Reviewing James Davison Hunter: An Exchange - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Reviewing James Davison Hunter: An Exchange

In the interest of full disclosure, I provided limited research assistance for Mr. Hunter’s book. In addition, Mr. Malloch considers himself a personal friend of my grandfather, the late Sir John Templeton.

Because of these personal connections, I was particularly disappointed to read Mr. Malloch’s review (“Exile Chic,” TAS, June 2010) of Mr. Hunter’s new book (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World). Critical book reviews are warranted and Hunter’s argument deserves to be debated. Malloch’s review, however, renders substantive debate impossible. It was full of so many factual errors, misreadings, and veiled (or not so) slanders that one wonders if he actually read the book.

Here are a few of the factual errors and misreadings:

Hunter was raised in a Lutheran home, not as a “Fundamentalist” as Malloch asserts.

Hunter does not claim to have invented the term “culture wars,” rather, as he argues in his book with that title, he is applying the 19th-century German Kulturkampf to late-20th-century American political culture.

Malloch charges Hunter with thinking of the Church fathers as “unlettered yahoos.” Malloch must not have read pages 50-56, where Hunter argues that the fathers were successful in building a culturally consequential social movement precisely because they were highly sophisticated and educated men.

Malloch misquotes Hunter throughout the piece and not always innocently. He turns Hunter’s words, “Barna’s view of culture is what one would expect from a pollster” into “Barna is just a pollster,” changing a point about Barna’s methodological individualism and truncated definition of culture into some kind of arbitrary bias against pollsters. Hunter is a social scientist; survey research is the tool of his trade. He’s simply noting the limitations of polling for fully grasping the power of culture.

Malloch further misquotes Hunter and suggests that Hunter’s whole thesis is undermined. According to Malloch, Hunter says “ideas not just social forces sometimes do change history.” Hunter does not say this. Instead, he says “not all ideas have consequences” and “under specific conditions and circumstances ideas can have consequences.” And this is precisely the point. Hunter goes on to lay out the cultural conditions that make ideas consequential.

In addition to direct misquotations, Malloch takes quotations out of context to suggest the opposite of their intended meaning. Malloch uses Hunter’s words, “America is a bundle of contradictions,” to charge him with anti-Americanism. In the context, the sentence opens a paragraph outlining some of the major concerns with contemporary American culture that Christians of all types share. Moreover, Hunter identifies important ways that Americans have contributed to economic and political stability around the world. It is hardly anti-Americanism.

Malloch also appears to be confused by Hunter’s summarizing the views of other people. Hunter states that there are three dominant views and stances toward the culture in contemporary Christianity, and each gets something right, but all miss something too. Heedless of such distinctions, Malloch attributes those views to Hunter. For example, Hunter does not argue for redistribution of wealth; he says progressive Christians do. Hunter is not advocating a new monasticism; this is what some neo-Anabaptists want. Malloch also attributes negative comments about Father John Neuhaus to Hunter, when in fact Hunter is summarizing Stanley Hauerwas’s criticisms of Neuhaus.

Furthermore, the title of the review challenges Hunter’s use of the imagery of the exile. Malloch has every right to object to thinking of himself as an exile, but before dismissing the metaphor outright, he would do well to note that there is a long tradition of Christian theology that uses the theme, from St. Peter to the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, to St. Augustine, to Father John Neuhaus (whose posthumous book American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile was reviewed favorably in these pages).

Finally, Malloch is dismissive of the book’s endorsements. He comes quite close to a character slander of esteemed philosopher of religion Nicholas Wolterstorff, insinuating that he endorsed the book only because he is a senior fellow at Hunter’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and thus on Hunter’s payroll. He dismissed Charles Taylor as a “philosopher of secularity,” even though Taylor is one of the world’s leading Catholic intellectuals and a recent winner of the Templeton Prize, an award my grandfather started to honor innovative spiritual thinkers. Malloch also implies that Mr. Hunter has quit Christianity (as one quits smoking) and is now a dangerous zealot against the faith; such unfounded slanders have no place in a substantive review.

The Hunter that Malloch fabricates is a bundle of contradictions. In Malloch’s words, Hunter is an anti-government leftist and an anti-modern who deploys Cartesian logic. He thinks institutions should be “leaderless and without authority,” but he’s also an elitist. These charges are simply incoherent and fail to engage the actual argument of the book.

To Change the World deserves serious, thoughtful attention and criticism where it is justified. Unfortunately, Theodore Malloch’s review offers neither.

Heather Templeton Dill
Charlottesville, Virginia

Theodore Roosevelt Malloch replies:

I would like to thank The American Spectator and the author of the letter to the editor, Heather Dill, for this opportunity to respond.

My review appeared in a magazine of some humor and wit that in the spirit of the inimitable R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. has established itself down the decades as a magazine of a certain well, let us say, style and persuasion. My piece was written in that style, not as an academic book review. It appeared under the infamous “Slaughterhouse” segment, as it was intended to be hypercritical. I apologize if I offended anyone, as I am known generally to be typically quite diplomatic.

There is nothing personal in the review and it has everything to do with what I found to be objectionable, chic, and countercultural in the book under scrutiny: ideas which are contra those of traditional conservatism. Since I grew up as a Cold Warrior and defend orthodoxy as a Cultural Warrior, I am afraid I took umbrage at the Hunter thesis. I am not an “exile” from America or Western civilization!

