Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from The Gospel Coalition eBook Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’: To Change the World Five Years Later, edited by Collin Hansen. Download the book for free in ePub, MOBI, or PDF files.


I first began reading James Davison Hunter back in the early 1980s when I was a seminary student. He had just published his first major work, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity. I was at a crucial stage in my own theological and intellectual understanding of both Christianity’s place in the modern age and of evangelicalism as a movement and a theological identity.

My Debt to Hunter

More than anything else, Hunter’s argument concerning theological accommodation and the fragility of evangelical identity under the conditions of modernity caught my attention. His concept of “cognitive bargaining” became an important factor in my analysis of what was then a raging controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention. The controversy centered around theological identity—something that was then (and now) an ongoing struggle for American evangelicals. I was immediately able to see both the reality and the temptation of cognitive bargaining—the process whereby cognitive truth claims are “bargained” to lesser status and greater intellectual provisionality under the conditions of modernity. In this sense, Hunter’s work was not only important to me for its description of the cultural situation, but also for my theological accountability. His category of cognitive bargaining and his lucid description of the evangelical predicament helped me to acquire a deeper sense of theological responsibility, even as his primary concern was sociological analysis.

Similarly, I eagerly devoured Hunter’s 1987 book Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. In that work, Hunter analyzed the generation of young evangelicals who had come of age from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. When Hunter spoke of the “coming generation” of evangelicals, he was talking about me and my peers. He documented the reality of cognitive bargaining among evangelicals who had arrived on American college and university campuses (also later on graduate campuses and theological seminaries) only to be confronted with late modernity in full force. Even then, Hunter warned of particular cognitive challenges representing areas of both temptation and transition among these young evangelicals. Doctrines such as the exclusivity of Jesus Christ were likely to be focal points in that process of cognitive bargaining. In both of those books, Hunter dealt with what I understood to be one of the most pressing questions of the age: “Culturally, what is the fate of Protestant orthodoxy in these circumstances?”

In 1991, Hunter published his most influential book to date, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. He was far ahead of virtually any other major author or public intellectual in describing the reality of the culture war reshaping America. He also directly tied the book to the very social processes he had documented so well in his two previous volumes. Written for a far larger audience, Culture Wars entered the public lexicon by changing and providing the terms of debate. Shortly after the book’s publication, the Chautauqua Institution invited me to speak during Religion Week on whether or not Hunter, along with others making similar arguments, were describing something real or overblown. Ironically, anyone listening to the presentations that week would have had no doubt that the culture war was not only real but that, at least for the elites, orthodox Christianity was already an embarrassment.

Hunter’s Prescription

Already deeply indebted to professor Hunter, I looked forward with great anticipation to the publication of what was understood to be his magnum opus. When To Change the World was published in 2010, I reserved the time to work through it with the same care with which I had read all of his previous works. In terms of sociological analysis, Hunter once again offered one of the most important descriptions of Christianity’s predicament under the conditions of late modernity. To Change the World underlines, once again, the indispensable role Hunter has played for our understanding the intellectual and social conditions of late modernity and the reality of biblical Christianity. In that sense, Hunter is to sociology what Alvin Plantinga is to philosophy. He is indispensable, unique, and never disappoints in his analysis and intellectual insight.

At the same time, To Change the World demonstrates a significant transition and revision of the argument Hunter presented in Culture Wars. In one sense, the intellectual, social, and cultural conditions Hunter describes in To Change the World are markedly more hostile to traditional Christianity than what had been described, even in bracing terms, in his previous books. To Change the World represents a chastened and chastening analysis of what Hunter rightly calls “the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world.” In fact, the “late modern world” described by Hunter has largely moved past the categories of the culture war he described almost two decades earlier. But To Change the World is not merely a work of sociological analysis. It is also a prescriptive argument addressed to American Christianity at this historical moment. As he states at the beginning: “The basic academic question is simply, how is religious faith possible in the late modern world?” More personally, he acknowledges the question for Christians is “how do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the late modern world?”

One of the most important contributions that distinguishes To Change the World from Hunter’s earlier work is his analysis of the “top down” mechanism of cultural change. Given the displacement of traditional Christianity under the conditions of modernity, Hunter warns that evangelical Christians are naïve, and largely unfaithful, if we are driven by an ambition to change the world.

