real-world arenas for natural family life and freedom of religion in the public square, counties offer realistic options in the near to mid-term, and in the long-term could serve as potential springboards to greater, actually viable state and national cultural and political action. 

There are over 3,000 counties or equivalents in America, and this gives me great hope. Decentralization will be key going forward, and I would suggest that drilling down beyond the state into the county level is the right scale at this time for practical Christian self-governance, utilizing extant local political structures as a means to further the ends of the common good rooted in natural law, if not to an explicitly Christian local polity. While most of the  “three C’s” (the campus, the coast, and the city) are squarely fixed in the negative world, it’s conceivable that many suburban areas still have a lot of neutral world characteristics, and that many rural areas are still in the positive world in a lot of ways. It’s the particular matter of cultural influence and elite institutional power that makes negative world areas seem so lopsidedly powerful, punching well above their weight in negativity, geographically speaking.

For most people, the mere thought of local government, with its seemingly petty and provincial details, such things as zoning, sidewalk committees, utilities, waste management, levies (property taxes!), etc., can understandably make one’s eyes glaze over. It doesn’t exactly spark the imagination or inspire zeal. At the same time, local government can also be so accessible and practical that once it is on one’s mental radar, one is almost without excuse for not getting involved to some degree. It falls within a kind of political ordo amoris (town/city, county, state, nation, empire) which has much more of a claim to our immediate civic duty. Maybe that’s why it’s more common to describe, theorize, and speculate about issues on the national rather than local level. There is actually more of the uncomfortable possibility, even obligation, that one get personally involved with the latter rather than the former. As state governments are constitutionally sovereign, focusing locally (at the county or equivalent level) means that the higher authority one is mostly dealing with is the state government, which acts as an intermediary between the local and Federal governments. This serves as a buffer and added level of protection not afforded at the state level, which would be set up for direct challenges from and confrontation with Federal actors. Not many have the stomach (not to mention the actual position, capacity, or skill) for that kind of thing. 

County Government 101

Enough with the generalities, let’s get into the weeds. One can get a quick, basic education on American counties and their equivalents here and here. A few key concepts to know going forward in this essay revolve around what are called Dillon’s Rule and Home Rule, along with the legal term state preemption. These are important terms when considering the feasibility of living out a positive local Christian vision within a viable legal framework. 

Every state’s relationship with its counties or equivalents is unique, generally being written into their constitutions, and counties can vary widely even within the same state. I would encourage everyone to become familiar with their own state and county details, or the details of those in which they would be interested living in. For example, some state constitutions allow for county home rule and charters, allowing for varying degrees of state constitutional county authority within their jurisdictions without direct, specific approval from state legislatures. Other states control their counties in a much tighter way. 

Dillon’s Rule vs. Home Rule

“The founding document of the United States, the Constitution, is silent on local governments. Instead, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments reserve all other powers not previously delegated or prohibited to the states and the people. Therefore, each state is responsible for granting broad or limited authority to each local branch of government, such as counties, municipalities, school districts, and other political subdivisions. There are two guiding principles of governance for local governments: the Dillon Rule and Home Rule.”

Home Rule refers to the constitutional granting of municipalities (towns, cities, and county or equivalents, etc.) more local control over their governing structures, policies, and even some legislative power. Dillon’s Rule on the other hand views local government as merely an agent of the state, created by and deriving all authority explicitly by law from the state legislature. Dillon’s Rule gained more national traction after a SCOTUS decision in 1907 in favor of the states, establishing a precedent for the dominance of this view of state-county relations well into the 20th century. However, in reaction to this, Home Rule later gained more popularity, with many states amending their constitutions to explicitly grant local governments more flexibility and agency in matters of “county concern”. This is especially true in the Western states as counties became responsible for larger and larger legal jurisdictions and service areas. One could make the argument that Home Rule is the local expression of federalism the Founders had in mind, and that the last clause of the 10th Amendment, “or to the people” could refer or apply to local government. 

“The history reveals that, contrary to modern assumptions, local governments were not always seen as subunits of states, but instead, were often treated as voluntary quasi-private associations that possessed considerable power as a matter of custom.”


State preemption basically short-circuits any county Home Rule by claiming the legal authority over any given matter with which the county was getting involved. Interestingly, much of the work on developing strategies to protect home rule municipalities from preemption from states came from more liberal-leaning lawyers concerned about red states preempting local governments that were enacting progressive policy. One prolific author on this topic advocates for a more historic, stronger version of home rule, imperium in imperio, meaning a government, power, or sovereignty within a government, power, or sovereignty, which is arguably more of the original understanding of state and local government relations in the colonial era and at the Founding. “The case for protecting local self-government draws together the values associated with local self-determination, the significance of its widespread practice, and the recognition it receives under state law. The values of local autonomy are frequently celebrated in our system, as they are the values of federalism.”

