James Davison Hunter, the LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, has a habit of writing very important books. His 1991 book, Culture Wars, shaped a generation of discussion about politics and religion in American life. And now, almost twenty years later, his new book, To Change the World, has generated widespread commentary regarding the shape of Christian engagement with culture. James K. A. Smith, whose book Desiring the Kingdom has often been mentioned alongside To Change the World, recently reviewed Hunter’s new book for The Other Journal and interviewed Hunter as a follow-up to that review. In this conversation, they discuss cultural engagement, faithful presence, and the future of American Christianity.1
James K. A. Smith (JKAS): Imagine that a generation of young people from across the spectrum of American Christianity were convinced Hauerwasians. How might things look different in fifty years? How would American Christianity be different? How would American culture at large be different?
James Davison Hunter (JDH): Like the Old Order Anabaptists whose style and life practices are frozen in the mid-nineteenth century, here too style and life practices would be frozen in the 2010s. The neo-Anabaptists in fifty years would all wear Toms, be locavores, play guitars, patronize microbreweries, and worship in ugly buildings. Their pastors would all have soul patches (and other finely groomed facial hair) but operate great Web sites and tweet all of the time. The tour buses will drive by and . . .
In all seriousness, American Christianity would be constituted by good people who raise good children. They would be good neighbors and good global citizens, though not necessarily cosmopolitans. They would find creative ways to deal with poverty at a grassroots level because they have much to say to those with little power. Their churches would be small (300 or less), multiethnic communities that would be less nationalistic; indeed, the Constantinian era would have come to a close.
At the same time, American Christianity would dramatically shrink in its numbers. The trend of decline among middle-class and upper-middle-class business people and professionals in the arts, media, medicine, law, and the academy—male and female—would continue. My guess is that the decline in the number of men who are Christians and active in their churches would be even more precipitous.
The reason is implicit in their theology—they are stymied by the conundrum of power in the world. I had a long discussion with a young pastor early this summer who was championing a strong Hauerwasian view, and it became clear that he had nothing constructive or encouraging to say to me as a professional or to any of the businesspeople or professionals in his church about our vocations in the world. The absence of any theological reflection on his part about work and vocation reflected the old dualism that has been at the heart of modernity and Christianity’s capitulation to it. It also rendered him mute to those looking for wisdom about how to live their lives in the world outside the church. The church, then, would be a church of the lower-middle and working class and, demographically, there would be a huge gender imbalance, with the number of women overwhelming the number of men. (This, in turn, would have serious consequences on marriage rates and, in turn, on birthrates.) I also think it is quite possible that they would have a harder time transferring their faith to the next generation for the simple reason that faith would seem disconnected from the range of life and work experiences outside of the church’s own activities.
So the neo-Anabaptist vision would foster a Christianity that is gentle and appealing in many ways but that is unwilling or unable to “go into all the world”—in the structural sense I talk about in the book—and engage it toward human flourishing because they don’t have the theologies to do so. As a consequence, Christians would continue to be absent from most of the important questions facing communities, nations, and the world as a whole. For these reasons, it is not likely that they would have made America very different at all.
JKAS: My friend Rich Mouw tends to think that the worst thing that could happen is if a generation of evangelicals bought the supposedly “sectarian” model of Yoder and Hauerwas. But it doesn’t seem to me that you share quite that degree of concern. Indeed, To Change the World offers a qualified affirmation of the “neo-Anabaptists,” as you call them. Are there worse things that could happen?
JDH: Based on this statement, Rich thinks that the “disengagement” of the neo-Anabaptist model would be the worst thing that could happen. I would disagree and say that a corrupt engagement would be far worse. For me, this would look like a more cynical incarnation of the current Christian Right and Christian Left, in which faith becomes even more instrumentalized by political interests and their own will-to-power becomes even more aggressive. Another form of corrupting engagement would be in the further accommodations we already see in the larger “defensive against” and “relevance to” paradigms. These would finally, even if unintentionally, wash out all of the distinctives of Christian life and witness. Lacking the discernment essential to critical engagement, ultimately these movements and tendencies in Christianity would be even more captive to the spirit of the age.
