To Change the World: Essay 2, Summary, Part 1

[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]

Essay 2 is “Rethinking Power.” Here Hunter criticizes the methods of the modern American church to change contemporary culture on scriptural grounds.

Yet as Christians seek to fulfill the creation mandate, perhaps the central factor determining the effectiveness and the outcome of their engagement with the world is the dynamic of power. When faith and its culture flourish, they do so, in part, because it operates with an implicit view of power in its proper place. When faith and its cultures deteriorate, they do so, in part, because it operates with a view of power that is corrupt.

Hunter notes that in America, we’ve politicized nearly everything — in a process beginning at least as far back as FDR’s New Deal.

[T]he amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases. By these lights, the fabric of the common culture in modern America has worn even more thin in the last several decades … .

People who don’t get along and don’t share convictions about how to live need more laws than those who already get along very well. And the US is generating new laws at a staggering rate! Indeed,

Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christian, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly when recognized by law and public policy.

And if we have to have the state make us a protected class to feel legitimacy and affirmation, then we identify who we are with what the state says about us. And politics becomes everything. Indeed, we increasingly look to the state to instruct us regarding what is right and wrong.

Therefore, “we find it difficult to think of a way to address public (by which I mean collective, common, or shared) problems or issues in any way that is not political.”

Therefore, here in Tuscaloosa, when community leaders want to work toward racial reconciliation, no one turns to the church or civic organizations. Rather, we hold a reconciliation conference and fill the room with politicians and others involved in the political process. Racial healing evidently comes from the government. But, of course, this is how it happened in the 1960s when the goal of the civil rights movement was to change the law, through politics, and so change people. And it accomplished a lot — I’m old enough to remember what things were like before.

But, Hunter warns us, “we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and political processes.” Fifty years later, we’re still holding racial reconciliation conferences. The government can’t finish the job.

Our reliance on politics to solve our problems means,

When one boils it all down, politicization means that the final arbiter within most of social life is the coercive power of the state. … [W]hen the pursuit of agendas depends more on the vilification of opponents than on the affirmation of higher ideals, power is stripped to its most elemental forms. Even democratic justifications are not much more than a veneer over a will to power. … [T]he basic intent and desire is to dominate, control, or rule.

Why are so many Americans upset over near universal health insurance? Ultimately, it’s because they feel the power of the state is being used to force an unwanted result. It’s not fun being on the losing end of a raw political power play. But that’s the nature of politics in a nation with few shared values.

Hunter has added a new word to my vocabulary: ressentiment (pronounced /r?s??ti?m??/, not “resentment.” I had to look it up.) This word is taken from the work of German philosopher Nietzsche (slogan: “I have more consecutive consonants in my name than you!”) It’s the feeling of having been wronged and so having a wounded sense of entitlement. “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!” is the sense of the word.

Groups suffer from ressentiment when they take on victim status because of perceived injustice. “Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action.” Ressentiment therefore requires that there be enemies to be blamed.

Now, in the modern church, there is a major ressentiment industry churning out news stories, books, and articles pointing out the victimization of Christians by those in power in America. Some are true. Some are half-truths. Some are lies.

I recently checked on a particularly outrageous stories being reported in the ressentiment press. A man was arrested by a gay cop for holding up a sign saying that God considers homosexuality a sin. The story of the arrest was all over the Christian press for days. But I checked the local papers, and they reported that the arrest had been immediately thrown out as obviously illegal. But most of the Christian press never reported that part of the story. You see, the goal wasn’t to report all the news honestly, but to report the part of the news that helps feed the cause.

It is my contention that Nietzsche was mostly right: that while the will to power has always been present, American democracy increasingly operates within a political culture — that is, a framework of meaning — that sanctions a will to domination.

Is it okay to force things down the throats of others through the power of the state? Well, they did it to us!

Hunter then reviews the way the conservative, progressive, and neo-Anabaptists elements in the American church have been influenced, indeed, corrupted by the American political culture. Now, it should be obvious that the religious right is explicitly seeking use the power of the state to impose its will on America.

Hunter quotes Ralph Reed, long time political strategist for the Christian right —

“[Religious conservatives] must do more than ‘send a message’ to the elites and party leaders. They must win elections. They must govern. The must pull the levers of government and turn the wheels of the larger society for the good of the nation.”

