Excerpt from “To Change The World”*

 Imagine, in this regard, a genuine “third great awakening” occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society– the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church – revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.

Such is the story of one of the most powerful transatlantic social reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries–the temperance movement. This movement failed, of course, not least because it did not and could not address the culture of restraint on which the particular interest of temperance depended. In the end, the ideal of “temperance” finally expired in derision with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, the word now having disappeared from our public vocabulary. This same logic accounts for the contemporary failure of the Christian Right to stop the growth and legitimation of homosexuality, abortion, and pornography, among other concerns. The passion and earnest resolve generated by all such movements may change people and may affect communities and they may, for a time, change laws, but they generally will not influence the course and direction of the culture as a whole unless they are tied to larger structural changes in the culture.

Culture, at root, provides the very terms by which life is ordered. In our own culture, the inherited categories derived largely from biblical and classical sources by which we understand the most basic aspects of human life have been and are being transformed by very powerful forces over which individuals and social groups have little control, forces such as consumerism, communications technology, and so on. The most humane understandings of personhood, relationships, community, time, space, freedom, obligation, material wealth, cannot be established or recovered through a five-year plan or even in a generation–certainly not through politics, not through social reform, and not even in and through revival. In this light, the call to this generation of Americans to repent and pray for revival to renew the values of the national culture may be welcome, but no one should be under any illusion about its capacity to fundamentally transform the present cultural order at its most rudimentary level . . . . All such engagement may be worthy, but if the end is to “save civilization,” it most certainly is naive. By themselves or even together, evangelism, politics, and social reform, then, will fail to bring about the ends hoped for and intended. 

The important qualification one must make in all of this is that even when successful, change does not always occur in the direction that people propose or with the effects for which people hope. There are almost always unintended consequences to human action, particularly at the macro-historical level and these are, often enough, tragic. The architects of the Enlightenment who understood the power of science and predicted the progressive amelioration of human suffering through it, would never have desired or predicted the development of nuclear weapons. The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century never would have imagined that the turn toward individual conscience and moral asceticism would have contributed to an economic system that would “act back” on the culture as a cause of secularization. Likewise, the Puritans who founded Harvard and Yale would have never expected that their schools would become strongholds of secularity. And the missionaries who brought aid to impoverished parts of the Third World would have never wished for the growing cycle of dependency they unwittingly helped foster. And so it goes. One can never quite predict where things will go.

Culture is endlessly complex and difficult, and it is highly resistant to our passion to change it, however well-intentioned and heroic our efforts may be.


*James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford University Press, 360 pages.

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