One of core conservative Christian critiques of American culture is that America is growing ever-more hostile to the authentic Christian faith. We’ve left a friendly and hospitable past, and now we’re confronting a hostile future.
As one writer put it in an influential First Things essay, prior to 1994 the culture retained a positive view of Christianity. That view turned more neutral between 1994 and 2014, and since 2014 we’ve entered the “negative world,” where “being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of society,” and “Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order.”
This notion puts an intellectual frame around right-wing Christian rhetoric that declares we have to “take our country back.” Everywhere there is a sense of siege, and each and every act of unfairness or censorship directed at conservative Christians (whether in the United States or as far away as Australia) is amplified as proof of the concept. We have entered a new, dark time, it is said, and thus the “old ways”—which include a commitment to kindness in the public square—are simply inadequate for the moment.
But this analysis is fundamentally wrong. It’s dangerously wrong. It’s wrong not because the present moment is particularly hospitable to the Christian faith, but because it fundamentally misunderstands both American history and American Christendom, and it fundamentally misunderstands the permanent countercultural reality of authentic Christianity.
Let me illustrate this truth with two stories. Last week my wife Nancy had the opportunity to speak at Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center for The Moth Mainstage, a live storytelling event. It was a special moment, and a tremendous honor for Nancy. She told a crazy tale from early in our marriage, a story she’s also told in the Washington Post.
There were five storytellers. Nancy went first (and was amazing). Each story was captivating and fascinating in its own way. The final story, however, brought tears to my eyes. An older black woman named Sybil Jordan Hampton walked slowly to center stage and told her story.
She was one of the first black students to go back to Little Rock Central High School after the famous Little Rock Nine first integrated the school in 1957. Schools were shut down for a year afterwards because of violent racist protests. In 1959 they reopened, and Sybil was the only black child in the 10th grade.
Her story was harrowing. The first day of school, national guardsmen lined the steps to protect her life. No white student would speak to her. They’d cluster at the edges of the hallway to even avoid getting close to her. But stony silence was the best-case scenario. When students spoke to her, they’d often hiss the n-word.
The only time she really spoke, she said, was when it was her turn to read the Bible in the morning. She’d always read the same words from Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Is that a positive world or a negative world? After all, Christianity was so well-accepted in the halls of power that the government mandated scripture readings in public school. But here was a young Christian girl facing an avalanche of hatred in the heart of the Bible Belt, and the atmosphere of intimidation was so pervasive that no white student felt comfortable even being kind to her.
I’d call that negative. I’d say that’s negative at a level and magnitude that we can scarcely comprehend today—even during a time where intolerance and cancel culture have indeed resulted in unlawful or unfair treatment of Christians in the public square.
There is no moral defense for the treatment Sybil endured. None. There is no Christian case for her persecution. Authentic Christian faith would have required kindness to Sybil. It required justice for Sybil. But consider that even for those who enjoyed the privilege of white skin in the segregationist South, open Christian support for your black brothers and sisters could get you killed.
The second story is far less dramatic, but it’s indicative of the difficulty of authentic Christianity even within the heart of Christendom itself. If you have the stomach for it (the film can get slightly graphic), I’d urge you to watch the new Hulu documentary on the fall of Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University.
It’s a sad story. It details an immense amount of sexual depravity and institutional corruption. But one thing is clear—not just from this documentary, but also from the avalanche of investigations and reports of pervasive misconduct. The world’s largest Christian university was very much a “negative world” for those who challenged its corrupt president.
There’s a moment in the story when you can see that the sickness wasn’t confined to the apex of power. At roughly the 40-minute mark, Donald Trump speaks at Liberty Convocation, all the way back in 2012. Falwell introduces Trump with this statement: “Mr. Trump single-handedly forced President Obama to release his birth certificate.”
The statement is appalling enough. The birther conspiracy was always absurd on its own terms, and it was rendered worse than absurd by its racist overtones. But even more appalling is the reaction—loud cheers. Thousands of students loved the reference.
A corrupt university president introduced a corrupt celebrity and reveled in his role in advancing a sinister conspiracy theory. And the crowd roared. Positive world or negative world?
Walk through the list of recent Christian scandals, from the Southern Baptist horror of sex abuse and top-level coverups, to the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, to the horrific sexual predations at Kanakuk Kamps in Missouri, or to the dreadful accounts of Ravi Zacharias’s years of abuse at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and a common theme emerges. Those who resisted—those who sought justice for dreadful misconduct—are often simply obliterated by the Christian leaders and institutions they served.
