Is it true our society has made a decisive transition with regard to Christianity? Have we left behind a cultural world that was largely positive toward Christianity and entered a cultural world that is profoundly negative toward Christianity? And if so, should we allow this cultural shift to be the lens through which we view the relationship between ourselves, as committed Christians, and the surrounding culture?

This move from positive to negative is explored by Aaron Renn in his widely read essay for First Things, which I first engaged in my previous column, the third in my series on the rise of the neo–Religious Right. The first two columns in the series cover its history and lineage and the tendency to split conviction from civility.

By way of reminder, Renn’s taxonomy goes like this: American culture was largely positive toward Christianity until 1994, then was neutral toward Christianity for two decades, but since 2014 it has turned negative toward Christianity. I noted that Tim Keller points to that same time for a cultural shift, as does Australian leader Stephen McAlpine.

Aaron Renn’s taxonomy works well as a conversation starter because (1) it’s hard to deny the rapid cultural shift of the past 10 years and (2) Renn’s framing implies a prescriptive element. It suggests that previous ways of engaging the culture are now outdated, perhaps suitable for previous eras but no longer relevant.

But Renn’s essay does not provide a prescription such as a new strategy or fresh tactics; instead it offers a description of this cultural moment so that evangelicals will be motivated to carve out a new path forward. Indeed, Renn believes too many are still living in the past, assuming the world is still positive or neutral to them. He writes,

“Rather than extend existing strategies forward into the future, evangelicals could, and should, grapple seriously with what it means for them to live in the negative world. What strategies should be employed for this era? Unlike previous eras, the negative world necessitates a variety of approaches to match the diversity of situations in which American Christians find themselves. Finding a path forward will probably require trial and error and a new set of leaders with different skills and sensibilities.”

Today, I want to point out some limitations of this way of framing things, because I believe the moment in which we find ourselves is more complicated than Renn’s framing and the proposals likely to follow. In the next column, we’ll look at what I consider to be the most glaring weakness in this approach.

Is the Negative World New?

First, we need to ask whether the year 2014 is a good marker. Is the existential “feel” of living in a world hostile to Christianity this recent?

As someone who grew up in a household committed to the aims and goals of the religious right, I thought we were in the negative world as far back as the early 1990s, even before Renn claims we shifted from positive to neutral. The Carman song I mentioned in the first post in this series was from 1992—it chronicled America’s slide into godlessness and claimed the only way for the country to survive the decade was to turn back to God in a revival.

If I could go back to tell my adolescent self, Actually, you’re still in a world positive toward your faith, but the culture is about to change to just being neutral to Christianity, I’m convinced I’d be laughed at by my former self, and by my family too. Like most evangelicals at the time, we were convinced we lived in the negative world. And I grew up in the Bible Belt!

This is why I remain skeptical of taxonomies like the one from Renn—not because they don’t have merit (they almost always do), but because they’re almost always too tidy, and they’re usually connected to some sort of proposal intended to mobilize a voter bloc. Political engagement becomes the most important lever for effecting social change. (To be clear, Renn’s essay does not do this, but many of the responders leaning on his work do.)

Perhaps the air of urgency was imaginary and those dire circumstances we feared in the early 1990s were overstated, and Renn is right—we were fooled into thinking the world was negative toward us when in reality, we were only reacting to the change from positive to neutral. But, as a way of imagining the world and our place in it, living in negative world was deeply formative for our manner of cultural engagement and how we saw the church fulfilling her mission. (When I was 13 and 14, I wrote a series of short stories about Christians in 2050 being driven from America because of persecution.)

What’s more, it took travel to other parts of the world, where I interacted with people who’d experienced political suppression and genuine persecution, to open my eyes to a wider array of Christian concerns, many of which I’d conveniently ignored or neglected when my focus was on electoral victories. For the most part, I still agree with my adolescent self on principles and policies, but my range of Christian concern has expanded and my expectations for cultural change through politics have been chastened.

