Archive for January, 2012

Hauerwas on the Death of America’s (Protestant) God

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

This piece from last August by my friend Stanley Hauerwas of Duke, about to retire from there and also the outgoing president of the Society of Christian Ethics, is worth pondering. A few excerpts:

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.

American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny. Thus the only kind of atheism that counts in America is to call into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Consequently, 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.

Protestantism came to America to make America Protestant. It was assumed that was to be done through faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process the church in America became American – or, as [historian Mark] Noll 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.

America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the society Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. Put as directly as I can, 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.

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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