Jon A. Shields
October 4, 2012
A review of The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, by Timothy S. Goeglein, and To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter
Perhaps no other Washingtonian knows the Christian Right better than Timothy Goeglein. After spending nearly eight years in the White House as George W. Bush's liaison to religious conservatives, Geoglein now works as a lobbyist for Focus on the Family. In The Man in the Middle, Goeglein reflects on his tenure in the White House primarily to laud Bush's record. He compares Bush favorably to the greatest presidents in American history and even admires him for being "eloquent." Geoglein, however, is enough of a cultural conservative to acknowledge that there are limits to politics and even to Bush's own considerable powers.
Culture is what matters most, Bush's middleman tells us, since "politics, public policy, and the law are all downstream from culture." What is needed, in Goeglein's view, is a national moral and spiritual revival that will "replenish virtue among all our citizens." Such a renewal will strengthen families, churches, and civil society, which he regards as our most important cultural institutions.
Goeglein's perspective on American culture is popular among Christian conservatives. It is not clear, however, that it is correct. James Davison Hunter, a prominent Christian sociologist at the University of Virginia, contends that this understanding of cultural change is "fundamentally flawed" because it tends to ignore the "institutional nature of culture." In To Change the World, Hunter argues that cultural power is embedded largely in "high-prestige centers of cultural production," including the film industry, advertising, entertainment, media, and arts. It is elites in these critical institutions that shape and transform American culture from the "top down," not movements from the bottom up. Since elites enjoy a "lopsided access to the means of cultural production," even a third-great awakening would do little to change American culture unless elites themselves were swept into camp meetings along with ordinary folk. So powerful are elites, in fact, that culture "often seems eerily independent of majority opinion."
* * *
If Hunter is even partially correct about culture, the problem for Christians, and conservative evangelicals in particular, is clear. Serious Christians, after all, are hard to find in the world-making institutions that really matter. And though evangelicals have actively made cultural contributions though music and books, such efforts tend towards low- to middlebrow audiences. "There is little taste," writes Hunter, for "‘high culture'" in evangelical circles. As a result, "the collective impact of the Christian community on the nature and direction of the culture itself is negligible."
Yes, evangelical Christians like Goeglein have been active in movements and the corridors of political power. But, as Hunter observes, cultural change "rarely if ever happens through grassroots political mobilization" because "the state is a clumsy instrument...rooted in coercion." Laws certainly "reflect values," but they "cannot generate values, or instill values," especially in a society that is fragmented and polarized.
Making matters worse, Hunter contends that evangelicals have compromised their public witness by reducing it to a shrill political one. Christianity is now defined by its angry, polemical activists rather than its "philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, and artistic and literary expression," or "its service to the needs of others." Tragically, "the public identity of the church is its political identity."
* * *
The weak cultural impact of evangelicals might not be such a bad thing, however. Hunter fears a world in which Christians wield genuine power beyond the political arena: "Were Christians to be in a position to exert enduring cultural influence, the results would likely be disastrous." According to Hunter, Christians seethe with too much "resentment, anger, and bitterness for the injury they believe they have suffered" from secular cultural warriors. If Christians could actually change the world they would merely perpetuate the nihilistic political culture shaped by man's lust for dominion, hatred, and revenge. Christians who are supposed to "bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God" would compromise their own sacred vocations. They would become "functional Nietzscheans."
Even if Christians could overcome their resentments, Hunter doubts that their actions will produce the desired effect. "There are almost always unintended consequences to human action," he notes soberly, "particularly at the macro-historical level and these are, often enough, tragic." It is hard to "undo" power once exercised. The state, in any case, cannot "provide fully satisfying solutions to the problem of values in our society" since it ultimately depends on coercion.
Insofar as this account is persuasive, it might be tempting for Christians to resist the desire to change the world. This has largely been the strategy of Neo-Anabaptists, who have emphasized the importance of personal piety as well as disengagement from the market and state. But such a strategy is naïve, Hunter concludes, since the exercise of power is unavoidable. Although Christians might avoid using the hard power of the state, "short of living in complete isolation from the world and independent of its resources," they could never adequately separate themselves from the structures of economic and social power. Power is expressed in every human relationship; it "saturates all of social reality." The question Christians confront is not whether to use power, but how to do so.