The result will be, as conservatives have said, to “affirm the national relationship with God” and “secure national interest in the institutions of marriage and family.” Voting itself can “take us in the direction of righteousness.” Dobson declared that “a good part of the Judeo-Christian system of values, hangs in the balance” of the 2004 presidential election. (I can’t help but notice that not only did the Rapture not follow Bush’s election, neither did the promised constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.)

The Christian left is nearly the mirror image of the right. To them, politics is the means of realizing the Christian ideal of equality and community. For the left, liberty is freedom from poverty caused by economic domination and exploitation by the wealthy. Community is solidarity across “boundaries of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social class.” War is seen in terms of economic exploitation and power.

Mainline denominations thus have ministries charged with lobbying for economic justice and group rights. Their influence is in decline, in part because they in fact won rights for women and blacks and many other goals, and in part because their denominations are rapidly losing members and contributions. And, I would add, in part because they’ve become incapable of disagreeing with the Democratic Party and so have become irrelevant, having no remaining agenda of their own.

But there’s been a resurgence of the Christian Left in the form of such personalities as Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, and Brian McLaren. Wallis is the most prominent in politics, working with the Democrats to help them reach out to the Christian community.

The work of the Christian left is also filled with ressentiment — with the Christian Right often being the declared enemy of the movement. Hunter quotes Wallis, “For decades the religious right has held the upper hand in religion and politics. This is changing and they must share the stage.”

[T]here is little question that progressive Christianity is instrumentalized (or used as a means to an end) by the Democratic Party in its quest for power, just as conservative Christianity has been used for quite some time by the Republican Party.

Both movements are working hard to turn the kingdom of God into two special interest groups being used by two political parties in an unending quest for power.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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11 Responses to To Change the World: Essay 2, Summary, Part 1

  1. Rich says:

    The apostle Paul seemed to target community leaders wherever he went. He often would start in the synagogue. He converted the political leader of Cyprus (Acts 13:6). And Paul spent multiple years in prison seemingly to give him access to the Caesar.

    Is the author saying we shouldn't deal with politics at all or that we are just doing it wrong? Essays 1 and 2 still sound contradictory to me. (1) we should influence existing institutions rather than create our own versus (2) we should stay out of the most influential existing institution (politics).

    Or is the author saying other institutions are actually more influential than politics? Therefore, those are the ones we should target?

    Perhaps essay 3 will provide some answers.

    This is interesting. Thanks for the review.

  2. Jerry Starling says:

    When the game of power politics comes into the church, things get nasty. Yet this is the way many people act toward those with whom they disagree. If I cannot win by legitimate scriptural argument, I will win by slur and innuendo. I see this frequently as conservatives castigate progressives and vice versa. A conservative cannot say anything good about Rubel Shelly; a progressive cannot say anything good about Foy Wallace, Jr. Each tends to view the other as an enemy to squelch rather than as a brother to love while approaching him with a spirit of gentleness and meekness.

    We find it easier to throw red meat to our partisans than to reason together in love.


  3. David Himes says:

    It's dangerous to relationships with one another to mix politic matters with matters of faith.

    For example, if you make your opposition to abortion a matter of faith, then your opportunity to discuss salvation issues with a pro-abortion person is dramatically diminished. And which issue is more important?

    Another example. I've been a Republican for many years. Even worked for the Party in Washington, DC for 15 years. One of my friends was Barack Obama's "Faith Advisor", representing candidate Obama before faith groups across the country.

    He and I could not be more different, from a political perspective. But on matters of faith, we're very close.

    Personally, I continue to find institutionalizing faith is one of the failings of the modern ekklesia. And I believe it has been institutionalized so that some could have greater influence over others than they otherwise would have had. When that happens, it is regrettable, and I believe inconsistent with God's intent for the ekklesia.

  4. Mike Ward says:


    I'm a progessive, and I'll say something nice about Foy E. Wallace, Jr.

    After I mentioned Wallace when describing how churches had divided in Lexington, KY in part because of his preaching against Bollism, Jay pointed out that Wallace damned Boll and the premillialist while Jay simply said they were dangerous and violent–not damned, I went and read some articles Wallace had written in Bible Banner on Premillennialism and found that he repeatedly addressed Boll as Brother Boll. And he tried to create and argument based on scripture instead of simply hurling insults.

  5. Alabama John says:

    David, Thank you for a great and wise post!

    We better stop knocking each other and pull together. I guess the denominations are just realizing our shortcomings here or maybe just becoming more vocal about our standing so strong against one another.
    They are laughing at us.

