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Let’s return to virtue

It’s a good time for Christians to take vice seriously

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Let’s return to virtue
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In a thought-provoking recent column at his Substack, evangelical commentator Aaron Renn offers a forceful summons to American Christians to get serious again about the idea of “vice”—and serious about rejecting vice in our own lives and communities. The very concept of “vice” is apt to feel passé, a throwback to medieval morality manuals or perhaps mid-20th century “vice squads”—police units responsible for busting gambling or prostitution rings. And if there’s anything that Christians in 2024 are nervous about, reeling from a string of culture-war defeats, it’s seeming old-fashioned or “puritanical.”

With voters lining up behind abortion rights, some Republicans voting to formalize federal same-sex marriage protections, and conservative candidates hastening to distance themselves from Alabama’s ruling on IVF, the consensus seems to be that it’s time for Christians to stop talking about morality in public. It only serves to get us dismissed as judgmental schoolmarms who like meddling in others’ lives.

This consensus, though, is nothing new. For decades, at least some evangelicals have been soft-peddling moral issues, abandoning their traditional opposition to the legalization of pornography, gambling, marijuana, and more on the grounds that “it’s a free country” and government should restrict itself to legislating only on serious harms. The tacit bargain that many evangelical leaders tried to strike with the culture was, “we’ll drop our ‘fundamentalist’ opposition to all these private vices, and prove we’re not puritans, if you let us continue opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.” Needless to say, the bargain has not been accepted.

Perhaps this comprehensive rout, however, can afford us an opportunity to step back, take stock, and renew our moral discourse and our moral witness. Renn is best known for his concept of the “Negative World,” recently expanded into an influential book. His basic idea is this: until the later 20th century, Christians in America inhabited a “Positive World” in which society was broadly aligned (at least outwardly) with Christian values. Toward the end of the century, we shifted into a “Neutral World” in which Christianity was one acceptable lifestyle option among many. Now, most parts of the country are “Negative World,” where any attempt to live a principled Christian life is seen as threatening and countercultural.

Most evangelicals have casually habituated themselves to profanity, obscene films, over-consumption of alcohol, and even the use of marijuana.

Within Positive World, “vice” laws were commonplace: alcohol was carefully regulated, gambling and drugs were pushed to the margins, prostitution and pornography were outlawed. Within Neutral World, a devil’s bargain was struck. Most vices would be decriminalized, but Christians could continue opposing them as matters of personal morality. In theory, this was not incoherent; it has long been a commonplace of Christian political thought that the state cannot successfully suppress every vice and may need to limit itself to policing the most serious offenses. But maintaining this distinction rightly requires clear thinking—something American evangelicals didn’t have.

Largely cut off from the rich categories of older Christian moral thought, late 20th-century evangelicals tended to think about morality in intensely black-and-white and individualistic terms. Something was either a “sin” (a violation of God’s law), or it was fine. Sins were only committed by individuals against other individuals (or against God). The older language of “vice,” though, hailed from a more complex moral universe. Vice was not exactly the same as “sin.” It was the opposite of virtue, which is to say the habituation of one’s character in a form of wise living. Such virtue ensured the flourishing of an individual, but also of a community, as others benefited from the spillover effects of virtuous living and consciously or subconsciously sought to imitate the virtuous person. Vice, then, was the habituation of one’s character in a form of foolish living. Such folly, as the Book of Proverbs teaches, cannot be reduced to a simple list of do’s and don’ts, but it is real, and it leads to destruction—not just self-destruction, but the degradation of any community in which it becomes endemic.

Lacking this richer moral vocabulary, American Christians in the Neutral World found it increasingly difficult to maintain a principled opposition to vice even within their own communities. Most evangelicals have casually habituated themselves to profanity, obscene films, over-consumption of alcohol, and even the use of marijuana, and most pastors are embarrassed to address such topics. “It’s a Christian liberty issue,” is the standard response to any warning, forgetting that in the New Testament, Christian liberty is manifested above all in self-control.

Negative World has its drawbacks, but it is at least clarifying. In a world where even the most basic Christian moral stances won’t get much traction in public debate, perhaps there is an opportunity to stop trying to persuade outsiders and get our own house in order. Something may not be sinful per se, but it can still be destructive, especially when it becomes a casual habit. Vice is weakness—weakness of will that ultimately leads to weakness of body, weakness of soul, and weakness of the communities within which it takes hold. If Christians can have the courage to start tackling vice again within their own communities, they may find themselves able to offer again a compelling witness of strength and integrity to a fragmenting world.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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