Hunter's answer to the many dilemmas confronting American Christians is "faithful presence." Rather than reclaim the culture in the name of Christ or retreat into a pietistic ghetto, such a presence would cultivate a public witness that is not merely political. Believers must "come to terms with...exile" by recognizing that they live in what is "now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture." Christians should be critical of American culture in their various spheres of influence in constructive ways. If Christians succeed "it is possible, just possible" that the world will become "a little bit better."
* * *
To change the world is Hunter's own effort to make the world a little better by being faithfully present. It not only represents his deepest and widest ranging reflections on American culture, it's also his first major work in which he speaks explicitly as a Christian, bringing theological insights to bear on social scientific questions. His compelling claims are an important corrective to the way Goeglein and others in evangelical circles think about politics. Hunter is almost certainly correct that Christians have neglected the institutional nature of culture and largely reduced their public witness to a political one.
Like other great books, however, Hunter's raises some questions than it cannot possibly answer. I am left wondering, for example, what Hunter would say about the civil rights movement. It was successful largely because it embraced coercive tactics and understood that legal change was the key to cultural transformation in the South. Unlike Northern liberals, who thought that the South would eventually change its ways, civil rights leaders insisted that only coercion would bring about change. Power would not be handed over to Southern blacks; it had to be taken by disrupting commerce and forcing the hand of a reluctant federal government. This insight presented theological problems to black Protestants who feared that exercising power might corrupt their souls. But since doing nothing was far worse, they accepted the necessity of force. Justice required coercion. And, contrary to Hunter's analysis, civil rights leaders believed that the law could change values. Indeed, they thought that only legal change could ultimately change the culture of the American South. As American civil rights historian David Chappell explains in A Stone of Hope (2004), "Reality [the law] had to change first. And reality had to be changed by coercion. Hearts and minds would follow."
Hunter's analysis suggests that the civil rights movement has been a terrible model for contemporary Christians. There are many good reasons to suspect this is true, not the least of which is the hostility of the media to cultural conservatives. But given the power the civil rights movement has enjoyed over the political imaginations of so many Christian activists on the Left and Right, Hunter might explain why it should be repudiated as a model for Christians who seek to change the world.
At times Hunter seems to back away from his provocative claim that the depth of Christians' conviction and worldview does not matter, at least where cultural change is concerned. He asserts that the church is "far too entwined with the prevailing normative assumptions" of a post-Christian culture. Yet if this is true, I wonder how one can really assess the relative importance of institutions and popular conviction. If Christians everywhere are profoundly shaped by American culture, should we be all that surprised that they have done so little to change it?
* * *
Goeglein's book offers a striking example of the power of American culture to shape the way even Christian activists think about cultural change. Although he makes the usual pitch for the importance of the institution of marriage, his solution to the problem of broken ones is to encourage divorcees to "fall in love again." It is a prescription that rejects the very notion that marriage should be an institution imposing norms and expectations on individuals that are inescapably coercive. If Goeglein thought of marriage in institutional terms, he would insist that marriage itself makes the love last, not vice versa. But Goeglein, despite being Focus on the Family's lobbyist, cannot help but think about marriage in much the same way that secular Americans do—as a union created and sustained by individual desire and affection. His apparent accommodation to what Hunter calls a culture of consumer choice is hardly unusual. As many studies have shown, Christianity enjoys very little moral authority over the lives of most church-goers.
Hunter, in any case, contends that the deeper problem with Christians is not faint conviction; it's rage. I'm not sure why Hunter believes that anger plagues American Christians, which seems rather marginal outside some fundamentalist circles. He presents no evidence for accepting this popular stereotype and elsewhere has shown how unfairly Christian conservatives are treated by the mass media. If most Christians are not especially hate-filled souls and they are deeply shaped by what Hunter calls a post-Christian culture, I wonder how much the world would change if Christians suddenly became the new cultural gatekeepers. So long as Christians continue to reject Hunter's thoughtful critique by remaining at the margins of cultural centers of power, however, they will not dramatically change the culture, no matter how many Timothy Goegleins find their way to Washington.