JKAS: Now, how would that be different from a world in which the same generation of young people took to heart the argument of To Change the World and became committed to “faithful presence”?
JDH: Needless to say, it is important not to be utopian. Christians would be far from perfect but the church would be at the center of their lives, for worship and formation. These churches would be multiethnic but also multiclass; their population, not unlike the population of the larger community. They would resemble the neo-Anabaptists in their creative care for the dispossessed, but their engagement with the world would not end there. They would be active and productive in every sphere of life—the service industry, skilled labor, education, business, philanthropy, science, medicine, law, the arts, academia, and, yes, politics too, and at every level, for there would not only be theologies to support them but resources to prepare, launch, and sustain them. They would be active in overlapping networks, institutions, and communities that are local but that also transcend region, and because they pursue excellence in all spheres of life, they would be engaged in the most difficult problems of the day. The church would likely be smaller than it is today but only where the acids of modernity would further dissolve the residues of cultural Christianity. Yet, like the Jewish community, its influence would be disproportionate to its size. The ambitions to dominate America would be gone, but the public sphere, as I suggest above, would in no way be neglected.
In fifty years, there is no question in my mind that Christians would be considered even more odd than they are today by virtue of what they believe and the morality by which they live, and yet because they are fully engaged in each sphere of life as individuals and communities of character, they would serve as a credible and creditable conscience of the overlapping communities they inhabit. Odd, to be sure, but no one would deny that they do extraordinary good in the world. Neither would anyone doubt that they serve the cities and communities in which they live very well.
JKAS: Your analogy to the Jewish community in the United States—an analogy you touch on in the book—is intriguing. For instance, I find myself imagining an emerging school of Christian literature, a sort of Christian parallel to the work of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and others that is mainstream in the sense that their work appears in the New Yorker and is reviewed in the New York Review of Books, but is also constantly struggling with a kind of marginality and difference. That is, it seems like Roth (I’m thinking of The Ghost Writer and the Zuckerman novels) is often dealing with a sense of alienation—being at the center of culture but never quite “in.” Is that the kind of parallel or analogy you mean to suggest?
JDH: I think that is exactly right. Protestantism has been moving from the mainstream to the margins of American society over the last 150 years or so. This reconfiguration in the social world has been especially intense in the last half of the twentieth century. (Christianity, in its broad range of communities, has participated in this.) This marginalization is the source of some incredibly interesting dynamics. For one, it has certainly animated the politicization of evangelicalism and parts of Roman Catholicism in the effort to reverse the trend. At the same time, it has also forced an ecumenism among the orthodox communities in these traditions that would not have likely happened without the structural change.
But most interesting to me is that the increasing marginality of Christianity to the larger culture has also created a tension that is beginning to yield creative energy. This dynamic is similar to that which is described by Thorstein Veblen in his essay, “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Modern Europe,” published in 1919. Veblen argued that the intellectual achievement of the Jews was due to being caught between “the conventions into which [they have] been born” and the conventions of the gentile “into which [they have] been thrown.” Their creativity and achievement, in other words, was rooted in their marginal status in an alien world—of never being quite at home anywhere. In my view, there are signs that these dynamics are beginning to have the same effect within the Christian community. We’ve certainly seen this in recent decades in the contribution of Christians to philosophy and American religious history. We’re seeing signs of it in other areas of intellectual life as well—possibly including an inchoate school of Christian literature. But before we get too excited, it is worth noting Veblen’s own cautionary observation that should the Jews ever accommodate completely to the mainstream of culture, the springs of their creativity would dry up.
The history of the Jewish community in America through the twentieth century is a history of a community that was very tactical in its use of social and financial capital on behalf of scientific and cultural achievement. We have much to learn from them, not least from how they have thrived in a world that has been indifferent at times and outright hostile at other times.
