Some time ago, for reasons I’ve now forgotten, I made a note to read James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). A couple of weeks ago, I finally got round to finishing it, and in view of recent election results in the United States and the Church of England, I’m very glad that I did. However, I think that Christians in both regions are going to find his lessons hard to accept and apply.
Hunter writes as an American addressing the American religious scene. Nevertheless, his conclusions can, I think, be generalized to non-American, and even non-religious, settings.
His core thesis is that the American religious right, religious left and religious radicals are all making the same basic error, and taking the same fundamental approach to changing the world, by buying into the political system.
Yet immediately we must pause for the British audience. ‘What’s this,’ they will be asking, ‘About the “religious left”? Surely there is hardly any such thing, and if there is, it must be a tiny minority.’
But that is the problem with gathering all your information from the British media, who generally loathe right-wing politics and Christian religion with comparable vehemence and are therefore more than happy to lump the two together.
Of course there is an American religious right, but there is also, Hunter points out, a religious left. And in fact the history of the involvement of the religious left in American politics is actually older than that of the religious right. It is only comparatively recently that conservative churches have taken up the political cudgels. And whilst they have had some success, that is now being offset by a resurgence on the left.
One feature of this, incidentally, is the way that the Democratic Party has now realized it can no longer afford to ignore religion — something which apparently it tended to do in the post-war years. Thus President Obama has to have religious credentials, in order to capitalize on the support of the religious left-wing.
Similarly unknown to most British observers, however, is the American religious radical wing — what Hunter calls the neo-Anabaptists. The movement will nevertheless be known to some through theologians such a John H Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.
Each of these three groupings is very different from the others. Yet in Hunter’s view they are actually variations on a theme — and a wrong one, to boot. Added to this is the irony that each believes itself to be the ‘authentic’ Christian voice not only in its own right, but over against at least one, if not both of the other two ‘false’ voices.
Moreover, each relies on a view of reality which differs from the others and, naturally, reinforces its own ‘narrative’. And yet each has actually bought into a narrative driven by forces and assumptions which have little to do with the faith in question.
Thus the right sees America as threatened by secularism, the left sees it as threatened by capitalism and the radical wing sees political powers themselves as the real enemy. So the right joins forces with right-wing politicians against the left and the left joins forces with left-wing politicians against the right. Meanwhile, the radicals simultaneously condemn politicians but present an agenda based on the ‘politics’ of Jesus — whilst saying some truly remarkably unpleasant things about other Christians.
And while all this is going on, Hunter observes that what really forms the ‘culture’ itself is largely unrecognized and ignored.
Thus at the beginning of the book, Hunter addresses the popular myth of many Christian cultural warriors, that if we can only get enough people converted and get enough people involved in the political system, we can change the culture. But as he points out, the level of religious belief amongst Americans is already high (staggeringly so by European standards). Faith in God is everywhere as is scepticism about ‘secular’ understandings of the universe. If sheer numbers were all that were necessary, the Christian cultural agenda would have succeeded long ago.
But as Hunter goes on to show, that is not how cultures are formed. What forms the culture is not the views of the majority but those moving the levers of power — those people, organizations and institutions whose own opinions shape the opinions of others.
This, I would observe, is why celebrity support for Obama was so important. A moment’s thought will show that a film star or pop singer knows as much, or as little, as the next person when it comes to economic policy. But in a ‘celebrity culture’, what celebrities support shapes what others feel comfortable with. They quite literally become the culture.
Similarly, as others have pointed out, what Fox news has to say may be true, but Fox is so tarred with the right-wing brush that even when its reports are accurate they do not count for anything like as much as some of the ‘liberal’ outlets. Fox is important, but it is not a culture-maker.
If they want to change the culture, therefore, Hunter argues that Christians first need to understand and engage with how the culture is formed. At the same time he asserts that by buying into the political system as the basis for cultural change, Christians of all persuasions both compromise their message and, unwittingly, accept that the final arbiter in human affairs is the ‘will to power’, since all political decisions ultimately rely on the use of power — even the threat of sanction and violence — for their enforcement.
Thus what Hunter offers instead is a programme which begins both by relinquishing the political approach and by engaging with the things that really shape the culture — a policy of what he calls ‘faithful presence’, which seeks to excel in those things and those areas which are truly the expression of our humanity transformed in Christ.
And this is where the Anglican bit comes in, for there are many in the Church who believe that essentially political processes are not only the right way but the best way to bring about desirable change. Yet the current debate over women bishops is surely revealing the inadequacy of that approach.
Some will argue, for example, that the General Synod will soon express ‘the mind of the Church’ by introducing women bishops, but how can that be so when there are many who clearly oppose the move? Is the ‘mind’ dependent on ten or twenty votes? And if the decision is forced on others, is this not just the ‘will to power’ in action?
Over against this, I have been more than willing to argue for political involvement by traditionalists and conservatives. But this must not be a case of simply attempting to use power in the same way as others — just to different ends. The political process is necessary — the polis is the community, of which we are all a part. But there needs to be a much clearer understanding that the culture of the Church does not rely on politics.
A bishop once observed in my hearing, for example, that despite the growth of evangelicalism, in the ‘corridors of power’ the prevailing ethos was still ‘liberal catholic’. That is what I mean by ‘culture’. If Oak Hill college, for example, is producing excellent ministers (and it is), that may not affect the culture of the Church if Oak Hill is regarded as the theological equivalent of Fox News (and in many circles it is).
What we are left with, then, is a challenge — in the Church and in the world — to understand how things not only work in fact but how they should work when we apply Christian thinking. For Christians in America and for Anglicans in England, the challenge is immense. But I believe that unless we understand the things Hunter observes, many well-intentioned efforts here and there will be wasted.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: