A few years back I touted an excellent analysis of Christianity in American culture by Aaron Renn, a very smart Evangelical writer and analyst who is now writing primarily on his Substack (you really should subscribe; everything Renn writes is challenging and important). Renn has recapitulated that critique, and updated it, for First Things. Here’s the core of his analysis:
Within the story of American secularization, there have been three distinct stages:
Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man remains part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian is a status-enhancer. Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences.
Neutral World (1994–2014): Society takes a neutral stance toward Christianity. Christianity no longer has privileged status but is not disfavored. Being publicly known as a Christian has neither a positive nor a negative impact on one’s social status. Christianity is a valid option within a pluralistic public square. Christian moral norms retain some residual effect.
Negative World (2014–Present): Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.
Renn talks about how American Evangelicalism responded to the cultural challenges of these three periods. If, like me, you only have a very general grasp of the world of Evangelicalism, Renn’s essay is a good who’s who and what’s what explainer.
My Benedict Option idea comes up in his piece. Excerpts:
The main strategy advocated for in the negative world is Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Dreher is not an evangelical; he is Eastern Orthodox, and openly admits his limited understanding of the evangelical world. He may thus have underestimated Protestant suspicion of monastic imagery: The “Benedictine” framing undoubtedly contributed to his project’s poor reception in the evangelical world.
Nevertheless, the general evangelical rejection of the Benedict Option is disproportionate to these sensitivities. We see this primarily in the fact that evangelicals have not developed an evangelical-friendly version of or alternative to it. Despite ample evidence that America has now entered the negative world, no evangelical strategic approaches to it have emerged. American evangelicals are still largely living in the lost positive and neutral worlds. Their rejection of Dreher’s Benedict Option was not about too much Catholic terminology or disagreements over strategic elements. It was rooted in a denial of reality. Evangelicals were, and to a great extent still are, unwilling to accept that they now live in the negative world.
That has certainly been my impression. It is very hard to convince American Christians in general, and Evangelicals in particular (given how overtly patriotic they are), that America is post-Christian. I have presented in my work lots of evidence for this dire conclusion, and I’m not going to revisit that now. I will just say that Renn’s claim that Evangelicals don’t understand the seriousness of our cultural moment strikes me as plausible. In October 2020, an Orthodox convert friend who still goes to Bible study with his Evangelical pals took them a copy of my just-published Live Not By Lies, and told them that it’s an interesting take on present and coming persecution. He told me that his Bible study partners told them they didn’t need to read it, because President Trump would be re-elected, and all would be well. Even if Trump had been re-elected, very little would be well for faithful Christians. For these older men, it’s always 1994.
We are coming up this March on the five-year anniversary of The Benedict Option. In the book, I said that implementing the basic critique would require creativity. The Benedict Option for urban Catholics will look somewhat different than it will for small-town Evangelicals, for example. The core claims of the Ben Op are that the only Christian churches that will come through this new Dark Age intact are those that are consciously countercultural, and that develop practices and institutions that impart robust discipleship to their members. Otherwise, the power of assimilation to secular norms in post-Christian America is too strong — especially given that some form of persecution of small-o orthodox Christians — meaning mostly those that do not accept the new LGBT consensus — is coming.
Did few if any Evangelicals take this seriously? Renn says yes, that is the case, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. (An interesting fact: from my own experience, the Benedict Option has been much more successfully received in Europe than in the US, which I attribute to the fact that Europe is farther along the secularization path than America.) But why didn’t they take it seriously, aside from the general fact that nobody likes to hear bad news? I’d like to hear from this blog’s Evangelical readers on that point.
Negative-world strategies will have to grapple with the “rise of the nones,” people with no professed religion who may be unfamiliar with Christianity and find it quite odd or even offensive. One-third or more of Americans in the younger age cohorts fall into this category, portending a radically different cultural landscape in America. This means evangelicals must include a Benedict Option–style focus on building churches and Christian communities that rely less on support from secular institutions and are resilient to outside pressure. They should stop outsourcing their political thinking to movement conservatism and their sociocultural analysis to secular academics. They should remain prudentially engaged in politics based on their own traditions of Protestant political and social thought. They must be willing to accept a loss of social status, but they need not succumb to the very pessimistic mood that pervades Rod Dreher’s work. They must accept that realignment will be a reality, with a reconfiguring of alliances and cooperation based on today’s needs and different forms of shared values.
