In a Negative World… (Part I)

In a Negative World… (Part I) June 5, 2022

I will be in Chicago this week. If you are in the area, feel free to come along on Wednesday evening for a recorded conversation with Pastor Paul VanderKlay on the rise/fall/failure/future of Christian apologetics (Meetup link here). You can also drop in on Tuesday afternoon, when Paul and I will be guesting on the Aaron Renn show with a live audience. This will be a bit of a crossover event. Paul has been developing a YouTube evangelism project in the wake of Jordan Peterson, and Aaron has generated a lot of discourse with his “positive/neutral/negative world” framework for American church history. I would guess their audiences have minimal overlap, so it will be fun for them to come together, and hopefully I will find something interesting to contribute along the way. We’ll be discussing Renn’s three-world model, various responses to it, and the state of the American Church in general.

Meanwhile, at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax has put together a series of short posts giving his thoughts on the model, suggesting ways it could be refined or critiqued. I like some of the perspective Trevin has added with this series. He’s about ten years older than me, so from my point of view he is something like a “big brother in the Religious Right.” He describes coming of age in the Clinton era as the son of politically active conservative parents, thinking he already lived in a “negative world.” I know what he means. Both my parents cast their first presidential votes for Ronald Reagan, and I heard many dinner-table conversations growing up that instilled the same “negative world” sensibility in me well before Renn’s “cut-off year” of 2014. The first family car in my memory was a little red Mercury Tracer with a bumper sticker that read, “Proud Member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.” This was a now very dated reference to Hillary Clinton’s paranoia about right-wingers. When she used the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” in a speech, it was gleefully adopted as a badge of honor. (Before “the deplorables,” there was…)

To me, this “child of the Religious Right” perspective has been somewhat missing in the discourse so far, so I’m glad Trevin is bringing it. That said, I have some criticisms of his criticism. They are loosely organized, because I originally put them together mainly for myself as I prepare to go on Renn’s podcast next week. But I thought they might be of interest to someone else. To give them some semblance of structure, I’ll take Trevin’s five posts (so far) in order. I don’t know how long he plans to make the series, but perhaps as he adds more entries he’ll take some of these scattered thoughts into account.

On The Return of the Culture War

Part I is mainly an introductory piece which summarizes the push-me-pull-you of evangelical strategies dating from the Reagan era. First, the Religious Right and the seeker-sensitive movement develop on parallel tracks—the Religious Right seeing America as a type of Israel, the seeker-sensitives insisting the Religious Right is too mean. Then, in the late noughties, the rise of The Gospel Coalition marks the launch of the “gospel-centered” counter-wave, which tried to reject the excesses of both models (but came to be plagued by its own internal tensions). These younger evangelicals saw America as a type of Babylon rather than Israel. They were skeptical of the old optimism that American could plausibly be “taken back.” There was nothing for it but to go on quietly preaching the gospel.

But then came several different kinds of sea changes. First, Trevin names “the rapid loss of political will to enact conscience protections and ensure religious liberty.” This particularly strikes me as I look back at the progression of gay rights in my own Midwestern hometown, when the gay lobby and the Christian lobby clashed over non-discrimination legislation. I remember that clash vividly. The gay lobby won, but there was a liberal legislator who pushed for a religious exemption clause, which was the one small victory the religious lobby could take home. I doubt that in today’s political climate, that legislator would make that bid.

Then fast-forward to 2016, and you have the surrealistic reversal of political fortune that was Trump. It’s interesting for me to read back over the blogs I wrote at that time and see how deep my frustration ran. I was an old-school Religious Right kid, darn it. My parents weren’t going to fall for the orange chump, and neither was I. But many of my friends were swept along on a wave of something like renewed optimism. Today, they understandably feel it was a gamble that paid off with SCOTUS and Roe vs. Wade. With no real positive agenda of his own, Trump wound up functionally being a warm body in the Oval Office who could sign off on the stuff that smarter people were pushing across his desk. Now, I say that cynically, but I don’t want to discount the possibility that Trump personally had a glimmer of real pro-life sentiment. The pro-life argument is a powerful intuitive appeal to our most basic moral instinct: Don’t kill babies. Maybe Trump had his own small epiphany. We’ll never really know. But if this domino falls, it will be something that my parents thought they would never see in their lifetime. Do I now regret not having voted for the orange chump? No. I’m just noting: Stuff happens. Things take weird left turns. God finds ways to work. The problem Trevin senses, to which I’m sympathetic, is that the Trump era was a distraction, a kind of mirage, tempting Christians to put all their hope in The System again. That’s a fragile place to be.

