Benson: Why are the principal strategies for cultural change failing?
Hunter: Evangelism, political action, and social reform are worthy undertakings, but they aren’t decisively important if the goal is world changing. These strategies don’t attend to the institutional dynamics of culture formation and cultural change; in fact, they move in exactly the opposite direction of the ways in which cultures do change.
How is it that American public life is so profoundly secular when 85 percent of the population professes to be Christian? If a culture were simply the sum total of beliefs, values, and ideas that ordinary individuals hold, then the United States would be a far more religious society. Looking at our entertainment, politics, economics, media, and education, we are forced to conclude that the cultural influence of Christians is negligible. By contrast, Jews, who compose 3 percent of the population, exert significant cultural influence disproportionate to their numbers, notably in literature, art, science, medicine, and technology. Gays offer another example. Minorities would have no effect if culture were solely about ideas, but that’s clearly not the case.
[. . .]
You say that the “parallel institutions” of American Christianity are ineffectual as change agents in culture. Why?
Culture is organized according to a framework of center and periphery. The New York Times sells fewer copies than does USA Today, but The New York Times is at the center whereas USA Today is at the periphery. Some community colleges and state universities provide as good an education as the Ivy League colleges, but the Ivies are at the center, whereas community colleges and state universities are at the periphery.
By and large, American Christianity has produced a huge cultural economy, but it operates on the periphery of status rather than in the center. The importance of cultural capital is determined not by quantity but by quality. Quality is measured according to the kind of status it attracts, and status is almost always measured by exclusivity. As I note in my book, evangelicalism boasts a billion-dollar book publishing industry, yet the books produced are largely ignored by The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and other key arbiters of public intellectual argument.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010, 8:30 AM