Friday, 9 November 2012

Christians and Culture: Lessons for Americans and Anglicans

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.
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  1. Those with the levers of power can do great things. An example springs to mind.

    It had been almost impossible to stop the practice of Suttee (Burning widows)in India. Sir Charles Napier met with the leaders but it was argued that suttee was part of their religion and should be allowed and the British should not interfere. Sir Charles, asked them if they would like to continue to practice their religion in this way and they all answered in the affirmative. So he ordered them hanged (He did not actually carry it out). When they protested he said that the Christian punishment for murder was death and as a Christian he could not let a murder go unpunished. I think the words were "let us all feel free to practice our own religion". Not surprisingly the practice of suttee virtually disappeared overnight, but more importantly Christians were respected for keeping their faith and not going with the flow and accepting or condoning the behaviour of the overwhelming majority of the population.

    There are lots of examples in history of believers who today would be seen as very hard Christians or not even Christians at all. Nevertheless many people had the opportunity to and actually did come to Christ because of their actions. Today their actions seem totally alien to the way we interpret the Bible in today's culture. But was it?

    Today we are supposed to love our neighbour by endlessly trying to argue the case, or to get them to see our point of view based on reason and evidence. Not by threatening to hang them all from a tree!

    Which way works? Which way is showing real love for your neighbour?

    I'm with Napier.


  2. But is "relinquishing the political approach and engaging with the things that really shape the culture" even possible? Who precisely gets to shape culture - the cultural pecking order - is itself largely determined by social and political processes. If you play the game, you compromise and become part of that world. If you refuse to play the game, you'll remain an outsider and won't impact the culture.

    In my diocese, Oak Hill wasn't even an option.

  3. The ideas are interesting and certainly hold a lot of water, but I think that it is as much about being involved in the "old" political structures as it is about being involved in cultural politics.
    We only have to look at the speed with which the LGBT agenda has risen in the UK to see that it has been the 2 working in tandem that has led to them having such a sway on the way the law has shifted. Those of an LGBT persuasion and LGBT sympathisers have gotten into the corridors of power and linked with lobbying and pressure groups like Stonewall to bring the message to the masses. So whereas 60 years ago being gay was seen as a mental illness, now it is being seen by society as just another way of expressing your sexuality. And all this because people accessed politics as a whole and decided to bring about a change.
    These are the sorts of lessons that Christians, whether right, left, round the bend or stuck in the mud, need to learn from. Getting involved in politics is not just about standing to be a councillor or MP, but it does include this as well as the rest.

    One final thought strikes me as potentially key, that perhaps more important than MPs in the "old" political machine are the SpAds, hangers-on and the civil service. These people are the ones that will influence the politicians most directly, so having Christians in those positions to influence the non-Christian MPs is just as vital as having Christian MPs.

  4. Youthpasta

    Having been elected to a various minor political posts, the problem is that many elected persons underneath an air of apparent indifference hate Christians or what they believe Christianity stands for. They don't hate Muslims as such but see them as allies to crush Christians in the short term.

    Furthermore Christians constantly need to compromise their beliefs in political life. It is far easier on your conscience not to get involved at all.

    Power at the moment is dependant on the democratic process. A system that has failed spectacularly as fewer and fewer people participate and policies from all parities become more and more similar.

    I think that democracy has had its day as a political process. The results are so anti Christian that we should think twice before participating.

    What will replace it? I am not sure, but it will not be long in arriving, people are increasingly fed up with it as a process of Government. Look at Greece!


  5. phil, you make a very interesting point in your last couple of paragraphs. I am increasingly convinced that we need to start spelling out the deep flaws in the democratic political narrative - not least, as Hunter points out, that it inevitably polarizes a nation into opposing parties.

    Hunter observes this and his point about 'will to power' is that there is a kind of Nietzchean, and in his words therefore 'nihilist' aspect to democratic politics.

    Someone needs to be working on this!

  6. PS to Phil, have a look at this. That's a book I'd like to read!

  7. John,
    Democracy may not be dead and buried in general, but in the C of E it certainly is. The Byzantine complexity that means that the single church member (he who pays the bills) has at least three layers of government between him and those who take decisions in General Synod would be laughable if anyone else tried it. Yet we have stood it for more than 40 years, during which time a liberal elite has slowly strangled the church. If outright war now breaks out, blame a ludicrous system that really is not interested in the views of the majority, just the views of determined minorities.

  8. The issue runs deeper than those who ostensibly have 'cultural power'. Why do they have power? Why are they listened to? Why are the celebrities, celebrities? Whatever the sociological answers may be the biblical answer surely is that 'they are of the world and the world listens to them'. Christ was not heeded rather he was hated because he exposed the darkness of the human heart and men love darkness.

    Authentic Christianity can never hope to be given an ear by the world since the world and the Father are diametrically opposed. We may (and must) minister to it and show it the love of Christ but the more authentically we do so the more we will be hated - they hated Christ and his servants can expect nothing less.

    We ought not to look for place or power (as defined by our world) rather true power lies in acknowledged human weakness and dependence on God. If, in providence, we find ourselves within the corridors of power then we shall like Esther use whatever power we have wisely but that seems to me different from seeking such power for to seek it is to believe that real power is 'worldly power' however much we profess otherwise and the meaning of the cross is lost.