James Davidson Hunter – To change the World

They rebroadcast Elmer Gantry last night, a once upon a time scandalous book-movie about right wing revivalist religion. In the movie one of the ministers says “they had everyone in town saved and non of the social ills stopped, nothing changed.” So does religion change anything for the good in America? Does it create a new society?

James Hunter has a new book on the topic To Change the World. Hunter is the one who created the analysis of the culture wars of conservative and progressive in his 1991 Culture Wars. This book promises to be one of the major works of the coming decade.

In his new book, he gives a simple answer to the question of whether religions change anything. His answer: only if they has positions within culture. One changes the culture by being part of culture to stand on the sidelines in American and offer commentary does not change anything. One gets to be a major politician, editor, academic, writer, or TV figure. If not, then you are not influencing culture. Publishing in religious presses and working in religious colleges and creating echo chambers does not change society. If one becomes part of the Supreme Court or writes for the NYT op-ed page then one changes society, hence the importance that Catholic moral thinking has taken on in the US. But to be either the Evangelical or utopian Anabaptist author who has disdain for the establishment does not change anything. In addition, changing oneself or pledging oneself to devotion to ones faith does not change society. The religion pride themselves on their sense of periphery and devotion to lower aspects of culture.

Hunter notes that gays have placed their cultural agenda in the center and highest levels of American society and have a stronger presence than religion. Many religious figures want to win at the school board and HS teaching level but ignore academia, TV, and journalism. Any thoughts for the Jewish community? Orthodox community?

Hunter assumes that

The individuals, networks and institutions most critically involved in the production of culture or civilization operate in the center, where prestige is the highest; not on the periphery, where status is low.

Long-term cultural change always occurs from the top down. In other words, the work of world-changing is the work of elites, gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management to the leading institutions in a society.

One group focuses on personal renewal and national revival, while another—championing a “Christian worldview”—locates the necessary condition for cultural change not so much in the heart as in the mind. Either way, the premise is that once the hearts and minds of ordinary people are properly revived and informed, the culture will change. “This account,” Hunter says flatly, “is almost wholly mistaken.”

And Christianity in America, as Hunter sees it, is very much on the periphery, for all its numerical strength. Its institutions, such as they are, tend to be weak, they tend not to be in culturally central locations, and they tend to address the “lower and peripheral areas” of culture—secondary education rather than university research, popular culture rather than high art, ministries of mercy rather than public policy. At their worst they glory in their marginal status, feeding a subculture that churns out substandard cultural products for consumption by other Christians, simultaneously the most energetic and the least effective culture-makers you could imagine.

Hunter calls us to “faithful presence”—fully participating in every structure of culture as deeply formed Christians who also participate in the alternative community of the church.

16 responses to “James Davidson Hunter – To change the World

  1. “If one becomes part of the Supreme Court or writes for the NYT op-ed page then one changes society, hence the importance that Catholic moral thinking has taken on in the US.”

    Funny that you should mention this at a time when we are set to have a Supreme Court with six Catholics, three Jews and no Protestants. Where is the Evangelical Scalia?

    One of the graduate students at Ohio State is a Dominican priest. I am not sure what his Evangelical equivalent of a religious functionary entering academia as a form of service would be.

  2. In the Jewish world, I see Hunter’s distinction as playing out in the tension that you’ll find in many communities (especially ‘out of town’) and college campuses between a rabbinate that is entrenched and engaged in the larger cultural framework and the ‘kiruv professionals’ who are trying to win Jewish souls.
    The former tend to be more affirmative of and engaged with the local culture, while the latter often shun any kind of deep engagement with the culture (shiurim at Starbucks notwithstanding).
    I’ve found that the kiruv organizations will often affect an individual but rarely transform a community, and when they create communities, it does not have much of a ‘spillover’ into the larger community.
    In terms of paradigmatic figures, the ready examples are the thematically and textually linked Eliyahu Hanavi and R. Shimon Bar Yochai (the former having remained a cultural outsider, the latter ultimately re-engaging). The brief story of Shimon b. Shetach and King Yannai in b. Brachot 48a – as well as the dynamics of the institution of zimmun in general – can be instructive in that they acknowledge that one must participate in the life of the culture, i.e., ‘break bread’ with it, in order to lead it.

  3. How in the world are the Orthodox or for that matter any other denomination going to change Jewish culture even if they were in academia , journalism or TV? They have nothing to contribute other than drawing attention to their books and the customs of their group. RJBS didn’t contribute to the general culture or even philosophy, not then and certainly not now. Nor did Lieberman or Herschel. The people who did contribute to both Jewish and American culture were largely not religious. I’m thinking of the neoconservatives, the Trotskyites and Bundists in the 30’s, and even a better example the Partisan Review crowd of the 40’s and 50’s.

    What is needed is some general political/social ideas that are new, first rate and flow naturally from the beliefs and practices of the religious stripe. Maybe something like the settler movement in an Israeli context. There is one such theological group that is about to enter the corridors of power, and I am referring to the new Conservative government in the UK and its relationship to the Anglican group that go by the handle Radical Orthodoxy. They have a new vision, they have concrete proposals and the Conservatives ran on their platform of “Red Toryism”, and returned from the dead. Very exciting to see, whatever one’s politics.

    They are worth studying.

  4. I am much more interested in the production of mass culture. There is an important question, and I wonder if the book really answers this: why is there so little christian material in popular culture-particularly on television? Given that the people in TV shows are overwhelmingly white, the number of characters who are identifiably Christian in any meaningful way are few indeed. Are the culture makers predominantly secular Jews and Protestants and lapsed Catholics?

    Clearly the presence of gay characters has mainstreamed gays in a way that has helped their political cause, but would the same be true for devout evangelicals if there was a surge in their representation on TV?

