Evangelical Conflation of the Public with the Political

by caseybedell

I am finally getting around to read James Hunter’s To Change the World ( I know I am very late to the game) and its a clear challenge to evangelicals — both on the left and right — who think that cultural change comes primarily through the political process.  As someone who is on his way to DC, this is a good to reminder.  In fact, Hunter goes so far as to suggest a moratorium on the church’s engagement with the world of politics, and does so because he thinks the church has reduced its engagement with the world solely to the political.  So he suggests the church take up a postpolitical witness.  To do this, the church has two tasks: (1) disentangle its life and identity from the life and identity of American society and (2) decouple the public from the political.

While I would certainly want to push back on Hunter’s suggestion of a moratorium (for example, he fails to distinguish between the church corporate and the individuals who make up the church), I do agree with him on the two tasks.  The second in particular is something that needs to be worked out, and like Hunter states, it begins with the imagination.  The problem with most of the North American church is that it cannot imagine an engagement with the world that is not political and this is because we have conflated the public with the political.  However, this is not necessarily unique to evangelicals, but rather, is an American phenomenon, thus the first tasks that Hunter mentions. So when the public is reduced to politics, culture is politicized.

But public life for the Christian is (should be) much bigger than politics (i.e., arts, education, care for the environment, provision to the least of these, etc. ). And as I think about DC and ministering to interns, this will prove to be a good corrective to many who think politics is the highest form of cultural engagement.  Being engaged politically is certainly important, but it is just one way to engage the world.   Hunter may go too far in his desire to see the church go silent with relation to politics, but he is right in seeing the need for the church’s imagination to be expanded beyond the political.

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