Aaron M. Renn

Why Louisiana Was Unwise to Mandate the Ten Commandments in Classrooms

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Monday, July 8, 2024
In reality, this law is almost entirely symbolic, and a highly provocative symbolic act at that, one that will alienate non-Christians and reinforce them in every bad thing the left has said about conservative Christians wanting a theocracy. It reinforces the idea that conservative Christians are basically unwilling to live peaceably as part of the multicultural society that, whatever one might think of it, actually exists today. This is true even for non-religious “normies” who aren’t necessarily inherently hostile to Christianity unless given some reason – such as a move like this made in a country in which only a minority of people are practicing Christians.

The state of Louisiana just passed a law mandating the the Ten Commandments be put on display in public school classrooms in the state.
I believe this law is unwise, reflects a poor understanding of cultural conditions, and shows that a large number of American Christians are still living in a culture war mindset.
In my book about how America has transitioned towards a Negative World for Christians, I wrote about the need to stay prudentially engaged, and that different people are going to come to different good faith conclusions about the right actions to take. I wrote:
Prudential engagement also recognizes that not all evangelicals will come to the same conclusion about where and how to be involved politically and socially. We should be tolerant of evangelicals who make a different decision than we do in this matter. That doesn’t mean we avoid political conversations or refrain from critical evaluations of other people’s approaches. It’s perfectly valid to say, as I just did, that the counsel advo- cating political disengagement should be rejected.
But we should respect those who hold views different from our own and seek to be attuned to them when they’ve honestly made a different decision.
So in this case, I’ll say that I simply come to a different prudential judgment than the folks in Louisiana. I don’t think this is a blatantly illegitimate act. Not only would this have been very constitutional, even normal, for the vast bulk of American history, there are people my age who’ve been noting how they had the Ten Commandments in their classrooms when they were in school.
The courts may very well rule that this law unconstitutional. I choose to view the malleability of our constitution in that way as a feature not a bug. Meaning I too want to change various things that are presently viewed as “the constitution.” There’s no reason for anyone to treat current jurisprudence as settling anything, given that neither the left, nor America’s judges themselves, behave in that manner.
So I don’t think this law is per se illegitimate or outside the American tradition. I just think it’s unwise.
Why do I say that?
First, let’s consider some reasons people might put forth for why this was a good thing.

It’s red meat that energizes the base, so makes good political sense in that way.
It shows a willingness by red states to defy the national cultural consensus and even the federal government – a sort of assertive federalism.
It will actively repel liberals from the state, helping to keep it red politically.
It will have some sort of substantive, evangelistic effect on the viewers or culture.

I don’t personally find these compelling in this case.
Start with the fact that this is a classic “culture war” move. In fact, it’s literally a classic. Attempting to force the display of the Ten Commandments on government property is a longstanding culture war tactic. I seem to recall it even back in the 1990s, and have managed to find references to it on the internet from as early as 2002. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled against this very practice when it comes to courthouses.
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The Lifestyle Ratchet Is Hard to Avoid

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Thursday, June 6, 2024
Economic, technological, and social changes affect the availability and norms of society in ways that make it difficult to avoid adapting to them. I want to dial in on cultural and social expectations. Because these can put pressure on people to upgrade their lifestyles in ways that might be possible to resist, but which are difficult to do so.

I grew up in a small house without air conditioning where I shared a bedroom with my younger brother.
I remember how awful it was on hot summer nights in August. I put a box fan turned to high on a chair about three feet from the edge of my bed to try to get cool. But other than that, growing up there wasn’t bad.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, lots of people did not have air conditioning, or only had bedroom window units. Sharing bedrooms also wasn’t uncommon.
Things have changed today. While plenty of people don’t have AC or have children sharing bedrooms, these are now almost entirely a result of lacking the money to get them.
Air conditioning and one bedroom per child have become socially normative to the point that it’s a point of parental contention to choose differently.
There was a recent interesting article “Why Do So Many Parents Think Kids Need Their Own Bedroom?” in the Atlantic addressing this very point.
When I ask my husband what it was like to share a room as a kid, he shrugs. He didn’t consider it that big a deal. But many parents I’ve talked with who live in metro areas with high costs of living feel the same as I do. Some are stretching their budgets to afford a house with more bedrooms; others are reluctant to grow their families without having more space. As I mull this over, I wonder: Why do so many of us prioritize giving kids their own room?
Over the past half century or so in the U.S., the practice has become what the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau calls a “normative ideal”—something that many aspire to, but that not all can attain. It’s gotten more common in recent decades, as houses have gotten bigger and people have been having fewer kids. From 1960 to 2000, the number of bedrooms available for each child in the average household rose from 0.7 to 1.1, according to the Stanford sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld’s calculations using U.S. census data. It’s held fairly steady since, the University of Washington real-estate professor Arthur Acolin told me. Recently, Acolin analyzed 2022 American Community Survey data and found that more than half of all families with kids had at least enough bedrooms to give each child their own (though it’s not certain that all of them do). Even among parents whose children share rooms, more than 70 percent say they wish they could give everyone their own.
Economic, technological, and social changes affect the availability and norms of society in ways that make it difficult to avoid adapting to them.
I want to dial in on cultural and social expectations. Because these can put pressure on people to upgrade their lifestyles in ways that might be possible to resist, but which are difficult to do so.
One kid per room is an example of such a standard. When I was a kid, I obviously would have preferred my own room. I knew that kids from families with more money did have their own room. But there was nothing unusual about sharing one.
Over time, as one child per bedroom became seen as the norm, not having that would mark a family as an outlier.
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Will the End of Protestantism be the End of America?

