Friday, October 22, 2010

Stanley Hauerwas: How Real is America's Faith?

Sometimes we hear people say that the United States is the most religious nation among developed nations. And in spite of increasing multicultural diversity, some insist that we are a "Christian nation."

Well, in a recent piece for The Guardian, theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas slams the very idea that Americans are more religious (much less Christian) than people in countries like Britain. Instead, Hauerwas contends that the "religion" most of us Americans espouse is that of autonomously choosing who or what constitutes "god," and then using what that "god" purportedly gives us (a nation that guarantees freedom of choice, for instance) to justify our freedom to choose the "god" of our choosing. In the end, all of this comes down to utilitarian religion and self-fulfillment.

Here's part of what Hauerwas writes:

Even if more people go to church in America, I think the US is a much more secular country than Britain. In Britain, when someone says they do not believe in God, they stop going to church. In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.

Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing. Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom.

The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Americans, however, are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be "free", which makes them all the more adamant that they have a right to choose the god that underwrites their "freedom."

A people so constituted will ask questions such as "Why does a good god let bad things happen to good people?" It is as if the Psalms never existed. The story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story produces a people who say: "I believe that Jesus is Lord – but that is just my personal opinion."

Read it all.


bls said...

To me this article is at once completely incoherent and void of any real content.

For instance: what, exactly, does this mean: "Even if more people go to church in America, I think the US is a much more secular country than Britain. In Britain, when someone says they do not believe in God, they stop going to church."?

How in the world does the second sentence follow from the first? Is "stopping going to church" a religious act in some way? Is "going to church" a secular one - even if Hauerwas is right about Americans' motives? Who could possibly know if it's right or not, since it's merely an assertion offered without even the tiniest piece of evidence?

And what are we supposed to infer from this: "Of course George W Bush was and is a sincere Christian. But that is just an indication of how little being a Christian has to do with sincerity."?

What does this mean? We don't have any idea at all - and apparently Hauerwas doesn't feel the need to inform us, either.

And the tiresomely repeated litany about Americans being "a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story" seems to be an effort at mystification - or perhaps it's just empty of content. Take your pick; it could be either one. Perhaps it's both.

A little clarity on a topic like this isn't so much to ask, I don't think - and perhaps a little filling in of the gaping holes? I think this is a perfectly awful piece of writing.

BTW, this was published months ago elsewhere.

hawk said...

There is always a bit of incoherence when one is writing an opinion piece in a newspaper. Although Hauerwas makes some leaps in logic, I agree with his underlying points about American Protestantism. Harold Bloom argues in The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, "the American Religion, which is so prevalent among us, masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian." I read Bloom's book in 1993 as an undergraduate and believed his arguments echoed my experiences of evangelical Protestantism growing up in Dallas, Texas. I was always struck by the concerns of the church's versus the words of the New Testament. The issues the churches seemed to be invested in had nothing to do with the words and actions of Jesus and his disciples thereafter.

If you want to understand popular American religious thought, I don't think another organization exemplifies this more than the Boy Scouts of America. The Scout Oath begins, "On my honor I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my Country, and to obey the Scout Law." The Scout Law goes on to expand these ideals. Describing the last law, a Scout is Reverent, The Boy Scout Handbook (1998) states: "A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others." What is important to being a faithful Scout is being a faithful American which means being a person who believes in God. The God you choose is not important as long as you worship a God that will allow you to be patriotic, take oaths, serve in the military, and respect the Gods worshiped by your fellow Scouts. The ideals of Scouting are so ingrained in our public consciousness that the organization is endorsed by almost every Protestant judicatory not to mention the Mormon Church, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Reform and Conservative Judaism, and many Muslim organizations. The ease in which Scouting is embraced across a wide variety of religious movements seems to me to reenforce Hauerwas' arguments that the concern of most churches is to form good Americans more than faithful Christians. I don't believe that most Americans think there is a difference.

I agree with Hauerwas that something is amiss in our churches, and the missing element is a faith rooted in a deep understanding of scripture aligned with a commitment to dialog with the historic creeds. Additionally, an understanding the trajectory of church history aligned with a commitment to studying the basic tenets of Christian theology and Christian social ethics might prove fruitful to a more faithful church.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for an excellent comment, hawk.