Contra Aaron Renn on Evangelicalism, Part 1
Why the Positive, Neutral, Negative World framework doesn't work.
Aaron Renn’s February essay in First Things, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” will almost certainly be among the most influential things written this year in Christian circles. It’s the proverbial piece that launched a thousand takes. It has been cited positively by an emerging right-ward movement from within conservative evangelicalism, a movement discontent with “Big Eva” and desiring a more confrontational cultural engagement. Renn’s piece also featured prominently in James Wood’s widely-discussed engagement of Tim Keller. Renn’s description of evangelicalism’s history, especially its political relationship with the wider culture over the last century, has clearly convinced a lot of people, and not without reason; it’s a well-written, interesting, and often perceptive piece of writing.
When I first read it, I was convinced that Renn was accurately describing a sensation felt by many evangelicals. But I wasn’t convinced that his historical sketch of the last several decades of Christianity and culture was accurate. This is more or less what I said in my letter to editor in the April issue of First Things (I’ll return to this in a moment). In the months since Renn’s piece appeared, his taxonomy seems even less compelling to me.
This is the first of a two-part response to Renn’s essay. In this first part, I’ll examine Renn’s framework of evangelicals in the Positive, Neutral, and Negative worlds. In Part 2, I’ll offer some alternative reflections on evangelicalism in America. These posts will be free to all subscribers, but if you appreciate this kind of work, I would be very grateful for your paid support of this newsletter.
I realize that not every reader will find this discussion tantalizing. This is admittedly an exercise in what one friend calls “evangelical naval-gazing.” Still, the success and influence of Renn’s analysis makes a robust response to it appropriate, especially to the degree that an alternative interpretation of where the church sits in relation to culture might point us toward a different set of responses than what Renn and his sympathetic readers would have us do.
Is the positive-to-neutral-to-negative narrative historically and theologically accurate?
Renn admits that his framework is not meant to be literal, but somewhat “impressionistic.” He allows for disputing the dates because the main point is unchanged. Evangelicalism, according to Renn, has experienced three distinct phases of its relationship to American society, and what matters is not so much the particular angles of that relationship but the trajectory of it. The starring role in his framework is played by Negative World. It is Negative World—the development of legislative and cultural "negative consequences” for being a Christian—that creates the other two categories. This can be seen in the fact that Renn has almost nothing to say about “Positive World,” even though it is by far the most significant era, encompassing nearly 200 years versus the 20 apportioned to “Neutral World.”
I say he has “almost” nothing to say because Renn does point out that the Falwell-era Moral Majority, which peaked with Ronald Reagan’s election, appealed to Christianity’s cultural capital. Indeed, Renn’s narrative begins with the election of Jimmy Carter as the “first evangelical president.” The fact that Carter’s election is the very first historical event in Renn’s analysis—an analysis that offers an interpretation of over 200 years of American evangelical history—suggests that what Renn is really doing is surveying the evangelical church in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Renn seems vaguely aware of this, acknowledging that “the deterioration of the standing of Christianity in the 1970s led to the development of the culture war and seeker sensitivity strategies.” But it’s the absence of any meaningful reflection on how evangelical Christianity was actually expressed in Positive World that severely handicaps his vantage point. What if, for example, the Positive World wasn’t so positive? What if that which Renn identifies as underlying cultural friendliness to Christianity from the 18th century to 1994 was often something else—a collection of various societal norms, some of which were Christian, some of which were not, and the majority of which existed independent of the Church’s mission?
This is, in fact, the argument that Jake Meador makes in his essay “The Three Ages of Christian American Exceptionalism.” Jake energetically makes a case that American acceptance of slavery and then Jim Crow was simultaneously an American rejection of key Christian teaching. Further, this rejection created a hostile, violent world for black and white Christian Americans who opposed it, even as those Christian Americans opposed it explicitly on a theological basis.
Now Renn would likely respond that his critics have proved his point. Could Martin Luther King have appealed effectively to Christian ethics in his campaign for civil rights unless he understood the halls of power and influence in the U.S. to be kindly inclined toward Christianity writ large? Of course, the answer is no. But Renn’s framework does not simply observe that large swaths of American culture that took an appeal to Christian authority seriously at one point no longer do. If that was his main point, we would all agree, but his essay would never have been written.
No, the big idea in this essay is that Christian faithfulness in our current American age must acknowledge an irreparable and irreversible transformation in the public square, and consciously reject the values and strategies of those church teachers who fail to sufficiently acknowledge it. And on that score, Renn doesn’t really even try to provide evidence that what he calls the Positive World is something Christians should measure their current culture against. Yes, King publicly appealed to Christianity, but he was also assassinated.