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Thursday, May 9, 2024
There’s a copious amount of discussion about family structures in this book, but Todd adds to that an overlay of religion. He sees Protestantism, rather than the market, industry, or technology as the heart of the modern West. Its most critical impact was a drive for universal literacy, so that all the people could read the Bible in their own language. It also created the famed Protestant work ethic. An educated, industrious populous led to the takeoff of economic growth in Protestant countries. Indeed, Protestant countries were the most advanced industrial economies in Europe and basically remain the leaders. (Todd believes France benefitted from being adjacent to a band of Protestant nations).

French historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd was the first person to have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. He noted that, unusually, its infant mortality rate was rising, and that they had even ceased publishing that statistic. Based on this and other data, he concluded that the Soviet Union had entered “the final fall.”
In something of a parallel to that work, his new book, La défaite de l’Occident (The Defeat of the West), published in January, says that the West is on track to lose the conflict in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, this was received poorly by critics who accused him of repeating Kremlin propaganda.
What caught my attention was that Todd blames the fall of Protestantism for unleashing a crisis in the heart of the West itself. And that this rather than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the true source of our problems. He writes, “The real problem facing the world today is not Russian will to power, which is very limited. It’s decadence at its American center, which is unlimited.” (You can see why people hated this). I read the book for myself to see what he had to say about Protestantism.
My earliest readers will know that that I’ve been learning French. I’ve mastered enough to essay Todd’s book, but am still sub-fluent. So you should validate the translations I provide here before relying on them, as they are a mixture of Google Translate and my own work.
Much of Todd’s research work has focused on the influence of historic family structures on ideologies. For example, he argues that the Russian family structure created a social state that was amenable to communism. Russian families were strongly patriarchal, and all of the sons lived with their father. This created an ideal of, simultaneously, authoritarianism (of the father) and equality (between the brothers). Communism was, in a sense, an embodiment of this type of social order.
There’s a copious amount of discussion about family structures in this book, but Todd adds to that an overlay of religion. He sees Protestantism, rather than the market, industry, or technology as the heart of the modern West. Its most critical impact was a drive for universal literacy, so that all the people could read the Bible in their own language. It also created the famed Protestant work ethic. An educated, industrious populous led to the takeoff of economic growth in Protestant countries. Indeed, Protestant countries were the most advanced industrial economies in Europe and basically remain the leaders. (Todd believes France benefitted from being adjacent to a band of Protestant nations).
If Protestantism brought positives to Europe, it also introduced the idea of inequality in a profound way, through its idea of the elect and the damned. Hence Protestant countries also created the worst forms of racism (as in the United States) and antisemitism (as in Germany). He cites the fact that Protestant areas of Germany were more supportive of the Nazis than Catholic ones.
The root of the nation state is also in Protestantism, not in the French Revolution or anything of that nature. He writes, “With Protestantism, there appeared peoples who, by too much Bible reading [in their vernacular], believed themselves chosen by God.”
In this analysis, he seems to basically be recapitulating Max Weber, of whom Todd describes himself as a student.
Protestantism Active, Zombie, and Zero
If Protestantism lies at the heart of the West, then the disappearance of Protestantism is a crisis for the West.
Todd divides religions in modern societies into three states: the active state, the zombie state, and the zero state.
In an active state, people attend church regularly. They have families on the Christian model, and they do not cremate their dead. (Christianity has always frowned on cremation as denying the hope of the resurrection of the body).
In a zombie state, people no longer attend church regularly, but still turn to the church for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Critically, in a zombie state, people still hold to the habits and values of the old religion. So in a Protestant zombie state, people would still have the Protestant work ethic, place a value on literacy (education), etc. They largely retain Protestant practices around family and avoiding cremation. Especially they retain “the ability for collective action.”
