October 13, 2010
To Change the World 1: The Limits of Popular Opinion
Evangelicals want to change the world. So do Episcopalians, Lutherans and Catholics. They all fall in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, who thought that if we can educate people—inform them, change their minds—then freedom will flourish and good will prevail.
They’re all wrong. James Davison Hunter says he knows why in To Change the World.
How does he know they’re wrong? Because the world (or at least the United States) hasn’t changed according to their designs. Polls show that most people agree with conservative evangelicals and don’t completely buy evolution as an explanatory theory, but schools teach it anyway. Homosexuals are only 3 percent of the population, but laws and customs favoring them continue to gain significant ground against the protests of the larger and similarly vocal evangelical community. Culture and cultural change aren’t determined by popular opinion, Hunter contends.
Ideas change the world, right? Well, not exactly. Ideas do have consequences, but only when they are joined with “powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols” (p. 44). It’s not that people who go to Harvard are any smarter than those who go to Wheaton. It’s that by going to Harvard, people enter an elite world of connections that frequently propels them into circles of national power and influence. From those vantage points Harvard grads are in a better position to shape the world as they see fit.
Is it a coincidence that most recent presidents (Kennedy, Ford, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama) have had Harvard or Yale connections? Hunter would think not.
What’s the solution for evangelicals and others? Get the religion of elitism and marry it to institutional structures of power and influence, Hunter implies (though he qualifies this later). Populism, and its poor cousin anti-intellectualism, may draw crowds and get some media coverage. But they are inherently at odds with the way culture is actually transformed.