Several of us from the ThM program got together last night to discuss James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (thanks to Pat for the hospitality!). I thought the discussion was very interesting, and Brian’s contributions were invaluable.
I won’t rehash all the particulars of the book since I’ve posted links before to good reviews and discussions of the book here and here. One thing that really stood out to me, though, as I was looking over things again before the meeting was Chuck Colson’s response to the book and how badly he seems to have missed Hunter’s point. In his response to Hunter, Colson comments, “I don’t think that the differences are that great.” Instead, they are “more apparent than real.” And he specifically identifies this point of connection in the idea that “Changing people’s beliefs and influencing elites are not mutually exclusive.” And here he demonstrates that he just did not understand the heart of Hunter’s argument.
As I read the book, there are three basic moves in Hunter’s argument, and Colson grasped two of them. First, Hunter contends that evangelicals get culture change wrong because we misunderstand culture. We are implicit idealists, thinking that culture is really about what people think and believe. Hunter contends instead that ideas are important, but that it is really the institutional structures of a society that provide the context in which ideas can have a sustainable impact. So, a crude summary could be: culture = ideas + institutions. And, this works for Colson. Though he wants to affirm the importance of worldviews (i.e. ideas), he’s very aware that institutions are critical in promoting and sustaining these worldviews. That’s why he devotes so much attention to social/institutional change.
Hunter’s second point is that the implicit idealism in our view of culture means that we think the best way to change culture is to change how people think. Instead, he argues that cultures only change through a top-down process driven by overlapping networks of elite power and influence. Just changing what the average person thinks won’t affect long-term cultural change because that leaves unchanged these elite networks that really exert long-term influence. In other words, you can affect short term popular change in a culture by appealing to the average person, but long term cultural change always involves these elite powers structures. And, Colson thinks they’re on the same basic page here as well. Although Colson’s efforts are largely geared toward changing culture by informing and influencing the worldviews of average people, he is very aware of the power and importance of cultural elites. If there’s one thing Colson understands, it’s how social/political power works in this country.
So, Colson seems to think that he and Hunter are on the same basic page here. Evangelicals can change culture, they just need to do a better job engaging cultural institutions and the elites who control them. The problem is that this misses the third, critical, and (in my opinion) most interesting move in Hunter’s argument. Hunter acknowledges that it’s possible to change culture in this way—though he also contends that it is difficult if not impossible to do this through intentional action, that attempts to change culture intentionally like this always have unintended consequences, and that it takes generations before you can really see if culture has really changed. But, Hunter contends that the only way to bring about cultural change like this is by becoming complicit in the broken power structures that make it all possible. And, this is exactly what he thinks both the Christian Right and Christian Left have done. By embracing power politics in seeking to accomplish meaningful change, they have been coopted by worldly power structures that are antithetical to Gospel/Kingdom values.
So from a Hunterian perspective, Colson is right that you can accomplish (at least limited) cultural change. But, when we focus on change as the goal, we inevitably become part of the very problems that we’re trying to fix. As an alternative, Hunter offers his idea of faithful presence. Rather than trying to change the world, we should see to live faithful Kingdom lives in the world, seeking to foster human flourishing both within the Kingdom community and without. Whether the world changes as a result is entirely up to God. That’s not our job.
So, Hunter and Colson really are on completely opposite sides of this discussion; the differences are not “more apparent than real.” Colson summarizes the goal as “Changing people’s beliefs and influencing elites,” which is a great summary of exactly what Hunter thinks we should not be doing.