)And for contributors to Sasse 2020.)
First, Renn’s categories:
Ben Sasse is a conservative exemplar of what I term “neutral world” Christianity. In my framework, there are three worlds we’ve seen in my lifetime related to the status of Christianity and traditional Christian norms in society.
1 Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
2 Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
3 Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.
To illustrate the differences, consider these three incidents:
1 Positive World: In 1987 the Miami Herald reported that Sen. Gary Hart had been having an affair, and cavorting with the woman in question on his yacht. He was forced to drop out of the presidential race as a result.
2 Neutral World: In 1998 the Drudge Report broke the story that Bill Clinton had been having an affair with intern Monica Lewinksy, including sex acts in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton was badly damaged by the scandal but survived it as the Democratic Party rallied around him and public decided his private behavior was not relevant to the job.
3 Negative World: In 2016 Donald Trump, a many whose entire persona (sexual antics, excess consumption, boastfulness, etc.) is antithetical to traditional Christianity, is elected president. The Access Hollywood tape, for example, had no effect on voter decisions about him.
Even for those who hate Christianity, the rise of Trump, something only possible in a post-Christian world, should give them pause to consider.
Tim Keller’s ministry is the consummate neutral world Christianity:
The neutral world church is very different in a number of ways. It has traditionally been much more apolitical (though many of its practitioners lean left). It’s also much more heavily urban and global city focused. It tries to avoid highlighting areas where Christianity is in conflict with the world. Instead of being antagonistic towards the culture, it is explicitly positive towards culture. In fact, you could sum up much of the model under the heading “cultural engagement.” They want to meet the culture on its own terms, and reach people as participants in a pluralistic public square. They want to be in the mainstream media, not just Christian media or their own platforms. Many of their ministries have been backed by big money donors. These are many of the people who denounced Trump to no effect during the election. In effect, they represent a version of Christianity taking its cues from the secular elite consensus.
Which means that some political topics are okay, some aren’t:
The average neutral world Christian leader – and that’s a lot of the high profile ones other than the remaining religious righters, ones who have a more dominant role than ever thanks to the internet – talks obsessively about two topics today: refugees (immigrants) and racism. They combine that with angry, militant anti-Trump politics. These are not just expounded as internal to the church (e.g., helping the actual refugee family on your block), but explicitly in a social reform register (changing legacy culture and government policy).
I’m not going to argue that they are wrong are those points. But it’s notable how selective these folks were in picking topics to talk about. They seem to have landed on causes where they are 100% in agreement with the elite secular consensus. . . .
I won’t speculate on their motives, but it’s very clear that neutral world leaders have a lot to lose. Unlike Jerry Falwell, who never had secular cachet and lived in the sticks, these guys enjoy artisanal cheese, microbrews, and pour over coffees in Brooklyn. They’ve had bylines in the New York Times and Washington Post. They get prime speaking gigs at the Q conference and elsewhere. A number of them have big donors to worry about. And if all of a sudden they lost the ability to engage with the culture they explicitly affirmed as valuable, it would a painful blow. For example, to accept Dreher’s Benedict Option argument they’d have to admit that the entire foundation of their current way of doing business no longer works. Not many people are interested in hearing that.
The neutral world Christians – and again that seems to be much of Evangelical leadership today – are in a tough spot when it comes to adjusting to the negative world. The move from positive to neutral world brought an increase in mainstream social status (think Tim Keller vs. Pat Robertson), but the move to a negative world will involve a loss of status. Let’s be honest, that’s not palatable to most. Hence we see a shift hard to the left and into very public synchronization with secular pieties. That’s not everybody in Evangelical leadership, but it’s a lot of them. Many of those who haven’t are older and long time political conservatives without a next generation of followers who think like them. (Political conservatism is also dying, incidentally).
And lo and behold, The Gospel Coalition is smack dab in Neutral World Christianity:
I was speaking with one pastor who is a national council member of the Gospel Coalition. He’s a classic neutral worlder who strongly disapproves of Trump. But he notes that the Millennials in his congregation are in effect Biblically illiterate and have a definition of God’s justice that is taken from secular leftist politics. They did not, for example, see anything at all problematic about Hillary Clinton and her views. A generation or so from now when these people are the leaders, they won’t be people keeping unpopular positions to themselves. They won’t have any unpopular positions to hide. They will be completely assimilated to the world. Only their ethics will no longer be Hillary’s, but the new fashion du jour.
Renn’s recommendation is not necessarily the Benedict Option but the Fighting-the-Good-Fight Option:
The template is Paul, who was one tough hombre. Paul was a Jewish blueblood on the fast track to high council membership who threw it all way to endure beatings, imprisonment, etc. (One of the underappreciated virtues of Paul is just how physically and mentally tough that guy was). He said he counted it all as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. He also someone who could say, “I have not shunned to declare unto you the whole counsel of God.”
Even the author of the Benedict Option, Dreher, sees merit in Paul as the model for ministry:
Paul did not focus his struggle on the world, but within the church itself. Aside from seeking converts, he doesn’t advise his followers to engage the culture, get politically active, or anything like that. Nor did he instruct his followers to run away from the world. Rather, he focused on building up the church in holiness, and exhorting believers in the new faith to overcome the world in themselves.
That seems a lot like the confessional Reformed Protestant model. It’s very personal, familial, congregational, and local, perhaps even too local for the advocates of localism.