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The Three Ages of Christian American Exceptionalism

May 31st, 2022 | 16 min read

By Jake Meador

In 1789, Otobo Cugoano, a freed slave and a Christian, wrote in his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery against those who claimed that the manstealing and enslavement of Africans was justified by the fact that some of those slaves accepted Christianity, the true religion:

And should it please the Divine goodness to visit some of the poor dark Africans, even in the brutal stall of slavery, and from thence to install them among the princes of his grace, and to invest them with a robe of honor that will hang about their necks forever; but who then can suppose, that it will be well-pleasing unto him to find them subjected there in that dejected state? Or can the slave-holders think that the Universal Father and Sovereign of Mankind will be well-pleased with them, for the brutal transgression of his law, in bowing down the necks of those to the yoke of their cruel bondage? Sovereign goodness may eventually visit some men even in a state of slavery, but their slavery is not the cause of that event and benignity; and therefore, should some event of good ever happen to some men subjected to slavery, that can plead nothing for men to do evil that good may come; and should it apparently happen from thence, it is neither sought for nor designed by the enslavers of men. But the whole business of slavery is an evil of the first magnitude, and a most horrible iniquity to traffic with slaves and souls of men; and an evil. Sorry I am, that it still subsists, and more astonishing to think, that it is an iniquity committed against Christians, and contrary to all the genuine principles of Christianity, and yet carried on by men denominated thereby.”

Cugoano insists here that the African slave trade was, in addition to being an abomination against God, also an act of persecution against Christians by those who blasphemously and falsely took God’s name in vain.

Cugoano would have been surprised to hear that he was living in a Positive Age for Christianity. But something very much like that is entailed in Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.

I first came across Aaron Renn’s concept of a Negative Age in his Masculinist newsletter. Since then, he’s expanded it into an essay for First Things. This is the quick synopsis, though do click through and read the whole thing if you haven’t.

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.

For a time, I found this schema fairly helpful and illuminating. I suspect I’ve cited it in the past in these pages, in fact. I know I’ve used it in conversation. What seems self-evidently true to me is that something shifted in America in the 2010s, likely in the window between 2014 and 2016. Mike Brown was killed in August of 2014, leading to protests in Ferguson, MO. I think if you started there and ran through the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA controversies, the Obergefell ruling, the 2016 presidential campaign, and President Trump’s inaugural speech in January of 2017, you probably have a good handle on the key window for these shifts. (Between the time I first drafted this piece and when it was published, Renn wrote something making a similar claim in defense of his thesis.) I’d also agree with Renn that the shift happened in such a way that has introduced new challenges for orthodox Christians trying to participate in American public life.

The Problem with the “Positive World”

Here is where I’ve evolved, I think: I’ve become very suspicious of accounts of Christianity’s place in American life that leave out questions related to justice. Issues of justice, especially as they relate to race and class have vexed the church for nearly our whole history in these lands. Indeed, they have vexed the church to such a degree that many Christian critics—Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Martin Luther King Jr., Wendell Berry, Jemar Tisby, etc.—have suggested that it is more accurate to call the prevalent forms of Christian practice in America something other than plain Christianity. Douglass called it slave-owners Christianity. Tisby uses “compromised Christianity.” Whatever term you prefer—I talked about “white evangelical crap” last year—I think the point here is significant.

It would be news to Christians during the antebellum years who sheltered fugitive slaves at considerable risk to themselves that they were living in a “positive” world. They were obviously behaving Christianly, and yet doing so put them at great risk relative to their supposedly Christian nation. Similar problems pop up elsewhere as well. Consider slaves themselves, many of whom were Christian but whose marriages were not respected and whose baptisms were often delayed or modified to accommodate the vicious slavery regime. What would they say if you told them they were living in a Christian nation or a nation friendly to Christians? Would Native peoples whose children were taken from their homes believe they lived in a nation where “Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society”?

