One of the many things that Jim and I share in common is the fact that we are often assumed to be Christians because of the serious (I’m tempted to say reverent) way in which we approach questions of God and morality in discussions with believers. As an atheist, you get much further in discussions about any particular religious puzzle when you bracket the BIG question of God’s existence in favor of the smaller questions that arise when you grant the assumption that the Bible (Quoran, etc.) is Divinely-inspired. People are more interested in having a discussion about belief with you when you don’t start by taking a jackhammer to their epistemic foundations, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise to me that thoughtful Christians might use the same tactic in order to facilitate productive discussions with non-believers. Still, I was somewhat shocked to come to the end of this essay which decries the shallowness of many Americans’ faith and concludes that “America’s god is not the God that Christians worship” only to find that that it was written by a man named the “Best American Theologian of 2011” by Time Magazine.
Stanley Hauerwas’s essay, “The Death of America’s God” is not one of the most philosophically persuasive pieces that I have read this year. He makes at least a half-dozen assertions that I find questionable and a few more that seem plainly wrong. That being said, his thesis is fascinating, and I find his predictions almost perversely exciting. Moreover, it is genuinely comical that a man who is so thoughtful and observant as a social critic seems so plainly lacking in self-awareness when it comes to his own beliefs.
Hauerwas’s core assertion is that Americans view the relationship between God and Justice differently from the rest of the world. His thesis is that America’s faith in God is threatened by America’s crumbling faith in the Justice and/or intrinsic Good of our society. His prediction is that the current political climate will force a reformation of the Protestant Church.
I think much of Hauerwas’s characterization of American thought is roughly correct. Politicians in other developed countries usually do not get elected by talking about their personal relationship with God, but in the U.S., politicians are more likely to be perceived as trustworthy and honest when they claim to have submitted their will to an all-powerful entity with whom they have a deep, interactive relationship. Hauerwas is right that most Americans believe that they have free will, that freedom is the quintessential element of a just political system, and that this is unproblematically compatible with belief in and submission to an omniscient, omnipotent god. I don’t know how we could possibly assess the causal direction between faith in God and faith in Justice/Freedom, but obviously Hauerwas is also right that Americans have a tendency to see these things as interconnected.
So, now to the fascinating-if-unprovable thesis: Are we nearing the point in history where the failures of our political system will force a religious reformation? I am skeptical. I don’t think that revolutions of any sort occur just because people realize that the institutions they trust to make their lives better are founded upon false principles and full of corruption. I think revolutions only take place when those institutions are so dysfunctional that they no longer provide people with enough protection/peace/order to justify their existence. Still, the idea that our religious institutions actually depend upon other types of American faith – faith in democracy, faith in freedom, faith in the basic virtue of the common person- in order to promote faith in God is really interesting. And Hauerwas’s prediction that our crumbling political order will force a religious reformation seems urgent even if it so vague as to be ultimately unverifiable.
Hauerwas takes the standard historical account of how the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment spawned the American Revolution and folds it back over onto itself. According to this narrative, the failure of European Catholicism created the foundation for American democracy (and whatever it has become today), but the failure of American democracy (and, of course, by that I mean the failure of modern-corporate-oligarchy-disguised-as-republicanism) will bring about the decline of American Protestantism. This is exactly the sort of analysis that I would expect out of a Marxist or someone who believed in historical inevitability, but I wouldn’t expect it from a theologian because the tacit implication here is that most Americans’ faith has nothing to do with God’s actual existence and everything to do with cultural affectation.
Hauerwas may be a Christian, but his assessment of American religious life as shallow, contradictory, and cultural (rather than considered) is as damning as anything an atheist could write. I expect that Hauerwas’s own beliefs are more theologically-sophisticated and perhaps better justified than those of his American Protestant peers. But there is still something deliciously ironic about the fact that Hauerwas knows that most people believe in God for bad reasons -his entire argument depends upon it- and yet he holds his own faith up as a solution to this problem, concluding with his hope “that God may yet make the church faithful.” I don’t know if Hauerwas is correct that American atheists are not interesting because “the god most Americans believe in is just not interesting enough to deny,” but I am certain that his argument is more interesting because he is a believer.