In a zero state, people no longer even have church weddings or funerals. They don’t have their children baptized. In the zero state, the habits and values of the old religion have disappeared. People embrace cremation. And they abandon the Christian family structure. Todd sees the arrival of “marriage for all” as marking the definitive point of arrival at a religious zero state.
I did not note exactly when he said the United States entered a Protestant zombie state, but it encompassed the first part of the twentieth century up until about 1965. Todd notes that the zombie Protestant era was very good for America, with an extended period of triumph from FDR to Eisenhower. But that does not mean a zombie state always produces good outcomes. He also sees Nazism as arising out of a Protestant zombie state in Germany.
Around 1965, America entered a transition phase towards a zero state. In his treatment of the UK, Todd illustrates the loss of the habits and values of Protestantism by pointing to a softening of the culture of the English public schools (which, confusingly to Americans, are actually their most elite private schools). The same phenomenon occurred to a lesser extent here at elite prep schools and colleges. We see the transition in a few phenomena. One has been steady grade inflation over time. Todd cites figure showing that students spend significantly less time studying today than they used to as well. Another is the loss of the ethic of public service and self sacrifice. Many of the graduates of those schools fought, and even died in World War II. Rather than go directly to college, George H. W. Bush joined the Navy right after graduating from Phillips Andover to fight as an aviator in the Pacific theater. By Vietnam this became the exception. A recent newsletter from Matthew Yglesias on why colleges students need to study more covers similar territory here.
But just as the positive qualities of Protestantism began to unravel, so did the negative. In particular, Todd see the civil rights movement and the entire subsequent efforts toward full social and economic integration of blacks into mainstream society as a product of Protestant decay. To him, racism and discrimination against blacks were not just regrettable byproducts of a Protestant belief in inequality, but played a core function in structuring American society. Putting blacks into the role of “the damned” in society was what allowed there to be equality among whites themselves.
With the Obergefell decision in 2015, the transition phase ended and America definitively arrived at a Protestant zero state.
I’m more going to present Todd’s theories than attempt to rigorously analyze them, but it is worth noting that there are things one could critique here. For example, while there may have been a base level racial equality among whites, all whites were certainly not viewed as equal, as prewar Catholics and Jews could attest.
Also, the 1950s are supposedly part of the Protestant zombie era, and yet that was the high water mark of church attendance in the United States. Todd pooh-poohs the idea that America has been that distinct from Europe on that front. He says research shows people inflate their church attendance levels in surveys. But no one disputes that the 1950s were an era of high church attendance.
Todd also brutally dismisses the evangelical movement, seeing it as heretical and not really Protestant at all. But the only source he cites for that take is Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion, which does not suggest he has a sophisticated understanding of American evangelicalism.
That brings up one of the key weaknesses of Todd’s analysis of America. His analysis of contemporary America leans heavily on writers like Douthat, names that are known and are legitimate, but are in an important sense dissident or peripheral. Others in this vein that he refers to are Joel Kotkin and John Mearsheimer. This will weaken the credibility of his arguments with many American readers who defer to mainstream consensus authorities – although those reading here definitely cast a wider net that includes dissident sources. American evangelicals, of course, are likely to discount critiques coming from Catholic commentators like Douthat.
I was particularly struck that Todd’s framework aligns quite well with my own three worlds model. The transition from zombie Protestantism starting circa 1965 is also when I say the status of Christianity (especially Protestantism) starts to go into decline in America. That transition phase covers my Positive and Neutral Worlds.
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The Real Function of Third Way Rhetoric

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Wednesday, April 24, 2024
So much of the teachings of the urban church flatter the sensibilities of the people in the pews rather than fundamentally challenging them about the way they are living their lives…The pedimental nature of third way rhetoric is very effective, and it’s easy to see why it appeals to the striver class people who populate evangelical urban churches.