Likewise, I think it would be news to Christian civil rights protestors who were beaten and imprisoned for the cause of justice that the nation was friendly to Christian belief, that being a Christian in America in those days was advantageous for one’s social standing. (Read a recent post by Alan Jacobs making precisely this point.) It was practicing Christian conceptions of justice that got them thrown in prison, after all! Similarly, it would be news to the church members of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, as they buried their daughters murdered in a church bombing, that the America they lived in was friendly to Christians. After all, their daughters were murdered while attending church.

Indeed, a good many black folks during the Civil Rights Movements believed that being Christian in America was inherently to be hostile to black dignity because Christianity was seen as being inextricably tied to white supremacy. That is why the Nation of Islam found such a ready audience and why Malcolm X was, in many black communities, much more popular than Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps Renn might reply that he simply is not talking about these issues – not about Douglass, or Cugoano, or Birmingham. His story is not one about Christianity in the entire history of the west, but about Evangelicalism in the last several decades. But this is precisely the point; the object of his investigation is not Christianity (as the First Things essay sometimes suggests). He clarifies what his object was in his substack follow-up:

It is objectively true that there was once a positive world in the United States. This world was, specifically, positive towards Protestant Christianity. Up through the 1950s, the United States had a well-documented Protestant establishment. Even Catholics could be excluded from certain institutions on account of their religion, and the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 as the first Catholic president was controversial at the time. The establishment’s religion was predominantly liberal Protestantism, but it was Protestantism to be sure. The divisions of this era were not Christian vs. non- or anti-Christian, but primarily sectarian and ethnic.

But to call white Christian KKK members lynching Black Christians “ethnic divisions” is too milquetoast. If Renn is untroubled by saying that Obama falsified his Christianity by supporting gay marriage and abortion, then he should be equally happy to say that enormous swaths of white Christianity were likewise fradulent, blasephemous, unworthy of the name. The effect of this admission is to say that an enormous strand of Christianity in America, the Black church tradition, was actively prevented from realizing their social vision of the good, by their countrymen whose evils are exacerbated, not ameliorated, by being draped in the cross.

Renn’s story is a decline story. All decline stories have two parts: a recognition that matters are bad, and an insistence that matters were not always this bad. Few deny the first premise. But the second premise is amply in doubt. The decline stories should be replaced by stories of Augustinian ambiguity. It is undoubtedly more difficult (though not impossible) for Christians in high positions of public life to hold orthodox positions on human sexuality than it was seventy years ago. It is also more difficult (though not impossible) for those Christians to hold the kinds of racial animus against minorities that may well have damned the souls of many of our purported forebears in the faith. The wheat and the tares are, as always, mixed all the way down. In the last days will come troubles, and yet, salvation is closer to us now than when we first believed.

The Three Ages of Evangelicalism… or of Christian American Exceptionalism?

The issue, in short, is that while I do think there was such a thing as a positive, neutral, and negative world and that their timelines mostly align with Renn’s proffered dates, I don’t think it is Christianity that is the subject of these eras. Rather, it is what we might call Christian American Exceptionalism–a system of belief that did include some Christian ideas and moral norms, but that also accommodated itself to many great evils and silenced huge swathes of Christian thought so as to not upset the prevalent regime. It is a sort of conservative American ideology that attempts to package together an American social doctrine founded on capacity for self-governance, capitalism, and racialization and then to affix Christianity to that package, declaring that America is a “Christian nation” (and so we might also call it “Christian Nationism”) while never subjecting America’s racial history or economic history to Christian moral norms.

That Renn is talking about white evangelicalism in particular occasionally peeks up in his First Things essay, as when he says that some Christians “turned away from engagement with and toward synchronization with secular elite culture, particularly around matters such as race and immigration.” But race was always a question in Black churches. Likewise, he claims that “80% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump,” which is not true. 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Pew Research does not disaggregate Black evangelicals from other Black Protestants, but in 2016, 96% of Black Protestants voted for Clinton.

