[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.