“Third way” rhetoric that has been deployed by some evangelicals was once praised but is now often criticized. People are rejecting the idea that the truth is somewhere in the middle of left and right, or is some hybrid thereof. Today, even the evangelical proponents of third way rhetoric have adopted new language like “diagonalizaton” to suggest that the Christian truth is not simply somewhere in the middle but something else entirely. (I believe Christopher Watkin came up with this formulation).
I actually think that a third way approach can be valid in a lot of circumstances in describing truth. For example, Aristotle said that virtue was a mean between two extremes. Not that perfect virtue always was at the midpoint of the two, but that it lies somewhere in the middle.
Similarly, in a theological context, we could say that it’s possible to over-emphasize Christ’s humanity and end up falling into Arianism, or over-emphasize his divinity and end up in Docetism.
Very often in life there actually are ditches on both sides of the road. So in terms of conveying truth, I think talking about a third way can often be accurate.
The real function of third way rhetoric is not conveying a truth claim, however. It is to elevate the status or moral position of the person using it—and often that of his audience as well.
Third way rhetoric is a pedimental structure. I first encountered the idea of pedimental language in reading Mary Douglas’ wonderful book Leviticus as Literature.
A pediment is an architectural feature that looks like this.
While this public domain image has four columns, you often see it with just two. The left and right corners of the triangle serve to emphasize the corner that is elevated in the center.
When used in rhetoric, pedimental rhetoric functions similar to a chiasm in emphasizing the central point. We see this structure in Leviticus. Douglas argues that chapters 18 and 20 have a pair of repeated sexual regulations that emphasize the social justice regulations in Leviticus 19 (which I believe she argues is actually the central focus of the book).
Let’s apply this to contemporary evangelical rhetoric with a simplified example. If I get into a pulpit and say, “Christianity is conservative because it cares about sin, but it’s also liberal because it cares about the poor,” what is the function of this?
Factually, it conveys that true Christianity cares about both sin and helping the poor, which is true. But it also suggests that I am better than both liberals or conservatives, because I have the complete truth in contrast to their partial truths. And because you, my parishioners, are in my church, you are probably better than all those people too.
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Institutional Triage

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Wednesday, April 3, 2024
Americans of all stripes need to seriously reassess their relationship with the country’s major institutions in light of how poorly so many of them are performing and the caliber of the people leading them.

William Lind’s 4th Generation War concept is rooted in the decline of the legitimacy of the state. He writes:
At the heart of this phenomenon, Fourth Generation war, lies not a military evolution but a political, social, and moral revolution: a crisis of legitimacy of the state. All over the world, citizens of states are transferring their primary allegiance away from the state to other entities: to tribes, ethnic groups, religions, gangs, ideologies, and “causes.” Many people who will no longer fight for their state are willing to fight for their new primary loyalty.
This isn’t just about the third world. It’s happening at some level in the US, where institutional trust is in long term decline.
How should we think about identification with, loyalty to, and investment in American institutions?
We already see that the left’s loyalty to American institutions is entirely contingent. As soon as those institutions do something they don’t like, they turn to the attack.
For example, when Donald Trump was elected President, a large number of people on the left said he was “not my President.” They declared themselves “the resistance.” Note the use of insurgency language here in line with Lind’s concept. This is a cultural form of insurgency conflict. Law professors from Yale and Harvard decry the US constitution in the pages of the New York Times. Or again, think about how many climate change activists put their cause ahead of any American considerations. Or how many want to “defund the police” or even abolish the police.
Clearly, these people think that America’s institutions are only valid to the extent those institutions are doing what they want.
I’m always struck when reading leftist writers like Herbert Marcuse, how they stridently and fundamentally viewed America as a morally illegitimate regime. The critical theorists understood that there’s great power in being willing to take a fundamentally critical stance against society’s institutions and structures of power.
How should people on the right think about American institutions?
Americans on the right have tended to be patriotic people who salute the flag, send their kids off to serve their country in the military, etc. They’ve had a lot of loyalty and identification not just with the territory of the US, or the American people or American culture, but also with our government and major civic institutions. This is one reason they get so upset when those institutions “go woke” or deviate from what they believe the institutional mission should be.
This is a problem for the right because, as I noted:
Almost all of the major powerful and culture shaping institutions of society are dominated by the left. This includes the universities, the media, major foundations and non-governmental organizations, the federal bureaucracy, and even major corporations and the military to some extent. The one truly powerful institution conservatives control, for now at least, and it’s an important one, is the US Supreme Court. The other institutions conservatives control — alternative media like talk radio, state elected office, churches — are subaltern. They are lower in prestige, power, and wealth.
This situation caused Revolver News editor Darren Beattie to provocatively ask at the NatCon 3 conference, “Can one be an American nationalist?” As he put it, “What does it mean to be a nationalist in a situation in which the nation’s dominant institutions and stakeholders have become fundamentally hostile to the would be nationalist?”
In this environment, people on the right need to rethink their relationship with American institutions.
Make no mistake. I’m an American. I love this country. I love our people—all of our people—even the haters and the losers, as they say. I love the American way of life. I don’t think we’re perfect. We have a lot of things we have done wrong in both the past and present that need to be corrected. But this my country.
At the same time, we need to take stock of reality and the current condition of our institutions.
This is an area where I am personally torn, and continue to think about a lot. But my current view is that we need to take a triage approach to the our institutions.
Some institutions are doing well, and we should reward them, invest in them, and support their leaders.
Others are in some state of decline. Perhaps some are reformable, or would do better with more public support. Others are in terminal decline. Others are not just declining, but have become actively harmful to ourselves or others.
Back in newsletter #24, I talked about how we should respond to failing institutions. One of the tools I included was a 2×2 matrix I created with axes of Invest-Disinvest and Attack-Defend.
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How Feminism Ends

