James Davison Hunter on the American Christian Left

If the Christian Right is motivated by a vision of ‘recovering’ Christian America, the Christian left is energised by the dream of equality and justice. So says James Davision Hunter is his important book To Change the World: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world.

Hunter traces the various trajectories of the broadly Christian left – inspired by big biblical themes of justice, mercy, peace, and equality finding expression in the Social Gospel movement, the World Council of Churches, ecumenical bodies, Liberation Theology in Latin American and most of the major mainline denominations in the States.

As these have faded in influence, the interesting thing is that it has been evangelical progressives who have provided the impetus, energy and vision of the Christian left. Think Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Brian McLaren and many others.

The big concerns as sketched by Hunter are:

– justice for the weak, marginalised, disadvantaged, the poor and assessing public policy in terms of its impact in these areas

– poverty as a deeply spiritual issue

– opposition to the Christian Right and the ‘seduction’ or ‘hijack’ or even ‘bastardization’ of Christianity to the political ‘pro-rich’ agendas of the Republican Party. According to Sojourners, the Christian Right have compromised authentic Christian faith to the degree that it has been ‘co-opted by militarism and nationalism.’

– The real threat to Christianity in America is not a liberal conspiracy, but the Christians buying into the secular aspirations and addictions of the American dream.

– An agenda of the Left is to reclaim a genuinely Christian perspective on faith and national life and so influence public policy towards justice and concern for the poor.

– As Hunter remarks – this is just as ‘political’ a strategy as that of the Right and shares a same basic ‘will to power’ if with reverse priorities. Just as the Right is allied with the Republicans, so Hunter says

‘there is little in the actions and writings of the larger Christian Left that would be objectionable to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.’

– Both Right and Left, argues Hunter, are mirror images of each other. Wallis has no hesitation is outlining detailed policies supported by a raft of biblical texts. The issue is not so much whether the Bible has relevant things to say about public policy (it does), but that Wallis and others are working for a form of ‘civil religion’ that assumes that America is or should be a ‘righeous’ nation.

– The message is very different, the means very similiar. Personally I think he downplays the fact that the Christian Left is strongly ‘Other-focused’ not self-protective.

But if Hunter is right that both sides are seeking political power to effect their visions of America,  I wonder which end of the spectrum you feel most at home with and why?

If neither you may be closer to the next perspective the Hunter critques, the neo-Anabaptists. Come back soon for that post 🙂

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