To Change the World

Preface by Alan R. Crippen, II

The late Richard Weaver was a professor of English at the University of Chicago. His book, Ideas Have Consequences, has become part of the canon of American conservatism since its original publication in 1948. In this book Weaver elegantly argues for a transcendent source of truth for understanding the nature and destiny of humankind. For Weaver the current cultural crises—moral, social, political, and economic —are at bottom about ideas. Our crises are about bad ideas that have taken root in Western civilization. Specifically, the foremost of these pernicious ideas is: the abandonment (if not outright denial) of objective truth. The consequences of the abandonment of objective truth are the relativism and skepticism that so thoroughly pervade culture, society and politics today.

Another seminal thinker in these matters was a contemporary of Richard Weaver. Christopher Dawson, a mid-twentieth century British historian, was deeply concerned to understand how Western civilization had been so thoroughly transformed from an essentially Christian culture to a post-Christian one. The pressing question for Dawson was: How could a social way of life that was based largely on Christian faith and its assumptions about God and human nature, this world and the next one, have given way to the cacophony of secular and religiously pluralistic views that are held today. Dawson understood that this great cultural change ultimately had taken place on a “plane of ideas.” In his 1960 essay entitled, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, Dawson wrote, “I do believe that it has been on the plane of ideas that the process of the secularization of culture began, and it is only by a change of ideas that this process can be reversed. It has always been the weakness of the Anglo-Saxon tradition to underestimate the influence of ideas on life and of contemplation on action, and the result of this error has been that many in England and America never realized the existence of culture until the culture of the age had ceased to be Christian.”

The post-mortems of Christian culture offered by conservative thinkers like Weaver, Dawson, and others serve as a clarion call for more serious understanding of how culture changes. Specifically, how do cultures change and what, if anything, can be done by people of faith to change culture for the better? Is the outlook for the renewal of Christian culture feasible, realistic, or even desirable?
In the lecture that follows, Dr. James Davison Hunter, argues that cultural change certainly involves ideas, but that it is only in certain times and under specific circumstances that ideas are ever influential in changing culture. Drawing upon the work of University of Pennsylvania Professor Randall Collin’s landmark book The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, Hunter argues that ideas become ways of life or cultures through specific social conditions that involve networks of intellectuals. Since every civilization is theorized before it comes into being, a network of elites is the requisite social condition for the emergence of a civilization.

Hunter is constructively critical of the plethora of Christian “worldview” education efforts that have emerged in recent years, not because a worldview is unimportant, but rather, because the task of simply developing Christian worldview thinking among the general populace is an inadequate strategy for changing culture. Hunter suggests that any effective strategy for cultural change must impact the elites. This is the lesson of both world history and, in fact, Christian history. Since cultural change is largely the work of elites operating within “opportunity structures” or professional networks of relationships at various geographic centers of cultural influence, people of faith ought to work more strategically in concentrating their efforts on these networks and centers.
The author of seven books, including the acclaimed Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (Basic Books, 1991), Dr. James Davison Hunter is the LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and the Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. In 2004, he was appointed by the White House to a six-year term to the National Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2005, he won the Richard M. Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters.

Since 1995, Professor Hunter has served as the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, a university-based, interdisciplinary research center concerned with understanding contemporary cultural change and its implications for individuals, institutions, and society. Under his direction, the Institute sponsors university-wide colloquia, provides doctoral and postdoctoral research support, holds conferences, fields national surveys of public opinion on the changing political culture of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America, and publishes an award-winning journal, The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture.

Professor Hunter’s newest book: To Change the World: Three Essays on Irony, Tragedy, and the Possibility of Christianity in the Contemporary World is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2010.

The essay was delivered at the Trinity Forum as a strategy briefing for its governing board of directors and is reproduced for the John Jay Institute by permission of the Trinity Forum and Professor Hunter. The Trinity Forum is a leadership academy that works to cultivate networks of leaders whose integrity and vision will help renew culture and promote human freedom and flourishing.

The Americans are the first people whom Heaven has favoured with an opportunity of deliberating upon, and choosing the forms of government under which they should live. All other constitutions have derived their existence from violence or accidental circumstances, and are therefore probably more distant from their perfection, which, though beyond our reach, may nevertheless be approached under the guidance of reason and experience."
John Jay, Charge to the Grand Jury, Ulster County, New York, NY 1777