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Friday, March 22, 2024
Review of  “How Feminism Ends”… “if this is the end of feminism, then it doesn’t quite feel fair. If women are finally “free,” then why is it still so hard to be female? And why, after all of our hard work, are the best parts of history still made by males?”

Ginerva Davis has a very interesting review of French writer Emmanuel Todd’s book The Lineages of the Feminine in the new issue of American Affairs. It’s titled, provocatively, “How Feminism Ends”
Todd is a self-described liberal, and supports the right of adults to change their gender and, to the extent it is now medically possible, their sex. But in the places where our current moment is excessive, or historically aberrant, Todd finds an unambiguous common thread: the presence of females.
Females control the universities where such sex-denying work is produced. Females are disproportionately concentrated in the academic fields—anthropology, biology, sociology—that have most radically changed their ideas on sex and gender (in contrast, history, a more male-dominated field, has stayed largely above the fray). A female sociologist wrote the book about how menopause is a social construct; a different female anthropologist wrote another study Todd cites which argues that females should, actually, have evolved to be taller and stronger than males. (Todd responds that “natural selection is there only to be lamented over.”)
Females increasingly control the levers of cultural power; if a topic feels “ideologically central,” then it is because females made it so. At the very least, they constitute the majority of reporters who cover health, social issues, and family policy. The “gender ideology” Todd abhors runs through numer­ous female-dominated professions: it is promoted by journalists, legitimized by doctors, and codified into law by a growing number of female government officials. Todd also finds that it is almost always “mothers” (i.e., female parents) who have the final say over medical treatment for their children. And so while debates about “gender-af­firming” care tend to be sex-neutral—“parents” making decisions about the bodies of their “children”—much of the contemporary “transgender movement” amounts to a trend of older females helping younger ones escape their sex.

The result, Todd argues, is a split consciousness on the status of “women.” Males see women everywhere: women police them in HR departments, mock them in the news, and, to add insult to injury, continue to insist that they are members of a protected class.
Females, however, are still haunted by a lack of female “greatness”—the same problem posed, seventy-five years ago, by Beauvoir. They work under male bosses. Their countries are run by mostly male leaders. Males continue to define the cutting edge in tech­nology and industry, while females play catch-up in remedial programs (“Women in tech!” “Women in business!”). And even the most liberated female must still take her pills, and count her cycle, and watch her fertility “window” while pretending that she doesn’t care. The female condition, one of constant self-monitoring and self-suppression, is now oddly similar to that of the gender-dysphoric, which is perhaps why we females are so obsessed with them (I never felt quite so understood as a female until I read the work of Andrea Long Chu, whom Todd cites as a leading chronicler of the transgender experience). It also seems designed to create a degree of self-loathing: females are constantly set up to compete at tasks at which they are slightly disadvantaged, and are promised a life which, any rational mind will quickly discover, they will never achieve. Social media aside, it is unsurprising that a growing num­ber of women now report that they hate themselves.
Todd argues that the recent wave of Western feminist agitation that we have witnessed in the past decade (#MeToo in America, #BalanceTonPorc in France) is not the result of a massive backslide in female liberation but the opposite—external barriers to female equal­ity are falling by the year. Women are waking up to their new condition and finding it a bit upsetting. And they are looking desperately for something, anything, else to blame—femicide in a foreign country, their still-male bosses, and even the word “woman” itself.
Because if this is the end of feminism, then it doesn’t quite feel fair. If women are finally “free,” then why is it still so hard to be female? And why, after all of our hard work, are the best parts of history still made by males?
In another recent article, Stella Tsantekidou writes on “the desperation of female neediness.”
Do you know what it’s like to be a woman who wants a relationship but can’t get one? It is incredibly common and yet hardly acknowledged.
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What God Is Jordan Peterson Wrestling With?

