To Change The World, Week Nine

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at

After being so descriptive in the last three chapters it’s nice to see Hunter getting prescriptive in this week’s readings. He puts the religious right, the religious left, and the neo-Anabaptist tradition on blast. I really enjoyed these closing chapters of his essay on power.

Most people think that what matters is the ideological direction of one’s politics. Are you conservative? Are you liberal? These differences occupy most of our attention and argument. What is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms. (page 168)
This is tragic because politics promises far more than it is able to deliver. Hunter observes:
There are no comprehensive political solutions to the deterioration of “family values,” the desire for equity, or the challenge of achieving consensus and solidarity in a cultural context of fragmentation and polarization. There are no real political solutions to the absence of decency or the spread of vulgarity. But because the state is a clumsy instrument and finally rooted in coercion, it will always fail to adequately or directly address the human elements of these problems; the elements that make them poignant in the first place. As a rule, when the state does become involved in such matters, its actions can often create more problems through unintended consequences, not fewer. (page 171)
This reminds me of something my dad used to tell me: some of the scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Unintended consequences abound for both the policy preferences of the left (minimum wage, family leave policy, zoning regulations) and the right (the war on drugs, tough-on-crime laws, immigration reform). It’s actually kind of fun to google. If you have some time I highly recommend it.


Hunter continues:

At best, the state’s role addressing human problems is partial and limited. It is not nearly as influential as the expectations most people have of it. It is true that laws are not neutral. They do reflect values. But laws cannot generate values, or instill values, or settle the conflict over values. (page 171)
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a similar but more powerfully worded observation highlighting the other side of this dynamic at Western Michigan University back in 1963:
…while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. (pdf source)
That’s one of my favorite quotes on religion and politics, so I’m glad I finally found a chance to drop it in. 😉


With that extremely important point in mind, Hunter’s reservation still stands:

Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power—not only power, but finally about power. For politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere. It depends on moral criteria, institutionalized and practiced in the social order, that are autonomous from the realm of politics. The problem is that the impulse toward politicization extends to the politicization of values. This means that the autonomy of moral criteria on which a higher practice of politics depends is increasingly lost. Today, most of the ideals and values that are discussed in public have acquired political content and connotation. Fairness? Equity? Justice? Liberty? These have come to have little or no meaning outside of the realm of politics. (page 172, emphasis in original)

And now he loads up the howitzers and launches a barrage on modern American Christianity. He gets positively sermonic in this section and I want you to know I am proud of myself for quoting so little of it. It took tremendous restraint to limit myself to three bombshells.

  1. For conservatives and progressives alike, Christianity far too comfortably legitimates the dominant political ideologies and far too uncritically justifies the prevailing macroeconomic structures and practices of our time. What is wrong with their critique is that it doesn’t go far enough, for the moral life and everyday social practices of the church are also far too entwined with the prevailing normative assumptions of American culture. Courtship and marriage, the formation and education of children, the mutual relationships and  obligations between the individual and community, vocation, leadership, consumption, leisure, “retirement” and the use of time in the final chapters of life—on these and other matters, Christianity has uncritically assimilated to the dominant ways of life in a manner dubious at the least.” (pages 184–185)
  2. …Christian believers [must] decouple the “public” from the “political.” Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression. As we have seen, the expectations that people place on politics are unrealistic for most of the problems we face today are not resolvable through politics. That, however, is not the most serious problem. Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and (p.186) cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations. It cannot realize the various mythic ideals that inspire different Christian communities, it cannot even reduce the tension that exists between the concrete realities of everyday life and the moral and spiritual ideals of the Kingdom of God. At best, politics can make life in this world a little more just and thus a little more bearable. (pages 185–186)
  3. Everything about [Jesus’] life, his teaching, and his death was a demonstration of a different kind of power—not just in relation to the spiritual realm and not just in relation to the ruling political authorities, but in the ordinary social dynamics of everyday life. It operated in complete obedience to God the Father, it repudiated the symbolic trappings of elitism, it manifested compassion concretely out of calling and vocation, and it served the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. In short, in contrast to the kingdoms of this world, his kingdom manifests the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate. (page 193)
Finally, some snippets that have special resonance for us in light of recent history (all things that happened after Hunter’s book was written):

First, one of Hunter’s observations illustrates why Brexit happened — the bureaucratic state is fundamentally non-democratic. That is hard to handle when it is constrained by your democratic elections. How much harder must it be when the bureaucracy stands above your electoral process as it does in the EU?

The state, by contrast, is where the real power resides. The state is a massive, relatively autonomous bureaucratic organization whose purpose is to administer innumerable discrete tasks that make the regime function. Decisions made are filtered through numerous, often unrelated bureaus staffed by professionals who have their own autonomous (and nondemocratic) decision-making authority. The tasks the state undertakes may be influenced by ideals or values provided by the political class, but those tasks do not embody those ideals.  (page 170)
And I thought this was a timely insight in light of the events in Charlottesville:
There is a basis in fact for the claims made by each of these groups. Yet an identity rooted in resentment and hostility is an inherently weak identity precisely because it is established negatively, by accentuating the boundaries between insiders and outsiders and the wrongs done by those outsiders. (page 173)
This also is germane:
The capacity to define reality varies extensively and those individuals and institutions that have more engage in a kind of “symbolic violence” (or forms of coercion that are effected without physical force) against those who have less. The ultimate expression of this symbolic violence is to so thoroughly define a situation that dissent or opposition becomes unimaginable. (page 178)

The public reaction to the president’s speech on Charlottesville is a good illustration of this. The following argument, by the way, is independent of my reaction to the events in Charlottesville — it is an attempt to show that the stuff Hunter is talking about is in the news constantly. In case you’re wondering, I preached against Nazi ideology and white supremacy in a church just this Sunday and I have said publicly since before the election I do not think Trump is fit to be president. Perhaps you agree with me, perhaps not. In either case, set your own feelings aside for a moment and consider the reaction to Trump’s statements as a sociological phenomenon. What made his perspective so outrageous? The symbolic violence Hunter describes. We live in a culture that has defined reality in such a way that his statements were outside the realm of acceptable public discourse. There is no acceptable reaction to neo-Nazis other than immediate denunciation. Anything else is literally unimaginable. Even to say something factually true — there is hate and violence on both sides — is incomprehensible to many Americans, especially those who have been the most formed by elite institutions. If you doubt “the violence on both sides” statement, by the way, consider this article from CNN:

Finally, one that is relevant to you as Stanford students. Always remember that Stanford’s highest value is Stanford. I have seen the university do absolutely outrageous things to students when the administration perceived a conflict between the good of the student and the good of the university. Hunter nails it:

Studies have shown that even voluntary organizations protect their organizational interests against the interests and needs of the very members they are supposed to serve. (page 179)
Good stuff. I can’t wait to begin reading Hunter’s final essay!

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