To Change the World
by James Davison Hunter
Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $27.95
In his latest and perhaps most ambitious published work to date, James Davison Hunter makes a major contribution to reflection on Christian faith and culture and provides a study of Christian faith under the very specific historical and cultural conditions of late modernity.
Hunter begins by examining a range of current attempts by Christians to shape the culture, arguing that, regardless of ideological tilt, Christians tend to operate on the assumption that culture is constituted by ideas held by a given majority. As a result, Christians tend to think, naively, that they can change the culture by changing the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Hunter lays out an extensive alternative theory, in which he emphasizes the key significance of overlapping networks of elites as critical for true cultural change.
In the second part of his book, Hunter moves to a more deeply theological study of Christian attempts to change the culture. Hunter argues that politics has become the overarching force for generating change within American society at large, and that Christians have largely followed this trend, thereby losing their sense of public witness. Hunter seems to think that today’s dominant religious narratives make it all but impossible for Christians to wield political power in a way that is not motivated by ressentiment over perceived injury by the secular culture.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that Hunter is calling for the withdrawal of Christians from the larger culture. Hunter is deeply pessimistic about political engagement in the late modern world, yet he strongly favors serious cultural engagement by Christians.
In his final section, Hunter envisions Christianity in the modern world as an exile within the predominantly secular culture. Evoking Jeremiah’s exhortation to the Jewish people to “seek the welfare” of their Babylonian captors (Jeremiah 29:4–7), Hunter presents a paradigm of active Christian cultural engagement that he calls “faithful presence within.” By this, he means that Christians—both individually and communally—must live their Christian identity with deep integrity to avoid assimilation into the dominant culture. But “faithful presence within” also means that Christians must find ways of participating fully in the life of the larger culture and seeking at all levels of society to contribute to the common good.
Hunter’s book is an eloquent plea to his fellow Christians to think beyond the confines of purely political engagement of the culture. And even if Hunter’s views of the morally corrosive effects of political power may strike some Christians as excessive, surely a self-reflective and honest reading of his challenging ideas can only help to purify what is noblest and truest in the desire of so many Christians to make their faith fruitful.
John Henry Crosby is director of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.