…says sociologist James Davison Hunter, whose presentation “To Change the World” given to the Trinity Forum some years back (available in PDF form here) is the basis of his new book of the same title. I urge you to read the entire essay, which I can hardly to justice to in excerpts. But I’ll try.
Hunter says the way we in the West think about how cultures change pretty much comes down to this:
If a culture is good, it is because the good values held by people lead to good choices. By contrast, if a culture is decadent and in decline, it is because the values or worldviews held by individualsare mistaken at the least, or even immoral, and those corrupt values lead to bad choices. And so, if we want to change our culture, we need more and more individuals possessing the right values and therefore making better choices. Consider what Thomas Jefferson said about this: “Enlighten the people generally,” he said in 1816, “and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” This was the foundation for Jefferson’s commitment to public education and a sentiment that many of us continue to share.
It is this view of culture that also leads some faith communities to evangelism as their primary means of changing the world. If people’s hearts and minds are converted, they will have the right values, they will make the right choices, and the culture will change in turn. This emphasis on choice has also predisposed us to politics as a means of changing the world. In short: bad law is the outcome of bad choices make by individual politicians, judges, and policymakers. In this view, changing the world requires that we get into office those who hold the right values or possess the right worldview and therefore will make the right choices. Though there are variations on this theme, this view of culture–as values that reside in the hearts and minds of individuals and the choices that individuals make on the basis of those values– is pervasive. It leads to a view of cultural change that is equally pervasive–a view that the rise and fall of civilizations depend upon the kinds of values its people possess.
The problem is that this perspective is almost completely wrong.
Why? Read past the jump for more…
Hunter cites a couple of examples to prove his point. The overwhelming number of Americans claim to be religious in some degree — yet our public discourse and public culture is overwhelmingly secular. Among religious people, most are traditional/conservative to some degree, but the traditionalists and conservatives are constantly losing ground, and have influence far less than their numbers suggest they ought to have.
By contrast, American Jews make up only a small percentage of the overall population, but have immeasurably greater cultural influence than their tiny numbers indicate they ought to have, if the conventional reading of culture-change were true. The same is true of homosexuals, says Hunter. (Note well that he’s not criticizing Jews or gays, just noticing that they are a lot more influential in guiding the direction of our culture than groups with far more many members).
Why is this? Again, I encourage you strongly to read the entire essay to appreciate Hunter’s nuances, but here’s the gist of what he’s getting at:
Most of us are inclined to what could be called the “great man” (or great person) view of history. It is St. Paul, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Charles Darwin, Frederick Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and the like who stood as switchmen on the train tracks of history; it is their genius and the genius of other heroic individuals that have guided the evolution of civilization this way or that; for better or for worse.
Against this view, I would argue that the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network, and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.
Moreover, argues Hunter, there are networks, and there are networks.
In other words, with culture, there is a center and a periphery. The individuals, networks,
and institutions most critically involved in the production of a culture or civilization operate in the”center,” where prestige is the highest; not on the periphery, where status is low.
And so, one may be able to get as good an education at Colorado State as you would at Harvard, but Harvard, as an institution, is at the center and Colorado State is at the periphery of cultural production. USA Today may sell more copies of newspapers than the New York Times, but it is the New York Times that is the newspaper of record in America (for better or worse) because it is at the center of cultural production, not the periphery. One can sell a hundred thousand copies of a book published by Zondervan or Baker, and only five thousand copies of a book published by Knopf. But it is the book by Knopf that is more likely to be reviewed in the New York Review of Books or the New Republic, or the Washington Post Book World because Knopf is at the center and Zondervan is at the periphery. I could go on, but you get the picture. The status structure of culture and cultural production is of paramount importance to the topic at hand.
This is frankly elitist. Remember, though, Hunter is trying to explain how cultural power and cultural change actually works, not how we wish it worked. He continues:
Long-term cultural change always occurs from the top down. In other words, the work of world-changing is the work of elites, gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management to the leading institutions in a society.
The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Awakenings, the Enlightenment, the triumph of capitalism over mercantilism and feudalism, all of the democratic revolutions in the West, the rise and triumph of science; and in our own day, the triumph of the therapeutic, postmodernism in law, architecture, literature, and popular culture, and now globalization itself, all began among elites and then percolated into the larger society.
World-changing — for better or for worse — happens when members of different elite networks talk to each other. Hunter:
Again and again we see that the impetus, energy, and direction for changing the world were found where cultural, economic, and often political resources overlapped; where networks of elites, who generated these various resources, come together in common purpose.
. . . in common purpose — something we should never forget.
So what’s wrong with politics as a means of cultural change, then? Here’s Hunter:
To change the world is, at some point, to take power seriously. I recognize that power is an uncomfortable subject for people of faith and all people of good will who quite rightly celebrate service in the cause of the needy, the estranged, and the common good.
But the power we need to take seriously is not power in a conventional sense. Politics will
never be a solution to the challenges we face. The work of the political Left and the political Right–even, if not especially, the Religious Right–often makes matters worse. So I say again, the power we need to take seriously is not power in a conventional sense.
Rather, it is the power to define reality in ways that sustain benevolence and justice. What is at stake? When cultures are good, they give life and foster human flourishing; and when they are decadent and corrupt, they constrict human flourishing and even deprive life itself. In the world we live in, the outcome is far from certain. There is everything to play for here and now.
In any case, articulating a reality that sustains benevolence and justice and exemplifying its meaning in time and space is the burden of leaders. In this respect, we do well to remember as a corrective and a caution that Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the ruling elites of his day, not least Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes–cultural elites whose power was not used well.
Yet even Jesus created a network of disciples (who, over time, became spiritual and cultural leaders). Though they originated on the periphery of the social world of that age, they moved to the provincial center of Jerusalem, and then, within a generation, to the center of the ancient world–Rome. They too created new institutions that not only articulated but embodied an alternative to the reigning ways of life of that time.
Hunter emphasizes that he’s not dismissing the importance of individual conversion, of changing minds and hearts. His point, though, is that that’s not how changing a culture works. Dr. Hunter, meet Mr. Gramsci. Again, read the PDF of his 11-page talk to the Christian group, and consider buying Hunter’s new book-length version of this argument. I hope to have my copy today, and to read it over the weekend.