    In many places here, you can drive 25 miles and pass 5 or more church of Christ congregations and every one has a paid preacher who will point all the others to hell and have only their congregation going to heaven. This has got to STOP!!!

  6. Terry says:

    I support enacting pro-life legislation because it is needed in order to protect the lives of innocent children. However, I realize that laws alone will not fully protect their lives. In fact, even the protections that we can enact in our current political environment are fairly minimal in that they cannot extend full human rights to the children.

    It would be a mistake to rely primarily on the political process.

    That's why it is appropriate for Christian families to adopt children (especially hard-to-place children).

    That's why it's appropriate for congregations to minister to pregnant women in need. In our urban ministry, we have a program in which new and expectant mothers can go through a mentoring program with a registered Christian nurse in which they learn how to care for their children (both prenatal and postnatal) and how to make wise life choices. As they complete lessons, they earn "mommy money" that can be used to purchase large items like cribs and car seats. Other items like diapers and baby formula are provided for free. By coming alongside those who are struggling and without compromising our Christian witness, we can make a difference in the lives of those who are most affected by declining public morality. In addition, it can be very rewarding, since you can see the impact personally.

  7. rick says:


    I believe Mark 10 is informative on this point:

    And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" And they said to him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

    We have adopted the weapons of carnality in seeking to win the Culture War. First of all, calling it a culture war is a misnomer as not one of the Kingdom parables uses this militaristic motif in describing God's consummation summarized in Revelation 11:15. However, when we appropriate the world's vocabulary, i.e. the "Culture War" then we necessarily put on their weapons and engage in their arena.

    Jesus offers a startling contrast by saying that we are not called to exercise authority from the top, from the elite as you espouse in an earlier post, but rather from the bottom, from the position of the lowliest slave. Mother Theresa was able to address a joint session of Congress with impunity, not because she was in charge, but precisely because she made herself slave to the lowliest outcast.

    The reason we have not seen a change in abortion legislation is because we are using the world's weapons – legislative agenda and political means – to accomplish the task. Instead we should make ourselves slaves to unwed mothers, and in so doing we will make legalization of abortion superfluous.

    We can eliminate gay rights legislation by making ourselves slaves of homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders. This is a hard road and one few are willing to follow, but one that "even the son of Man" adopted in his offer to the Samaritan skank (whores at least got paid for fornicating while she was just a live-in) to give her living water. The apostles were flabbergasted to find him talking to her, although they wouldn't say anything to him.

    We need to flabbergast our peers in exactly the same way Jesus Christ did. We will find then that we will not have to win the culture war because we will have already transformed it.

  8. Rich says:

    There are both top-down and grass-roots movements. In industry, I found that the top-down approach creates faster change. The downfall with solely using that approach is the success or failure to convince the top first. If it is something I believe in and can't convince the top person then I will work the grass roots. But I also know it will be slower. So I need much patience and persistence.

    We often characterize Christianity as starting as grass roots. That is true. However, we tend to forget that both Jesus and especially Paul did get audience with those in power at the time.

    I am a fan of the grass roots approach to Christianity when it comes to my personal choices to influence. I haven't decided whether it is the best or just the easiest.

    So far, this book has told us what perhaps hasn't worked. I look forward to it's proposed solutions.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Rick, I think that's exactly right.

  10. weldon says:

    Groups suffer from ressentiment when they take on victim status because of perceived injustice. “Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action.” Ressentiment therefore requires that there be enemies to be blamed.

    When I read this I couldn't help but think of AFR/AFA. (Confession: I sometimes tune into the local AFR affiliate.) One of the things they frequently do is announce that school board is banning _______, or a new bill about _______ has been proposed, or public figure _______ has been critical of Christianity by saying _______. This is, of course, their way of "mobilizing the group to action." They even call the announcements "AFA Action Alerts."

  11. Jay Guin says:


    I'm not very expert in these things, but the best I can tell, the premillennialism taught by Boll is different from the Left Behind version.

    Richard Hughes describes the influence of the Boll movement in the early 20th Century in Reviving the Ancient Faith as pushing the Churches toward pacificism and separation from government, which is certainly different from the popular version of dispensational premillennialism we see in Left Behind.

    In fact, this was one of Foy Wallace's criticisms — he couldn't stand their anti-war stance. He also rejected their belief in a personal indwelling of the Spirit.

    According the Encyclopedia of the Stone Campbell Movement, "Wallace believed that premillennialism, as taught by Robert Henry Boll and his followers was heresy and the Boll had established a sect."

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