JKAS: This issue of being engaged in the centers of cultural power is at the heart of your book. You rightly criticize a sort of naive “grassrootism” and emphasize the importance of elites in shaping culture. But a lot of people seem to hear you emphasizing the causal power of “elites” and then jump to the hasty conclusion that what you’re advocating is similar to Michael Lindsay’s book Faith in the Halls of Power. But in fact, those who read closely will notice you have quite a stinging critique of Lindsay’s claims.3 Can you clarify where you two differ, and why?
JDH: Needless to say, I don’t offer a full review of Lindsay’s book in my own—that wasn’t the point and it wasn’t my task. His book is descriptively rich and there are some interesting findings; for example, how Evangelical leaders relate to their local congregation or parish. My main concern was with his central contention—that Evangelicals have “arrived”; that they’ve joined the “American Elite,” that they occupy the “halls of power” in any meaningful way.
That there are Evangelicals in positions of leadership in business, politics, the media, academia, and so on is neither surprising nor, on its own, interesting. In one sense, it can be seen as a logical development of the expansion of higher education in the post-World War II era. The educational levels of the entire population were raised in this period, including the Catholic population, which had traditionally been among the least well-educated religious communities in America. It would have only been natural for Evangelicals to have participated in this demographically based social mobility. And so, the movement of Evangelicals with higher degrees into positions of leadership in these spheres was also a natural development. It was bound to happen. So what?
For one, I think Lindsay’s evidence (combined with my own anecdotal experience) suggests that those who have made it into these realms have made it despite the church, not because of it. What is more, many of these individuals hold their positions with great skepticism about the church and their role in it. In this light, Lindsay’s evidence could be interpreted as Evangelicalism’s further assimilation to the larger culture rather than the movement’s actual or potential influence in it. This point is underlined by the fact that the networks that Evangelical elites operate in tend to reinforce subcultural insularity rather than act as a creative and catalytic force for change outside of the subculture.
The real question is, what does it mean that some Evangelicals now occupy positions of leadership in these realms of social life? Lindsay contends that they have influence in the culture. Independent of politics, I just don’t see it. True, some individual Evangelicals may have local influence and some have influence in their places of work (e.g., observing blue laws, etc.), but broader influence, out of a community? In dense and overlapping networks? With coherent purposes toward the larger world? I don’t think so. There are exceptions, but these are rare. Again, consider the Jewish community as a point of comparison. Evangelicalism is so much larger, but it is not even remotely close to the Jewish community in its influence in science, medicine, art, literature, business, and so on. In short, I don’t think that Evangelicals have “arrived” at all.
JKAS: In To Change the World, you criticize evangelicalism for creating a vast “empire of parallel institutions,” an entire subculture with its own schools, publishers, magazines, music, et cetera.4 Now, even if we grant that much of this is subcultural in the sense that it just ends up being a parody and copy of “majority” culture, couldn’t you still grant that there could be alternative institutions which are “faithfully present”? I have in mind something like Augustine’s rule for his monastic communities: they would be centers for prayer and study, but they would be smack-dab in the middle of urban centers of Roman power, engaged with their neighbors. It seems to me that some alternative institutions might provide more space for an integral witness and testimony to the majority culture, so long as they are not just spaces of retreat and withdrawal, but rather spaces for nourishing the sort of people who can be faithfully present.
If it helps, I should just put my cards on the table, though I don’t mean to be defensive: I think a place like Calvin College, a sort of “parallel institution,” could be a center for faithful presence. At the very least, I am able to pursue work here that I couldn’t do elsewhere. Isn’t there room for a certain institutional pluralism in your model?
JDH: I’m glad to have the opportunity to clarify this point. I am grieved to think that what I wrote was read as a blanket criticism of the structure of parallel institutions. I did not mean it this way at all. The structure of parallel institutions has been a source of enormous vitality in all of the traditions of Christianity and not least within the Reformed and Evangelical world. As you know, I was a graduate of Gordon College many moons ago, and I can say that the education and experience I had at Gordon was terrific. I was formed in those years in very positive ways. I think it is fair to say that this is the experience of most students in that orbit. Other parallel institutions perform incredibly important work that could not be imagined or accomplished in “mainstream” institutions.
