That's the main argument of Hunter's new To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, recently published by Oxford University Press. Hunter writes specifically about Christians and their various attempts -- including those undertaken by conservative evangelicals, liberal mainliners, and Roman Catholics -- to bring about cultural change. But his thesis applies just as well to non-religious groups.
Hunter, of course, is the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is perhaps most famous for his 1992 book Culture Wars. He is a man who has studied culture and cultural change deeply, from both the standpoint of an academic sociologist and as a popular commentator. His considered opinions on the subject should not be taken lightly.
I'm not yet through with To Change the World myself, so I cannot provide a full review (Andy Crouch has a thoughtful one in Books & Culture). But the premise from which Hunter advances is deftly and convincingly argued: namely, that those groups which argue that they are working to change the world by bringing about fundamental cultural shifts had better lower their sights. They may do salutary work, but they have almost no chance of achieving their goal of cultural transformation, because they fundamentally misunderstand culture itself.
To give just one example of this misunderstanding: most everyone believes that to change a culture, one must change the hearts and minds -- the ideas and beliefs -- of individuals. Change the thinking and feelings and opinions of enough men and women, and you'll get your cultural change as a matter of course. Sounds plausible enough. But Hunter destroys this notion, in part by offering illustrations such as these:
"As late as 1960, only 2 percent of the population claimed not to believe in God; even today, only 12 to 14 percent of the population would call themselves secularists. This means that in America today, 86 to 88 percent of the people adhere to some faith commitments. And yet our culture -- business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment -- is intensely materialistic and secular. Only occasionally do we hear references to religious transcendence in these realms, and even these are vague, generic, and void of particularity. If culture is the accumulation of values and the choices made by individuals on the basis of these values, then how is that American public culture today is so profoundly secular in its character?"
The long answer to this question is complex -- heck, it takes Hunter a couple hundred pages to unpack it. But the short answer is: culture is much more complex than the sum total of individuals' beliefs and principles. In fact, it is often at odds with those beliefs and principles, or at best only tenuously related to them. Culture comprises subrational, non-propositional, so-deeply-felt-that-they-are-never-even-thought-about-let-alone-questioned norms (another sociologist and one from whom Hunter has learned much, Philip Rieff, is especially illuminating on this topic). Culture is created by history, not acts of the will. It is a form of power. And so on. (Hunter elaborates on his view of culture, in contradistinction to that of Chuck Colson, here. Chapter abstracts are here.)
All of which is to say, if you want to effect cultural change, you need a different strategy than changing people's opinions about this or that issue. It may even be that no strategy would work -- but here we step onto ground that is at least contestable.
I'll try to post more on Hunter's book later. His argument is certainly one that many philanthropists and nonprofit leaders -- not to mention self-professed "social entrepreneurs" -- should grapple with. It turns out that ideas don't always have cultural consequences.