We’ve been reflecting on the work of James Hunter in recent posts (here, here, and here), on the limits of political power and the flattening of public life that results from reducing “the public realm” to the merely political. As Hunter himself acknowledges, this is cultural– and culture doesn’t change quickly. To use a meteorological metaphor (as he himself does), cultural change is more like a change in climate than it is like a change in weather. And while we can very well imagine what tomorrow’s weather will be, we can not so very well imagine what a different climate might be like, or how– or whether it’s even possible– to help bring it about. Cultural change, while a human artifact, resists human manipulation.
Hunter’s criticism of American Christianity is that both the Christian left and the Christian right have bought into the politicization of public life, thereby squandering the unique authority of the Christian worldview to provide an alternative way of being a society together. For example, politicization by its very nature leads to a public conversation marked by zero-sum outcomes: I’m right; you’re wrong. I win; you lose. An alternative– which is, as Hunter points out, one mark of a healthy culture– is a public sphere characterized by affirmation rather than negation. His words:
What’s even more striking than the negational character of political culture is the absence of robust and constructive affirmations. Vibrant cultures, healthy cultures, makes space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, [and] artistic and literary expression, among other things.
Within the larger Christian community in America, one can find such vitality in pockets here and there, and yet where they do exist, they tend to be eclipsed by the greater prominence and vast resources of the political activists and their organizations. Once more, there are few if any places in the pronouncements and actions of the Christian right or left, where I could find these kinds of affirmations, [where] those kinds of gifts are acknowledged, affirmed or celebrated. What this means is that rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, [or] its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by its rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others.
I think Hunter is largely correct. I think those of us who have hope for what a different kind of Christian contribution to public life might be, have a lot of work to do– both in bringing down the hyper-politicized barriers between so-called liberal and so-called conservative Christianity, and in building up a richer public life that is not collapsed into the merely political.