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Hauerwas: How America Conquered Christianity

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant, believes we may have come to the end of Protestantism in our country — and, Hauerwas quotes Cardinal George saying that even American Catholicism is Protestant — because Protestantism can no longer justify itself. It has been completely assimilated to the world.

More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives or the lives of the churches to which they go. For the church is assumed to exist to reinforce the presumption that those that come to church have done so freely. The church’s 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 is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story. That is what Americans mean by “freedom.” The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism. Thus the presumption that if you get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television, you have had a “free choice.” The same presumption works for choosing a President. Once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So there is a kind of resignation that freedom requires.

I try to help Americans see that the story that they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story is their story by asking them this question: “Do you think you ought to be held accountable for decisions you made when you did not know what you were doing?” They do not think they should be held accountable for decisions they made when they did not know what they were doing. They do not believe they should be held accountable because it is assumed that you should only be held accountable when you acted freely, and that means you had to know what you were doing.

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I then point out the only difficulty with such an account of responsibility is that it makes marriage unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised lifelong, monogamous fidelity? I then observe that is why the church insists that your vows be witnessed by the church, since the church believes it has the duty to hold you responsible to promises you made when you did not know what you were doing.

The story that you should have no story but the story you choose when you had no story also makes it unintelligible to try having children. You never get the ones you want. Americans try to get the ones they want by only having children when they are “ready.” This is a utopian desire that wreaks havoc on children so born, just to the extent they come to believe they can only be loved if they fulfil their parents’ desires.

Of course, the problem with the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story is that story is a story that you have not chosen. But Americans do not have the ability to acknowledge that they have not chosen the story that they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. As a result, they must learn to live with decisions they made when they thought they knew what they were doing but later realized they did not know what they were doing. They have a remedy when it comes to marriage – it is called divorce. They also have a remedy regarding children – it is called abortion.

The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. The story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story produces people who say things such as, “I believe Jesus is Lord – but that’s 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 to sustain democracy. For such a people are necessary in order to avoid the conflicts that otherwise might undermine the order, which is confused with peace, necessary to sustain a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common.

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 to avoid conflicts that cannot be resolved.

This ethos, says Hauerwas, is deadly to the Church. The Church has a story to tell, a story that we are engrafted onto. Says Hauerwas, “A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.”

In this sense, the Church has not conquered America, says Hauerwas; America has conquered the Church. The only churches that will survive are those that hold on to their own story, the one they didn’t choose, but rather receive — even though it puts them in fundamental opposition to mainstream American culture. Read the whole thing; it’s a long, fascinating essay.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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