How does Christianity impact today's world and make significant changes? This is the focus of the new book from James D. Hunter (professor of religion and culture at the University of Virginia), To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (2010, Oxford). He summarizes the history of three contemporary Christian movements:
- The Christian Right who are motivated by a religious vision of the right ordering of society and "see modern history as a decline from order to disorder."
- The Christian Left who are driven by compassionate concern for the marginalized and impoverished and see today's society as deformed by social injustice.
- The "neo-Anabaptists" who believe that the New Testament calls the followers of Jesus to a life ordered around Christian community, not cultural dominance, and are equally dismayed by unrestrained tolerance of the Christian Left and the unrestrained free market advocated by the Christian Right.
The Christian Right has become the most visible and numerous of these three approaches to changing the world, but because of its aggressive, confrontational tactics and widespread cultural naivete has not realized many of its goals. The Christian Left is much smaller in numbers but more influential because of its adept approach to social change, yet it may have been more completely co-opted by its political allies in the Democratic party. The "neo-Anabaptists" are the fewest in number and almost invisible, yet increasingly influential. (See The Politics of Jesusby John Howard Yoder.)
Hunter points out the facts well known to sociologists: massive rallies, angry speeches, and maverick figures do not make much real change in any society. The Civil Rights Movement was able to pass landmark legislation ending Jim Crow only because quiet allies in the Kennedy-Johnson administration and the Congress, as well as universities, research centers, labor unions and established churches joined in. Change in America and any other truly democratic society becomes a reality as new ideas become widely adopted among the professional class and institutional middle management.
Evangelical Christianity has largely failed to take this reality into consideration. They have failed to make a compelling argument to the educated elite about abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, etc. And they have been inconsistent in applying the same Bible ethics to capital punishment, war, health care and immigration. (Unlike Catholic social teachings.)
Hunter's book could be seen as a road map for the Christian Right to take advantage of its more dominant position and define the new politically correct ways of thinking. Will they take it?
[I confess, I am turned off by the politics of both the Christian Right and the Christian Left and tend to see myself among the "neo-Anabaptists" where my spiritual heritage comes from.]