Demonstrating authentic Christianity even in Christian spaces was often fatal for their careers and dangerous to their mental health.
Countless Christians are gripped by a sense of fear and exhaustion, but not because of “the left.” They’re fearful of fellow believers. In the aftermath of January 6, my friend Russell Moore wrote this in The Gospel Coalition:
People are not afraid of mobs overrunning their houses the way they have overrun the Capitol. But they are fearful of dealing with those who do believe in these endless conspiracy theories or who make distinctions between sheep and goats not on the basis of theology, or even political ideology, but in levels of enthusiasm for personalities associated with such ideologies. Many are just exhausted, knowing that every word from their mouth will lead to psychological warfare.
During my career I’ve been protested by the secular left and the Christian right. The secular left mainly focused on my defense of life, religious liberty, and my belief in traditional Christian sexual ethics—all the issues that alarm conservative Christians today.
I’ve endured all the responses that have caused right-wing Christians to call this the negative world. That includes campus shout-downs, efforts at physical intimidation, and lost job opportunities. But I can also say with absolute, total conviction that 25 years of leftist protests have paled in comparison to the ordeal of the last seven years of opposition to Trump. Nothing in my previous life prepared me for what came after my first National Review posts that critiqued Trump.
To read scripture is to understand that the negative world is a permanent fixture of Christian life—at least until Christ comes again. To read scripture is to perceive a profound gap between the high call of the Christian life and the much darker reality of the human condition, including the condition of our own hearts.
Who can read this list of the “works of the flesh”—“sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar”—and not see themselves in perhaps many of these vices?
And who can read this description of the “fruit of the spirit”—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”—and not understand how much they fall short?
To declare that Christianity is always going to be out of step with the spirit of any given age is not to say that ages don’t change. Challenges are different depending on the times. Think again of the challenge to a faithful Christian who might just want to be publicly kind to Sybil Jordan Hampton in the fall of 1959. Think of the much harder challenge for Sybil herself, as a faithful Christian simply seeking legal equality and justice under the law.
It’s certainly true that the sexual revolution wasn’t offering the challenges Christians experience today, but in a world where our religious liberty enjoys unprecedented protection, can we say that life is worse for Christians in 2022 than it was in 1959?
Challenges are different depending on your place in the world. Life as a faithful Christian on a progressive secular campus can be difficult. I spent much of my career defending hundreds of students and student groups against sometimes-ugly discrimination. I could tell stories that would shock your conscience of absurd double standards and vicious mistreatment.
But the idea that faithful Christians are safe from persecution even within Christendom has been proven false as a matter of history and present reality. All those who describe the threat of the left should remember that Christians across America—including dozens of Evangelical Christians within the halls of power—put another Christian man, Mike Pence, in mortal danger last year simply for having the basic integrity to uphold the rule of law.
Why is it so important to rebut the idea that we live in uniquely dreadful times? In part because of the temptation that it presents the church. The idea that we can shape our nation to restore a misremembered or misunderstood past presents its own dangers, chief among them the will to power that has enabled many of the abuses detailed above.
But it’s not just the will to power that enables abuse, it’s the sense of siege itself. Time and again Christians are told to close ranks even behind the corrupt lest they be seen to weaken the church or undermine its institutions.
Even worse, the idea that the times are so hard that they somehow relieve Christians of basic obligations of kindness, honesty, or humility actually renders the church an oppressor. It can make us even more cruel than the alleged enemies we seek to defeat.
In Matthew 7, Jesus said “narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life.” That was not qualified by an “unless.” Scripture does not say “narrow is the gate and difficult is the road” unless you elect Christians. It does not say the gate is narrow unless you defeat the radical left. It is instead an accurate reflection of the challenge presented not just by a fallen world, but also by our own faithless hearts.
One more thing …
If you had $300 million dollars to spend, would you spend it on an ad campaign advertising Jesus? I’ll confess. When I heard about the “He Gets Us” campaign—a massive ad campaign trying to introduce Americans to the person of Jesus Christ—I was skeptical. So Curtis and I invited the architect of the campaign on Good Faith. We had a great discussion. I’d love your thoughts, but before you listen you might want to watch one of the ads. First, watch the ad:
Next, listen to the podcast. And please share your thoughts in the comments below!
One last thing …
I love this simple hymn based on Psalm 121, the very psalm that comforted Sybil Jordan Hampton when she walked her hard road through the heart of the Bible Belt. The words are marvelous, and they make you understand that God doesn’t “need a protector.” He is, to quote a different psalm, “our refuge and our strength,” a “helper who is always found in times of trouble.”