Expecting to Change the World: A Reply to James Davison Hunter

Milliner’s synopsis about my reply to James Davison Hunter is accurate, even if his praise is overstated. And make no mistake–it is.

But because a few folks have asked, I am posting my full remarks to Hunter here.  I’ll have a few more thoughts on the exchange (which you can also watch online) and on Hunter’s book later, but in the meantime, if you’ve read it or were at the event, I’d love to hear your feedback.

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When I mentioned to a senior member of the Christian community here in Washington D.C. that I was going to be responding to Dr. Hunter tonight, he graciously advised me that I would do well to simply agree with him and take my seat. Whether that was a comment on the accuracy of Professor Hunter’s ideas or my own intellectual acumen I leave to you to decide. But given that I am not prone to using exclamation points, much less acting as one, I will foolishly demure from my elder’s sagacious advice and blaze—as I have often attempted to do—my own way.

I am grateful for Professor Hunter’s remarks, and even more for his remarkable book. There are few works that articulate many of the core frustrations that I have felt as patiently as his did. As a son of an evangelical pastor, a student at an evangelical university, a teacher of evangelical homeschoolers, and a staff member at a young-evangelical church, I have known well the emptiness of the evangelical community and have been a participant in attempts to revive it. I speak , in other words, the language of world-changing fluently.

Not only that, but as a conservative evangelical—an oddity in my circles—I have fought bouts of the nostalgia that Dr. Hunter ably describes, and have spoken passionately about the evils of secularism and the decline of American culture. In my writing, I have attempted to play a minor role in the clash of orthodoxies, agitating for a conservative political position that is motivated by a robust doctrine of creation.

Which is simply to say, I have no little appreciation for Dr. Hunter’s critique of evangelical’s attenuated understanding of how culture’s change. St. Paul may have been correct when writing to the Corinthians that our warfare consists of “destroying arguments and lofty opinions,” but he is silent on precisely where and how those battles take place. Dr. Hunter has filled that gap admirably.

Allow me to risk the exclamation point and praise a bit further. Dr. Hunter’s diagnosis that evangelicals have reduced the church’s public witness to the political is perceptive. This reduction is, in Dr. Hunter’s words, an “accommodation to the spirit of our age,” an age characterized by the death of a common culture and the rise of the state in its place. All other institutions—church, family, etc.—derive their self-understanding and identity in response to the state, which inevitably makes the state not simply the object of evangelicalism’s witness, but an instrument by which evangelicals impose their collective will on the world.

As a result of this totalization of politics, the evangelical imagination about how to change the world has been sorely stunted. This was most evident in the recent health care debate, where the only question that was pursued by evangelicals of all ages was which statist solution we should implement to the problems that we face.

What’s more, rather than being motivated by a vision of the good and by care for the world, evangelical politics, left and right, has—according to Dr. Hunter—been fueled by ressentiment, or a strong sense of injury. So conservative evangelicals are held captive by stories of secular institutions who refuse to allow the Christian worldview into their discourse about the nature of the world, stories which are used well to raise funds, but which reinforce a culture of negation and hostility toward those with whom we differ.

As a descriptive account of evangelical political culture, this is hard to disagree with. Indeed, the purported leftward shift among my peers away from issues like gay marriage, abortion, and other traditional social conservative issues has been fueled in my estimation less by a serious and substantive disagreement over policy and philosophical issues, and more by the distaste we have at this sort of political world.

And yet.

There is a danger in describing the political culture of evangelicalism to relativize the political theories that motivate evangelical political action. In other words, because conservative and liberal evangelicals are both driven by anger and a sense of injury, which option we choose is irrelevant for solving the problem of a totalizing politics. Though I don’t think Dr. Hunter would agree with this, it’s not hard to interpret his book that way.

Dr. Hunter’s own case for navigating this morass is to decouple politics and the public. He writes that “for politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere.” His suggestion for how to bring this about, or “faithful presences,” is an evocative and compelling image of what he terms “post-political” engagement with the world.

But at the risk of being too curmudgeonly, allow me to speak one word in defense of not simply political engagement, but a political engagement that is deeply conservative in its principles, even if it rejects the politics of ressentiment and the will to power, as one way of decoupling the public and the political. Here I confess I have a polemic point to make against my peers who are moving leftward in their politics because they are disenchanted by the perceived problems on the political right. That point is this: When Dr. Hunter suggests that “for politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere,” he describes the very essence of political conservativism, even if it is an essence that has been forgotten or neglected in recent years.