To put the matter bluntly, Hunter is clearly embarrassed by much of conservative Christianity in America. In particular, he is acutely embarrassed by the Religious Right and by the culture-changing ambitions of evangelical Christians in the last generation. That embarrassment shows up on virtually every page, and it drives Hunter’s warning that evangelicalism is not only fragile but also incompetent and powerless to bring about any major cultural change. The publication of To Change the World brought, as Hunter must have expected, immediate retorts and rebukes from some Christian leaders who argued that if evangelicals could only shift the worldview of the larger culture then the right kind of cultural change would naturally follow. In that sense, Hunter and his critics largely shared the fact that they had embarrassed one another.

Forfeiting Change

Hunter’s analysis of how cultural change is driven by elites is indispensable to understanding not only the general conditions of late modernity, but also the specific challenge of the massive moral revolution around us. How could a tiny minority of Americans bring about a moral revolution that normalized same-sex behaviors and same-sex relationships in such a stunningly short amount of time? How could such a minority drive revolutionary moral change in a pluralistic and democratic culture like the United States?

As Hunter explains, the numbers are far less significant than the placement. He offers an analysis of how social capital determines and influences the direction of the culture. Yet there are inherent contradictions in Hunter’s argument. By the time he considers the alternatives presented to Christianity in the late modern age (including the Christian Right and the “neo-Anabaptists”) he has virtually denied the possibility of Christian influence in the larger culture—especially in terms of changing the fundamental direction of that culture.

The central thrust of his argument is that the most faithful response of Christians within this set of cultural conditions is “faithful presence.” Hunter’s strategy would surrender any claim of massive cultural influence and would forfeit any pretensions of world-changing on the part of the church. Instead, faithful presence would suggest Christians should simply try contributing to the commonweal and to the preservation of society—and should do so as Christians who no longer have any ambitions of changing the larger culture.

Yet, even as Hunter’s sociological analysis of the top-down mechanisms by which cultures change points to the inevitable conclusion that orthodox Christians are rarely found among the elites, the fact remains that professor Hunter certainly does find his placement among the intellectually elite. As a tenured professor and head of a research center at “Mr. Jefferson’s University,” Hunter stands at peak intellectual influence. While, as he explains, the stratification of the elites means there are institutions with even more influence and prestige than the University of Virginia, there can be no question Hunter is a fully accepted member of the academic guild. The big question his book raises, then, is this: How in the world is a Christian who lives and works at a distance from those intellectual elites to be faithful? Reading To Change the World again in its entirety, I was struck by just how elitist the book’s argument really is.

Now, even more than when I first read the book five years ago, I have to wonder whether Hunter is himself projecting the “ressentiment” he argues has driven both the Religious Left and the Religious Right in their cultural engagement. While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a sense of cultural displacement, moral fear, and even resentment has driven some of the discourse and actions of Christians in the public square, my experience is that most faithful church members have been deeply involved in these issues out of urgent moral, spiritual, and personal concern—not out of ressentiment. Further, while a generation of leaders in the so-called Religious Right may still believe national revival is riding on the next presidential election, most of the Christian leaders I know were disabused of that kind of hope almost a generation ago. Hunter is undoubtedly right that the hope itself was unrealistic and simplistic. But what are Christians to do in the voting booth, and as participants in a cultural conversation, and as salt and light in a civilization increasingly hostile to the conditions that will lead to human flourishing? What are Christians to do in the face of sex trafficking, and abortion, and same-sex marriage, and economic inequality, and a host of other issues we did not choose, but that have chosen us?

James Davison Hunter does not reveal his own convictions or moral principles on many of these issues. Therefore, his brilliant meta-analysis breaks down at the question of practical application. And the internal contradictions in his argument make it virtually impossible to know what he would define as our proper hope under the sociological, cultural, and intellectual conditions he so well describes. Hunter is certainly right to warn us that we will be embarrassed about simplistic ambitions to change the world. I think he is wrong, however, to suggest that “faithful presence” is an adequate response, even for a Christianity humbled by the modern age.