James Davidson Hunter is well known to most of us interested in the intersection of Christianity and culture. His new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World is sure to rock some boats. Here’s a snippet from Chapter Two of the book, in which Hunter lays out what he perceives to be the dominant modes of cultural discourse by contemporary Christianity:
the reality is that politics is the tactic of choice for many Christians as they think about changing the world. This has been most conspicuously true for Evangelicals, though it has also been as true for Christians in the Mainline Protestant traditions. It is not an exaggeration to say that the dominant public witness of the Christian churches in America since the early 1980s has been a political witness. This remains true today, again, particularly among Evangelicals who, through innumerable parachurch ministries, assert themselves into one political issue after another and into electoral politics as well.
Hunter goes on to discuss the “worldview” approach to cultural engagement, which encourages individual Christians, even if not directly engaged in politics, to transform culture through the power of ideas. He notes:
At the end of the day, the message is clear: even if not in the lofty realms of political life that he was called to, you too can be a Wilberforce. In your own sphere of influence, you too can be an Edwards, a Dwight, a Booth, a Lincoln, a Churchill, a Dorothy Day, a Martin Luther King, a Mandela, a Mother Teresa, a Vaclav Havel, a John Paul II, and so on. If you have the courage and hold to the right values and ifyou think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world.
He concludes, however, that “This account is almost wholly mistaken.”
The problem, Hunter suggests, is that “worldview transformation” approaches are rooted in idealism, particularly German idealism — the notion that “culture” is what exists in the “hearts and minds” of ordinary people. He argues that idealism misconstrues the capacity of individuals to change contingent historical circumstances, and ironically reinforces a sort of Cartesian dualism about “culture” “by ignoring the institutional nature of culture and disregarding the way culture is embedded in structures of power.”
A great deal of what Hunter says here resonates with me. I think he’s on to something important about how Christian and other religious lawyers and legal scholars should construe their roles as “culture makers.” More on some of Hunter’s specific conclusions in another post.