I’ll choose two examples, both of which are near to the conservative heart: capitalism and gay marriage. As a theory, the former wants to maintain an independent realm of commerce. Historically, capitalism has been tempered by forms of life that were oriented toward local communities, and by educational methods that were oriented toward the production of virtue, both of which mitigated its excesses. Whether it is sustainable without these is debatable. Even if it is not, evangelicals disaffected by capitalism who turn toward statist solutions simply highlights the loss of our imaginative vision for solving problems in non-statist ways.

With respect to gay marriage, conservatives have sometimes argued that marriage is an institution only inasmuch as it is tied to the procreation of children, an unambiguously pre-political act that points to our status as political animals. The notion of traditional marriage suggests that the basic unit of society is not the individual and his rights, but the family—a concept that also might mitigate the dangers of capitalism. If they are right, then conservatives aren’t seeking to simply impose their will on the world capriciously. Rather, they are trying to protect the space around this pre-political institution from being reshaped by the state, an argument made best by Seana Sugrue in her essay “Soft Despotism and Same Sex Marriage.”

Additionally, the central problem for religious conservatives with respect to gay marriage is that the state will inevitably encroach on the church. As long as the argument for gay marriage assumes the discourse of “rights,” then regardless of whether the state sanctions any marriages at all, churches could be subject to lawsuit or punishment for infringement of political rights if they refuse to marry gay people.

Which is to say conservative politics—and more precisely, social conservative politics—might be uniquely devoted to the distinction between the political and the public in a way that no other tradition is. If as the Anabaptists are prone to say, that the state is an idol, we just might consider defunding it.

All this puts me in the somewhat odd position of agreeing with traditional evangelical theological and political conclusions, while disagreeing with them on their reasons for those conclusions and the way they present them in the public square. While many of my peers have been turned off by the political culture, I have peered beneath to see some of the good work that is being done, despite the inflammatory rhetoric.

The real question, then, is whether conservative evangelical politics are possible without being motivated by the sense of personal injury.

Over the past ten years, conservative evangelicals have begun to retrieve a robust doctrine of creation. It is no accident that Dr. Hunter begins with this, and that Andy Crouch’s Culture Making features it prominently in the first few pages. This emphasis on creation is one of my generation’s distinct contributions to evangelical discourse, and we are better off for it. But we have not gone far enough. Our notion of creation has been limited to two realms: the environment, or what is sometimes called “creation care,” and culture.

Both may fall under the doctrine of creation. But they are insufficient on their own, nor should either be the starting point for the doctrine, for neither are able to specify the set of normative goods that guide our world-making and our environmental practices. For evangelicals to recover a doctrine of creation, they must begin to appreciate—though not necessarily adopt—the work of natural law philosophers like John Finnis, Robert George. Though I have significant differences with them, they are right to point to an objective order of goods that is discernible and that can guide both ethical and policy decision making, and in so doing, establish limits on the state and its activity.

I contend that it is the loss of this grounding for ethics that has made evangelicals particularly susceptible to the Nietschean instrumentalization of the whole world, and the totalization of politics—and that younger evangelicals, despite their attempts to move beyond politics to culture, have not escaped the madman’s specter. Because evangelical cultural engagement is often motivated by a sense of ‘missionality’ or ‘social justice’ that doesn’t include the sense of creation I included above, it often results in an accommodation to contemporary ways of doing things. So in my own field of technology, “engaging the tools” inevitably turns evangelical worship services into rock concerts with speeches. This is, of course, a Nietschean accommodation to the spirit of our age—even if it wears much cooler clothing.

But as Dr. Hunter points out, the notion of creation (and incarnation) means that the first and last movement of the Christian toward the world is one of affirmation, not negation. A doctrine of creation properly orders our minds and hearts so that we are able to find the good and praise it, wherever it is. A politics that takes this doctrine seriously cannot be rooted in negation or injury, but must be motivated by the affirmation of all that is true and beautiful within the created realm.

My goal in reflecting upon Dr. Hunter’s book has been to attempt to say one thing that he didn’t quite say in full, and to ground it in my own experience as a young evangelical. The young evangelical emphasis on the doctrine of creation is a step in a good direction, but one that does not go far enough. And while I think I am more optimistic about the prospects for an evangelical political witness than Dr. Hunter, his critique demands a careful hearing by all evangelicals, young and old. That it has started this conversation is an enormous gift to the church and the world, and I am grateful for his “faithful presence” as an academic.

One final word: there is a tendency among conservatives to move from crisis to crisis, declare the end of the world at each of them, and then raise funds accordingly. Like Elijah, we have watched the wind, the earthquake , and the fire. Unlike Elijah, we have been outside the cave trying to stop every one of them. Meanwhile, the Lord whose providence governs creation and shows through history speaks with gentle whisper that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. It is a whisper that I hope shapes our politics as much as our spirituality.