Read it all. You know, the main thing that makes me so pessimistic is that so few of my fellow Christians are willing to face dire realities. If I believed that Christian leaders (and Christian followers) were engaged in grappling with the present and future of the churches in what Renn calls “Negative World,” it would be easier to be optimistic. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to break the spell of wishful thinking. A Polish Catholic journalist interviewed me this week, and asked what role evangelization plays in the Benedict Option. I told him that Christians have no choice but to evangelize; it is Our Lord’s command. But we cannot give the world what we don’t have. Research makes it undeniable that most American Christians, especially the young, have a shallow and emotional idea of the Christian faith. If we do such a poor job of discipleship, our evangelical efforts are going to be weak.
While I’m on the Evangelical front, I want to mention David French’s most recent essay, “A Nation of Christians Is Not Necessarily A Christian Nation”. Excerpts:
But does the mere fact that a majority of a nation’s citizens identify as Christian render a nation a “Christian nation”?
I’d argue that a nation’s religious character is defined by the interaction between the individual faith of the citizens and the institutional expression of the nation’s values. A functioning “Christian nation” is going to combine both a robust private practice of faith with a government that is committed to basic elements of justice and mercy. In other words, when determining the identity of a people and nation, by their fruits you shall know them.
French contends that by many measures America has become more authentically Christian as Christian power has receded. Looking back to the past, when the US was unquestionably a Christian nation in terms of what its people professed:
Yet what else was happening in the United States during that era? Well, the entire southern United States (the Bible Belt, by the way) was essentially an apartheid sub-state within the larger United States. It brutally oppressed America’s black citizens, including its black Christian citizens. The Tulsa Race Massacre happened in 1921, at the peak of white Protestant power.
At the same time, white Protestants were also busy persecuting Catholics. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of so-called Blaine Amendments—state constitutional amendments that were explicitly aimed at protecting Protestant political and cultural power against perceived Catholic political and cultural encroachment.
So do we want to claim America as a “Christian nation” in that period? Even though there were millions of American Christians who possessed and wielded power to an extent not seen before or since? Where was the justice? Instead a nation of Christian was proving that it could act in affirmatively un-Christian—even anti-Christian—ways.
There’s something disingenuous about French’s essay, though I struggle to put my finger on it. What he says here is undeniably true, regarding how un-Christian, even anti-Christian, American Christians were in the past. But if we are judging whether or not a nation is Christian based primarily on the behavior of its Christian citizens, it will be hard to find a nation anywhere, at any time, that was Christian. What French points to is a shameful, tragic paradox: that in some cases, Christian values triumphed as Christian authority waned. Yet we don’t dare forget that the Civil Rights movement was led by black pastors, who did so in explicitly Christian terms. They could do that because America of the 1950s and 1960s was still a Christian nation, in the sense that the ideals most Americans espoused were Christian ideals. Martin Luther King and the others based their campaign in large part on calling Americans to be more faithful to the religion they espoused.
I think a better measure of whether a nation is Christian is to ask whether or not most people of that nation look to the Bible and its stories as their story too. That is, does the religion of the Bible (Old and New Testaments) tell us who we are, and what we are supposed to do? If people really believe that, then however short they fall of righteousness, they ought to be considered a Christian nation (though perhaps a nation of bad Christians). My argument is that what makes us post-Christian is that we Americans overall don’t look to the Bible as our sacred story anymore. This will become clearer when the Boomer generation has died.
While it is certainly true that some Christian values — recognition that racism is evil, for example — are more in evidence in America today than they were in a time of Christian cultural hegemony, this is a very thin basis for hope. Again, the Civil Rights movement worked because America was still a Christian nation, with a Christian conscience. When we lose Christianity, we lose the ideals by which our conduct can be measured. King taught us to see the sinful gap between what we white American Christians said we believed, and the way we behaved. In a post-Christian nation, that strategy is not available to one. If only a minority are believers in Jesus Christ, what does it mean to say that life is sacred? As historian Tom Holland points out in his wonderful book Dominion, nearly all of the liberal human rights values we hold dear in the West today came to us through Christianity. Will they survive the demise of Christianity? It is difficult to see how.
On his Substack, Ross Douthat answers French today. He points out that using racial justice as the main yardstick of progress over the past decades is rather flawed. What about all the bad things (from the viewpoint of Christian morality) that have happened? And yes, young people are having less premarital sex these days, but given that this is not because they are more virtuous, but the role that ubiquitous porn and high levels of anxiety play in this makes absurd the idea that it’s because of virtue.
Plus, there is this:
Third, you have the theological question of whether religious practice, regular prayer and honor to God, isn’t itself an important form of justice, whose decline matters to any assessment of the justice inherent in a given society. This obviously doesn’t matter to secular analysts, but from the Christian perspective a society where religious practice is declining steeply is a society where several major commandments are no longer being consistently upheld. I’m not sure how French weighs this issue on his scales, but given his own theological premises it has to have real weight.
