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To Change the World IV: Trouble Sleeping in the Bed (of Liberalism) We’ve Made


This is the fourth post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from the chapters of To Change the World by James Hunter. You can find the reading schedule here.

Slavoj Žižek regularly discusses the importance of the unsaid by repeating a joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s film Ninotchka: a man goes to a café and orders, “I would like a coffee without cream.” The waiter replies, “Sorry, but we’ve run out of cream. We only have milk. Can I get you a coffee without milk?” What Žižek suggests is that what we don’t get is very much a part of defining what we do get. 

Let us read James Hunter’s book with the same critical gaze—discerning what is not said to more thoroughly apprehend what is said.

This week’s reading was chapters two and three1 of Essay II: Rethinking Power. In chapter two, Hunter first discusses the challenge of power and politics in American culture. In chapter three, he surveys the ways in which the Christian Right has engaged that challenge.

The problem of politics is framed around the question of how societies hold together. Whereas so-called “traditional” societies were held together by shared beliefs, sociologists maintain, modern societies are held together by “social and economic interdependence.”2 Hunter rightly calls this inadequate, for “modern societies [also] depend on at least some common beliefs, shared ideals, and collective myths to function smoothly.”3

Ay, there’s the rub. It would be nice, after all, if societies were simply gathered around interdependent social and economic relations. But because it is true that all societies, whether traditional or modern, depend on what we can conveniently (if also misleadingly) call a shared culture, the plurality of beliefs, ideals, and myths poses a serious threat to the survival of a society. Robert Jenson’s maxim helps to crystallize the problem: “the soul of every culture is a religion and the body of every religion a culture.”4

A pluralistic society, then, is always on the verge of being a hideous monster: a Disfigure made of disparate parts of dissimilar bodies, like Victor Frankenstein’s horrific creature—and worse yet, this creature, with its many religions, is a body possessed by many souls, each warring against each. The state of “un-nature.” The war of all against all.

The allusions to Hobbes’ Leviathan is no accident. For Hobbes, the only way to put an end to the state of war is to establish the State—the seat of centralized, coercive force where sovereignty holds the social body together by the joints and ligaments and nerves of the apparatuses of government: laws, rewards, punishments, and so on. (One may supplement at this point the social contract theories of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.)

History followed Hobbes’ logic. “What else is there to hold such a society together? What remains to bind together its innumerable fragments? The answer, in large part, is power—the exercise of coercion or the threat of its use….the final repository of legitimate force is found in the state.”5 And so Liberalism was born.

But because the centralized state holds together the warring members of its body and their competing souls by coercive power, the life of the state is inherently a competition for dominion. And so it appears that indeed we haven’t moved so far beyond the so-called traditional society. As Saint Augustine wrote in the early 5th century, unlike in the City of God, “In the city of the world both the rulers themselves and the people they dominate are dominated by the lust for domination.”6

Such discord within the social body leads to power politics as a way to operate within the society. Different groups lobby for power: “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.”7 I found one of Hunter’s observations particularly helpful: “…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.”8 So, Hunter suggests, we have identity politics: people taking on labels and categories in order to operate within the politics of the society. Different groups appeal to the state to create laws to protect their common interests.

One of the features common to all interest groups is a communal narrative. Hunter points out that in the American political culture, there is a frequent narrative of what Nietzsche called ressentiment; it is a “combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action….[it] is…a form of political psychology.”9 These narratives are grounded in the belief that the group has been wronged or treated unfairly, and that justice must be done.

As one would expect, Hunter identifies this among the Christian Right, who in general feel that America has betrayed its morally Christian legacy, and marginalized those Christian voices who still believe in individual freedoms, family values, and the common good. I won’t summarize that chapter any more than this: in Hunter’s survey, he demonstrates that the Christian Right feels deeply marginalized, suspicious of the judicial system, and betrayed by the Republican Party; that they intend to “win America” by getting their own elected into offices of influence, by fighting for legislation that serves their interests, and upholding Christian values in the hostile, “secular” culture.

Now, for all what is lacking. Despite his excellent observations and helpful framing of problems, Hunter offers surprisingly little theological reflection on the church as such. I am not looking for a systematic treatise on ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church—but given that one of the few points of consensus among theologians and church leaders is that the church itself is mission, it is far from unreasonable to expect more substantive, explicit discussion of the church’s being and not just its doing. I believe that his relative silence on this question has to do with his desire to speak to Christians across confessional lines. But timidity on this point is unproductive, even if his own ecclesiology will become clearer throughout the work.

When a person asks, “What should we do?” it is only fair that one responds with appropriate skepticism: “And just who are ‘we’?” And that question, asked in the context of theological discussion, is the basic question of ecclesiology.

But it is no accident that ecclesiology cannot be properly introduced to the discussion at this point. Hunter has already framed the problems within Liberalism rather than around it. William Cavanaugh points out, I think convincingly, that the birth of the modern nation-state (think back to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) was after the Protestant Reformation, when the once-transnational Church was divided among nations, and began to war against one another.10 The offered solution was the secular state—the social body that would replace the body of Christ. Just as Christ offered peace in his body to those who were once enemies (Eph. 2:13-22), a body joined to Christ “being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments” (Col. 2:19) given by God, so also would the sovereign state offer peace in its body, with its laws and punishments and rewards.

A theological discussion of the church qua church cannot properly take place within the paradigm of secular liberalism for no other reason than the simple fact that the liberal state has taken the place of the church. One should notice in Hunter’s book that there is little reference to “the Church,” but regular reference to “Christians.” Notice the distinction; one is the singular social body of Christ, and the other is the interest group comprised of individual citizens of the state. This, I believe, is the basic flaw in Hunter’s book thus far. The terms of debate are framed in such a way that the actual problem is not being addressed.

So, the Christian Right wants to change America, to take it back to its mythic past. What they fail to realize is that the very conditions for the society that they helped to create are the same conditions that prevent it from ever being truly Christianized. The Church cannot have it both ways. It cannot swear its allegiance to the state and to Christ. It must either appeal to a thin (and, dare I say, relativized) civil religion, or find its true citizenship in the Church of Jesus. After all, as our Lord taught us, we cannot serve two masters.

1. Chapter one was a two page summary of the whole essay. 2. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 101. 3. Ibid. 4. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 51. 5. Hunter, 101. 6. Augustine, City of God, xiv.28 7. Hunter, 107. 8. Ibid., 102. 9. Ibid., 107. 10. See chapter one of his excellent book. “The Myth of the State as Saviour,” in Theopolitical Imagination (New York: T & T Clark, 2002), 9-52.

Matt Burdette studied Religion at La Sierra University. He lives in Redlands, CA, and recently started blogging with Shane Akerman at Interlocutors: A Theological Dialogue.

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