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  • http://twitter.com/mattleeanderson mattleeanderson

    The text of my reply to James Davison Hunter is now available online. I’d love to hear your feedback on it. http://bit.ly/adtCeG #fb

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://www.genureflection.wordpress.com Caleb Roberts

    Matthew,

    A very well articulated and gracious response to someone with the intellectual clout of Dr. Hunter.

    One thought though:

    You mention that a conservatism in the richest sense is “trying to protect the space around this pre-political institution from being reshaped by the state”. Something that I have long wondered in regards to this issue (gay marriage) is whether natural marriage as a social and cultural sphere, while certainly receiving a direct “reshaping” from the state in an accommodation of gay marriage, can not also receive an indirect shaping from the state in a declaration that marriage is “one man, one woman”.

    In other words, what happens to marriage, intended or not, when certain aspects of its essential qualities become centered on an overt definition from the state that it is the only “legal” form of marriage? Would it really be that “pre-political” anymore?

    I guess I wonder what the principled difference is between a situation where same-sex marriage is acceptable because the state said so and a situation where only heterosexual marriage is legal because the state said so. Do both situations not center marriage within the political sphere?

    Maybe I am missing something there. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your response. Thank you for posting it.

    Pax Christi.

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Caleb,

      Great question, and one I’m continuing to wrestle with. You wrote: “Do both situations not center marriage within the political sphere?”

      I’m not sure they both do, at least not in the same way. In the case of traditional marriage, it is an institution because of the natural possibility of childbearing. (Notice, possibility, not reality). However, the only way that gay marriages can produce children is through the involvement of some third party. That introduces a new set of complex relationships and problems that the State has to mediate. In that sense, the State’s relationship between gay marriage and traditional marriage is very different, and it’s not hard to see how the state might have to expand its reach in order to support gay marriage (by establishing laws and policies surrounding the process of childbearing) in a way that it wouldn’t with respect to traditional marriage.

      Does that make sense?

      Again, I’m still working through this, and your question is precisely the right one to ask to push back at my position.

      Best,

      matt

  • http://twitter.com/calebroberts811 calebroberts811

    Good thoughts from a hearty thinker.
    RT @mattleeanderson Expecting to Change the World: A Reply to James Davison Hunter http://bit.ly/di2ZhS

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

    I’m grateful that Matt has posted the text of his reply to James Davison Hunter. I listened to the whole AEI event yesterday. Without surprise, Matt rose to the occasion, delivering an admirable critique––in the original Greek sense of the word––with winsome aplomb. Torrey Honors Institute should feel proud of how they equipped this alumnus to take on a distinguished scholar. (My favorite part of the reply was the final paragraph invoking the whisper of providence.)

    Full disclosure. Where Matt readily identifies himself as a “conservative evangelical,” I shed that skin a long time ago and prefer calling myself a “mere Christian” who finds himself awkwardly straddling the Reformed and Anglican traditions. This label doesn’t signal that I’m tacking to the Left like many of my contemporaries who are rightly disillusioned with the Right. Instead, it signals a turn to the Great Tradition for Protestant ressourcement. Compared to Matt, my political theology is undeveloped. I increasingly believe that the “exit strategy” for the misguided agendas of the Christian Right and Christian Left is the Reformation doctrine of two kingdoms, as articulated in Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State. David VanDrunen’s forthcoming book, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, looks very promising as well.

    There seems to be a consensus regarding Hunter’s proposal, in response to the politicization of American life, to decouple the public and the private. How can this “post-political” witness be achieved? Hunter submits the theological and sociological paradigm of “faithful presence.” If I’ve understood Matt’s dissatisfaction with this paradigm, it’s not theological enough. That’s why Matt calls our attention to the doctrine of creation, which promises (1) to chasten statism and (2) to shift our politics from negation to affirmation. Following Christof Meyer’s important––but unanswered––question about the role of church, we should add that the church, as a counter-polis, has enormous potential to act as sand in the oyster of the state.

    To repeat back what I’ve heard and interpreted, the omissions of creation and church significantly weaken the paradigm of faithful presence. Yes, indeed.

    Matt’s reply left me wanting to hear more about three things. First, how does the doctrine of creation chasten statism and shift our politics from negation to affirmation? Second, is it naive to talk about the “pre-political” and “post-political”? Are we ontologically “political animals”? Third, why should evangelicals possibly adopt “the work of natural law philosophers like John Finnis and Robert George,” who are situated in the Catholic Thomistic tradition? Wouldn’t it be preferable for Protestants to draw on the reforms of natural law by John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Cornelius Van Til?