Where I intended to focus my criticism is on two points. The first is that there hasn’t been a well-developed institutional pluralism. The problem, in other words, is that Christians have not been well-represented or represented at all in huge swaths of social life. Churches are terrible at acknowledging those realms outside of the subculture as legitimate spheres for Christians to work in, and they do not provide theologies to make sense of the work that could be done. Altogether, they have fostered an insularity that can be quite problematic. The second point of criticism is that these parallel institutions tend to eclipse the institutional church itself and, at times, replace the institutional church as the place of Christian community.
Building out institutions that give expression to and promote human flourishing will require imagination, invention, entrepreneurship, and flexibility that will result in just the kind of institutional pluralism of which you speak.
JKAS: Your emphasis on “the church” here—and not just, say, “Christianity”—sounds significant. Your vision of Christian cultural engagement emphasizes the institutional reality of the church, gathered for worship, as almost the condition of possibility for “faithful presence.” However, at times I thought I heard rumblings of a kind of “two kingdoms” model here. There’s been a notable uptick in two-kingdoms talk these days, especially amongst conservative Presbyterians. While some hasty readers have mistaken you for an Anabaptist, might others mistake you for a two-kingdoms guy? Or are you sympathetic to those developments?
JDH: The church is God’s gift to his people. As an institution and a framework for community, it is the only viable structure within which Christians can be formed. You’ve written eloquently and persuasively on this in your new book, Desiring the Kingdom. It is also the only viable structure within which an alternative culture, one that gives expression to the shalom of God, can take root. The problem is that it has become an increasingly weak institution over the last two centuries.
It is, then, important to ask how to strengthen this institution. My sense is that two-kingdom theologies seem to foster a stronger church (institutionally and organically), but in the end, they don’t. They end up mapping onto and reinforcing the modern dualism between private and public, sacred and secular, ideal and material, a dualism that would have been unrecognizable to someone like Augustine. Wittingly or unwittingly, these theologies also obviate the need for discernment about the larger world and the engagement of the church in it. In this sense, it renders the possibility of strong affirmations and prophetic judgments unnecessary. Practically, this means that there is no need for robust theologies of engagement in the service industry and in the trades, or in the professions—arts, business, science, technology, and medicine, academia, and so on. It is precisely this lack of a robust theology of engagement in politics that has passively permitted the corruptions that have become so common among the Christian Right and Left. So no, I don’t find these developments helpful. Their net effect, it seems to me, is to domesticate the authority of the church, to lessen the lived reach of the good news, and to diminish the tension that is inherent in the life of the Christian and of Christians together in the world.
JKAS: Finally, one last selfish question. Your book is a collection of “essays” and so is not obligated to be exhaustive or comprehensive. But I was struck by what seems a curious omission: there’s not a single discussion of Abraham Kuyper, whose theology of culture has been increasingly influential in American discussions (even if he’s sometimes misappropriated, as in Colson). Was that intentional? Isn’t Kuyper’s model quite close to yours—or at least a version of Kuyperianism as developed by someone like Nicholas Wolterstorff?
JDH: Needless to say, there are echoes of Kuyper in this argument throughout, but I don’t work through Kuyper in any direct way for two related reasons. One, Kuyper’s thought is part of a particular tradition and is therefore weighted with all of the internal debates surrounding that tradition. I try to provide a more inclusive framework within which different traditions can work out their particularities. Two, his work is historically embedded in a phase of the modern project of nineteenth-century nation-building. This intellectual work still has much to offer, though I find it overemphasizes the importance of political institutions as well as the segmentation of social life. In the late-modern world, these constructions seem dated (in the former) and artificial (in the latter).
In short, understandings of the world inhere in the very words we use. Though it is imperative that we learn from the insights and wisdom of older conceptual frameworks, my hope in this book was to highlight, through the words and concepts, the realization that we are in new territory.
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1. See James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1991), James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), and James K. A. Smith, “How (Not) to Change the World,” The Other Journal 17 (2010), https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=1021&header=perspective.
2. Thorstein Veblen, “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Modern Europe,” Political Science Quarterly 34 (1919): 39.
3. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007).
4. Hunter, To Change the World, 214.