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Brad Littlejohn: Tackling personal vice


WORLD Radio - Brad Littlejohn: Tackling personal vice

Living wisely leads to broader benefits within the community

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MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday April 2nd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next: WORLD Opinions commentator Brad Littlejohn encourages us to root out sinful habits in our Christian communities and in our own lives.

BRAD LITTLEJOHN: In a recent column at his Substack, evangelical commentator Aaron Renn calls American Christians to get serious about rejecting vice in our own lives and communities. The very concept of “vice” may feel passé, a throwback to medieval morality or police “vice squads” that once busted gambling or prostitution rings. And if there’s anything that Christians in 2024 are nervous about, it’s seeming old-fashioned or “puritanical.”

Of course, that’s nothing new. For decades, some evangelicals have soft-pedaled moral issues, accepting the legalization of pornography, gambling, marijuana, and more. After all, “it’s a free country.” Shouldn’t government only restrict serious harms? Evangelical leaders seemed to say, “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 rout can afford us an opportunity to step back, take stock, and renew 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.

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; the state cannot successfully suppress every vice. But cut off from rich categories of older Christian thought, evangelicals tended to think in black-and-white terms. Something was either a “sin” (a violation of God’s law), or it was fine.

In contrast, the older language of “vice,” hailed from a more complex moral universe. Vice was not exactly the same as “sin.” It was the opposite of virtue, or conforming one’s character to wise living. Vice, then, was conforming one’s character to foolish living. The Book of Proverbs teaches that such folly can’t be reduced to a 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.

Negative World has its drawbacks, but it is at least clarifying. Many Americans now live in a world where even the most basic Christian moral stances won’t get much traction in public debate. Maybe that’s the opportunity we need to stop trying to persuade outsiders and get our own house in order. Vice is weakness—weakness of will that ultimately leads to weakness of body, weakness of soul, and weakness of communities where it takes hold. If Christians can have the courage to start tackling vice again, we may offer a compelling witness of strength and integrity to a fragmenting world.

I’m Brad Littlejohn.

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