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.