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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

the paranoid style in American Christianity

November 19th, 2018 | 5 min read

By Matthew Loftus

We’re doomed! Doomed, I tell you:

Take this seriously. We are like people on a beach, watching a tsunami build on the horizon. You know how tsunamis work, right? There’s an earthquake far out at sea, and the shock wave travels through the water towards shore. Its intensity only manifests when it hits the shallows, and the wall of water builds into a devastating monster. The wall of water is coming at us. There’s no holding it back. There’s only building arks as fast as we can, and doing our best to ride it out.

I get it. I’m a physician; health care professionals are right up there with educators and pastors as the first people to get the business end of Caesar’s sword should Caesar decide that freedom of conscience with regard to religion is just a trojan horse for discrimination. I have three kids and I’ve still got siblings in middle school; I know that it’s terrifying to contemplate raising children in an age of cyberbullying, sexting, and rapid onset gender dysphoria. I also depend on support raising to feed my kids; a change in tax exemptions or a decrease in the number of faithful Christians could imperil my livelihood.

Aaron Renn (who Rod Dreher draws on quite a bit in the post linked above) talks about “Positive World”, “Neutral World”, and “Negative World” — three eras of American history that describe the status of Christian moral norms in society at large. In this schema, we shifted from positive to neutral in 1994 and then from neutral to negative in 2014, and now we are living in a cultural milieu that is fundamentally hostile to Christianity. Thus, the best that we can do is hang in there and hope to survive that coming anti-Christian tsunami that will presumably… take away our tax exemptions like most other Western countries? Mandate that all of our children listen to “gender ideology” propaganda in school that they’re only getting from TV now? It’s not entirely clear from the doomsayers what the “tsunami” will be, and when they do spell it out, it always sounds ridiculous.

This is incredibly facile. If you believe that “the culture” is a unified, monolithic entity “out there” — as opposed to something that we participate in and help to create! — you will inevitably develop a paranoid style that sees every possible development as confirmation that your fear is justified and only extreme measures will do. Like right-wing politicians chasing communists and talk-show hosts bloviating about the War on Christmas, you will see hyper-competent enemies everywhere and dismiss the faithful work of your brothers and sisters who have deluded themselves into thinking we live in “Neutral World” as capitulation. If you constantly harp on the need to fear, you will find yourself fearing more and more things until you’re afraid that your country will be destroyed by fellow Christians moving into it.

The ethnocentric nature of the paranoid style shows in more ways than one. If you asked African-American Christians to assign dates for a Negative World, a Neutral World, and a Positive World, where do you think they’d put 1965? Things were pretty negative for some Christian values before then, and yet that fact seems to elide the doomsayers. The history of the Church demonstrates constant flux in her faithfulness and the opinion of the surrounding world, which should always give us pause when we want to view ourselves in universal decline.

Furthermore, this kind of analysis fails to incorporate all the data. Certain elementary schools may be pushing transgender ideology, while the Trump administration is planning to eliminate transgender protections from Title IX. You can argue that cultural forces are generally moving in one particular direction, but calling it a “tsunami” when there are cultural forces strong enough to influence federal policy in the opposite direction is just trying to raise the stakes to feed your addiction to fear.

There isn’t just one “world” describing the cultural cachet of Christian moral norms. Rather, there are multiple loci of power that are constantly shifting in their attentions and preferences. (This is something that people of every political and cultural movement could stand to appreciate.) Right now, there’s an alliance between all sorts of conservatives barely holding together in the White House and the makeup of the Supreme Court is making people on both sides openly speculate about the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade. Faithful Christian brothers and sisters write stirring op-eds in our nation’s most prominent papers opposing the prevailing cultural mores on sex, while millions of other believers carry on the good work of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed through every sort of avenue imaginable. All of this happens at the same time (and sometimes within the same institutions!) as conservative Christian beliefs are mocked and sometimes punished. Trying to use one schema to describe it is lazy.

This kind of rhetoric is tiresome and fruitless. I heard it constantly growing up as a homeschooler in the 90’s (back in that glorious Positive World), reading that everything was at stake and that CPS could come to my door at any moment to snatch me away from my parents if they forgot my little brother at the grocery store or something. Alan Noble has documented the phenomenon here with a number of examples of the paranoid style that hardens our hearts and desiccates our brains. Such an approach may sell books, but it is just as morally deformative as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — trust me, I’ve seen it for myself in my family and friends.

Are we facing a crisis of moral and theological education in America, with young people in the church over-entertained and under-catechized? Absolutely. Are the power and principalities of the Sexual Revolution corrupting the beautiful gift of human sexuality? Yes. Are Christians in the West facing stronger, more organized political opposition to particular ethical directives than ever before? Definitely!

Yet simultaneously, are we facing a problem of inequality and “The Big Sort” that will only be overcome if Christians choose to live in places others might pejoratively refer to as “Section 8”? Yes. Are we still dealing with the powers and principalities of white supremacy, which will only be overcome by repentance and reparations? Yes. Are we still living in an era where millions of American Christians can freely worship, teach, evangelize, pray, and serve their neighbors? Thank God, yes!

We cannot let the real problems that face us distract us from the ever-present obligations that God’s love compels us towards. Shouting louder about real problems doesn’t make disinterested people care about the problems more — it only makes the people who are listening to you deaf to the concerns of the vulnerable. InterVarsity has taken more licks than just about any other Christian ministry in the past 10 years and they’re getting bolder without getting any less winsome. So why should anyone else be afraid?

The storms will always come with their waves big and small, no matter what era we live in. We cannot share what we do not have for ourselves, but genuine Christian faith is always evangelistic and inseparable from sacrificially loving our neighbors — and so we are kidding ourselves if we tell ourselves that we can put off taking risks for the good of others until the storm is over. Rather, we should not let fear poison our love and instead continue with joyful zeal, trusting that as we imitate Christ in his sacrificial love and uncompromising preaching we will demonstrate to the world — positive, negative, or indifferent — his glory and goodness.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at