America’s God, America’s Church and America’s Culture of Death

I have been reading Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, and I am going to post some reflections of my own over the next few days.

A little background. I love Stanley Hauerwas, and his thinking about church has significantly influenced my thinking about church. I first learned about him in 2004, I think, when he was interviewed by regarding his opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. (Again, I think it was in, because it might not have been.) As a theologian, I am interested in what it means to be church, especially church in the world, and my ideas about church as parallel alternative to but in the world are heavily influenced by the many years I spent as a Muslim in the United States — as a member of a religious minority which could not demand or expect that the greater culture of the society in which it lived reflect the values of a majority of plurality of the community. So, given the world would not bend to our understanding of what God wants for God’s people (and trying to get it to bend was pointless, either because no one listened or violence was the chosen means of communicating), what does it mean to be faithful?

And I think Hauerwas does the best job of most theologians I have read today of trying to answer that question faithfully. As an American, Hauerwas calls into question the relationship between church, state and culture that tries to make sense of what is what. At least that’s what I think he’s trying to do. But I think it’s better to let Stanley speak for himself:

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 a constructive Protestant social imagination. (p. 15)

This is important, but probably not quite as true as Hauerwas says it is. American Protestantism inherited much from English & Scottish Protestantism, both Anglican and Calvinist forms, and both struggled with the Catholic inheritance and a deep and profound fear of Rome and Roman rule. (English Catholicism had this even before Henry VIII decided to start divorcing and killing his wives.) Anti-foreign fear in Anglo-American culture has at its base anti-Catholicism dating back almost 1,000 years (the English church was fairly autonomous, and at times very anti-Rome), and Anglo-American racism has at its core anti-Catholic sentiment. But, back to Hauerwas:

So constituted, America did not need to have an established church because it was assumed that the church was virtually established by the everyday habits of public life. (p. 15-16) 


Protestantism came to the land we now call America to make America Protestant. It was assumed that being American and Protestant meant having faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process, the church became American; or, as [Mark] Noll [author of America’s God] puts it, “because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made.” As a result, 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. Religious people on both the Right and Left share the presumption that America is the church. (p. 16, emphasis mine)

Who does God speak to when God speaks? Most American Christians, whether they be of the Right or the Left, appear to assume that God is speaking to either the nation-state — to the United States of America — or to the entire world. And so salvation is for the nation/world, and prophetic judgement is for the nation/world. Thus God cares that America allows for abortion and open homosexuality, or God cares whether Americans have health insurance. It’s why when pastors speak of public repentance, they call upon the nation to repent. Because The United States of America is God’s people.

I think this is done to avoid the scandal of particularism, which offends moderns with their allegedly tolerant universalism. But particularism is not a scandal in scripture. Particularism is how God works in the world. God calls Israel and Israel alone, gives the teaching to Israel and Israel alone, sends Jesus to Israel and speaks to the world only through Israel. Hauerwas deals with particularism and universalism in greater depth in a later chapter, and so I’m going to set this down for another day. Let’s go on.

Noll ends his account of these developments with the end of the Civil War, but the fundamental habits he identifies as decisive in the formation of the American religious and political consciousness continue to shape that way Christians, and in particular Protestant Christians, understand their place in America. Yet I think we are beginning to see a 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 common-sense morality has now worked its way out. America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the world Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. It it to this subject I now turn. 

I believe we may be living at a time when we are 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 presumptions 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 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 ensure that the faith sustained is not the Christian faith. 

More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches they go to do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their personal and communal lives. The church is expected to reinforce that those who come to church have done so freely. Its primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money. 

Let me try to put this in a different register. America exemplifies what I call the project of modernity–the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they chose when they had no story. This is what Americans mean by freedom. The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism. Americans presume they have exercised their freedom when they get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television. The same presumption works for choosing a president, and once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So freedom requires a kind of resignation. (p. 16-17)

I was Hauerwas had expanded a little bit on the Protestant unintelligibility. But I think this is what is really happening when liberal and conservative Protestants have the kind of stupid argument that Ross Douthat has had with Diana Butler Bass on the pages of the New York Times recently. I’m going to have mull this over a bit, because this statement strikes me as intuitively correct, but I cannot really say why yet. Anyway, back to Hauerwas.

The narrative that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. It produces people who say things as, “I believe Jesus is Lord–but that is just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial for sustaining democracy. For in order to sustain a society that shares no common goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common other than avoiding death, there must be people who will avoid any conflicts that might undermine order, which is confused with peace. So an allegedly democratic society that styles itself as one made up of people of strong conviction in fact becomes the most conformist of social orders, because of the necessity of avoiding conflicts that cannot be resolved.  

Such a view has devastating effects on the church. For the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us by engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe that we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church and why we are called “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but challenge a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to write my own life story. 

But forming a church that is capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may think that the Catholic Church surely would be up to the task, but you need to remember that, as Archbishop George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume there is no essential tension between being Christian and being an American. As a result, Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned. (p. 18)

What story gives us meaning? Hauerwas highlights here the complete incompatibility of the Christian story and the American story. One story will dominate, and in our world, it has been the story of American that has subsumed the Gospel story.

Finally, Hauerwas describes briefly why American culture is a culture of death, and it is a description that’s bigger than abortion or health care or tolerance. It goes back to which story forms your life.

America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. “Freedom,” as understood in American culture, names the attempt to live as though we will not die, and lives lived as though death is only a theoretical possibility can only be sustained by a wealth otherwise unimaginable. But America is an extraordinarily wealthy society determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world. We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others. (p. 19)

I’m not going to comment much more on what I’ve posted here. I think Hauerwas’ naming the “culture of death” is spot on, and is bigger than any partisan claims as to what constitutes a “culture of life.” Since a culture of life lives fully in reality of death, knowing that in the promises of God made real in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death no longer has meaning or power over our lives.

More later.