Revisiting “To Change the World,” by James Davison Hunter

It’s been almost 2 years since the publication of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, and if the initial tide of commentary/debate/criticism has ebbed, still, it seems this book will continue to exert a commanding influence over the ways in which Christians consider their place in an increasingly fragmented American culture.

At the risk of being exposed as an inattentive reader, I’m going to admit I’ve gone through TCTW more than once and have found myself reacting to Hunter’s argument at times with affirmation, at other times with indignation (occasionally with both emotions simultaneously), but never with indifference.

Most often, though, my engagement has taken the form of vexation at how thoroughly Hunter argues his case. As I read and reread TCTW, it seemed that any objections I had to perceived inconsistency or bad argument were dismissed within one or two pages of being raised.

And judging from an informal survey of reviews, my reactions were pretty typical.

Predictably, those who identify with factions Hunter criticizes have reacted with varying degrees of recognition, rejection, graciousness, and churlishness. I suspect I’m not alone in giving my hearty assent when Hunter reproaches those with whom I disagree and objecting just as vigorously when he dismantles a favored shibboleth.

To that point: I’ve already tipped my hand I’m not neutral in this debate, and I promise to lay my cards out more completely in a moment.

But first I’d like to look at two rhetorically contrasting reviews in order to consider Hunter’s more important points, and in so doing, offer a few (probably futile) criticisms of TCTW along the way.

The first review I want to look at was poison-penned (in good fun, though) by Theodore Roosevelt Malloch for the “Slaughterhouse” section of American Spectator.

Malloch wastes little time in betraying his agenda, most noticeably by questioning Hunter’s.

For the most part Malloch’s time is spent playfully misrepresenting TCTW’s argument and launching ad hominem attacks against Hunter (“the zeal of a smoker who quits”), as well as against the predictably approving blurbs (or “hype,” as Malloch calls them) on TCTW’s dust jacket.

Malloch’s pique seems to have been stirred by what he takes to be Hunter’s suggestion that it is only as “exiles” that we may live authentically Christian lives in latter-day America. “I take issue,” writes Malloch (with subtle undertones of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup), “with the idea that we should flee from the very civilization that we made — and I include Christians in the ‘we’ — and the civilization that we are called to renew.”

Clearly, Malloch is no fan of Hunter’s. Yet despite the gratuitous ad hominems, the misrepresentations, and the intentionally overheated rhetoric, he does make at least three points – one stylistic, two substantive – worth mulling.

The stylistic point is in reference to what Malloch calls Hunter’s “Cartesian logic,” that, so Malloch complains, “often takes away on one page what he offered up the page before.”

Here Malloch gets at the source of my aforementioned vexation. Hunter does indeed appear to sometimes be engaged in taking away on one page what he offered the page before. And one could ungraciously interpret that seeming tendency as an agenda-driven refusal to present a stationary target – by so over-qualifying his arguments that Hunter appears sometimes to walk an extremely fine line between academic expansiveness and intellectual sleight of hand.

And I must admit, upon my first reading, that was the view of Hunter’s presentational style I frequently entertained.

But upon rereading TCTW, it seemed to me that Hunter was not engaging intellectual legerdemain so much as doing everything in his power to give the most generous possible account of what he identifies as the three main streams of Christian Political Engagement (CPE) in America. So generous, that the inattentive reader might easily take Hunter’s statement of what a particular group believes to in fact be Hunter’s own view – something Malloch repeatedly does in his brief review (as was pointed out by Heather Templeton Dill in her rebuttal of Malloch’s review).

I’ll leave to the reader of TCTW to determine whether or not this style counts among Hunter’s virtues. But it does provide an easy stance from which one so inclined may take umbrage when Hunter criticizes whichever particular strain of CPE one tends to sympathize with.

For instance, as someone sympathetic to a more or less neo-Anabaptist program, I found myself frequently engaging in heated internal argument with what I took to be particularly harsh criticisms of the neo-Anabaptist stance.

(Of course, I thought Hunter was dead-on and more than even-handed in his criticism of the Constantinianism of both the Left and Right.)

But enough on style.

The first of Malloch’s substantive points I’d like to consider is his concern that Hunter’s attempt to decouple the notions of “public” and “political” may be “too cute and suffers from a lack of correspondence to reality.”

Hunter expends a good deal of effort explicating the perils of engaging in modern-day politics.

Christian political engagement, he states, unwittingly tends to “embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they (Christians) decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.”

But as is suggested by Malloch’s objection, other than in graduate studies colloquia, it seems problematic that we can succeed in decoupling the “public” from the “political” in any meaningful sense.

