This book offers an analysis of Christianity as a social phenomenon in the United States, a critique of many of its policies and methods, and a recommendation for a different way of correlating Christianity and culture. It is written from what seems to be a fairly conservative Christian point of view, but one that is highly critical of most conservative Christian attitudes to social policy.
The core of Hunter's criticism is that many Christians think that the culture can be changed by changing ideas in individual hearts and minds (he calls this "idealism"), and that this can be done by motivating political action and by voting the right people into power. He bluntly refutes both these beliefs as founded on a misunderstanding of how cultures change (they actually change because of material and institutional innovations) and of what Christian faith requires in the way of social action (involvement with political power corrupts).
He provides a detailed and fascinating account of three main Christian social movements in the US: the Christian Right ("defensive against" the main culture), the Christian Left - particularly resurgent among Evangelicals (trying to be "relevant to" the culture) and radical Reformation movements such as the Amish ("purity against" the culture).
The Christian Right, he claims, is characterised by resentment and aggressiveness towards and confrontation with wider culture, and is thus primarily negative in its impact. Its language is that of loss, anger and resentment. The Christian Left also tends to conflate social and political change, confuses theology with national interests and identity, and displays resentment and anger towards its political opponents.
Even the neo-Anabaptists try to construct an alternative political community, and demonise the state and capitalist economy, so they too give a message of anger, grievance and negation to the wider culture. By nurturing resentments, using a discourse of negation, and pursuing the will to power, Christians become functional Nietzscheans, contributing to the cultural breakdown they claim to resist.
Hunter's positive recommendation is the adoption of an attitude of "faithful presence". The church should not be a community that tries to gain and use the coercive political power of the state, and change minds by legislation. It should be a community that is actively and personally engaged in seeking the welfare of all, in sacrificial service to the whole society, and in promoting the positive values of "abundance, wholeness, beauty, joy and wellbeing".
Christians must use power, be aware that all power is inherently tainted, and exercise power in the area of primary social relationships rather than political mechanisms - by nurturing families and local communities, for example. The church, he holds, should remain a distinctive community of faith, fully engaged with a pluralistic culture, but not in a confrontational way.
Hunter's description of religion and culture in modern America is informed, detailed and fascinating. His advocacy of a more positive role for Christians, centred on self-sacrificial concern for the flourishing of all in an increasingly pluralistic society, is attractive.
As a British reader (and a liberal idealist), I had some uneasiness when I read the list of "institutions of modernity" that Hunter says the church should resist - a list that includes liberalism, social theory, healthcare and the philosophy of idealism. God's kingdom may not be political, but many will feel that the state does have an important role to play in promoting justice, healthcare and education. It may be a mistake to aim at a "Christian culture", but a Christian contribution to a pluralistic culture must involve some political engagement.
That said, To Change the World is an excellent piece of social commentary, in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr, on contemporary US Christianity. It will speak primarily to Christians, because of its definite faith-commitment. But it provides an informed social critique of Christianity in the US that is often surprising and always worth reading for its own sake.
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
By James Davison Hunter
Oxford University Press
368pp, £17.99 ISBN 9780199730803
Published 29 April 2010