I don’t know what a “limited research assistant” is or does and such is not credited in Hunter’s book, but I meant no rebuke to Mrs. Dill or most certainly to her family. It should be duly noted that I made no mention of the Templetons whatsoever in my review and see no connection at all. But for full disclosure, I have benefited largely from my relations to Sir John Templeton and count him as one of my most important mentors. I have advised him, served and currently serve on that foundation’s board of advisors, and have received many grants from the foundation over the last decade or more for which I am most grateful. Sir John wrote the foreword to my last book, Thrift, a virtue he extolled, and he gave me a grant to write the book. My previous book, Spiritual Enterprise, was dedicated to Sir John, who had personally challenged me to write it. And my most recent book, Being Generous, has a foreword from Mrs. Dill’s father, the well-known conservative philanthropist Jack Templeton, MD. I have to my knowledge met Mrs. Dill on just two occasions, at her grandfather’s memorial service at Princeton and at a Templeton advisors’ meeting where thrift was the topic under discussion. I found her most pleasant and we were entirely on the same page.

However, I found her remarks on my review very defensive and she omits one important fact in her assessment: her husband is presently a PhD student under Prof. James Hunter at the University of Virginia. This alone should bracket her comments in Husserl’s definition of the concept.

I should also say, I knew James Hunter as an undergraduate, when I was an upperclassman in college. My last memory of him, and I have not spoken to or seen him since, was in 1975, in Amsterdam on a European Seminar where, Hippy Jimmy, as he was then affectionately known, was playing his flute with long hair and beads-in countercultural rebellion. I apologize if the memory sticks. Two years ago my niece took his sociology 101 course at UVA and found him to be a pontificating professor who was both very boring and highly opinionated in his vehement critiques of America.

The suggestion that I did not read the book or misrepresent it is patently false. I found the book so wrongheaded that I underlined many passages and took copious notes. The book speaks for itself. It has become a too frequent charge these days when someone radically disagrees with your theories or facts that you dismiss them or say they did not read you correctly.

This book is controversial-look at the long and heated discussion it has spurred in Books & Culture among Evangelicals. But that is also a part of the problem-it purports to be about Christianity and it is limited to infighting between left- and right-wing Evangelicals. One of my more cogent points was that there are many more Christians in the world-globally, and particularly in Catholicism, for instance-and this book makes little sense and no mention of them.

I did start my review with a question about two of the people who blurbed the book. I meant no libel. One is on Hunter’s payroll and I knew that while it was not disclosed. In the world of corporate governance where I live most of the time, this would be considered a conflict of interest. I don’t think pompous academics should have separate rules. The other towering intellect I questioned ran five times and lost as a socialist candidate in Canada. These are established facts. It is hard to say be quiet and stand as an “exile”-when to the contrary you have yourself lived a life of political ideology in the public arena.

I’ve done reviews of dozens and dozens of books over my long career, but few have received both such kudos and retribution as this one. I wonder why? Maybe it has to do with the culture wars-a term Hunter’s book cover does suggest, contrary to evidence, he created. In fact, the term dates to Bismarck’s Germany. According to a trusted source, “The American 1980s culture wars were characterized by the conservative climate during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Members of the religious right often criticized academics and artists, and their works, in a fight against what they considered indecent, subversive, and blasphemous. They often accused their political opponents of undermining tradition, Western civilization, and family values.” I recall Patrick Buchanan using the term at the Republican Convention in 1992 when he said, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” Hunter wants to exist in a realm above the culture wars but in fact he takes one side in that battle even while he suggests we call a truce or time out.

Truth be known, I have received more than a dozen comments and e-mails about my short review. Two were very harshly negative, one was threatening, and the other from a person whose wife studied under Hunter suggested I was “an embarrassment” and should not be at Yale. The others have been wildly laudatory. Here are the best examples: Charles Harper, the former “top gun” at the Templeton Foundation, applauded my review, saying, “I’ve always found him [Hunter] somewhat perplexing. The mag his center puts out is rather mild and ordinary and uninteresting. Yet he comes out as a ‘big blast’ type via Jeremiads. It has seemed odd that his intra-academic situation seems one of non-rowdy camouflage, but that he takes on attributes of Lord Nelson, otherwise.”

Rodney Stark, the famous social scientist and author of many popular books, said, “Right on. I won’t even bother to read him-haven’t for years. He is merely a sociologist, and not a very good one-if any such there be.” Paul Zak, the brilliant neuro-economist who has written on the virtues, said, “Scathing review! I loved it.” Michael Lindsay, the author of an empirical and award-winning book on Christians in power that Hunter trashes, said, “It’s been disappointing to see how Hunter responded to my work, and several have written to me about it. Thanks for your thoughtful review.”

James Morgan, the thoughtful Catholic conservative activist and serial entrepreneur, said, “I haven’t read the reviewed book and am unlikely to do so, but I found myself cheering your many penetrating points in rebutting this author’s arguments.” Nic Capaldi, the Humean philosopher at Loyola, said, “Bravo! I do not think your words are at all overdone. Aside from the moral critique, the author does not explain how to transform the present system and what the precise structure of the alternative will look like. We are left with the sense of his being in an adversarial relation to whatever he takes the present system to be. His is a voice of grievance without an explicit plan! The book is in the end a reflection of the nihilism and hollowness of academic social science and the self-imposed alienation of the author. The world is all too full of these lost souls.” Paul Corts, president of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, said, “Thanks, Ted-well stated. I haven’t met the guy…your commentary surely resonates with me!”

Controversy sells books, so publishers generally like even critical press. If Hunter’s point is that the public square is more than political and that our response to public issues must be more than political, he is right. Put simply, he appears to be saying the flag is obscuring the cross. The price is the gospel. I would turn that on its head and say, positively, public issues have a political dimension and it is the responsibility of all citizens-those in power especially-to demonstrate how and why Christ transforms culture. I hope the Hunter crowd can at least accept that articulation. 

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