Douthat puts his finger on something particular that bothered me about French’s essay. I wonder if it might be a Protestant thing. For Catholics and Orthodox, cloistered monks and nuns who do nothing but pray all day are doing something very important for the spiritual economy. Thomas Merton, in his 1940s memoir The Seven Storey Mountain, wondered about how much worse the world at war would be if not for the constant prayers of those unseen Christians. I wonder if French’s seeming lack of concern about this has anything to do with the early Protestant rejection of monasticism as useless. That is to say, I certainly know that Evangelicals believe prayer and worship is very, very important, but I am curious as to whether or not the point of criticism here has to do with deeper differences between Protestant spirituality and Catholic-Orthodox spirituality. I could be wrong, but the thought did occur to me.
Besides, judging the spiritual qualities of a nation solely or mostly by material standards is unreliable. The Middle Ages were absolutely saturated with religiosity, but they were also wretched and cruel. Who could possibly claim that medieval Europe wasn’t Christian? If your standards of what makes a society or a nation Christian would diminish the religiosity of medieval Europe because there was a lot of gross injustice there, then your standards are flawed. Furthermore, it would seem to make Christianity out to be a form of sanctified moralism. We have it on good authority that one can outwardly observe the moral law to a fine degree, but inwardly be a whitewashed sepulchre.
Douthat goes on:
But I also think it’s possible to say two things at once: First, that a certain amount of Christian reaction, maybe white evangelical Christian reaction especially, to Christianity’s decline has indeed been toxic, counterproductive, bad religion and the opposite of gospel witness, but also that the decline itself is something that Christians (and not only them) have good reasons to lament.
So by all means, tell your co-religionists that the church’s decline reflects God’s judgment on Christian sins and failures, and that Providence is calling them to purification and renewal and not just a truculent war footing behind the shield of Imperator Trump.
But if you tell them they can’t lament secularization or religious disaffiliation or the collapse of the old Protestant center on any grounds, that they can’t look at the ebbing of their own faith, the loss of American belief in what they consider the true story of the world, and see something regrettable and tragic and bad for the country in the long run, then that plays into the hands of the toxic avengers, because they’re the only ones saying the obvious: That for all our ample sins and failures, Christians are not obliged to celebrate our own decline.
That’s well said. Read it all.
As you know, readers, my sense of Christianity’s decline is in no way celebratory. I think it is a civilizational catastrophe. I believe that we Christians today had better wake up to the reality of our decline, and start right now building defenses that will enable us to make it through what could be a long exile without losing our faith. Far as I can see, the only thing that stands to reverse this decline is a rebirth of the faith, and that requires both evangelization and discipleship. Those are hard, unsexy things, but we are not going to vote ourselves out of this crisis. Aaron Renn is right to call me pessimistic, but I am also hopeful — hopeful, because no matter what happens, God is with us, and we have before us the opportunities to become saints. And who knows? Whittaker Chambers, when he left Communism after his Christian conversion, believed that he was leaving the losing side of the Cold War. He did it because he would rather lose with the truth than win with a lie. He was wrong.
One more thing. I quote frequently from church historian Robert Louis Wilken’s great 2004 essay “The Church As Culture” because it is so insightful and relevant to us. I don’t often quote this passage, though:
Last spring on a trip to Erfurt, the medieval university town in Germany famous for its Augustinian cloister in which Martin Luther was ordained to the priesthood, I learned that only twenty percent of its population professed adherence to Christianity. In fact, when the topic of religion came up in a conversation with a young woman in a hotel lounge, and I asked her whether she was a member of a church, she replied without hesitation: Ich bin Heide—“I am a heathen.”
It is hardly surprising to discover pagans in the heart of Western Europe where Christianity once flourished: a steep decline in the number of Christians has been underway for generations, even centuries. What surprised me was the absence of embarrassment in her use of the term “heathen.” She did not say that she no longer went to church or that she was not a believer. For her, Christianity, no doubt the religion of her grandparents if not her parents, was simply not on the horizon.
These days, I hear Christian friends — usually professors or high school teachers — talk about how often they run into young Americans just like that young German woman twenty years ago. We all know that Gen Z is the first one in US history where a majority profess no particular religious affiliation. This is not all that shocking. What I find harder to grapple with is how little they know about what they have rejected. It’s not like they are rejecting Christianity, as much as they have never had it presented to them. They don’t know what they don’t know, and don’t care. In my generation (I am 54), lots of people I know left the faith, but they consciously rejected it, even as they still carried in their heads all the Bible stories with which they were raised. Not these kids today. A truly post-Christian nation is one where even the memories of what it was to be Christian have gone away.