So, even while I recognize the shifts in cultural sentiment in the past 10 years that Renn, Keller, and McAlpine point out, I’m hesitant to adopt the “negative world” framing because, whatever its merits, I’ve seen easily how it can narrow our scope of concern and warp our reading of Scripture.

The Question of Taking Cues

“But,” you might say, “culture engagers who try to stay ‘above the fray’ in politics can have warped readings of Scripture too, right?” Absolutely. And that brings me to my second point: we all tend to take cues from people we’re trying to reach.

Renn’s essay critiques culture engagers for adopting strategies that “take cues” from the secular elite consensus. In order to attract secular elites or celebrities to their churches, many of the culture-engaging pastors who resist the old-guard religious right are known for “punching right and coddling left.” In other words, you want to reach the secular and the elite, and the way you do so is by sharing a sense of disdain toward other classes or segments of people who don’t deserve or receive cultural favor.

The culture engagers, feeling the pressure of the elite consensus, look for ways to “synchronize” their views wherever possible, and race and immigration become the two most obvious touchpoints. “Their rhetoric in these areas is increasingly strident and ­ever more aligned with secular political positions,” Renn writes.

“Meanwhile, they have further softened their stance and rhetoric on flashpoint social issues. They talk often about being holistically pro-life and less about the child in the womb. While holding to ­traditional teachings on sexuality, they tend to speak less about Christianity’s moral prohibitions and more about how the church should be a welcoming place for ‘sexual minorities,’ emphasizing the church’s past failures in this regard.”

I don’t doubt this pressure exists and that some culture engagers may, even unintentionally, “synchronize” their positions when they can. The younger culture warriors are right to put their finger on this temptation.

That said, the culture-warring populist response can wind up doing the very same thing, but in the opposite direction. Punch left and coddle right. If you’re trying to reach a segment of the population that often feels forgotten—a people united in their disdain for “the left” or “the elites”—you will feel the pressure to synchronize your concerns with right-wing podcasters and conservative talk show hosts. Your prioritization of concerns will shift toward the people whose favor you care about most, and in this case, fighting racial injustice or echoing the Bible’s instruction about caring for the immigrant and stranger will likely not score as high on your list. Culture warriors are not immune to the temptation to soft-pedal the biblical commands in certain areas, so as not to offend the sensibilities of people in their community.

I included an example of this tendency in my book The Multi-Directional Leader. A pastor on the West Coast planned to mention the evil of abortion during a time of public prayer and received pushback by members of his staff, who worried some visitors might be offended. He found it interesting that in previous prayer times, no one had questioned his stance on issues related to a Christian’s care for immigrants or our country’s racial injustice. Meanwhile, a pastor in the Deep South experiences the opposite. Church members expect the pastor to pray for the end of abortion, but grow nervous when prayers focus on the less fortunate, the immigrant, or victims of racial discrimination. (Maybe he’s woke?!)

The way we imagine our place in the world and the world’s posture toward us will affect our witness. And adopting uncritically the view that we’re in a “negative world” can lead us to sidestep volatile issues, to compromise the breadth of the gospel’s challenge to the culture by narrowing the scope of Scripture. A view of the church’s mission only focused on “seeking the peace of Babylon” will likely lead to naivete at how much we are formed by the culture. But a view of the church’s mission focused primarily on defiance or regaining dominance will lead to tunnel focus and a reductionist mission as well.

In the next column, I’ll point out a factor that complicates the view that we are living in the “negative world.”

This is the fourth column in an ongoing series. If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.

1. The Return of the Culture War
2. The Tearing Apart of Convictional Civility
3. Navigating the (New?) Negative World
4. Didn’t I Grow Up in the Negative World?
5. We Need to Complicate the Negative World
6. Let’s Contextualize Tim Keller
7. Encouragement and Caution for Culture Warriors
8. Truthful Witness in the Public Square
9. Five Quick Takes for New Culture Wars