U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Dilemma that is Stanley Hauerwas

I recently finished Stanley Hauerwas’s memoir entitled Hannah’s Child that appeared in 2010. I like reading Hauerwas and have enjoyed hearing his lectures and, on a rare occasion, seeing him speak. He is witty, sharp, and, it seems to me, forces his listeners—whatever their relationship to religion—to consider what faith is for. He has been at Duke University’s Divinity School for nearly twenty years holding an endowed professorship. As befits his lofty academic position, Hauerwas has been incredibly productive and his scholarship is admirably diverse.

There are many fascinating parts to Hauerwas’s story, among those that are of particular interest to me and my working through of U.S. intellectual history is his recounting of why he came to write on such an array topics, from medical ethics and care for the disabled, to pacifism, the academy, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Even though he is a polymath, he has been tagged by his peers/critics as a particular kind of theologian. In her profile of Hauerwas for Time Magazine, Jean Bethke Elshtain described him as a Christian contrarian who speaks “pacifism” to power in order to remind Americans that they have churches that can stand apart from their frequent worship of the state. Ironically, this profile appeared in the issue that came out a few days after 9/11, a moment that was auspicious for both Hauerwas and Elshtain for the wars that followed hastened an end to their friendship as they took up opposite sides in debates over patriotism and the violence perpetrated in name of the nation.

Hauerwas’s relationship to the state often gets him associated with the Anabaptist tradition in American Protestantism—a critique most recently developed by James Davison Hunter in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Through this lens, Hauerwas becomes not merely a critic of actions taken by governments but a theologian who steps outside of politics itself. Hauerwas has certainly contributed to this perception through such works as Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony in which he and his co-author Will Willimon argued that the Christian church imposed obligations and responsibilities on Christians that forced them to consider who or what they worshiped. Of course, Hauerwas seems stubborn in his insistence that Americans do not need to privilege their obligations and responsibilities to their nation above those to their God. A tough challenge for any person who claims dual or dueling allegiances, and one at least worth considering.

In one of Hauerwas’s clearest articulations of this idea he writes: “Theology is the ongoing and never ending attempt to learn this story [of how to worship God] and to locate the contexts that make speech about God work. How theology can at once be about God and about the complexities of human life is never easily rendered. Some theologians in modernity have tried to split the difference between speech about God and the complexities of human life [read: Reinhold Niebuhr], with the result that their theology is more about ‘us’ than about God. When that happens, it is not at all clear that you need the word ‘God’ at all. If my work has seemed to be ‘in your face,’ I think it has been so because I have tried to show that ‘God’ is a necessary word.”

In considering the public role Hauerwas has played over the last three decades, he clearly has not remained (if he ever was) a resident alien. His work has been, as he would be the first to claim, overtly political in the sense that being Christian and considering ethics is nothing if not about power and how we exercise and critique it.

However, I have been teaching about James Madison’s challenge to the way religion became enshrined politically in the founding the American government. I wondered with my students the other day what kind of career someone like Hauerwas would have had if Madison’s recommendation of a strong statement regarding religion had found its way into the Constitution. Instead of Madison’s argument that civil government cannot need religion in order to survive and operate and Americans should have acknowledges that fact clearly, we have a Constitution that promises no state interference in religious worship and that’s about it.

David Sehat in The Myth of American Religious Freedom, a book that I find to be one of the most important to appear in 2011, has made me consider a way to conceive of what Madison wanted: the test for religious freedom is not whether churches flourish, they will or will not based on the people who worship in them, but whether a society supports (not merely tolerates) those who reject religion and, most especially, mainstream religion. In short, religion didn’t need the state and the state didn’t need religion. But that’s not we got. And Tocqueville was perceptive enough to recognize that within a few decades after the ratification of the Constitution, American society had developed a co-dependent relationship with the idea of religion.

Stanley Hauerwas has, in a way, benefited from that relationship, in that his work constantly seems relevant because he challenges the way we speak about God. But at the same time, I read his memoir as recovery of sorts of the dream Madison had of a society in which religions rose and fell without any consequential connection to the health of the state. In the end, there is an irony to Hauerwas’s prominence—like his foil, Reinhold Niebuhr, his fame is based on the way his theology plays a role in the politics of the nation and not in the creation and understanding of Christian ethics. Madison’s warning continues to haunt the religious.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hauerwas opened a door of understanding for me that I doubt I would have found otherwise, namely, the confusion of being a Christian in America rather than being an American Christian. I think you are right in concluding the irony of his prominence, though if you’ve read The Peaceable Kingdom you can attest to his contributions to ethics proper (albeit I’m having a hard time understanding half of what he says!).

    Question for you: Based on Sehat’s summation, where do you see religion as standing in society? That is to say, is society supporting or merely tolerating those who reject mainstream religion?

  2. As I understand Hauerwas, he is proposing the church as an alternative political community to the modern all pervasive state. In this line of thinking, he does follow in the tradition of another anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder. This tradition displays an anarchist stance that provides continual critique of the Helgelian state’s promise of salvation. He is not interested in the place of religion in American society, but in the place of the state in American theology.

  3. Anonymous: well put. I wonder if this is what Madison hoped for.

    Patrick: David’s book is very provocative on the point you raise and I found his concluding chapter excellent. My own view is that the religion of the nation has become so all pervasive that tolerating those who dissent from churches who affirm the nation is a crucial problem.

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