Stanley Hauerwas on the Death of America’s God


Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School

Brian McLaren has signaled on this blog a very powerful prophetic article that Hauerwas has just published on the ACB net. Here are a few significant quotes from it:

* * *

America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation. Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of constructive Protestant social thought.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus got it right when he characterized American Protestantism as “Protestantism without Reformation.”

That is why it has been possible for Americans to synthesize three seemingly antithetical traditions: evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. For Americans, faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to their country.

Just take, for example, the 1833 amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that did away with church establishment, which nonetheless affirmed “the public worship of God, and the instructions in piety, religion, and morality, promote the happiness and prosperity of a people, and the security of republican government.”

In his important book America’s God, Mark Noll points out that these words were written at the same time that Alexis de Tocqueville had just returned to France from his tour of North America. Tocqueville confirmed the point made in the Massachusetts Constitution by observing:

“I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion – for who can read to the bottom of hearts? – but I am sure that they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks.”

…Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people.

This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.

But now we are beginning to see the loss of confidence by Protestants in their ability to sustain themselves in America just to the extent that the inevitable conflict between the church, republicanism and commonsense morality has worked its way through the system of our national life.

If I am right about the story that shapes the American self-understanding, I think we are in a position to better understand why 11 September 2001 had such a profound effect on the self-proclaimed “most powerful nation in the world.” The fear of death is necessary to insure a level of cooperation between people who otherwise share nothing in common.

In other words, they share nothing in common other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.

That is why in America hospitals have become our cathedrals and physicians are our priests. I’d even argue that America’s almost pathological reliance on medicine is but a domestic manifestation of its foreign policy.

It is impossible to avoid the fact that American Christianity is far less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America’s god is not the God that Christians worship.

We are now facing the end of Protestantism. America’s god is dying. Hopefully, that will leave the church in America in a position where it has nothing to lose. And when you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth.

So I am hopeful that God may yet make the church faithful – even in America.

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Read HERE the entire article.


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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