Cultural analyst Aaron Renn marks 2014 as the year when the ground shifted under our feet, and we moved from being a society with a posture largely “neutral” to “negative” toward Christianity. Renn is not alone in this evaluation. Australian pastor and public theologian Stephen McAlpine identifies this as the time period “when you became the bad guy.”

Many younger evangelicals now express a sense of disorientation—recognizing that the ground beneath us has shifted—and conclude that we can no longer rely on the strategies of our culture-warring grandparents or culture-engaging parents as we meet the challenges of this new era.

Last week, I traced the line from the culture warriors of the 1980s and 1990s to the countermovement of “culture engagers,” and then to the rise of a neo–Religious Right. A few days ago, I followed up with a column exploring why many on the right urge a more confrontational and combative approach to politics, rejecting aspirational descriptors like “winsome” and “thoughtful.”

3 Worlds of Evangelicalism

Today, I want to begin with the taxonomy Aaron Renn provides in his essay in First Things, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” He describes three distinct stages within the story of American secularization:

  • The Positive World (pre-1994) was when society retained a mostly positive view of Christianity, and thus being an upstanding member of a faith community brought social benefits. Christian moral norms pervaded society.
  • The Neutral World (1994–2014) was when society took a neutral stance toward Christianity, neither privileging nor disfavoring the faith. One could be religious (or not) without losing social status. Christian moral norms retained a residual effect.
  • The Negative World (2014–present) describes the present state of society and its negative view of Christianity. To be a traditional Christian is detrimental, not beneficial, to your status. Christian morality is seen as harmful, repressive, and threatening to the public good.

Changing Atmosphere Since 2014

For 30 years or so, many evangelical leaders either dismissed or sneered at the excesses of the old religious right’s quest for power in the 1980s and 1990s. But now, a younger generation is saying “OK boomer” to the pastors who sought out a non-partisan, apolitical approach to cultural engagement. “That’s not going to work,” they say. “The world is growing more and more hostile to people of faith. The rules have changed.”

Since 2014, Renn claims, the winds have shifted considerably in our society and now blow against traditional Christianity. Stephen McAlpine points to the same time period when locating our culture’s move from “dispassionate disinterest” in Christianity to “hostile interest.” Take, for example, higher education; the hostility toward Christianity present in the university framework 30 or 40 years ago has now become mainstream thinking, so it’s commonly understood that “Christianity is the problem in the culture that we need to slough off and find a new direction in a post-Christian West that will lead us to the liberty that Christianity promised but couldn’t deliver.”

Fast forward to today, and it’s no wonder many believe any hope of winning over others through “winsomeness” is a futile political strategy. It’s time to be shrewd as serpents. The neo–Religious Right types don’t care about appearing “winsome” before the “cultural elites”; they want to win political battles.

For some in this camp, the goal is to preserve space for Christians to live according to their convictions. For others, it’s to see the Christian vision of morality become dominant again. In either case, the best way to love our neighbors in this moment is not to stay “above the fray,” focused primarily on pastoral approaches to surviving in Babylon, but to promote political programs that will aid the common good and end unjust laws. Public theology, then, must counter head-on people who are deeply deceived and actively harmed by the pernicious ideologies they espouse.

2 Galvanizing Issues

Two of these ideologies stand out, and both have gained significant traction since 2014: (1) an essentialist view of racial identity, resulting in heightened identity politics, and (2) neo-gnostic theories about gender and sexuality that disparage social norms, create confusion (resulting in depression and despair among adolescents), and demand treatment through medical interventions that damage healthy bodies.

(On this point, many Christians believe these trendy “gender affirmation” treatments will one day be repudiated at the same level that we now reject the lobotomies and electric shock therapies embraced by previous generations. In other words, these (perhaps) well-intentioned but deeply misguided and harmful gender “solutions” are driven more by groupthink than real science or psychology.)

I highlight the transgender conversation here because it is the best example of rapid social change, and because it represents the leading edge of religious liberty’s erosion. To be clear, the concern is not primarily directed at people who experience gender dysphoria. (Even the most vocal opponents of new gender theories advocate compassion toward adolescents in genuine distress over their bodily reality.) The challenge we face is a culture that seeks to enshrine the central tenets of this trendy ideology into permanent civil law, suppress pushback by labeling dissenters as bigots, and foster a culture in which dysphoria is more likely to occur, not less.

Loss of the Umbrella

Renn says the ground shifted in 2014. Interestingly, that was also the year when Tim Keller (often considered one of the primary examples of the culture engagers) explained why Christians suddenly felt the change in atmosphere. We’ve always had devout and secular people, he said, but the people in the “mushy middle” who once leaned toward nominal Christianity now lean toward secularism.

So what’s happening is the roof has come off for the devout. The devout had a kind of a shelter, an umbrella. . . . You had the devout, you had the secular, and you had that middle ground that made it hard to speak disrespectfully of traditional values. That middle ground [is now more likely to identify with the secular than with the religious]. . . . And so . . . the devout suddenly realize that they are out there, that the umbrella is gone, and they are taking a lot of flak for their views, just public flak.

Keller used the White House’s controversy over inviting Louie Giglio to pray at the 2012 inauguration as an example of the kind of flak conservative Christians were receiving. “It was enormously discouraging,” he said, as it implied traditional Christians “don’t even have a right to be in the public square.”

In sum, Aaron Renn’s taxonomy of positive/neutral/negative worlds—much like Tim Keller’s umbrella analogy and Stephen McAlpine’s book Being the Bad Guyswields significant explanatory power for why Christians are feeling and reacting in particular ways in this moment. But there’s been a divergence between culture engagers and culture warriors on how best to respond to that shift in the atmosphere.

In 2014, most evangelicals saw the changing cultural consensus as ominous and believed we should do whatever we can to carve out space for Christian freedom (a quasi–Benedict Option perhaps). The election of Donald Trump in 2016 opened up new possibilities and avenues for cultural engagement, offering hope that perhaps this negative world could be not only resisted quietly but confronted outright and turned back. And that has led to an increasing divergence of views as to how evangelicals should meet this moment.

In the next column, I want to return to Aaron Renn’s taxonomy and interrogate it a little more, because a wider frame complicates the picture and may enlarge the imaginative possibilities for moving forward.

This is the third 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