This ideology did align with orthodoxy in some ways. Of particular relevance to us is the fact that Christian Nationism mostly accepted the Christian conception of the family–except when that conception proved mettlesome when selling slaves, for example, or as it concerned questions such as interracial marriage, the sanctity of Native families, or the destruction of black families by mass incarceration. Tellingly, in those situations Christian claims were made subservient to racial categories and concepts. Even so, the broader discourse surrounding sexuality and gender and, particularly, the ratification of Obergefell truly is a pivotal moment in defining our nation’s posture toward the orthodox conception of sex and gender, as Renn has argued.

This is, of course, the headwaters from which the genuine pressure many Christians feel today has come. But the issue is less a change in attitude toward Christianity writ large and more an embrace amongst the capitalist and managerial class of the sexual revolution, which is now manifesting itself as an HR-driven movement to purge sexual orthodoxy from the managerial and capitalist elite. (We’ll spend the next month being reminded of this, as America’s various firms all try to out-compete each other in signaling support for Pride month in hopes that this will help us all to forget about their many sins against the poor, against the planet, and against organized labor.)

But to observe that there is real hostility toward orthodoxy in many workplaces due to woke capitalism is distinct from a more generalized claim that America is now pervasively anti-Christian. Indeed, the latter is itself difficult to maintain when one surveys our current political moment. We may be on the cusp of abolishing Roe, six out of nine Supreme Court justices are, relatively speaking, conservative Christians, 90% of congress identifies as Christian, biblical references routinely pop up in our political speech, and it is highly likely that we’ll see a Republican wave this November and quite possibly the return of President Trump in 2024.

All of this is indicative of a crucial point for understanding the 2010s: Sexuality is not really the single prime driver of change between 2014 and 2017. Though the shift seems to come over a period of time that includes Obergefell, it also includes Ferguson—and if anything it seems that Ferguson (as well as the many related cases that followed it) exerted a greater amount of influence over the shift than did Obergefell, however influential the latter case might be. And because of that, analyzing the change is not as simple as saying “America was neutral to Christianity and now is negative toward it.” Why is that?

Charlie Dates, in words I have quoted here before, suggested an answer several years ago while speaking at a TGC event:

Today we are witnessing the emergence of a new generation of Americans that are fascinated with justice but they haven’t met the author of righteousness. They are trying to get justice on the streets apart from understanding righteousness taught in our churches. And they will never find it. And at the same time we have a church that are preaching righteousness but will not fight for justice. Both of those are insufficient. Both are incomplete. Neither represent the full scope of God’s plan upon us.

Here’s my thesis, as concisely as I can offer it: The subject of Renn’s positive, neutral, and negative worlds is not actually Christianity itself, but the kind of folk religion of Christian Nationism that sought to glue Christianity to an already defined ideology with predictably lopsided, ill-fitting, and immoral consequences.

Because Christian Nationism is grounded in ideas about property, race, and the self that are irreconcilable with Christian faith, Christianity was modified, accommodated, and compromised in order to fit with the ideology while not challenging the ideology. So Christian teachings on sex and gender were mostly fine because they fit the ideology—except when they didn’t and those cases were mostly resolved through appeals to racist lines of thought, as mentioned above. That is telling in itself, however: When Christian teachings and American racism entered into open conflict, Christian Nationism gave primacy to racism rather than to Christian doctrine. Unsurprisingly, Christian teachings on economics and justice, which are far more explicitly at odds with Christian Nationism, were almost entirely abandoned.

There are further difficulties as well. Even on its own terms, Christian Nationist beliefs aren’t entirely reconcilable with one another. In particular, the interplay between the idea of “self-governance,” central to American identity and self-understanding, and racialization has been complex and created competing dynamics. Two problems in particular are worth spelling out.

First, I have used the idea of “self-governance” rather than “individualism” for a couple reasons. “Self-governance” is closer to the language that the country was founded on whereas “individualism” is actually a tricky term to use when speaking of the American tradition, as there is an underlying communitarianism present at points in our history.

