Independence Day: American Christianity and Why Liberals Aren’t Liberal (Stanley Hauerwas)

by Donovan Schaefer

A few days before Independence Day, Duke Divinity School ethicist Stanley Hauerwas published a long article on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s “Religion and Ethics” blog.  In it, he argues for a reconsideration of Catholicism against the backdrop of hegemonic American Protestantism.  He contends that American Protestantism (implicitly, he means white American Protestantism) is wrapped up with the joint projects of liberal democracy and American individualism, the contention that people “should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.”  Protestantism, liberalism, and American republicanism are all born out of what Hauerwas diagnoses as the belief that subjects emerge ex nihilo.

Hauerwas’s solution to this problem is a reconsideration of the Catholic church’s emphasis on incorporation, community, and discipline, a return to pre-Protestant themes:

I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism – at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America – come to an end. It is dying of its own success. Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end reinforced by belief in the common sense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world. Ironically, the feverish fervency of the religious right in America to sustain faith as a necessary condition for supporting democracy cannot help but be a strategy that insures the faith that is sustained is not the Christian faith.

Where Protestants/Americans emphasize an equation between self-awareness and responsibility, Hauerwas finds in the Catholic tradition a way of thinking about the self as something deeper and more complicated, something that is not always transparent to itself and that is dependent on its community.

Hauerwas’s portrait of the convergence between Protestantism, liberal democracy, and the project of modernity–including the American revolution, which drew on all of these strands–is a valuable supplement to work done by scholars interested in the relationship between religion and the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment such as Grace Jantzen and Gavin Hyman.  To the extent that Hauerwas wants us to think about the limitations of the 18th-century notion of the autonomous, free self–the liber or “free man” at the heart of liberalism–his contribution is timely and effective.

But Hauerwas also makes two critical errors that undermine his argument against liberal individualism.  The first is what might be called the “textualism” of his approach, the presumption that “America” is some sort of computer program that has been running smoothly since it was first coded in 1776 and is only now beginning to show signs of strain.  Hauerwas’s strategy of going back to documents from the early 19th century (the Massachusetts state constitution of 1833, Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 commentary Democracy in America) is a symptom of this.  It assumes that what America “means” has a) remained static or substantially determined by its founding document and b) is best discovered by parsing the statements of the white elite ruling class (of the 19th century).  The first irony, then, is that Hauerwas’s critique is predicated on the consummate Enlightenment/Protestant axiom: if you want to understand something, start with a very old book.

This is an academic point.  But the second error that follows from it is more serious.  In hypostasizing “America,” he traffics in a style of scholarship that draws clean lines between ideas (or worse, one idea) and complex organisms like bodies or nations.  The United States is much more interesting–and has been since its founding–as a place where conversations and debates are happening, where a range of different perspectives are synthesized out of the ongoing messy, bloody practice of democracy, than as an exemplar of an abstract proposition.  The intellectual ecology of America is better understood as a cacophony than a choir singing in unison.  As a result of this error, Hauerwas seems to think that Americans are on a slow march to turning into a nation of Gary Johnsons, libertarian atheists who understand politics entirely in terms of the disaggregation of communities.

Even though the American left is often called “liberal,” as a heterogeneous movement it has more in common with Hegelian, Marxist, and socialist traditions (subtracted from the aura of hysteria that has been attached to those words by contemporary media) than with classical liberalism understood as prioritizing the autonomous self.  This may be a byproduct of the shift from post-WW2 Civil Rights movements to an understanding of the importance of redressing not only obstructions to voting and employment, but economic injustices caused by racism, sexism, colonialism, and homophobia.  Where Hauerwas suggests that a reconsideration of Catholicism is the best way out of what he sees as the dastardly sticky trap of Protestant individualism, postsecular American leftism–religious and non-religious–already is working through the kind of pragmatic intuitions about community that he thinks can only be religious.  The only thing missing is a new discourse that articulates a post-liberal, post-secular set of political parameters.

* My thanks to Allison Covey for calling my attention to this article and talking it through with me.

Donovan O. Schaefer is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities. His graduate work was done through the Department of Religion at Syracuse University, and he has taught at SU and Le Moyne College in addition to Haverford. In his research and teaching, he looks at the intersection of religion and embodiment using feminist, poststructuralist, and evolutionary biological approaches. Specifically, his interest is in the relationship between religion, bodies, and emotion, and in his dissertation, “Animal Religion: Evolution, Affect, and Radical Embodiment,” he argued for understanding religion in terms of a set of affective bodily practices that are shared by human and non-human animals. He is currently preparing his dissertation for publication and preparing a new project on atheism.

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One Response to Independence Day: American Christianity and Why Liberals Aren’t Liberal (Stanley Hauerwas)

  1. Wilson Dickinson says:

    I enjoyed Hauerwas’ piece as homiletical rather than descriptive (a counter liturgy to the nationalist celebrations happening this weekend), so to that end I was willing to forgive the descriptive inadequacy. But, I think that he, perhaps too often, functions in this mode and neglects the nuance.
    I do wonder, however, if there is anything like an “American Left”. The only places I have encountered such a thing are at academic conferences and an occasional demonstration or march. And I have not found these to be places where people are engaging in or creating the kind of disciplines and communities that can effectuate long term change. They are instead largely focused on the things you see as classically liberal: composing and commenting on texts (or talking about writing letters and signing petitions) and speaking about ideas. Perhaps I am just hanging out with the wrong people.
    The main exception I have found to this are people involved in alternative agriculture, but I don’t know if they are the kind of leftists you speak of, or is that what you have in mind.
    I wish there was a more wide ranging and coherent left (esp. a religious one) that did not fall prey to Hauerwas’ wide brush strokes, but I am not sure if I can find it outside the texts of conferences and the web…

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