    I think that the answer is no. First, representation in popular culture helps to reduce the otherness of marginalized groups. That is not exactly a problem that Christianity has. Second, in order to be compelling, fictional characters need to be flawed, and officially religions tend not to wants to see a flawed reflection of their ideals on TV. Third, and here I am being very judgmental, a lot of Evangelicalism filtered into mass media (and I base this on listening to christian radio and watching christian cable on a semi-regular basis) borders on kitsch. So I think that the potential for unintentional self-parody is quite high (Watch the “Left Behind” movies).

    As far as the orthodox community, I think we have an interesting experiment going on in Israel with the success of Srugim. I would predict that the show ill have little effect on religious life in Israel , but may change the way that some chilonim see the urban dati l’umi, perhaps as more of an Israeli cultural subgroup whose life experiences mostly overlap with their non-religious fellow citizens. than a wholly different other community. The lack of any hareidi characters whatsoever clearly sends a message that it is a group that constitutes an entirely distinct group that does not even appear to interact with urban datiim.

  5. This post depresses me. The reason it depresses me has to do with the potential of religion as a site for critical claims. I see this as the only way religion is salvageable. Thus, I see the collapse of this critical potential as a depressing commentary on religion.

    Let me unpack.

    Hunter’s statement that cultural change is a top down affair ignores the entire critical potential of Christian discourse. This begins with the setting off of Civitas Dei vs. Civitas Terrena in Augustine. There, we see a robust discourse of critique against the excesses, human toll, and stupidity of Imperial life. The robust critique only works if we have some ideal higher than the dominant reproduction of power to point to. In other words, if we are assuming that critical discourses like Christianity are going to participate in the hierarchical reproduction of social distinction, we are also concomitantly seeing them not as sites for normative claims, but merely as more engines of social reproduction. I guess what I am saying is that Hunter is arguing for a remarkable degree of complicity with what I see as a continual reproduction of capitalist domination. And, in turn, this complicity would destroy the residual claims to truth we might find in religions. Finally, it is not a coincidence that a robust critique of the iron cage of modernity has come from an evangelical milieu. A cursory look at the Christ centric theology of someone like Barth (or HUvBalthasar vs. Barth) shows a principled rejection of the accommodation that Barth saw as characteristic of Roman Catholicism. This begins, for Barth, with the scholastic analogia entis. Put another way by Schmitt, it is the complexio oppisotorum which allows Augustine himself to mitigate the normative claims he makes and split the difference with the empire.

    In any case, perhaps I have given the only and best reason not to be too depressed by this call for complicity with an unacceptable schema of domination. The very fact that robust critique both can slide into complicity and arise again shows that this is not a decisional moment for critique in the guise of religion. Even if we get more Evangelicals packing the court, running Goldman Sachs and filling the Ivies, we can be sure that the germ of critique implicit in some religious texts will be picked up by someone, sometime in the future.

  6. I love how the stakes of my comment are about the structuration of society, mega trends in religion as critique vs. the assimilation of religious legitimacy to dominant societal powers. And then AS bursts my bubble talking about Will and Grace, Srugim.

    I wonder where people see the stakes of religion allying itself with various cultural forces? I think if one were to critique my own somewhat shrill comment, it might be on the basis that I ignored any mediating level of institutions. Maybe this middle level is where the stakes are at?

    • AS posted first but got caught in Spam catcher.

      • Right but he still is enumerating a vision of the stakes vastly different than the one I enumerated. Someone commented that there is a current generational tic to make every small thing scale up into a societal issue. So I am wondering why I sped past individual and institutional levels straight to society and if maybe I should have slowed down like AS did and first thought about will and grace. Maybe I just have a tic, or maybe there is something to these large narratives about religion and complicity that I am sketching.

  7. chakira,
    I guess what I am saying is that Hunter is arguing for a remarkable degree of complicity with what I see as a continual reproduction of capitalist domination.

    Hunter is a good collector of data and is very good at reading our current religious climate. No one would have believed how accurate his Culture Wars was going to be. I take this book very very seriously becuase he has a track record of reading the data correctly. If so, then yes American religion will be entirely co-opted by culture without the ability to offer an outside critique.

    The critique offered wont be Barth but Niebuhr- one that works within the current institutions.

    • Well there is always the question of social reproduction vs. critique and progress; nowadays this is something like Bourdieu vs. his student Boltanski. One could frame is as Schelling vs. Hegel if you wanted to.

      Second, maybe I am setting the stakes a bit too high. I wonder if you think this is really even about the moments of normativity and critique (and post Bourdieu even Boltanski et al have moments, not whole worlds of Habermas style norms) or the moments of Will and Grace, however those will be thought about?

      • Boltanski would be a way to go. I would also think Leclau. One could offer an alternate analysis but Hunter is really good at getting actual reality correct.
        On the second point, I certainly want to accept them but where would we find them?
        I hear your Adorno thoughts in the background of your questions. What would Adorno say to Hunter? After the last few decades what can still be heard?

      • On the second point, I certainly want to accept them but where would we find them?

        What was this referring to?

      • Your second point about critique or grace. Your high stakes. Your Augustine.

    • You are saying you do not see people splitting the difference like Augustine was willing to do, or you do not see reasons for optimism that end off with?

  8. EJ-
    I think you are running a littel quickly to the trotskyites. You are correct that non of the provincialism is worth anything in the public sphere but there are many broader cases.
    Supreme court members bring in their religion. Academics like the list of Christian academics that I posted earlier in month affect society. Jewish academics who make in to the Institute for Advanced Study and get to Aspen seminars like Michael Waltzer affect society.

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