But self-governance can be understood in a variety of ways. Taken in a more classically Lockean sense, it indicates a capacity to organize one’s own life in accordance with virtue and natural law, a position which is relatively easy to synthesize with traditional Christian orthodoxy. However, that is not the only way in which Americans have understood the idea of “self-governance.” Taken in a more revolutionary Jeffersonian sense, it collapses down to something like “the ability to invent for oneself a way of living that maximizes individual choice,” which is where Jefferson effectively ends up. My contention is that, in matters of morality, America is deeply Jeffersonian.

But once self-governance is transformed from the more moderate (and historically rooted) Lockean sense of the term into the Jeffersonian sense, you now have something of a self-destruct mechanism hardwired into the Christian Nationist program. This is why the successor to Christian Nationism, the thing responsible for today’s “negative age,” is contemporary progressivism or, what Wesley Yang has called “the successor ideology.” The seeds of the successor ideology are found within the Christian Nationist ideology. Because this extreme individualism has always been present in the American tradition via Jefferson and his love of the French Revolution, the potential for the extreme individualism we have today has always been there. It just needed the sexual revolution and, especially, the Pill to be activated.

The second problem the Christian Nationists run into with “self-governance,” is that the particular interplay that traditionally existed between “self-governance” and “racialization” no longer works. There was always a fierce argument in America about this issue because, on the one hand, our founding documents claim that all men are created equal while our founding fathers allowed for slavery. The way that this problem was resolved was to argue that certain racial groups lacked a capacity for self-governance and, therefore, the classic American liberal rights didn’t apply to them. (This is also the argument that animated our foreign policy for a time.)

So, to cite only one example, the southern Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney would say things like this when trying to defend racial segregation in American churches:

I oppose the entrusting of the destinies of our Church, in any degree whatever, to black rulers, because that race is not trustworthy for such position. There may be a few exceptions; (I do not believe I have ever seen one, though I have known negroes whom I both respected and loved, in their proper position) but I ask emphatically: Do legislatures frame general laws to meet the rare exceptions? or do they adjust them to the general average?

Now, who that knows the negro, does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; and his temperament, idiosyncrasy, and social relation, make him untrustworthy as a depositary of power? Especially will we weigh this fact now, unless we are madmen; now, when the whole management to which he is subjected is so exciting, so unhealthy, so intoxicating to him; and when the whole drift of the social, political, and religious influences which now sway him, bear him with an irresistible tide, towards a religious faction, which is the deadly and determined enemy of every principle we hold dear. Sir, the wisest masters in Israel, a John Newton, an Alexander, a Whitefield, have told us, that although grace may save a man’s soul, it does not destroy his natural idiosyncrasy, this side of heaven. If you trust any portion of power over your Church to black hands, you will rue it. Have they not done enough recently, to teach us how thoroughly they are untrustworthy?

They have, in a body, deserted their true friends, and natural allies, and native land, to follow the beck of the most unmasked and unprincipled set of demagogues on earth, to the most atrocious ends. They have just, in a body, deserted the churches of their fathers. They have usually been prompt to do these things, just in proportion to their religious culture and to our trust in them. Is not this enough to teach us, that if we commit our power to that race, in these times of conflict and stern testimony, possibly of suffering for God’s truth, it will prove the “bruised reed, which when we lean upon it will break…”

For Dabney, certain racial groups had a diminished capacity for self-governance or simply had no capacity for it at all. In which case, it was actually proper and right to subjugate those groups because subjugated life under a higher racial group was actually the best thing these lesser races could hope for. It is perhaps also worth noting, given Dabney’s warnings about “negro supremacy,” that one of Renn’s colleagues at American Reformer is now warning against “black supremacy”:

As Christian Nationism is increasingly under threat by the successor ideology, do not be surprised to see the incipient racism of the Christian Nationist ideology becoming more and more explicit.