    Natural law continues to puzzle me because the prima facie conclusion is that the faculty of reason––finite and fallen––is so impaired that human beings are not capable of discerning natural law without the Logos (Christ) and divine law (special revelation). Isn’t this the gist behind Barth’s (in)famous critique of natural law? How, for example, would Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, using natural law, recognize “limits on the state and its activity”?

    My puzzlement might turn into clarity if and when I turn to a book that David VanDrunen published at the end of 2009: Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Thought. It affirms convergence between natural law and the two kingdoms where I’ve assumed divergence.

    P. S. One of Hunter’s colleagues at the University of Virginia is Charles Mathewes. He recently authored a book called, A Theology of Public Life. Not having read the book, I wonder if Mathewes offers a more theologically sophisticated model of public engagement than Hunter. Wouldn’t it be great if Ken Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio, facilitated a conversation between these two residents of Charlottesville?

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Christopher,

      You’re overly kind. Thanks.

      Just one point: I offered my comments to Dr. Hunter not so much as critique, but as extension. I think there are gaps there, but I suspect he does as well.

      Also, you’re right to say that my talk was incomplete. That’s what I get for only having 10 minutes.

      (1) “First, how does the doctrine of creation chasten statism and shift our politics from negation to affirmation?”

      Because on a properly ordered account of creation guides ethics and establishes fixed goods that the state can–and can’t–pursue. Absent that, we are left for a politics that is based on the assertion of will alone (this is Hunter’s critique, really) which leads to the acquisition of power as the only good and an ever-expanding state.

      As for moving from negation to affirmation, an ethic grounded in creation is an ethic grounded in objective and discernible goods. If politics takes its cue from that, then it must point out those goods repeatedly, which would (I think) mitigate the element of negation.

      2) “Second, is it naive to talk about the “pre-political” and “post-political”? Are we ontologically “political animals”?”

      No, and yes.

      3) “Third, why should evangelicals possibly adopt “the work of natural law philosophers like John Finnis and Robert George,” who are situated in the Catholic Thomistic tradition? Wouldn’t it be preferable for Protestants to draw on the reforms of natural law by John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Cornelius Van Til?”

      Well, I don’t see why we can’t learn from all of them. And just FYI, I didn’t suggest we all affirm natural law. I said that we should learn from them that there is an objective order of goods that is discernible that isn’t based upon or subject to our individual or collective will (that last clause wasn’t in there, but that was largely my point). O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order is the book to read here. It would also help, I think, with the questions you raise in your next paragraph.

      Best,

      matt

      • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

        Matt: Hmm . . . I’m still not satisfied by your answer to my first question. How does “a properly ordered account of creation guides ethics and establishes fixed goods that the state can – and can’t – pursue”? This is an assertion without an explanation or argument. Regarding my second question, if we’re ontologically “political animals,” then it doesn’t make sense to talk about the “pre-political” and “post-political,” right? On the third question, I agree that we can learn from all natural law thinkers but Protestants shouldn’t be shy about their own resources.

        At the end, you snuck in your epistemological view of realism: there’s “an objective order of goods that is discernible that isn’t based upon or subject to our individual or collective will.” Herein lies an apparent difference between us. Do you think human beings have unmediated access to reality as it “really” is? I don’t. Very few people read Hans-Georg Gadamer and come out on the other side believing in “Being or Reality as it really is.” Instead, they recognize, as I now do, that we’ve only got “Being/Reality-as-it-comes-to-us” (apart from special revelation). I sense that natural law philosophy could benefit from greater hermeneutic reflection.

        Were you familiar Charles Mathewes’ A Theology of Public Life? Do you plan on reading the book?

        • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

          I’ve read most of Mathews. It’s quite good. And yes, I am a realist. I think that’s old news by now. But I said as much in my response to Hunter.

          As for “how,” there’s a question about how the state pursues anything. What I’m interested in is a normative case of what the state should and shouldn’t pursue. Without the sort of objective ordering I propose, the state’s pursuits are likely to be reduced to the acquisition of power–hence the totalitization of politics. I think I explained this, though.

          “Regarding my second question, if we’re ontologically “political animals,” then it doesn’t make sense to talk about the “pre-political” and “post-political,” right?”

          I think we’re equivocating on “political.” I used it above in the sense that Hunter uses it, which is to say its directly tied to the operations of the state. “Political animals” in Aristotle’s usage (and, I presumed, in your question) has to do with being ordered toward relationships with others and society, which takes form in the public order and (eventually) the government. I don’t think my usage of “pre-political” disagrees with Hunter’s view, though.