As state preemption cuts both ways (it can be used for the common good, such as for the care and protection of those in progressive areas of red states), we can glean a lot from this work in order to think through how red counties could protect themselves from blue state preemption. Though state preemption seems to have plateaued after a period of acceleration after the Tea Party movement helped conservatives take over more state legislatures nationwide, the whole dynamic portends to an acceleration of the Great Sort, with blue local governments not being able to govern as they would in red states and vice-versa. 

Ideally, the Federal and states’ governments would allow as much subsidiarity as possible within reason, including in matters pertaining to local decisions based on the dominant religion of those represented within county jurisdiction. Realistically, there will be innumerable lawsuits around incorporation doctrine, nondiscrimination, and the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, etc. coming from blue states or the federal DOJ to counties who seek to exercise more local power, particularly as it pertains to Christian belief and practice. It seems inevitable that any county government attempting to assert explicitly Christian values, though tradition and the Constitution be on their side, must be prepared to defend themselves in the courts and to have adequate, competent legal representation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it would elevate issues, perhaps even to the national level, and likely force the current Regime to defend often absurd positions out in the open for all to see. There is a real opportunity to use already existing structures of local government in order to preserve and transmit Christian values, at least within local jurisdictions, even in the negative world. 

Red States, Blue States, Local Government, and the Great Sort

America is obviously getting more polarized and that trend is likely not letting up any time soon. Red and blue as categories can be overly simplistic, but given the modern Democrat platform I think it’s helpful and maps well enough onto Renn’s three worlds model. Roughly speaking, “red” can be viewed as more or less positive, “blue” firmly negative, with perhaps suburban pockets with more moderate, so-called “classical liberal” and/or libertarian-leaning neoconservative types representing what remains of the neutral world. It is clear that much of the Federal government, mostly through the administrative state, has been captured by the Left and is deep blue. Retreating to red states for shelter or to engage in political and cultural battles at the state level may make sense for a lot of people. 

However, if one is currently in a blue state and wants to stay for whatever reason, voting with one’s feet at the county level is another, perhaps more strategic option, depending on the circumstances. I would wager the vast majority of counties just adjacent to major urban centers are much more sane and stable than the counties that encompass the big cities. If one’s city or county is intolerably progressive, one can usually just move a few miles away to be in a more conservative county’s jurisdiction, while still being able to engage and influence local blue areas from a more sustainable and winnable position. This would basically be a county-level Fight by Flight, a local Right Flight. This way, people and church communities can still provide a missional witness and be available to those areas otherwise unfit to raise children and build traditional American lives in. For it’s basically a truism that, “…there are significant links between the religious geography of a community and the political issues and policy outcomes within that community.”

Keeping spiritually, culturally and politically motivated migration more local would also mitigate the risks of losing the resiliency needed to survive and thrive in the negative world. By not being uprooted from church community, extended family, longtime friends, and other networks, Christians can maintain the support systems made over time through longstanding social resources and spiritual connections. It would also counter the rather modern, and arguably quite liberal, habit of moving around all the time, which now characterizes even many otherwise conservative Americans. People becoming further deracinated even as they attempt to find a community aligning with their values seems counterproductive. Besides, who really wants to abandon their home state, blue as it may be, and cede it completely over to the Left? However, county Christianity involves a multigenerational effort, so it is important to make sure, to the best of one’s ability, that the local region one decides to live in is a sustainable, defensible position for the long haul. This may be harder to gauge in swing states where the makeup of the legislature and/or governorship is uncertain every two or four years. This is another reason it may be a good idea to know what the state-county relations are like and what the cultural and political makeup of various counties in any given state of interest are.  Along with starting or moving a family, these considerations would also apply to those wanting to start or move a business, school, or any other kind of institution, including even a church plant or transplant. 

Perhaps staying in blue states will ultimately prove to be untenable for many people. If being left alone by blue states sufficiently enough to pursue a full-orbed, positive Christian civic vision in redder counties proves to be a naïve hope in the long run, moving states would be entirely warranted, even advisable outside of purely missional considerations. However, just because one is in a red state, even in a red county in a red state, that doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of Federal preemption working itself all the way down to the local level, especially if the state and local officials are unable or unwilling to provide effective interposition as lesser magistrates. Given the variables above, red counties in red states that have Home Rule would theoretically be the best combination. Red states can be made redder through red counties, but residents of blue states can still be somewhat protected by officials in red counties, unless even that becomes ultimately impossible for whatever reason. More optimistically, Christians in blue or red states living in blue counties can flee to a nearby red county, voting with their feet, while the blue counties either collapse politically or can somehow be rehabilitated and regain some semblance of sanity. As noted by Renn, evangelicals are under no obligation to bear the responsibility for institutions (and I would include governments) they have been pushed out of and are no longer in control of.