Lastly, back on the hostile culture side, Trevin lists the rise of the “T+” lobby, which has taken deviant sexual indoctrination to levels the old Religious Right couldn’t have imagined. I’ll come back to this. Meanwhile, I want to put a pin in this entry’s closing graf:

The earlier sense of resignation, of being passive in the face of rapid political change, has come under fire from many younger pastors and leaders who believe this cultural moment calls for a rejection of the excesses of old religious right and the apolitical “above the fray” response so often on display among the leaders of the church growth and gospel-centered movements. You cannot focus on discipleship, they say, without dealing with politics because faithfulness in the public square is a part of discipleship. Overreacting to the religious right’s problems has led to a widespread failure in addressing political questions in discipleship, creating a void that leaves the church vulnerable to all kinds of false ideologies.

On Convictional Civility

In Part II, Trevin suggests that words like “nuance” and “winsome” are unpopular in certain quarters because “the strategies these descriptors represent are seen by many as having failed. Society is changing quickly, and not favorably toward Christianity.” He then points out the oft-referenced uncanny shift in four short Obama years from “Rick Warren is safe to pray at the inauguration” (2008) to “Louie Giglio is way too bigoted to pray at the inauguration” (2012).

I can throw another notable incident on the pile here from 2011, when Focus On the Family almost partnered with the TOMS shoes charity to distribute their product to poor African children. Almost, but not quite, because TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie came under sustained heavy leftist fire when it emerged that he was planning to speak at a FotF-sponsored event. He quickly back-pedaled, groveled, and reaffirmed his commitment to all the non-bigoted things. This was quite an embarrassment for Focus at the time, because they had just been touting their all-new, winsome 2.0 upgrade with Jim Daly replacing James Dobson as the president. As this incident showed, it earned them no cultural capital. Not even for the sake of helping poor kids in Africa. As Jezebel put it so charmingly, “Meanwhile, Focus On The Family looks like a martyr. All they were trying to do was put shoes on the feet of children in Africa. They forgive you. Even if they’re still fighting to curtail your rights at every interval.”

So, yes, Trevin is right that when some of us hear certain buzzwords, we do think back to stories like this and groan inwardly, because we’ve seen this movie so many times, and we know this is a zero-sum game. I don’t think any of us would claim there’s a “one size fits all” approach that’s guaranteed to “work” when it comes to cultural engagement. But can we at least agree some things are “this size fits none”?

Our frustration has more and deeper layers though. In this discourse, I sometimes see the implication (or outright claim) that conservative Christians are primarily frustrated that they’ve “lost control.” But as we just saw in that quote from Trevin’s own first blog, “faithfulness in the public square is a part of discipleship.” So, this is not merely an argument about the problem of lost cultural power. It’s a clash of evangelism philosophies, with conservatives earnestly frustrated by strategies that will not properly convict and disciple new converts. Without reviving the Tim Keller Discourse right here, this is what lay behind James Wood’s well-articulated critiques at First Things and American Reformer.

In figuring out what posture Christians should adopt going forward, Trevin proposes that there has been a needless split between conviction and kindness. He believes the ideal approach is a blend of both: convictional kindness. I agree in principle. But in practice, fault lines have emerged as self-appointed Christian tone police make their own declarations about precisely what constitutes “unkindness” in the public square. There is no official unified definition thereof. And too often, if we’re wholly honest, enforcement of the invisible standard looks less like rooting out real unkindness and more like, “You said something kind of dismissive or blunt about somebody in my tribe/somebody I admire/somebody I identify with, which makes me feel vicariously insulted.”