More generally, however, this racial component has become less plausible for many white Americans. The difficulty is that it is hard to maintain the idea that African Americans are somehow less capable of self governance when it is so transparently false. Black Americans have built churches, colleges and universities, businesses, and thick, rich cultures for as long as they have been on these shores. And they have done so under almost unfathomably cruel, horrific conditions.

Indeed, two of the signature cultural artifacts of America, jazz music and barbecue cuisine, owe most of their formative history to African Americans. If you’ve ever eaten mac and cheese, that’s a dish invented by James Hemmings, a slave who worked in Thomas Jefferson’s kitchen. Even under such remarkably severe, harsh conditions, African Americans have produced artifacts and institutions that have enriched the lives of millions in remarkable, beautiful ways. So the claim that so many past adherents of the Christian Nationist ideology have made concerning the relationship between self-governance and racialization are refuted by simply opening one’s eyes and looking at America.

For both of these reasons, the Christian Nationist ideology has had to modify itself in recent years, tempering the approach it takes to “self-governance” as a virtue while also trying to appropriate much black history for their own cause, as in the regular way conservatives will deploy out-of-context excerpts from Martin Luther King to try and promote “color blind” policies, for example.

Where We Are Today

There are two ideologies warring with one another in America today. The former is Christian Nationism and the latter is the successor ideology. Neither is reconcilable with Christianity. The former is inextricably bound up with anti-Christian beliefs about race, property, and the self. The latter is inextricably bound up with anti-Christian beliefs about sexuality, gender, family, and the self.

Significantly, both ideologies will at times try to artificially attach Christianity to themselves. Yet both choose to water down their Christianity, the former by suppressing or outright ignoring what the Bible says about the debts we owe to our neighbors (and who our neighbors are!), as well as what the Bible says about the nature of justice, property, and wealth. The latter, on the other hand, waters down the faith by suppressing and ignoring virtually the entire Christian tradition’s witness regarding the truths about our bodies, sexuality, and the family.

This means that decline stories will inevitably conceal as much as they reveal. The working of God in America is not synonymous with the cultural fortunes of white conservatives. It is possible both to rejoice that abortion is being rolled back, in keeping with historic Christian social witness, and also to rejoice that the voice of God through the black church against racism is increasingly being amplified and heeded by the white Christians who for so long failed to heed it.

It is possible to lament both that American society seems increasingly at peace with the idea that one is free to use one’s sexual organs in whatever way one pleases, in violation of historic Christian teaching, and also to lament that American society seems increasingly at peace with the idea that millionaires and billionaires are free to use their wealth in whatever way they please, in violation of historic Christian teaching. The wheat of the kingdom is growing up in our midst, but so are the tares. Sunny optimism has no theory of the tares, and nostalgic decline stories have no theory of the wheat.

The unhappy place this leaves American Christians, of course, is that we can choose the path of compromise with one of these ideologies, which can provide some level of security and protection (as well, perhaps, as a hit of a self-righteousness) for us depending on where we live in America.

Or we can choose to stand with the church triumphant (and the global church militant) in upholding the full counsel of God, holding it out to the world as good news of great joy for all peoples. Christianity promises us that, through Christ, there is true justice for the poor and the stranger, there is an end to tyranny and liberation for all God’s children. It also tells us that there is a righteous standard that Christ himself fulfilled and that now, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, he calls us to fulfill as well, and that standard will tell us what to do with our money and also with our bodies.

God’s revelation to us leaves no room for hiding any part of our life from the light of Christ. Christ’s call to us is to follow him, simply, wholly, and completely without compromise, without accommodation. To fulfill this calling, to take up this yoke, comes with a cost. But that is not all it comes with. It also comes with a promise made to us by God himself: those who overcome with Christ will, one day, rule with him. The King is coming. As is ever the case, the question before us is simple: Will we repent and follow him?

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).