Culture-Changing Christians

When Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, many disappointed supporters – including a number of evangelicals – suggested that his defeat spoke to an American culture in decline. For politics to change, they say, culture must change. Glenn Beck, for example, tweeted that “the time for politics is over. I’m doubling down on my efforts to shift the culture.”

Evangelical Christians are especially attuned to talk of changing culture. But what culture is, and just how it changes, is often less clear. Books such as Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World should be required reading for any Christian making plans to change culture. Both books show that culture, or “what human beings make of the world,” in Crouch’s words, is extraordinarily complex, and not susceptible to quick change, especially through politics.

We can certainly point to Christian politicians who have helped change culture in explicitly Christian ways. The great abolitionist William Wilberforce is an excellent example. But think over the past century: many of the culture-changing Christians that jump immediately to mind have not been directly engaged with politics. For example:

C.S. Lewis, the Oxford professor whose greatest influence came through writing children’s books.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian martyred for his resistance against Nazi tyranny.

Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born nun who devoted her life to caring for lepers and AIDS patients, who testified to the dignity of all human life, including the outcast and unborn.

Each of these heroes had things to say of political consequence, but they did not see politics as their method of Christian witness or culture change.

So before we plunge headlong into changing the culture before the 2016 election, let’s think about a few principles for how evangelicals can influence culture.

1) James Davison Hunter argues that culture is shaped most by institutions that have great “symbolic capital,” including universities such as Harvard and Yale, and newspapers such as the New York Times. Popular Christian books may sell millions of copies, but they do not have the symbolic capital or cultural influence of a Pulitzer Prize winner. Christians not only need to engage with institutions of high symbolic capital, but we need Christian voices to be present in those institutions, as professors, journalists, and artists. Christian parents and teachers need to cast a winsome vision of Christian cultural engagement for children and students.

2) Christians should worry as much about preserving orthodox Christian culture as they do about changing secular culture. Indeed, preserving traditional Christian culture is an essential precondition to any wholesome changes in the broader culture. If American Christian culture is infected by theological vacuousness and historical ignorance, by shallow consumerism, or by ethical corruption, then on what basis can we hope to transform the broader culture? As Christopher Dawson’s classic Religion and the Rise of Western Culture demonstrates, Christians have often found themselves having to preserve the heritage of biblical Christianity from a hostile surrounding culture. There’s nothing especially new in our situation today.

3) While some Christians may be called vocationally to institutions of high symbolic capital, all of us can take responsibility for the mini-cultures of our family, church, and neighborhood. I’m afraid that I can’t do much about the voting patterns of Ohio, but I can sure do something about the culture of my dinner table. When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize, she was reportedly asked what we can do to promote world peace. She answered “Go home and love your family.”

Evangelicals can certainly participate in politics, but we should remember that politics tends simply to reflect culture. And culture is not easy to change, especially at the broadest levels. Christians can (and must) do more to bring a witness into institutions of high symbolic capital, but we should never underestimate the sanguine influence we can have, by God’s grace and prayer, on the little cultural spheres we inhabit on a daily basis.

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  • Craig

    Indeed, preserving traditional Christian culture is an essential precondition to any wholesome changes in the broader culture.

    This sentiment is problematic. The implication is apparently this: wholesome change can only come from traditional Christian culture. Is this just poorly worded, or do you really believe this?

  • kierkegaard71

    To be precise, in my engagement with other conservative Christians, I think that it was more an issue of Obama’s re-election rather than Romney’s defeat that they take as a sign of cultural decline. To many, it is clear what Obama represents in terms of aggressive secularism; it was hard, though, to be certain what Romney’s convictions really were. Anyway, I think the quote from Glenn Beck is indicative of the political addiction of our times: even when we recognize the cultural poverty around us, we simply can’t help speaking of addressing the problem as if it were a four-year campaign to succeed through “double downing”, strategy, detailed planning, and vigorous implementation.

  • We evangelicals might do well to ask ourselves this question: do we have a scriptural mandate to change the culture? My answer would be “no”. We do have a mandate to make disciples and preach the gospel, but the primary purpose for this is not to change culture.

  • Gary, I agree that fulfillment of the Great Commission is a clearer mandate, but widespread obedience to the Great Commission will often (as in the apostolic period, or 20c sub-Saharan Africa) lead also to cultural change.

  • Yes, quite right — and if Romney was elected, it would not have demonstrated that all was right with American culture!

  • I mean that Christians will struggle to promote wholesome changes in American culture if their own churches are corrupt.

  • No, I think your right. None of the heroes mentioned could really see themselves as doing what they did in order to change the culture except in the sense that “there could be no change unless we stay the same (affirming and living according to our identity in Christ”. This is to concede not only that we can’t change culture through politics, culture is too complex to plan change at all. Controling the culture is like controlling the weather – not humanly possible we can only enjoy good weather when its good and prepare for bad weather. And the weather is going to be very bad for westerners in general and for Christians in particular. While we may have some political opportunities in the near future only because of the resistance created by an undemocratically self-appointed House GOP. But we will just keep trying to subsist in denial if we don’t recognize that the dust of death has finally settled on the West and the USA. Make souls, not progress.

  • Craig

    Let individual Christians simply go out and promote wholesome changes–whether or not these changes happen to be peculiarly “Christian.” The problems arise when Christians engage in self-promotion, proselytization, apologetics, church-growth, etc. So my advice to Christians: just go out and do some wholesome good–pay no mind to whether or not it happens to be distinctively “Christian.” Indeed, it is wise to be more suspicious if the goodness of your project can only be appreciated in terms of some peculiar ideology, religious or otherwise–so if that’s the sort of stuff you’re trying to do, others will rightly regard your sectarian ambitions with caution.

