“To Change the World, The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”* A Review

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Quakers don’t like to remember Prohibition, and the Temperance movement which birthed it. From liberals to evangelicals, I can’t recall a serious discussion – and but one incident of reminiscing – about it in four decades among Friends.

Yet for several generations, outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was one of the prime Quaker priorities, pretty much across the board. Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, while advocating for women’s rights, also campaigned against demon rum – as did evangelical leaders like John Henry Douglas. The various factions may have had their own committees operating independently, but all aimed at a similar goal.

And in 1919, they finally achieved it. The Volstead Act amended the Constitution so that “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within . . . the United States . . . is hereby prohibited.” Alongside abolition of southern slavery, this has to stand as the high watermark of Quaker and other religious reformers’ impact in the arena of American law and social policy.

So why don’t Friends remember and celebrate this landmark of “social change”? Probably the biggest reason is that by 1933, Prohibition was widely deemed to be, not only a failure but disastrously counterproductive, and repealed. Who wants to remember such a humiliating fiasco? Denial is much more than a river in Egypt; such strategic forgetting is a pillar of organizational as well as individual self-esteem.

But James Davison Hunter remembers Prohibition. And in his ironically titled, To Change the World, this misbegotten crusade is cited as a model of the failure of religiously-motivated reform – not only its failure, but its larger cultural irrelevance.

For while Prohibition’s end left America such enduring but unanticipated artifacts as the Mafia, it was also falling abysmally short of its prime objective, which was to reduce or eliminate the damage done by the very real plague of alcohol abuse.

That epidemic is still with us, wreaking havoc every day, almost a century after the Prohibition experiment began. Further, Volstead’s bastard children live on in the various “wars” on drugs, which annually ruin tens of thousands of lives, cost us tens of billions, and have now plunged Mexico into a bloody drug war right on our doorstep. No wonder Quakers don’t want to remember Prohibition, or how deeply they were invested in it. (Though of course we should remember, and ponder deeply.)

Yet Hunter’s book is not about the past so much as the present, and ongoing American religious-based reform efforts. He identifies three of these, not of equal influence, but worth comparable attention: the currently pre-eminent Religious Right, the much smaller Religious Left (epitomized by Sojourners and its spokesman Jim Wallis), and, even smaller still, a pioneering NeoAnabaptist trend that has attracted his attention.

Hunter is known for his pathbreaking book Culture Wars, which helped many of us get a better grasp on what we were up against in the 1990s. I opened his latest tome hoping to better understand our prospects ten years into the twenty-first century.

To Change the World is less a book of prophecy than of analysis. Nevertheless, Hunter spends many pages explaining why he believes none of these three religious reform movements is likely to reach their goals of “changing the world,” or even changing America, particularly in the ways they say they want to.

Why not? In sum, he asserts that each of these movements, in its own way, basically misunderstands how cultures change, and thus their varying recipes are likely to fail, at best, and boomerang, at worst.

And how do cultures change? His argument here is complex and nuanced. In sum, he says they change from the top down, as rising elites challenge and change (or replace) existing ones, and then inject their new plans and values into the dense thicket of existing cultural and social institutions, changing them incrementally, overcoming resistance slowly but surely. And such change is usually not recognized until it has already happened, that is, retrospectively; in the hurly-burly of daily social jostling and struggle, it’s almost impossible to see which way the river of history is “really” flowing.

His three target movements, he argues, have at best only a dim understanding of this larger process of change, each for their own reasons. For the Religious Right, the problem centers on a combination of idealist individualism which believes that “changing hearts and minds” one by one is the path to redeeming society from its state of decay – and then when that doesn’t work, the mobilization of these “transformed” individuals into political forces which will install “good Christians” in positions of public power, where they will govern in a transformative way. “The hope Christian conservatives place in politics is quite astonishing,” Hunter writes. “. . . Political action [they believe] will return ‘a sense of cultural ownership to Christian citizens nationwide.’ . . . As the late D. James Kennedy has put it, ‘Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost . . . .’”

Yet while individual change may be good for the individual, Hunter believes, that doesn’t do much about the larger cultural structures and currents. Further, once the “transformed” are set marching into worldly politics, they become captive to the narrow notion that formal politics is where all the action is, which it isn’t.  And then become subject to all the predictable corruptions thereof, plus that special vice of the “saved,” namely the conviction that their holy ends justify whatever unholy means seem necessary to achieve them in this “practical” world; which puts them on the well-worn path to religious tyranny.

The Christian Left looks to social justice more than the saving of individual souls. It cherishes the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the years of activism for peace and related issues, cresting in the Vietnam years. They regard the agenda and tactics of the Religious Right with disdain as a perversion of the Gospel. Says Jim Wallis, their best-known spokesman, “I don’t think Jesus’ top priorities would have been a capital gains tax cut and the occupation of Iraq.” Their distress has increased with the successes of their opponents.

And they fail to impress Hunter as amounting to much more than a smaller, weaker mirror image of the Right: “In its commitment to social change through politics,” he concludes, “ . . . in its conflation of the public with the political, in its own selective use of scripture to justify political interests, and in its confusion of theology with national interests and identity, the Christian Left (not least the Evangelical Left) imitates the Christian Right. The message is obviously different . . . but in their framework, method, and style of engagement, politically progressive Christians are very similar to their politically conservative counterparts.”

To the progressives, this judgment that they are an imitation of the Right could hardly be more wounding; and even worse is its corollary that the record shows these Christian Leftists to be a pale imitation of their conservative nemeses, because it’s the latter who have been winning most of the major elections for thirty years.

Against this backdrop, many readers may turn with relief to Hunter’s “third force,” the Neo-Anabaptists, whose guiding spirit was the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, and current guru is theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas.

