What Caused the Negative World?
As I laid out back in 2017 and refined for my recent article in First Things, I divide the period from the 1960s to today into three phases distinguished by the way official American culture viewed Christianity: the positive, neutral, and negative worlds.
In the negative world, which we live in now and in which came into existence around 2014, official culture now views Christianity negatively. To be known as a Christian is a social negative in the elite domains of society, and Christian morality is expressly repudiated and treated as a threat to the new moral order of society.
This week I am a guest on C. R. Wiley’s podcast the Theology Pugcast. We discuss my article, but the conversation was much more wide ranging than that, and gets into material I’ve never written about before. Some of it is, candidly, underdeveloped. But if you are going to listen to a podcast I do with someone else, make it this one.
One of the questions I was asked was, what factors brought about the negative world? I want to elaborate on that a bit.
First, we can see the negative world as a simple outworking of the very long story arc of secularization in the West, as recounted by people like Charles Taylor.
But what are the proximate causes?
The highest reaches of intellectual and cultural life have probably long been very religiously skeptical, particularly towards traditional beliefs. But a number of changes since 1960 enabled cultural elites to impose their culture in a top down manner in ways that were not possible before, especially when it came to its view of Christianity.
1. The end of the Cold War. Because communism was an atheist system, Christianity became part of America’s fight against the Soviet Empire. The phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, for example. Christianity was part of the regime of freedom in the West and our moral propaganda against the Soviets. Hence it would have been hard to turn negative on Christianity while the Cold War was still ongoing. In fact, I could have dated the end of the positive world and the start of the neutral world to 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall) rather than 1994 - and maybe I should have.
2. The collapse of the WASP establishment. Until the 1960s, American was run by a hegemonic upper class White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. Not for nothing was there a Protestant in their name. Protestantism was a key part of their identity. Even Catholics were kept at a distance. (Prior to the 1960s, the real divides were sectarian, rather than Christianity vs. culture as it is presented today). Theirs was a liberal Protestantism, and many of the WASPs were not especially religious people (and probably not keen on fundamentalism). But in their day, it seems very unlikely they would ever have allowed an anti-Christian attitude to dominate the country culturally as that would have eliminated part of the boundary that defined their community.
3. Liquidation of intermediate institutions and social capital. America once had a robust set of civil society institutions that strengthened middle class social cohorts. These institutions created a buffer or mediating layer between state and corporate power and elite culture on the one hand, and the citizen on the other. These have largely been liquidated, as scholars like Robert Putnam documented in his famous Bowling Alone. Even where such institutions exist, they have been largely neutered as a force capable of resisting state power. The results are, as again documented by Putnam and others like Charles Murray, a two tier society in which the bottom 80% are atomized, and socially and economically weak. This weakened civil society and American middle class dramatically increases elite cultural power, as others who might resist them have been hobbled. (Much of the above has been the conscious policy of the federal government and cultural elites).
4. Deregulation and corporate concentration. Starting in the 1970s, America began deregulating the corporate sector, and especially rolling back on limits on corporate concentration. As a result, a much smaller group of large companies are now much more dominant in many sectors than previously. This includes banking, airlines, technology, media, you name it. Not every industry is dominated by an oligopoly - there are still many small banks and credit unions, for example - but there’s much more concentration in many sectors. And some are de facto monopolies or oligopolies. These companies have vast lobbying power and are more tightly connected to the state, resulting in things like declining corporate prosecutions and access to bailouts and other government support in times of crisis. At the same time, these firms are as a result more compliant with state and elite cultural mandates. The net result is that the market no longer acts as a meaningful check on the behavior of these firms in important regards. Hence, they can alienate half the country and not lose that much business because people have fewer alternatives - as long as it’s the right half. As Darren Beattie put it, rather than “get woke, go broke”, it’s actually “get woke or go broke.”
5. Digitization. The move to digitization, combined with the lack of a proper regulatory framework for it, enables vast top down control over the country. For example, probably even in the 1990s or later people conducted most transactions with cash or check. Today, virtually all financial transactions are through credit/debit cards, which means Visa and Mastercard have the de factor power to determine whether or not you can engage in commerce in the US. The bulk of Internet traffic today is on mobile devices, and two companies control the entire market for smart phones, Apple and Google. They too can decide whether or not various kinds of companies can basically be in business in the US. Digital technologies are the most concentrated in key areas, and unlike traditional essential services such as utilities, these businesses retain discretion on whom they will do business with. This again enables vast top down control over economic life, which by extension gives these firms vast cultural power as well.
These changes have produced a society without key cultural bulwarks supporting Christianity (Cold War, WASPs), and which created a much more two-tier, top down society with power concentrated at the top. In this environment, it was much easier for religiously skeptical elites to impose their vision on society than it would have been not that long ago. These changes in effect helped pave the way for the negative world.
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