That isn’t to say we can’t benefit from Hunter’s and similar analyses of what’s gone wrong with our politics. In large part, what Hunter describes has been asserted by a wide range of sociologists, political scientists, and philosophers – most notably and most cogently by Alasdair MacIntyre. And though Hunter doesn’t agree with the label, an argument can be made for Christians to engage in political “quietism”, or what Hunter advocates as the salutary discipline of “the church and its leadership to remain silent for a season until it learns how to engage politics and even talk politics in ways that are non-Nietzschean.”

What Hunter doesn’t appear to do in TCTW is make a serious attempt to at least sketch out how the church might go about engaging and talking politics in non-Nietzschean ways. And if he has failed to make such an attempt, then he has in no small measure failed to recognize that he is ceding to MacIntyre’s “barbarians” an essential sphere of human activity.

It’s not a hard argument to make that our politics is so fallen that it threatens to drag any Christian who engages in it into the service of the powers and principalities, but that is equally true for every other human endeavor given under the creation mandate.

Hunter does briefly consider the possibility of a redeemed politics, when he writes:

Some argue that what we need is a redefinition of politics, one that is more capacious and capable of absorbing actions, ideas, and initiatives that are independent of the State. The idea here is to reclaim or restore a “proper” understanding of the political. Such efforts would, in principle, accomplish the same end as I am describing here. This position is certainly worthy of serious debate, but as a sociologist who is attentive to the power of institutions, I am inclined to think that all such efforts will be swallowed up by the current ways in which politics is thought of and used. It is why I continue to think that it is important to separate the public from the political and to think of new ways of thinking and speaking and acting in public that are not merely political.

One has to wonder, though, if the same sort of criticism mightn’t be applied to Hunter’s notion of “public” that Hunter himself applies to “politics”.

It seems it might be legitimate to turn the tables and ask of Hunter:

“Isn’t your notion of ‘public’ subject to being swallowed up by the current ways in which ‘public’ is thought of and used, and chiefly in the notion of ‘public’ as opposed to ‘private’ (where ‘private’ is the sphere relegated by the modern liberal state for speaking of and openly acting from religious conviction)?”

It further seems at least plausible the answer to such a question by one supporting Hunter’s views might well be that we should “separate the private from the public and think of new ways of thinking and speaking and acting in private that are not merely public.”

But such a state of affairs would not be quietism; it would be near-total effacement.

The second substantive point made by Malloch is one that has been made by both Hunter’s supporters and critics, and it is an opinion shared by the other reviewer I want to consider, James K. A. Smith in a review he wrote for The Other Journal.

Where Malloch is “scathing”, Smith is for the most part quite approving. But what they do have in common (along with others) is in identifying Hunter’s notion of “faithful presence from within” – whether read as a “constructive proposal for a different paradigm” (Smith), or a “loudly anti-modern, anti-American, and anti-globalization, post-political, narrow, negative view of power” (Malloch) – as being highly indebted to the neo-Anabaptist tradition Hunter takes such great pains to criticize.

And in so identifying Hunter’s project, Malloch and Smith help us to situate Hunter (properly, I think) in a particular tradition of the church’s history, when that history is understood as an argument for the Christian faith (or what MacIntyre refers to as a “tradition”). More specifically it is a tradition which stresses the church’s mission as “to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God.”

Seen in this light, one can read Hunter’s criticism of what he identifies as the “purity from” strain of neo-Anabaptist teaching to be an attempt to heal the tradition of ressentiment and thus restore the tradition back to good order.

But in pursuing this desirable end, Hunter, the “sociologist attentive to the power of institutions,” may suffer from a blind spot that renders him unable to fully appreciate the value of “reclaim(ing) a ‘proper’ understanding of the political.”

Where Hunter finds in the neo-Anabaptist project a strong element of “world-hating”, James K. A. Smith wonders if Hunter’s criticism isn’t (at least in some respects) “a critique of a caricature.”

In my view, to the extent Smith’s point is valid, it is due to the blind spot inherent in Hunter’s critique. A blind spot which I’ve suggested may be leading Hunter to call for abandonment of an essential part of our nature as given in the creation mandate.

If this view is correct, then we have no choice but to reach toward a politics “that is more capacious and capable of absorbing actions, ideas, and initiatives that are independent” of a State which increasingly asserts its hegemony over all areas of human life, including, in Malloch’s phrasing, “the complete social architecture… which ranges from committed persons to families to civic associations to schools to the state itself.”

But if To Change The World doesn’t provide guidance for this task, where might we find it?