While the smallest of the three groupings, Hunter pronounces it “intellectually serious,” which is “one reason why it has growing appeal among young Christian adults. It provides a credible, even compelling, script for those who find the account offered by the Christian conservatives distasteful if not dangerous and the narrative offered by Christian progressives unconvincing and irrelevant.”

It also resembles the secular libertarian movement in its disdain for the state, though for the Neo-Anabaptists this stance is theological, based in a recognition of the larger reality of both the modern state, economy, and communications technologies as forces in themselves, “principalities and powers,” in biblical terms. Similar scorn is aimed at most Christian churches: these too have been corrupted and absorbed by the fallen, corrupting powers. For the Neo-Anabaptists, as Hunter puts it, “Christianity in America, as it is believed and lived by most believers, is just not Christian enough.”

The Neo-Anabaptists’ stance in relation to the principalities and powers, including churches, is one of resistance, sometimes from within, sometimes from without, even if it takes mainly an intellectual form. For some it has also been embodied in a “new monasticism,” of small communities that work with the poor, prisoners, or other outcasts. These groups embody an effort to lay aside the conventional political focus of both right and left, as the way of challenging the powers and their destructiveness.

For them the real challenge to the worldly “establishment,” is not a newer, better establishment, but the church itself, the purified, faithful church, in the form of independent, worshiping, active communities, typically (though not necessarily) small, often persecuted, and rejecting as much of the world as is practical.

For those weary of the back and forth of conventional political jousting, even in clerical garb, the Neo-Anabaptist’s views can seem fresh and radical. And they insist that their path is not one of withdrawal: “Our response to the call of discipleship not only threatens the powers of the world,” one of their advocates declares, “but positively and publicly overthrows them.”

Maybe. Hunter faults the Neo-Anabaptists for being naïve about the clutches of the powers and over-estimating the potential of their efforts to escape them. Indeed, such declarations as that just cited have more than a whiff of magical thinking about them; one might remark sardonically that the Pentagon, after all, is still standing. He also calls them out for being relentlessly negative, citing a characterization of their ethos as a “passive aggressive ecclesiology.” He points out that such narratives of negativity (“the establishment is evil, the culture is corrupted, the church is sold out, nobody is any good except thee and me, and I’m having doubts about thee”), far from being “counter-cultural,” are instead all-too typical artifacts of our culture, available in as many varieties as tee shirts with snarky slogans.

So. With the shortcomings of these various religious reform movements laid out, what does Hunter propose? How does he recommend that churches work “to change the world”?

Well, in one real sense he doesn’t. Instead, he describes a program of “faithful presence,” which comes down to the church being the church, within and yet in tension with the larger culture. Summarized that briefly, it sounds almost like a cliché, and there were points in his exposition when this reader felt Hunter was on the brink of sliding from the profound into the banal. Certainly the “bottom line” is very modest: accompanied by what seems like a weary sigh, the book ends with a wistful hope that “by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that [Christians and their churches] will help to make the world a little but better.”

Such modesty is certainly welcome, if somewhat astringent. Religion is surely a crucial force in American culture; yet this influence is largely contextual and institutional. Within its realm, particular churches large and small are prone to exaggerated views of their overt ability to have impact on the culture.

Take, as Hunter notes, the steady advance of American acceptance of homosexuals as full persons, even able to marry. The Religious Right has a long track record of winning practically every referendum and legislative fight on the issue. Yet somehow the acceptance of gays and same sex marriage continues to spread anyway, quietly, relentlessly nullifying all the political “victories.” Whatever are the real sources of this change, the Religious Right’s political skills seem to have little real impact on them.

Yet this doesn’t mean their actions are meaningless. Such election victories often do have effects, too often negative and unpredicted. Hunter pauses near the end of the book to underline this: “It should be clear at this point that good intentions are not enough to engage the world well. The potential for stupidity, irrationality, cruelty, and harm is just as high today as it has ever been in the past. God save us from Christians who are wellintentioned, but not wise!”

I wish he had devoted more attention to this point. His mention of Prohibition’s failure did not go into the catalog of dismal long-term impacts on American society, which are far from exhausted. This case is one I wish Friends would study in depth, to gain better understanding of the pitfalls of our reforming zeal, which is undiminished, if pointed now in other directions.

Hunter also pays no concentrated attention to the militarism-entwined-with-religion that is such a major reality of American life. This is a major failing. After all, the United States has just been through a period of calamitous “rule by the saints” from 2001 to early 2009, when devotees of Christian conservative ideology controlled both the White House and Congress. In the wake of their unwisdom, we are left with two ugly and pointless wars, frenetic preparations for more, the legitimation of torture, huge holes in our civil liberties, and an economic crash of near-apocalyptic proportions. “God save us” from such Christianity regnant, indeed.

I have another bone to pick with Hunter. His focus on bigpicture, top-down processes of change is largely valid. Yet he gives much too short shrift to the potential of small groups that have good ideas, tactical shrewdness and persistence. He does acknowledge the latter: “Persistence over time is essential; little of significance happens in three to five years.” That’s right; but there’s more to it.

On numerous occasions in Quaker history, good ideas and persistence have combined to have a salutary influence on the larger world. Not always, of course: sometimes persistence has combined with bad ideas, like Prohibition, which was the wrong remedy for a real problem. Likewise, as Friends adapt to the evershrinking attention span of our times, even our best ideas are pursued with less and less of the needed persistence and skill.

Still, these complaints are the basis for fruitful thinking and discussion, rather than a reason to set aside Hunter’s many insights and depth of historical/theological analysis. If your religion calls for changing the world, To Change the World is a book to reckon with.


*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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