County-Level Lesser Magistrates

As mentioned above, local government officials have real power and can provide a buffer from the bad law or administrative policy of the Federal and state governments. Though there is some debate as to whether states are dually sovereign with the Federal government per the Constitution, or if they are indeed the lesser magistrates, for the sake of argument and simplicity I will assume the latter. At any rate, this is the functional dynamic and assumption which has been in play in recent history. From his influential book, The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates author and pastor Matthew Trewhella makes a list to demonstrate, “why resistance by lesser magistrates is wise and necessary to turn back acts of tyranny by the higher authority.” Please keep in mind county-level officials while considering these first four on the list, noticing the saliency here for local government: 

1. Lesser magistrates already possess lawful, God-given authority which they may invoke. 

2. Lesser magistrates have been supported by any in their successful bid to achieve office; therefore they have an established power base of popular support already in place. 

3. Lesser magistrates usually have constitutional precedent and law on their side; so that, in other words, there is some heritage or history to which they can appeal 

4. Lesser magistrates already have access to a public forum by which they can articulate the particulars of the grievances involved.

While Christians pursue involvement in local government and wield delegated authority and real power, there needs to be an acknowledgment and a counting of the potential costs involved. Local-level lesser magistrates, if interposing effectively for their people against higher authorities, would be risking a lot and would need an extraordinary amount of courage and support. And by the way, the COVID era provided an excellent litmus test as to how effectively lesser magistrate interposition was practiced in that context, and could serve as a way to gauge whether or not one is willing to go through a similar scenario with a similar local and state government over them again. 


As the Pax Americana starts to crumble and the nation continues to polarize and decline under God’s judgment, state and local governments in particular may soon become one of the last bastions of traditional American self-governance. Christians will naturally continue to seek out communities that share their values and where a relatively high level of basic societal trust can be built and maintained. Pockets of local Christendom can politically reseed America after further decline or even collapse (think a post-apocalyptic American evangelical version of How the Irish Saved Civilization). Though at this point many Christians would gladly—and rightly—welcome a so-called Red Caesar to restore basic order, the beauty of strategizing at the local level is that it is evergreen advice. That is, no matter what is happening at the state, national, or imperial levels, whether good or evil, local focus will always matter and will always be what we should be doing anyway. There is no need at this point to reinvent the wheel, or to invent and advocate for newfangled and outlandish polities or well-meaning parallel polities which nonetheless have no basis in American history and tradition. Most of the work has already been done by those who came before us or who are currently serving in this capacity, and there is a wealth of information and resources on local government available today. We just need the right people to fill the political forms, run them properly, and govern toward the right ends. 

As there are so little specific recommendations regarding all of this, at the risk of presumption I will offer a few. First, as recommended above, find out what kind of county you live in, and what the relationship to your state it has. If you are thinking of moving out of state, explore the option of moving to a better county within your home state first. If moving out of state is better, know what kind of county you would be moving to, and what the state’s relationship to that county is. Assuming a man is already right with God in Christ, has his house and family life in order, is an engaged member of a healthy local church, and is successfully pursuing a vocation and making a living, he should consider getting involved in local government in some way. Maybe join your county Republican Party as a precinct committeeman and seek to influence it to the right (MAGA/America First is a natural ally here, particularly if nominally Christian and cured of libertarianism, and especially if retired and therefore un-cancellable, job-wise). If it’s part of your professional background, consider trying to get elected or appointed to local positions such as county sheriff, DA, clerk, commissioner, administrator, treasurer, or school board member (special districts). Local elections have notoriously low turnout, so a motivated and organized base, though relatively small, could exert a lot of influence. Regularly pray for your local government leaders. There is also ample opportunity for parachurch ministries or local church lay leaders to be involved in diaconal ministries adjacent to county services, along with advocacy in front of, or even having Evangelical representation on, county commissioner boards or their equivalent. For the more ambitious and community-minded, even something like recruiting a motivated group of like-minded households and helping to draft and pass a county charter in a less populated area and building from there isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Counties nationwide that are aligned on values and ideals of governance could form networks and associations for mutual support, policy ideas, and for the sharing of information regarding how they are responding to various state and Federal pressures in the negative world. 

