Eminentoes

Stanley Hauerwas’s America

The influential Christian pacifist will not make it easy for Barack Obama to be a war president.

By 12.18.09

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Will the Religious and Evangelical Left, which are largely pacifist, stick with President Obama, despite his new Afghanistan surge? Watch for fading enthusiasm, thanks partly to the pervasive influence of Christian pacifist Stanley Hauerwas, once hailed by Time magazine as America's most influential theologian.

Always a theological provocateur, Hauerwas recently carried his crusade against "Christian" America to Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts school outside Rochester, New York. He is an ardent disciple of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who sought to re-interpret the Crucifixion as primarily a rejection of all violence. Professing to be sort of theologically orthodox, Hauerwas has become a preeminent voice among neo-orthodox American Protestants and some left-leaning evangelicals by rejecting the ostensible conflation of American nationalism with Christianity. 

"War is America's central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations," Hauerwas told students at Houghton in October. A United Methodist by background who teaches at United Methodist Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, Hauerwas portrays himself as a quirky Anabaptist. Like his mentor, Yoder, he is of course a strict pacifist. Also like Yoder, he does not completely heed traditional Anabaptist beliefs about scriptural authority. Hauerwas favors acceptance of homosexuality and, though traditionally pro-life because abortion is "violent," he has more recently criticized pro-life activism, suggesting Christians ought better to advocate government health care.

Like Yoder, Hauerwas is deeply influenced by Karl Barth, who implicitly inclined towards universal salvation, and accordingly portrayed the church as an otherworldly communion that critiques civil society but supinely does not seek specifically to shape it. Hauerwas harshly condemns the United States as a political project, partly because he believes it to be innately violent, partly because the U.S is purportedly based on abstract ideas rather than organic culture. His Houghton speech amplified this anti-American theme, dismissing the Religious Right's nationalism as "politically a form of Protestant liberalism."

America sees itself as more religious than modern, secular Europe, Hauerwas noted, and consequently also is more self-confidently patriotic and comfortable with war. "War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the 'Unum' that makes the 'pluribus' possible," he surmised. Religious identity in Europe is seen as divisive, and national identity is viewed as an unpleasant reminder of the 20th century's world wars. Quoting A Secular Age author Charles Taylor, Hauerwas opined that American support for war is simpler because unreserved confidence in your own righteousness is easier when you are the "hegemonic power."

Hauerwas recalled progressive Christianity's avid support for American involvement in World War I as supposedly "self-sacrificial service to other nations." Social Gospel Christians like Henry Emerson Fosdick also optimistically expected that wars facilitated "egalitarian social policies." World War I likewise solidified America's linkage of Christianity with its form of democracy, Hauerwas regretted, solidifying its own civil religion that, unlike in Europe, is still in its "hot" phase. Disturbingly for Hauerwas, war has always been absolutely central to America's civil religion.

America's great wealth makes war all the more necessary, Hauerwas asserted. "Yet Americans assume that we never go to war to sustain our wealth, because war must be understood as a moral enterprise commensurate with our being a democracy." Provocatively, and predictably, Hauerwas opined that 9-11 was "absolutely necessary for the moral health of the republic" because America's fighting an "unending war against terrorism" helpfully creates a "common enemy that unites us."

"I wish America was more like Europe," Hauerwas declared. American Christianity's vitality, at least compared to Europe's, creates a church incapable of "political challenge to what is done in the name of the American difference." A more secular America might be safer for America and the world, he surmised. Liberal Protestantism watered Christianity down to morality and civic-mindedness. Christians in America became virtually "unintelligible" to their neighbors and to themselves by denying Christianity's radical demands and succumbing to civil religion, Hauerwas believes. "This helps account for the strident character of the rhetoric of the religious right in America," he added. "Though claiming to represent a conservative form of Christianity the religious right is politically a form of Protestant liberalism," because of its American nationalism.

America's religious conservatives make a "fetish of this or that belief," like the substitutionary atonement, mistakenly thinking Christianity is defined by "belief," Hauerwas lamented. Once faith has been relegated to the "private," as liberal democracy has insisted, the nation adopts the church's language and authoritative claims for itself. Secular liberals think they fear resurgent conservative Christianity. But the real threat to secularism, Hauerwas warned, is "America" itself.

Hauerwas lamented that "Americans are determined to live in a world of safety even if we have to go to war to make the world safe." American obsession with health and safety are linked to modern America's discomfort with and fear of death, which he derided as ultimately and ironically an "ideology for a culture of death." If Christians are to "reclaim the political theology required by the truthfulness of Christian convictions we will need to begin by doing theology unapologetically," he insisted. The church will have to recover its authority and challenge the "presumptions that the state is the agency of peace." Inevitably, Hauerwas concluded that "commitment to Christian nonviolence is the presumption necessary for the church to reassert its political significance."

Is uncompromising pacifism the key to Christianity's spiritual and cultural restoration? Yoder's stance that the Crucifixion more centrally rejects all violence than offers atonement for universal sin reveals the particular "fetish" of the Yoder-Hauerwas school. Is the only valid and true Christianity a particular Anabaptist strain limited to a small minority of adherents? As some ultra-Protestant sects sometimes insist, is nearly all of Christianity in error except for a select few since the pre-Constantinian Early Church, which ostensibly was "non-violent," even though the Apostles affirmed the state's "sword" as providential?

And how does Hauerwas's nonviolence meld with support for the Welfare State, which is innately coercive and sustained ultimately by the threat of force? Is state "violence" wrong if deployed against terrorism but correct if enforcing government health care? As a joyful contrarian, Hauerwas is likely undisturbed by his own contradictions. His many followers, including preeminently the rising Evangelical Left, seem not only unbothered but unaware of the inconsistencies, and indifferent to the implied divorce from most of Christian tradition.  

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.