UPDATE: An Evangelical friend in New Orleans sent me this very helpful e-mail, and gives me permission to share it with you:
Since you asked, a few thoughts on why Evos might not love BenOp.
When I read BenOp, even in draft format, my thought was “Evangelicals are already doing a lot of this business of living differently from the masses.” And we were. But “we” was my church and the few others I’m intimately familiar with. Those do regular Bible studies, children’s and teen groups, socialize together, and generally already accept countercultural status. The expressed intent is to live separate and apart (i.e., “holy”) from the mainstream. I remember recommending that you talk to my hipster-in-law, who was raised in Awana and whose peer group was almost exclusively Awana kids from her school and other schools. She did mission work in the Philippines and Bangladesh, then returned to live in the Serious Hood that was walking distance from their church, so they could live the missionary life at home in New Orleans. She’s a millennial without ANY social media accounts. Counterculture much?
-I have little/no exposure to megachurches, so I overestimated how common my experience was. This was also pre-Trump, before I understood how thin is the veneer of a lot of Bible Belt Christianity. I assumed the Russell Moore faction was representative of evangelicalism as a whole, and that when push came to shove, the Republican-Party-at-Prayer would prioritize its faith over its politics. I was largely wrong about that – it’s not a blowout*, but “my” group is not the majority.
(*I think there’s a large minority of evangelicals who oppose Trumpism but are afraid to speak of it, in the same way that a lot of liberals oppose progressivism but fear being shunned.)
-Orthodoxy clearly works for you and for a lot of converts. I think that converts of all stripes think that their thing will work for everyone else just like it worked for them, just as I think my church works for me. This is also why CrossFitters, vegans, and gluten-free types won’t shut up. Your natural tendency is to think that your thing will work for everyone. Orthodoxy can just as easily be Greeks-at-Prayer or Putin. I come from a Catholic background, as do many/most local Evos. There are reasons we left the Catholic churches we grew up in and reasons we stayed in the churches we’re in. So we have the same home-team biases as you.
-Hence, the BenOp emphasizes traditional practices like formal fasts, repeated ancient prayers, singing ancient songs. Which works for you. But in the same way that every stick in Starhill looks like a rattlesnake to you, Evangelicals are programmed to see your proposals as signs of a faith based on works, which is a violation of the Prime Directive. At a minimum, Evos see an emphasis on formal practices on a man-made schedule, even if that schedule dates to the second or third century. And we who come from Catholicism have seen that emphasis on practices can make the practices seem like the goal.
I KNOW that’s not the case for you. The practices work for you. They might work for me. In the hands of flawed man, religion can (will?) become a rulebook that obscures Christ instead of pointing to him. You often note that Orthodoxy says “do the practices and eventually you will understand why.” Perhaps that works when your goal ab initio is to know and love Christ. Maybe it’s not so successful when you’re just told to do the things.
So if winter is coming and we need to hunker down, and you propose adopting traditional practices of your church as the solution, Evos throw out the BenOp with the bathwater. Also, my people have a tendency to downplay future trials by saying things like “We read the end of the Book, and we win!” without recognizing that “we” might be a remnant in Impfondo and not a stadium in Fort Worth.
As to monasteries, I think the Evangelical critique is that we’re supposed to be out there making converts, not holed up in silence. That’s a broad brush, of course, but I think it’s how many/most evangelicals think monasteries work: thick walls, vows of silence, and generally covering the lamps. I didn’t know that many monks have always interacted with the general public and only Head for the Hills™ at night or on Sundays.
Evangelicals see the Pauline ideal as 24/7 classic evangelism, ideally abroad, based on the Great Commission. There’s less of an appreciation for the life’s work of the Christian accountant or construction worker who never goes on a mission trip and is not great at talking about his faith, but who spends his life funding and praying for foreign missionaries. (You know who really appreciates that accountant and construction worker? The foreign missionary.)
Among Catholics and Orthodox, it seems that the modern heroes of the faith are the monks. Among evangelicals, it’s the foreign missionaries. You’ve got lots of monks and not enough missionaries; we’ve got missionaries and no monks at all. If evangelicals saw monks as the wielders of the weapon of prayer, there’ be more appreciation. But “we” tend to see them as people who lock themselves away and call themselves missionaries. So when you say “monasteries!” and put a walled island mountaintop on the cover of your book, the evangelical makes his judgment, rolls his eyes, and moves on.
FWIW, I’ve been theologically an evangelical since the mid-90’s, but I hated the E-word even then, and I associated it with the same things that you and the NPR crowd do. This is not a new thing. I’m still looking for a better label. I’ve also started an intensive (for me at least) study of the Torah.