America has been obsessed with the "culture wars" for decades. Usually, conservative evangelicals get blamed for all the heat, but secular liberals aren't above employing apocalyptic language, too. "Will the fundamentalist, backward-thinking, Bible-thumping evangelical Christians turn us into the laughing-stock of the modern world?" Or "will the science-worshipping, family-destroying, godless liberal tear apart America's foundations?" It all sounds terribly serious. It seems that everyone is asking, Is America doomed?
Whether extreme language is justified or not, the cultural landscape in America is shifting. Having seen the writing on the wall, Christians both liberal and conservative have been frantically trying to force change in American culture. And on every measurable level, Christians have failed. The church's influence on the public stage has weakened nearly to the point of irrelevancy, or worse, hostility. How? And Why?
For the past couple weeks, I've been reading To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter. I'm only half-way through, and already there is too much to highlight. Hunter, a Christian sociologist at the University of Virginia, criticizes the traditional views on how culture changes and offers an alternative model for the Christian church. "I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology." (5) If you're at all interested or invested in cultural change, you should read this book. In a series of blog posts, I want to highlight just a few important ideas from his second essay, about power and politics in American culture.
A Fractured Culture and the Supremacy of the State
Hunter argues that the only legitimate force left in America is the state. In a polarized culture, all that's left to hold us together is the government. When there are no shared attitudes, beliefs, ideals, commitments, hopes, or traditions within a culture, what is left that binds us together? All that remains is the power of the state.
This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the 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. (102, italics added)
In its ability to make law, the state has the ability to assert its power positively or negatively on people and communities--to confer privileges or impose sanctions, to provide assistance or create difficulty, to bestow rights or to inflict punishment, harm, injury and loss. (101)
The Politicization of Everything
If the state is the only source of power in American culture, it's only natural that Americans politicize and litigate everything. From big issues like abortion and sexuality to little issues like the availability of Big Gulp sodas to NYC families, the government is always believed to have the final word. We complain about intrusive litigation, manipulative political action committees, and longer and longer election cycles, but what do we expect? How else could someone influence others in America?
Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures... Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them." (103)
In a society divided and often enough polarized on basic questions, and where persuasion is ineffective at generating agreements, the state--perhaps unwittingly so--becomes a patron to ideology. Each and every faction in society seeks the patronage of state power as a means of imposing its particular understanding of the good on the whole of society. (103)
The politicization of everything is an indirect measure of the loss of a common culture and, in turn, the competition among factions to dominate others on their own terms. Our times amply demonstrate that it is far easier to force one's will on others through legal and political means or to threaten to do so than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them. (107, italics added)
When Government Grows Big in Our Hearts
Hunter describes what we all feel -- namely, politics has become overwhelmingly important to all of us. Maybe you don't care what the government thinks about every issue, but you care what they think about your issue. Even for the small government voters, government has grown big in their hearts because all the country's problems are still viewed primarily as political problems. Every challenge the country faces can be solved by the government -- even if its by shrinking the government.
The American church has fallen right in line with American culture, such that "evangelical" is a political statement before it's a theological statement. Over the past decades, the church has spent millions of dollars and dedicated thousands of its sharpest minds on influencing politics. But at what cost?
This analysis leaves us with a lot of questions, which I expect Hunter will answer as he moves along. Here are some of my questions:
- How should a Christian respond to the supremacy of the state in the heart of culture? Should he join in the fray out of necessity, abstain entirely out of principle, or negotiate a balance?
- How can we participate without further encouraging our shallow culture?
- What opportunities are we missing when we address cultural problems with mostly political solutions? Is politics even the best starting place for solving cultural problems?
- Finally, for this pastor, the most important question: By focusing the majority of our cultural efforts on political solutions, are we forsaking the church's role of persuasion and proclamation? As "evangelical" churches, isn't persuasion and proclamation our primary task?