James Davison Hunter on the American Christian Right: optimism to the point of foolishness

Time to follow up the first post on James Davison Hunter’s big book To Change the World: the irony, tragedy and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world.

This is a brief summary his critique of the American Christian Right in a number of key statements:

– Christians who are politically conservative want the world in which they live to reflect their own likeness.

– The culture in which they live poses profound legal and political challenges to most of their cherished values: such as marriage, heterosexuality, family, morality, the sanctity of human life and so on.

– A common theme of the right is to rediscover or recover America’s Christian origins. Some go all the way with the myth of America should be a Christian nation. Others like the late Richard John Neuhaus argue that America is ‘one nation under God’ and that religious activists today are rightful heirs of the nation’s Christian legacy.

– Much of the language of the Christian right is fearful of the future – stuff like ‘the soul of America is dying.’ Secular liberalism has hijacked the essence of what America was and should be. Think James Dobson and Pat Robertson. Dobson says ‘It’s either God’s way or the way of social disintegration’

– The response is a call to arms. Political arms that is. The future of America lies in the hands of those fighting to preserve Christian values. And this fighting is done in elections, in lobbying, in forging alliances, in the urgent task to get ‘our people’ in positions of power. Think Dobson and Focus on the Family among many others.

– The ‘turn to politics’ means a turn to the Republican Party – to partisan politics. The goal is political dominance in order to control the direction of American culture.

And so to Hunter’s critical observations: His big point:

‘The hope Christian conservatives place in politics is quite astonishing’

– Hopes that politics can preserve and defend America’s Christian heritage

– Hopes that politics can save marriage and the family and public virtue

– Hopes that politics can promote national righteousness

– Hopes that politics can claim the culture for Christ and even ‘heal the nation’

– Hopes that politics can deliver a moral revival and associated individual freedoms

– Hopes that politics can even protect the ‘future of our children’

Whoa those are some hopes. And all to be delivered via a successful culture war.

Now that, as Albus Dumbledore so wonderfully said to the Dursleys while hoping in vain for a drink, is being “optimistic to the point of foolishness”.

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6 thoughts on “James Davison Hunter on the American Christian Right: optimism to the point of foolishness

  1. A very honest description of american christian culture and one I am afraid has been disturbing me for a while. First of all from a Biblical point of view I don’t see Jesus challenging political authorities (though many were hoping that it would happen in their time), his strongest criticism was towards religious leader. I don’t read in the New Testament of praying or fighting against the powerful Roman Empire, on the contrary, Paul encourages believers to raise holy hands, which it was quite a challenge when we think that those being prayed for were killing christians. In the book of Habakkuk we read the frustration that he has with God because He was using an evil nation for His purposes. So in a way I would say God is apolitical from an earthly point of view, “my kingdom is not of this world”.
    To think that by controlling or pushing certain political views we are helping God, it is a very narrow understanding of God’s sovereignity, His purposes and His final goal for creation. If that is the case, what do we say to millions of christians who are suffering under evil governments, who have no voice and in many places no political vote? at the same time where they are the gospel is growing dramatically. May be the word “sacrifice” is not a very popular word in our Western culture, to push for a political right that endorses Christian values at any cost, it is to try to seek to have a life with no challenges for the gospel.

  2. I’m with you Ana. The Right’s confidence in politics is a very western stance. It sure is a long way from any conceivable option Paul and the first Christians had and it is an inconceivable option to most Christians living under persecution. It also fails in my opinion to take seriously how corrupting power is when the church gets its hands on it.

  3. Having married an american and having being around her family who are mostly unashamedly republican i feel qualified to say that all-though i thoroughly agree with the critique offered above, it is not a critique of either “american christian culture ” or ” the American Christian Right” but rather of christians and religious people who place there faith in politics more than the Lord. Sorry lads but it aint right to equate all of american christian culture or even the christian right with that. The christians in the states who are into politics even right wing ones dont all agree with the above and certainly american christian culture is not just the above.

  4. Richard since you are now half American 🙂 and far closer to American culture than I am, I won’t dispute what you say! Just to say Hunter is being pretty specific in his targets here – he names lots of organisations who exhibit this sort of theology. Sure this is only a segment of American Christianity (a very powerful one). I remember visiting Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, HQ of the late James D Kennedy. I’ve never seen so many American flags in one place – all round the church and everywhere inside the building and the sanctuary. It felt like a shrine to America rather than a place of worship of God.
    Hunter’s next two segments for critique are the Christian Left and the Neo-Anabaptists (next couple of posts).

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