Søren Kierkegaard famously said that "life must be lived forward, but understood backwards." Similarly, you say that dramatic cultural change "can only been seen and described in retrospect." How, then, can we evaluate whether our present actions are faithfully changing the world?
Well, the title of my book is ironic, because I'm trying to disabuse people of changing the world. We cannot control history—God alone is its author. We're accountable for our actions as individual believers and as a body of believers. The nature of that accountability is clear from Scripture, theology, and history. The point is not to change the world but to serve faithfully in our relationships, tasks, and spheres of social influence.
One of my worst fears about the reception of this book is that my proposal for "faithful presence" will become a bumper sticker for personal pietism. The default mode for Christians is to translate everything into their own experience. Faithful presence is not the work of the individual alone but also the individual in concert with the community.
Might not a lot of "transforming the culture" talk today be a rhetorical device to motivate people to act, rather than a serious affirmation of the ability to change culture immediately?
The rhetoric of world changing originates from a profound angst that the world is changing for the worse, and that we must act urgently. There's a sense of panic that things are falling apart. If we don't respond now, we'll lose the things we cherish the most. What animates this talk is a desperation to hold on to something when the world no longer makes sense.
Does the world-changing rhetoric become pervasive when the individuals who are trying to change the world cannot do it?
It may be that the amount of rhetoric is inversely related to our actual ability or capacity to change the world. Most American Christians believe America owes its greatness to Christianity, which is now being uprooted. Uprootedness brings sadness and nostalgia. The problem here is not just the historical question—was America ever a Christian nation?—but the theological question, should America be a Christian nation? If you don't believe that America was ever or should ever be a Christian nation, you will evaluate cultural changes from a different vantage point. Some changes might be destructive, but you will not feel obliged to save America or to save the West. That's not the burden of faithful presence in the world.
What do you mean when you say American public life has become politicized?
All Americans think about power primarily in political terms. We tend to conflate our understanding of public life with political life; they occupy the same symbolic space. Politics involves the mechanisms of the state. Over the course of the 20th century, all Americans—and Christians, not the least—have turned more and more to the state to solve their problems. That's true for the Left as well as the Right. Since law is the language of the state, we should note that law increases as cultural consensus decreases.
What are the consequences of this for the church's public witness?
The state is the sole legitimate source of coercion and violence. When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents. They want the patronage of the state and its coercive power to rule the day. What makes this problematic, in my view, is that the dominant public witness of the church is political, rooted in narratives of injury and discourses of negation. The sense of deprivation among Christians leads to an ethic of revenge, or what Nietzsche called ressentiment. In different ways and to different degrees, the prevailing political theologies in American society today—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and even the neo-Anabaptists—partake in that ressentiment and consequent will to power. And here's the tragic irony: Whenever Christian churches and organizations partake in the will to power, they partake in the very thing they decry in society.