One might be tempted to run straight back to the neo-Anabaptists—esp. Yoder and Hauerwas—and it may be that would be the best course to take. (Here I must make an admission. I have at best an arm’s length familiarity with Hauerwas, and even less direct contact with Yoder.)

However, I am passably conversant with the writings of two descendants of the Hauerwas/Yoder intellectual lineage – Jonathan R. Wilson and Scott H. Moore – and for the purposes of my argument, I think they’ll do quite nicely.

What Moore and Wilson bring to this debate is a deep sense of the church as a “counter polis,” thereby serving as a corrective to Hunter’s critique of neo-Anabaptist overreaction to the sin of Constantinianism.

Moore, in his book, The Limits of Liberal Democracy, has spent considerable effort teasing out a notion of the church which offers a robust challenge to the idea that “a democracy which is principally committed to the autonomy of the individual and the expansion of personal liberty (i.e. Liberal Democracy) (is) capable of forming the souls of Christians who believe that ‘he who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life will keep it in the life eternal.’”

Moore warns:

(T)he tendency of the culture of Enlightenment Liberalism, which has steadily exported its principles, vocabularies and methodologies from the necessarily public sphere of statecraft (where it works more or less pretty well) into almost every sphere of our daily lives (where it is far less successful) must be checked and can only be checked by communities that have both constituting narratives and sustaining practices strong enough to challenge the linguistic and imaginative hegemony of Liberal Democracy.

If Moore (in quoting Father Michael Baxter, also mentored by Hauerwas) is correct in stating that when politics is redescribed in traditional theological terms…

As the art of achieving the common good through participation in the divine life of God – then substantive religious convictions are central to legitimate political authority, and “interest politics” is not really politics at all, but a cacophonous conflict of wills.

then when Hunter says, “Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression,” one may reasonably ask if Hunter is uncritically accepting the deformed view of “politics as statecraft.”

And when Hunter further states, “the expectations that people place on politics are unrealistic, for most of the problems we face today are not resolvable through politics,” we might well take that as an indication not that politics itself is unredeemable, but that the problems we face are not resolvable through the political levers of statecraft as it is understood by modern liberal market-states.

A further implication being that the public sphere in which Hunter wishes to operate is no less under the sway of functional Nietzscheanism than is the politics from which he wishes to withdraw.

Wilson’s contribution – chiefly in the two works, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, and Why Church Matters – is to have effectively translated and then deployed MacIntyre’s philosophy of virtue ethics into the service of the local church. It is Wilson’s reading of MacIntyre, (a skill he learned under Hauerwas), that most effectively brings to light the necessary piece of the neo-Anabaptist tradition that Hunter’s critique misses.

For what Hunter and the outside world see as an over-emphasis on the “purity from” ethos may more properly be seen as the necessary work of carving out from the larger culture a space whereby we may set about the task of inculcating the disciplines and virtues necessary to best order our lives toward our proper telos.

Hunter and Wilson both share the sense that the church’s function is that of “faithful presence” or “witness.” In many respects, their language (and, arguably, what is intended by their language) is nearly identical.

Where Wilson speaks of why “practices cannot be isolated from the whole life of a community and the relationships internal and external to it,” Hunter speaks with great discernment on the role of formation in the task of making disciples.

Hunter, though, believes neo-Anabaptists and new monastics take a too-narrow view of incarnational living as something that “happens in the disciplines of the Christian life—especially in the corporate disciplines of Eucharist, the liturgy, the observance of holy days, and the like.” Where he finds fault is in the view that devalues or at least “ignores the implications of the incarnation in the vocations of ordinary Christians in the workaday world.”

And to the extent that the neo-Anabaptists do not provide, or think it unnecessary to provide, a robust and affirmative account of vocation and a sense of life together with the polis outside the church, Hunter makes a critically important point.

However, in this fallen world, currently subject to the overwhelming influence of fragmentation, dissolution and the ceaseless to and fro movement of the will to power, it would seem the best hope we have for acting in concert with God’s will for the world – including in our homes, our politics, and our vocational callings – is that we do not forget (again, in Baxter’s words as recounted by Moore) that:

Understood theologically, politics entails the ordering of human relationships according to their ultimate end: God. The primary political setting in which this ordering occurs is the church. If the true polis is constituted by the practices of assembled Christians called “the Church,” the “pilgrim City of God,” then “faith” is intrinsically political.

And it is only by making the church our first and primary polis – with all that entails for the practices and disciplines which rightfully order that polis to its proper telos – that we can expect to live faithfully in the world and among our fellow human beings who have yet to recognize what one day every tongue will confess.

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