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Tuesday, March 19, 2024
There are some things that Christians could learn about how Jordan Peterson engages so successfully with his audience. First, lean into reenchantment. This is a big reason why the Eastern Orthodox church has such an appeal today. Hyper-rationalistic Protestant theology or the emotion laden evangelical style don’t speak to this longing to reconnect with an enchanted world. I do believe in our modern, scientific era, we’ve lost parts of the genuine Christian life and experience. People who dismiss reenchantment will miss out on opportunities for evangelism. The symbolism in scripture is a good place to start.

Jordan Peterson first became a viral YouTube sensation because of his lecture series on Genesis. The Bible is a subject he’s continued returning to, adding an Exodus series, and next a forthcoming book called We Who Wrestle With God.
Peterson is doing a national tour on the theme of wrestling with God, which I attended last week in Indianapolis. He sold out a 2,500 seat theater with a minimum ticket price of over $100, so he’s still a big draw. I’d say the median audience age was 35-40, with lots of couples attending.
He first used the failures of Google’s Gemini AI to launch into an hour long discussion of the nature of language, ideas, and symbolic structures, positioning the Bible as “the oldest collection of stories by the oldest people that survived.” To him, this makes it a bulwark against the societal equivalent of AI hallucinations (e.g., fascism) and thus worth studying. His take here is similar to Nassim Taleb’s “Lindy Effect.”
He then gave a much shorter presentation of the call of Abraham from the start of Genesis 12. The presentation was clearly unbalanced with too much preamble and not enough actual Bible analysis. This was very different from what Jake Meador saw from Peterson in Omaha.
Peterson views the Bible as myth and symbol (in the good sense), and deploys it therapeutically.
He talked about how he analyzes things like the Bible through multiple lenses: psychology, evolutionary biology, etc. Referring to his first book Maps of Meaning, he said that he only includes what all the perspectives agree on. Notably, orthodoxy theology is not one of his lenses.
The best way to view Jordan Peterson’s religious perspective is as New Age. That is, he believes in a sort of vague spirituality that has implications for how we are supposed to live our lives. It’s about an encounter with spiritual truth and the spiritual voice within. Or perhaps an understanding of the deep structure of reality and the human condition. This spirituality is esoteric, and apprehended indirectly and partially through a symbolic understanding of the world.
Peterson deploys this approach therapeutically. When God calls Abram, it’s the voice within telling him to get out of mom and dad’s house and go out in the world to make something of himself. But it’s not just a call to “Man up!” but also, critically, a call to adventure.
When Abram builds an altar to the Lord, his sacrifices are the giving up of the parts of himself that interfere with his becoming who he is called to be and achieving his destiny. The fire in the burning bush is also interpreted that way, as a sort of refining fire.
Last year I noted the turn towards a reenchanted world. One way to understand the appeal of Peterson is the way that his ideas are aligned with this way of thinking. Unearthing the Jungian collective unconscious and such are not unlike what people are seeking when they go to South America for an ayahuasca trip. Both are about looking for spiritual meaning and a spiritual encounter without an actual God or a real religion. Both are also a quest for therapeutic personal transformation – the quest for self-actualization – without sanctification.
The draw of an enchanted world is part of what is drawing people to Eastern Orthodoxy, as I also noted.
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Reject Vice

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Tuesday, March 5, 2024
If people can publicly promote polyamory or whatnot, then I can promote abstaining from vice. And let’s be honest, do you want to live in a neighborhood full of tatted up potheads who spend their days watching porn, playing video games, and betting on sportsball – and who drop f-bombs every other sentence while out and about? Would America be a better or worse place if these vices didn’t exist? Would your life be better or worse if you avoided them? That’s the question you need to answer for yourself. 