  • John C. Gardner

    Feed the hungry, clothe the naked sounds like a cultural mandate to me.
    William Wilberforce was involved with more than the abolitionist movement(though that would have been enough). He was involved with efforts to end cruelty to animals and to promote positive education changes. We each need to contribute to cultural change in our micro situations and examine how Christians in the US(in the antebellum period)were involved in movements for the social good. Our own churches need to promote cultural stability and Christian involvment in socialization, raising children and passing on the inherited faith. Many abolitionists were evangelicals and yet many evangelicals stood silent in the South and North during the Civil Rights movement. How sad and unChristian.

  • If the salt has savor, it affects the culture. If it has lost its savor, it is tossed into the street.
    Light dispels the darkness.
    Just one indication of where we are today and the LONG road ahead: Elton Trueblood once noted that the Ten Commandments had become an integral part of our culture. Today, most Christians cannot name all of them in any order or form. Here is a starting point for those who want to be salt:

  • Michael

    It sounds like you are saying to keep Jesus hidden as the motive to your behavior. In the mid-20th century, missionaries were criticized for bringing Jesus to other cultures without meeting their physical needs. It seems like you are suggesting taking the opposite extreme by meeting others’ physical needs but not introducing them to Jesus. Unless of course you are doing “wholesome good” based on some other motivation than loving them enough to care about their salvific needs.

  • A thought provoking article! Phylis Tickle, Diana Butler Bass, and others are talking about ways in which Christianity is reinventing itself. I see the work of Rob Bell, N.T. Wright, and others as going back to the Bible to discover anew just what Christianity is all about. I certainly see trends in the Church toward less emphasis on the point of Christianity being otherworldly, and more emphasis on what it means to be Christian in this life (Christian cultural engagement is a departure from some “orthodox” churches’ primary emphasis on Christianity as “salvation from Hell”). So I am legitimately wondering: what is “orthodox Christianity” anymore?

  • Craig

    On the contrary, I’m suggesting something more like this: Christians, like everyone else, shouldn’t feel the need to always make “Jesus the motive of their behavior.” If you can help your neighbor in need, just go help your neighbor in need. You don’t have to do it “for Jesus.” If you are a father and you only feed your kid “for Jesus,” this is repulsive. If you make me a promise, and you only keep that promise “for Jesus,” this also is repulsive. Just go out and “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly”–with or without your Bible and your church group. Christians get weird and repugnant when they try to make everything about winning souls for Christ, building the church, and advancing the gospel.

  • Stacey Remick-Simkins

    I found that Christian culture was declining at a staggering rate throughout this political season. Many churches were engaging in a form of hypocracy I found staggering. I am not surprised that the secular view of Christians is that they are part of the crazies. I am a Christian…believe in Christ as my savior and in his death and Resurrection. I also find that living as Christ is to be present with the world…sharing that encouraging word, buying dinner for that homeless person, taking care of the elderly and visiting the sick and those in prison. During this season, a segment of the Christian community decided that these very same were part of the 47% to be punished, yet they championed pro-life. It was clear that they were more concerned with judgement and money than in the work of the Lord. Let’s not forget that all those people who are homeless, elderly and helpless, unable to find work, in prison and those sick were once in the womb. Yet, we think we are going to change secular culture. Despite Obama’s human frailties and faults, he has proclaimed Christ as his savior AND actually served his community. I can list a number of his initiatives which have made it possible for those I work with to continue their work in trauma therapy, social work and medicare and medicaid for those bereft of any financial resources or family to support them. After all, he spent his early career in the inner cities working for the poorest. This is exactly what Christ would have been doing. So…let’s be clear…Christian culture has taken a plunge this political year. I know that my fellow Christians who think Romney’s loss is a sign of a culture in decline…quickly forget that he would make sure that those that Christ so loved would be devastated beyond a measure that we can imagine. Somehow, we have forgotten that everything he has done and represents is completely antithetical to Christ. Let’s be honest with ourselves as Christians. Until we start reclaiming the work of Christ within our culture….we can not stand in judgement of the world in which we participate in and commit sin more egregiously and still expect the non-believing world to take us seriously.

  • There is a huge intellectual chasm between the manner in which Romney gained his extreme riches as a corporate raider and the teachings of the New Testament against greed and putting your trust in wealth. Romney is a compilation-poster child for the rich young ruler who “went away sad, because he had great wealth” and the rich fool who “tore down his barns and build bigger ones.” His 47% comment obviously meant that he had not seriously read Matt. 25.

  • Agreed, Thomas.

  • First, I must respond to Craig, who still doesn’t understand that for a Christian, there is no such thing as secular acts or secular space. We are called to deny self and do everything for Christ. We don’t really succeed at it, but that is our call.
    That said, I don’t think we are called to engage in a project of changing the culture. The culture is increasingly secular, which is to say, it increasingly rejects the notion of any god at all, because many people come to adulthood without a relationship with Christ. The numbers without such a relationship are increasing more rapidly than the numbers with such a relationship. The only way for that to change is for Christian families to live Christian culture at home. Mother Teresa was absolutely right. Big evangelism projects are fine as far as they go, but without Christian homes, they don’t hold their value. To sustain a Christian culture requires Christian commitment in the small, private spaces of our lives. Even successful numbers in public worship don’t change the culture the way individual commitment propagated in families does. In fact, the secularists would very much like for us to focus our efforts on increasing church attendance as long as we don’t carry our faith out the door of the church when we leave. They don’t want us living our faith when we spend our money or entertain ourselves or do our daily work. If we do that, it changes everything. We must remember that we are living temple stones, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and we must live our faith in all places at all times.