The second section of Hunter’s book To Change the World begins with a very short chapter, so I will consider it and the following chapter together.
I want to begin by differing with what I believe to be a premature assessment, one that I commented on earlier.
“As we have seen, though, Christians have embraced strategies that are, by design, incapable of bringing about the ends to which they aspire” (p. 99).
To say this, ironically, Hunter has to accept the common understanding of the life cycle of political and cultural change. If it goes from election to election, or from one generation to the very next one, then enough time has gone by to pronounce the Christian cultural engagement that began in the seventies a failure. But what if the life cycle of real transformation is 200 years? What if the agents of change never really see the fruit of their labors? John Knox was one of the great fathers of the American political arrangement, a fact that would have astonished him if you had attempted to explain it to him.
I used the word ironically above because Hunter’s central point in this section is that nearly everything has been politicized, a point which he makes very well. But I want to point out that Hunter has not noticed this very point when it comes to the definitions of cultural success and failure. In a highly politicized culture, you get to pronounce something a dud or a failure after the proponent of that dud or failure has been in office for more than several months, and you are busy preparing your election bid. But yeast in the loaf doesn’t obey the established election cycle. A nameless flayed martyr under Diocletian could not have anticipated Charlesmagne — but was responsible for him nonetheless. A politicized culture lives on a small planet, and so the horizon is always not that far away. But we actually live on a big planet.
So in this discussion Hunter has turned to consider the nature of political power, and the relationship that Christians do have and should have to that power.
Everyone recognizes that at the end of the day, power and force are necessary to keep a society from fragmenting. This becomes increasingly necessary as other cultural ties become frayed.
“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” (p. 107).
This is exactly what is happening to us; it is the way it is.
“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” (p. 101).
This is a good description of fragmenting cultures, where the leaders find themselves have to knock heads every fifteen minutes, where contempt for the moral authority of that culture has largely eroded. No society can enforce its laws on everyone. In order for a culture to work, the vast majority of the compliance has to be genuinely voluntarily, rendered out of love, loyalty, or affection. Coercion is applied to the outliers, for the benefit of those who were thinking about becoming outliers. Strike the fool, and the simple learn wisdom. But if the entire populace is made up of simpletons and fools, at some point they will storm the castle.
A society that is under the blessing of God, that is not experiencing what Girard called a “sacrificial crisis,” is a society that is held together by amity and loyalty. Force is necessary, but it is not the central glue. When it becomes the central glue — and I think Hunter is dead on right about his observations on this concerning our culture — that is a sign of real trouble.
As noted earlier, Hunter is right to describe contemporary society as one in which there is a “tendency toward the politicization of nearly everything” (p. 102). His discussion of ressentiment was also quite good, and right on the mark. This entire section is filled with helpful and good observations. But then comes a significant misstep, and the emphasis following is mine.
“Slowly, often imperceptively, there has been a turn toward law and politics as the primary way of understanding all aspects of collective life . . . The tendency now effects [sic] conservatives every bit as much as it does liberals; those who favor small government as it does those who want a larger government. It has affected everyone’s language, imagination, and expectations, not least conservatives who, like others, look to law, policy, and political process as the structure and resolution to their concerns and grievances; who look to politics as the framework of self-validation and self-understanding and ideology as the framework for understanding others” (p. 108).
For the moment, let us leave out of our discussion compassionate conservatism, big government conservatism, bombs away conservatism, telegenic conservatism, and other forms of unconservative conservatism. When we see ambitious head representatives of these kinds of conservatism debate with the lefties on television over their issues, the question really is over whether the nanny state should make us all wear red t-shirts or blue t-shirts. I would have no trouble if Hunter wanted to tag opportunists like that with the sin of accommodating themselves to the politicization of nearly everything. That point is not only true, but also one that needs to be made over and over again. Such patheticos calling themselves conservatives are a public nuisance, and kudos to anybody who willing to pitch in to help clean that mess up.
But Hunter explicitly does not do that. He tags genuine conservatives, those “who favor small government,” and he says they are affected “every bit as much” as are the advocates of a government that got itself all swoll up.
Think about this for a minute. Principled opponents of the politicization of everything are part of the politicization of everything? But a genuine conservative, who wants the federal government to be one/fifth the size it currently is, cannot be a partaker of the politicization of everything. If the government were that size, they would run out of money in mid-February, and everybody would live non-politicized lives until the following January. The word we used to use to describe that state of affairs, kids, was liberty. Get your great-grandfather to tell you stories about it sometime.
A hyper-politicized climate is one of the central challenges we face. But Hunter, after helpfully pointing this out, wants to say that there is no difference between Obama over there, riding the dragon while waving his cowboy hat, and St. George down here with a lance, trying to kill the dragon, in order that a forlorn Obama might have a carcass to sit on. It is quite true to say that both are occupied with the dragon, but to stop there is to miss the central point of what is happening. One is riding it and the other fighting it.
Put simply, small government conservatives are fighting the hyper-politicization of everything, and that is explicitly and precisely what they are fighting, as they have patiently and repeatedly explained all along. Now in order to fight something like that it is necessary to go over and stand near it. To retreat to an ivy-covered office in the academy in order to write about faithful presence, and in the process to construct a mashup of conservatives and liberals who are “both being too close to the dragon” is, it seems to me, to miss a central point in a quite striking way.