In his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe wrote, “If you want to live in New York, you’ve got to insulate, insulate, insulate.”
Today you also need to insulate yourself if you don’t want to end up devoured by social pathologies like fentanyl or gambling addiction — or even just ending up as an under-achiever.
Much of the focus of the discussion of the Negative World focuses on sexuality and the church. But it’s much bigger than that. The emergence of a post-Christian order has also led to the metastasizing of vice in our society.
Today, many practices that used to be the province of shady characters like the mob are now fully socially legitimized big business, like bookmaking (phone betting), drugs (legal pot), and loan sharking (payday lending).
While some people can take advantage of these recreationally with no problem, many others are vulnerable to falling prey to addiction or exploitation by their purveyors.
Once, our society saw it as its responsibility to protect people from these harms through outright bans or restrictions like usury laws. Those day are long gone. In fact, our governments are now in on the action.
How should we protect ourselves from this?
Creating an Alternative Moral Ecology That Rejects Vice
A country’s wealth is ultimately in its people. A wise country builds up its people, its human capital. Ours is degrading it. There’s no better sign of that than our declining life expectancy.
You have to insulate yourself from those forces. You have to be staying healthy and actively working to develop your potentialities so that you can be a force for good in the world.
Swimming upstream against the culture is easiest when you are part of an alternative moral ecology, part of a community that lives by a different set of rules, that holds itself to a higher standard, that expects more, and elevates your aim.
A community with this moral ecology would be valuable to anyone. A logical place to create one would be the church. But I think it would be very difficult for evangelical churches to create this culture when it comes to vice. They struggle with anything they can’t describe as objectively sinful or linked to some Biblical proof text. Porn is obviously wrong. But is it a sin to buy a lottery ticket or get a tattoo? I’d say no.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise that anti-vice movements are emerging from secular society. Abstaining from alcohol is now a trendy movement. Any hip restaurant worth its salt now has an extensive – and expensive – mocktail list. It’s the online right that has made a huge push against men watching porn – often getting attacked by the media in the process.
I’m a critic of Mark Driscoll, but one of his best lines was, “Some things aren’t sinful, they’re just dumb.”*
Or, as someone more respectable put it, all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. We should avoid unprofitable activities. Vice falls into that category.
Churches should figure out how to get in the game here. But whether it’s a church, a band of brothers, or an online tribe, finding a community with a moral ecology that rejects vice is one way to insulate yourself from trouble.
What rejecting vice means to me is: no porn, no pot, no gambling, no video games, no tattoos, no profanity.
The point here is not to condemn other people for their choices – it’s a free country after all – or to argue that all of these things are objectively morally wrong. It is to say that’s not who we are and not how we choose to live. We are setting a different standard for ourselves.
No Porn
Watching porn is wrong – but it’s also pathetic.
A majority of prime age men are watching porn, usually a lot of it. It’s super easy to do – and super-addictive. It’s difficult to give it up once you’ve gotten hooked. And it seems to cause a lot of problems. There are now men in their 20s with erectile dysfunction.
I was not Christian for my early adult life and happily watched lots of porn. Today, not only do I not watch it, I don’t want to watch it. It’s not a temptation for me.
A key shift came when I was reconstructing my idea of what it meant to be a man. Like many, I went through a phase of naively trying to become an “alpha male.”
Whatever the flaws of that, one benefit was that as soon as I started thinking of myself as aspirationally high value, I no longer had any desire for things like porn.
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He Gets Us Takes a Big “L” in the Superbowl

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Monday, February 19, 2024
I’ve noticed that it’s becoming harder for some of these folks to engage in the public square without managing to work in some kind of bashing of those ultra-conservative evangelicals over there that they don’t like. We see that here. Last year I noted that some of the people behind the He Gets Us campaign explicitly view various other Christians as a key problem for Jesus’ image. Nevertheless, they really didn’t let that attitude shine through in the ads that I saw. Now, they apparently can’t restrain themselves anymore and have declared open war against conservative Christians they don’t like.