Frankly, some of the kindest souls I’ve known were also some of the bluntest, and some of the lousiest people I’ve known were fluent in smooth Christianese. It doesn’t seem to me that these tensions are going to be quickly resolved as long as you have many different personalities jostling with each other in the body. And if by “winsomeness” we mean “rhetorical politeness,” “niceness,” or something similar, then it’s not so clear to me that these things are ends in themselves. Trevin points to the demeanor of Christ as a model here. Yet Jesus was repeatedly abrasive, sarcastic, even downright rude. Yes, he was gentle, with fragile people who needed gentleness. We should likewise be gentle, with fragile people who need gentleness. But Jesus could also be ungentle with people who needed to be taken down a few pegs. If we’re going to take Christ as a serious model, then I think we need to admit that “sarcastic Jesus” is a mood, as the kids say.

Trevin goes on to point out the Scylla and Charybdis of compromise to our left and our right. An over-emphasis on civility can tend to relativism. An over-emphasis on confrontation can tend to belligerence and the pursuit of power for its own sake. “In such an instance, the goal is no longer faithfulness in refusing to bend the knee but instead taking control of the levers of power in order to coerce or ‘defeat’ our ‘enemies.’ It assumes the political landscape is ground zero for cultural change and Christians must win at all costs.”

Here I have been thinking of a scene from Chariots of Fire, where the old masters are leaning on young Harold Abrahams for hiring a pro trainer to help him win at the Olympic games. (This is considered an insult to the aristocratic “way of the amateur.”) At one point they ask him, “Do you mean that you aim to win at all costs?” “At all costs, no,” says Harold in clipped tones, “but I aim to win within the rules.”

Christians should not aim to win at all costs. But they should aim to win within the rules, where there is much more at stake than the outcome of a political arm-wrestling match. For some reason, Trevin puts “enemies” in quotation marks. But Christians shouldn’t hesitate to point out people who are pushing body and soul-destroying indoctrination and say, “Yep! Those are enemies!” Once you have announced your goal to the world, and it’s an evil goal that will destroy image-bearing men, women, and children, there’s no need for scare quotes. You have identified yourself.

Are there vulnerabilities on the right too? I think so, precisely because I think conservatives are struggling to find wise, strong, forthright voices within the church who are just willing to say the obvious out loud. Willing to say that of COURSE there is an evil leftist political agenda, that of COURSE the past few years have seen systemic institutional breakdown, including (especially) our health care institutions, and that of COURSE some political questions are black-and-white while others lack clear-cut solutions. (We’ll circle back to this latter point later.) This is its own kind of discipleship issue. It’s a discipleship issue for people who need to be led, people who gravitate towards strong voices of authority. Lacking something better, such people are going to drift to the James Lindsays and Tucker Carlsons of the world—guys who might say a number of true things and put their fingers on sore spots that too many pastors are refusing to acknowledge, but also guys with a schtick for whom this whole thing is a kind of art form. I say this as someone who once upon a time had a pleasant radio chat with James Lindsay myself. He was polite and cordial and we had an interesting conversation. But it’s just obvious that the guy has a schtick. The same really came home to me with Tucker when I watched his patter around Russia’s Ukraine invasion. As I watched, I thought, “Man. This guy knows EXACTLY which buttons to push. And he’s way too good at it.”

To put this in food terms: When you have nothing to serve for dinner except tofu noodle soup, and you have people who can’t yet cook for themselves, of course they’re going to skip the tofu and grab pizza. Of course they’re going to grab McDonald’s. And of course they’re going to make themselves overweight and sick if that’s all they eat, all the time. But the solution is not to make more tofu soup and yell at people for preferring pizza. The solution is to serve normal, hearty, healthy food.

This feels like a good note to end on, so I’ll pick up further thoughts in the next entry. Thanks for reading so far.

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