I highly recommend reading an excellent law article I encountered during my research called Religion and Local Power, by Brian M. Miller. He provides important historical context, commentary on current issues, and counsel from a legal perspective, articulating the possibilities and potential problems of religious expression in local government. I would encourage anyone wanting to explore this broader topic in much greater detail to read the whole thing.

County Christianity, like much of Christian nationalism, mostly seeks merely to restore traditional Protestant American religious and civic community life. However, in the negative world, outside of an enormous work of God’s grace in reviving the church and saving countless souls (not an impossibility), achieving the latter in the near term is not a realistic option, while the former holds much promise for the goal of revitalizing, maintaining, and creating civic space for a continued Christian civilization in America. My position is simply that this is much more likely to succeed from the ground up at the county or equivalent level rather than at the state, national, or imperial one in the coming years and decades. We may not know what the future holds, but we can know the One who holds all times and all governments in his sovereign and gracious hands. May He continue to have mercy on America, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Depart from evil, and do good;
And dwell forevermore.
For the Lord loves justice,
And does not forsake His saints;
They are preserved forever,
But the descendants of the wicked shall be cut off.
The righteous shall inherit the land
And dwell in it forever.

Psalm 37:27-29 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Kurt M. Wagner

Kurt M. Wagner is a generalist, life-long learner, and recovering sinner working in the behavioral health field in Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two small children. He is a member of Sellwood Church in Portland.

7 thoughts on “County Christianity

  1. The Christian community isn’t the only community that has experienced negative, neutral, and positive worlds, the LGBT community has too only their public stock is currently going in the opposite direction of the Christian community. But let’s compare the negative worlds of the two communities.

    When the LGBT community was facing a negative world, it resulted in imprisonment, physical beatings, public harassing, loss of job, and, in short, being marginalized in society. The Christian community now sees itself as facing a negative world. What does our negative world consist of? Fewer and fewer people who are conforming to Biblical standards on sexual morality and public criticism for out past negative treatment of the LGBT community and others. Are the two negative worlds comparable?

    Ever since the Obergefell decision, many of my fellow religiously conservative Christians have made it their mission in life to change their world, whether their world consisted of their nation, their state, their county, or their community, for the better. Why? According to them it is so that they could live and raise their families to follow Christ. They are saying that that is more difficult to do now because a shrinking minority of people around them are seeking to follow Christ. However, it makes one wonder how the Christians in the first century persevered with all of the ungodliness that surrounded them. That is especially true since the negative world they faced is more comparable to the Negative World that the LGBT community faced during Christendom than it is to ours. Of course, we don’t have to speculate about how our 1st century fellow Christians spiritually and morally survived because we have the New Testament to tell us how they did it. Perhaps, instead of seeking control and trying to impose our standards on others, we should follow the examples they set and the instructions they followed.

  2. Dude. Get a job or something. Stop polluting this forum with your brain-dead, reflexive, dishonest leftism. No one cares.
    Go. Away.

    1. Ryan,
      So what I write makes you feel uncomfortable. But why lash out in response? If what I am writing is brain-dead, then it should be easy for you to show where I am wrong in a rational way.

  3. Not sure what that Ryan dude is on, but this piece is tremendous. I think since the walking red pill Trump came on the scene, we’ve realized national politicians aren’t going to save the day. That’s obviously important and necessary, but if we’re going to save America it is going to start local.

    One of the dynamics of America’s founding was the political involvement of average Americans at the local level. It was a virtue born of necessity being thousands of miles from home and having to piece together a life in a strange land. That eventually led to We the people, and we have to capture that again.

    My wife and are are involved in our local GOP as precinct committeemen, and seeing how local government works has been fascinating. We can accomplish two things by this, being involved in local government, and taking over the Republican Party.

    1. Thank you, Mike. Ryan was replying to Mr. Day, who seems to have a habit of opining at length on almost every AR article.
      -Kurt W.

    2. Mike,
      I partially agree with you. I agree that we have to be involved locally. But national is still important.

      I can’t agree with lending any support for Trump. And as for the local involvement, what I see in Republican Party’s local involvement is what I see in Trump. It is the desire to control, and even cancel others. And here, I am not just talking about LGBT materials in the library. The state of racism, both past and present, in this nation is now a battle line. And it seems that the Republican Party wants to control how racism is taught and even spoken about on the local, state, and national levels. And so it seems that the Republican Party does not have the same passion for the 1st Amendment as it does for the 2nd Amendment.

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