So Renn’s conception of the Positive World doesn’t take into account the persecution of Christian teaching on race that was standard for most of the country’s existence. But there’s another historical problem with his analysis. Renn’s description of the fundamentalist/evangelical divide is reductionistic. In trying to quickly sketch a genetic origin story for the missional vs culture war debate in our own time, Renn glosses over some key facts about evangelical theology in the first half of the 20th century. For example, Renn writes:
Evangelicalism developed, beginning in the 1940s, as an attempt to create a kinder, gentler fundamentalism that could reach the mainstream. Its priorities have been more missional than doctrinal. If we view it in terms of sensibilities, we will find that this split—between doctrinal or confessional purity and missional focus or revivalism—has manifested itself persistently throughout American religious history.
This definition of evangelicalism as a “kinder, gentler fundamentalism that could reach the mainstream” is very important here because Renn will go on in the essay to argue that the “cultural engagement” model of evangelicalism (exemplified by people like Tim Keller) is likewise motivated by embarrassment over how elites view fundamentalists and a desire to win a seat at the culture makers’ table. But in his book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, Carl F.H. Henry, co-founder (with Billy Graham) of Christianity Today, argued that fundamentalism’s biggest flaw was not its poor purchase among the elite, but its theological errors. Henry vigorously critiqued contemporary fundamentalism for punting on the issue of public ethics. Twenty years later, Francis Schaeffer made the same critique of conservative Protestants on no less an issue than environmentalism.
These two major figures of evangelicalism in the 20th century believed that a significant portion of their fellow conservative Protestants had failed to comprehend and apply the whole of the New Testament. And the decades since have tended to vindicate both of their concerns. The Positive World of evangelicalism, it seems, was much more volatile and theologically uneasy than Renn’s account implies, which raises the question: Why should we believe Renn when he says that the current divides within evangelicalism are about courting cultural favor? How do we know we are not simply continuing the biblical debates we’ve been having for a century?
Can the church be less than the church?
Finally, I ask not only if Renn’s historical framework is historically compelling, but theologically true as well. This question matters because Renn is writing to evangelicals about their ministry and witness in the world. So the issue is not only one of correctly mapping ourselves onto the landscape of American culture, but of talking about our churches, our parachurch ministries, and our evangelism in a way that’s true and honors Christ.
As mentioned above, it’s really the Negative World that Renn wants to talk about. The Negative World is what creates the other categories and the interpretive grid that Renn uses to evaluate them. So it’s important that Renn gets his description of Negative World correct in a biblically compelling way. And indeed, that’s just the problem: There’s a startling lack of Scripture in Renn’s work. Now of course, Renn can respond that he’s not writing a theological treatise but a work of ecclesiological history. But is this a sufficient reason to write about Christian mission in the world and make virtually no reference to New Testament teaching about the gospel, about the kingdom, or about the church?
The lack of any serious theological reflection is especially ironic, considering that Renn takes the seeker-sensitive and other Neutral World-era strategies to task for a kind of pious pragmatism. But what does Renn offer evangelicals, if not a church-flavored variety of political pragmatism? He offers no definition of the gospel or even the church, and thus, when he talks about “survival” we don’t know what kind of survival he means. There is a version of the evangelical future whereby conservative Protestants learn sociopolitical survival by shedding their commitments to the local church and instead creating more politically savvy networks of anti-woke worshipers who meet outside the purview of the “corrupt” denominations. This is, in fact, precisely that route that many in the conservative homeschooling community have already chosen. There’s nothing in Renn’s work that suggests this would be a bad thing; in fact, his cryptic comments about evangelicals “needing” a Benedict Option could be taken as something close to this.
The fact is that there many situations, both real and hypothetical, whereby evangelicals could be asked to choose between biblical teaching and political effectiveness. There are theologically faithful choices that will nonetheless weaken evangelicalism’s ability to counter media narratives, shape or subvert public policy, or cultivate conservative momentum. The local church itself is a frustratingly inefficient vehicle for resisting wokeness. A biblically ordered local church depends on plural eldership, shepherding a membership that is regulated confessionally but not socially or even politically (1 Corinthians 15). It demands the often boring and click-resistant preaching of Scripture (2 Timothy 4:2). It presents habits and liturgies that draw attention to the past and the immaterial rather than the present and practical (1 Corinthians 11:22-24). And it commends a love and preference for other people that is more willing to be exploited than to exploit.
The question of how Christian communities are to survive is not just a social question. It’s an eschatological one. To forget this is to try to impose a foreign objective onto the evangelical conscience. And it will frequently mean misreading the signs of providence and promising the church either an imminent paradise or collapse that never really comes.
In the next part, I’ll offer some constructive thoughts for evangelicalism in contemporary American culture.