Power and Justice To Change the World?

Body: 

June 1, 2012

By Timothy Sherratt

This week, the Center for Public Justice is cosponsoring the Christians in Political Science conference at Gordon College—Power and Justice: Perspectives on Political Order. This promises to be a stimulating and eclectic gathering of scholars tackling a wide array of political matters through an equally broad range of approaches and techniques.  But I draw attention to the conference for the way it may punctuate a season of reflection—even doubt—about Christianity and politics.

Few scholarly works see the light of day outside the ivy-covered walls of the Academy. Those few that do emerge take a number of paths into the daylight. James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (2010) is one of the few. It may not have flooded church cultures, but it is percolating through Christian intellectual gatherings, drip by drip, as one scholar after another engages the author’s argument. 

Hunter considers the goals and strategies evangelicals have pursued in attempts to change the world and finds them wanting. These are variously criticized: for excessive claims to “transform” culture; for aggressive political campaigns to preserve traditional values; for basic sociological mistakes, such as the key error of assuming that cultural change is a bottom-up process when it is, in reality, top-down; and for deep-seated theological mistakes, notably the evangelical insistence that real change can only be a matter of conversion, heart by heart.

But it is Hunter’s preferred alternative that explains why his argument has percolated deep into the Christian intellectual community. Hunter calls for Christians to adopt a posture of “faithful presence.” Its correlates are institutional grounding, witness and modesty. Christians should practice the faith sincerely and throughout society in organized, but not overtly aggressive ways. Hunter’s is a “being, not doing,” message. The action-orientation of American culture in general, and evangelical Christianity in particular, does not know where to put it.

What Hunter’s approach lacks is the kind of marching orders that characterize the formulas he criticizes. This, I submit, reinforces the compelling character of his argument. Could it be that he would recommend against suing the Obama administration over the contraception mandate, as Catholics and others have done recently? Must Christians merely alter the tone of political discourse, or must they surrender their content as well? Could Christians organize a political party, in the Christian Democratic tradition, and still practice faithful presence?

And so Hunter begs the question, if faithful presence is right in ways that other strategies have been wrong, what do its correlates look and feel like? How do you practice it? What do you avoid? Is it effective? And are you allowed to ask that last question without first devising a different measure of effectiveness?

I welcome this season of doubt.

Hunter is profoundly right about the need to develop and strengthen institutional religious life, from groups of friends to church communities, to professional associations and institutions of higher learning. All of these reflect God’s gift of life and hope, created and redeemed in Christ.

We may no longer be able to restore some traditional institutions, but we can never surrender life together for the solitary option—for what Dale Kuehne terms the “i(for individual)-World.” You cannot protect religious liberty or offer an alternative to abortion or advance a more just economic platform on your own. The iWorld, even in its American constitutional incarnation of rights and majority rule, is not a model for Christians changing the world. Rights are important, but rights do not ensure care, let alone hope; care and hope call for building relationships.

Sharpen these questions with recent, troubling statistics about social decline, then locate them in a presidential campaign season with all its zero-sum predictions for the nation’s future direction, and you have a potent compound to foster constructive conversations on Hunter’s thesis. Christian pluralists in the Kuyperian tradition, given their own pedigree of political organizing for public justice may conclude that he’s right about relationships but wrong about action. Even so, a season of reflection will do Christian politics no harm at all.

—Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.