          Matt

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  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Also, regarding realism in ethics, I’d recommend reading through O’Donovan’s RMO. The epistemic difficulties are, of course, difficult. But then, I’ve (again) not aligned myself with the natural law school, as you suggest.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

    Matt: Please be patient with me. This isn’t my usual area of inquiry.

    1. I understand that you’re interested in “a normative case of what the state should and shouldn’t pursue.” What I don’t understand is how you ground that case in the doctrine of creation. How does creation dictate the limits and tasks of the state?

    2. Do you think Mathewes’ “theology of public life” is more satisfying theologically than Hunter’s paradigm of “faithful presence”? If so, why?

    3. As you know by now, Kierkegaard is my favorite philosopher. In the hands of analytic folks, he’s a realist (see C. Stephen Evans). In the hands of continental folks, he’s an anti-realist (see Merold Westphal). Which handling is right? It beats me. Maybe realism and anti-realism are compatible after all. With the realists, we can affirm “Being or Reality as it really is” with this caveat: only God has unmediated access to it because he created it. With the anti-realists, we can affirm that there’s only “Being or Reality as it comes to us” because human beings are situated by language, gender, tradition, history, and culture. Even special revelation doesn’t privilege us with a God-eye-view of Being or Reality because we’re still interpreting the text with the aid of the Holy Spirit. But revelation does loosen the hold of situatedness.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Christopher,

    “What I don’t understand is how you ground that case in the doctrine of creation. How does creation dictate the limits and tasks of the state?”

    Because creation has an order of goods that establish moral norms. But that’s a real answer to the question. You can say, “That’s an assertion without explanation or argument.” In which case I’ll just refer you to RMO, the first few chapters. To speak of creation simply is to speak of a created order (both teleological and eschatological), a system of facts that moral reflection depends upon and responds to. Else “creation” is in principle chaos, and the only order in the moral field is that which we impose on it through our wills.

    Which is to say, it’s a question of metaphysics. Dismiss that, and I think the only option available to you is Nietschean ethics and the sort of politics that Hunter describes.

    2) I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to reflect more on that. I think there’s quite a bit of overlap.

    Best,

    matt

  • Mike Ward

    So, Matthew Anderson has done well to critique the easy target of minimalistic conservative evangelicals. But the appropriate response definitely isn’t Catholicism. Evangelicals are still right even if they are distracted by reductionistic themes.

    Anderson does well to point out the importance of the doctrine of creation but at the risk of … See Morelosing the doctrine of redemption. We do want to affirm all that is good and true and beautiful but also prophetically while simultaneously with gentleness call the culture to account–both in the politic and in the public.

    Both and. Both and. Both and. This truth can help us be nuanced and not commit the same act that Mr. Anderson is disgusted with, while maintaining his commitment to conservative evangelicalism.

    Here’s how I see the both and playing out. Affirm and negate. Present the beauties of family and imago Dei and sex and orgasm and art and picnics and photography and food and musicals and so much more! Praise God for all these things! But also be courageous enough (and yet savvy and humble and compassionate) to address the sins that plague our age with such horrific captivity!

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  • http://www.docentgroup.com GL

    Matt, I appreciate your thoughts as you participate with other brothers and sisters in working through the endless complexities of the Church’s engagement with the world.

    Because of my experience of the Nietzschean aspects of Christian political action (left and right) , I’m less sanguine than you about our community doing politics well, but I share your hope that we could and should. Regardless, you’ve provided not only helpful insights but also fruitful ideas for my own further exploration. Thank you.

    Lastly, a few years ago you wrote a post here (also posted at Amazon) in which you declared that Moreland’s “Kingdom Triangle” was “the book of the decade,” having beat out the previous leader, Nancy Pearcey’s “Total Truth,” in your estimation. I wonder if you would stand by that post now– either in regarding Pearcey’s Total Truth as having been one of the most important books published in the 2000s or subsequently Moreland’s Kingdom Triangle. Do you still see either of these books as meriting the label “most important book of the decade,” or have you found other books more deserving of the title?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Glenn,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I hope I’m not overly sanguine, and I totally agree with Hunter about the nefarious effects of our Nietzchean approach to politics. But from what I can tell, we have that simply because we’re Nietzchean in everything else as well. Undermining that and re-establishing politics, culture, etc. on its proper foundation is part of my mission in life.

    As for Kingdom Triangle…..phew. Feels like a decade ago when I wrote that.

    Let me say this: I’ve definitely found other books more deserving of the title, but I also think that both those books went a long way toward addressing critical flaws in evangelical culture and piety in a way that was approachable for most people.

    Also, I am attempting to curb my natural inclinations toward lists and hyperbole in my old age. : )

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