How Society Changes

Greg Strand – May 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Most know, feel and experience the reality of our culture and society changing. But how does it change? How do values and mores shift and change and become embedded in the culture and codified in law/policy?

Recently Joe Carter writes about “How to change a society in 5 easy steps.”  He focuses on the incredible changes that have occurred over the past years, and the fact that they are happening with increasing speed. We are living in a day in which we are experiencing a moral tsunami which does not abate, and, to shift the metaphor, the speed with which the moral dominoes are falling is increasing.

Carter refers to the Overton Window, which was developed by the late Joseph P. Overton in the 1990s. Overton addresses a “‘window’ in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse.” Within this window is a spectrum of responses to a specific issue, and all issues of response will fall somewhere on a continuum. He also argues that responses will change incrementally. As noted by Carter, “All issues fall somewhere along this policy continuum, which can be roughly outlined as: Unthinkable, Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, Popular, Policy. When the window moves or expands, ideas can accordingly become more or less politically acceptable.”

Though Overton’s model addressed changes in the political climate, Carter applies it to the changes occurring in our culture and society. In essence, “if the goal were to undermine cultural institutions, the process for getting from Unthinkable to Policy would be these five easy steps” (I only include the steps):

Step #1: From Unthinkable to Radical
Step #2: From Radical to Acceptable
Step #3: From Acceptable to Sensible
Step #4: From Sensible to Popular
Step #5: From Popular to Policy

Carter applies this to the moral issues of abortion, no-fault divorce and same-sex “marriage.” It would be fitting to many of the other moral issues of the day as well, especially as they intersect with the heart of what people think and how they engage in life and culture. This would often be described not as “taking action” but rather “deliberate inaction.” It is not that Christians don’t have moral scruples. It is just that they remain quiet, silent or inactive in response to the strong culture conformist ethos.

Carter bemoans the fact that:

America has produced an overwhelming number of Christians who are adept at explaining why they can support issues that are antithetical to Christianity and depressingly few who can give reasons why we should adhere to the teachings of scripture and the wisdom of the church.

Once a moral issue has moved from Unthinkable to Policy, is there any possibility of reversing it?

History has shown that dedicated Christians can close the Overton Window and reverse the shift from ‘policy’ to ‘unthinkable’ (look at William Wilberforce). But it requires a people who have courage and conviction and a willingness to be despised for the truth. Do current generations have such virtues? Maybe we don’t. But I’m holding out hope that our grandkids will be born that way.

Undergirding it all, we, as Christians, pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10)!

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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