The $1 billion dollar ad campaign for Jesus called He Gets Us has been controversial from the start. And there was controversy again this year when they ran two new Superbowl ads on Sunday.
If you didn’t see them, they are available on Youtube under the titles “Foot Washing,” and “Who Is My Neighbor?”
I’m someone who defended the He Gets Us campaign after last year’s Superbowl outing. I said they might be flawed but were aiming at the right target, focused in on the key area of pre-evangelism that’s needed in today’s world. I even mentioned He Gets Us positively in my new book Life in the Negative World.
Given my record, I am clearly not biased against the He Gets Us. And given the psychological principle of consistency, where we are biased to take actions consistent with our previous actions, I should be primed to defend them again this year.
Unfortunately, this year’s He Gets Us Superbowl outing was terrible – unconscionable actually.
There are several problems with these advertisements.
1. These Ads Present Jesus as an Ethical Teacher and Moral Example Rather than a Savior
Many of the He Gets Us ads try to show Jesus as able to relate to our condition. A good example is this ad called “Physician.” This relates to the Bible’s teaching from Hebrews that because he was made in all ways like us, he is able to sympathize with our condition, temptations, and weaknesses. It also makes reference to Jesus’ miraculous healings, as well as to his being sent as the Great Physician to those whose souls are sick with sin.
By contrast, the 2024 Superbowl ads portray Jesus exclusively as ethical teacher and moral example. He “didn’t teach hate” but rather he “washed feet.” He taught us to love our neighbor as yourself.
Clearly Jesus was an ethical teacher and moral example, but the view of Jesus that’s being portrayed here is identical with the view promoted by liberal mainline Protestantism. This ad is very much in line with a traditional liberal theological view.
Last year’s Superbowl ad “Love Your Enemies,” also links to a teaching. But the content of the ad emphasizes Jesus’ love for everyone – “Jesus loved the people we hate.” In fact, had the ad not included a URL with “LoveYourEnemies” in it, this ad may not have been connected in anyone’s mind with that particular verse. The other ad, “Be Childlike,” links directly to Jesus’ instructions on what one do to be saved (“become like little children”).
In short, there’s a big difference in the presentation of the ads in 2023 vs. 2024. In 2023 there was about Jesus’ love and about the path to salvation. In 2024, it’s about Jesus’ ethical teaching and moral example – a liberal Protestant emphasis.
One implication of that difference is that this year’s Superbowl ads were really more focused on us than on Jesus.
2. The Ads Are Explicitly Left-Wing Culturally and Politically
Last year’s ads did a great job of avoiding appearing to take sides on cultural or political matters. This year, they explicitly endorsed a culturally and politically left view of the world. Or, as the left wing pundit Matthew Yglesias, a secular Jew, correctly observed, “Jesus has gone woke.” 
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Preach for America

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Tuesday, February 13, 2024
Why can’t churches be working to identify people whom they believe would be highly effective pastors – using whatever criteria they think is most Biblical and appropriate – and encouraging those people to go into ministry? There’s a lot of opportunity in local churches to do a stealth vetting of these folks before tapping them on the shoulder, such as by asking them to volunteer in more purely service roles, giving them leadership opportunities, etc. and seeing how they perform. Rather than waiting for people to decide they want to go into ministry, instead encourage high potential people to strongly consider doing so.

I had always assumed that there was a surplus of people pursuing careers in ministry. There are many seminaries, each with an incentive to attract students. And people seemed to have to go through a sort of waiting room process in college ministry or as a youth pastor before getting an actual pastor or associate pastor position.
But what I’m hearing from widely divergent sources is that there’s actually a big talent shortage in this area.
This first came on my radar a decade ago when Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church started talking about the looming succession crisis in megachurches like his. There were hardly any megachurches in 1975, but there are a huge number today, often still run by their founding pastor. Replacing all these soon to be retiring folks with someone who could successfully operate at that level would be a challenge. Of course, Hybels’ own carefully crafted succession plan blew up.
Today even churches that can afford to pay a solid salary are finding it difficult to recruit pastors. Many seminaries have seen significant enrollment declines. For example, Gordon-Conwell saw its enrollment fall by half between 2012 and 2021, and it is selling off its gorgeous campus north of Boston. I increasingly hear people talking about this talent shortage issue. I just watched a video of one pastor noting that new church startups will be increasingly difficult to pull off in today’s climate because there’s no pipeline of talent to launch them.
There appears to be a similar problem in the Roman Catholic Church, which has an aging cadre of priests and far fewer young people electing to pursue a priestly vocation.
At the same time, vast numbers of churches in the US seem poised to close. There are simply too many small, non-viable congregations, and it’s unlikely that more than a few of them will be successfully revitalized. Christianity’s decline in America also augurs for a decreased demand for ministers. So while there appears to be a pastoral shortage, the demand level is also highly uncertain. It’s easy to see how this sort of uncertainty would discourage people from going into ministry.
But given that there does seem to be a talent shortage today, that presents an opportunity to rethink the pastoral recruitment and training process.
Entry into the pastoral career track seems to rely almost entirely on self-selection. That is, someone has a desire or senses a call to ministry, then goes to seminary, etc.
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