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Hauerwas here crystallizes and extends profound criticisms of America, liberalism, capitalism, and postmodernism, but also identifies unlikely allies (such as Chicago Archbishop Francis Cardinal George) and locates surprising resources for Christian survival (such as mystery novels). Interlocutors along the way include Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, and, in a significant and previously unpublished essay, social gospeller Walter Rauschenbusch.
Never boring and often telling, A Better Hope demonstrates how a thinker so often accused of being "tribal" and "sectarian" is at the same time one of few contemporary theologians read not just by other theologians, but by political scientists, philosophers, medical ethicists, law professors, and literary theorists.
* On Being a Christian and an American
On Being a Sectarian, Fideistic Tribalist
I have a well-deserved reputation for being an unapologetic Enlightenment basher. I do not believe something called ethics can be shown to exist or to be justified on Kantian-like grounds of reason alone. I have no use for moral or political liberalism in any of their guises. I do not believe in inalienable rights. I tire of the ongoing futile project to show that freedom of the individual can be reconciled with equality. I do not even believe that a good society can or should be egalitarian if that means all hierarchical considerations bear the burden of proof. Accordingly many of my colleagues in that strange field called Christian ethics suggest I am a sectarian, fideistic tribalist.
By this they mean I am trying to convince Christians that we do not have a stake in the "wider world." My oft-made claim that the first task of Christians is not to make the world more just but rather is to make the world the world is interpreted as a call for Christians to withdraw from the world, or at least America. That I should be so understood by those working in Christian ethics is quite intelligible if, as I have argued elsewhere, the subject of Christian ethics in America has always been America. Christian ethicists no longer think, as Walter Rauschenbusch did, that their task is to Christianize the social order, but they continue to share Rauschenbusch's presumption that America is the appropriate subject for Christian ethical reflection and action. My refusal to accept this presumptionmeans I cannot help but be interpreted as a traitor to my class or, at least, my discipline.
I confess I have been tempted, and no doubt at times have succumbed to the temptation, to continue to criticize American liberalism in a manner that only confirms such characterizations of my position. Yet I have grown weary of that game. I simply cannot muster energy for yet one more attempt to show the incoherence of liberal political philosophy or practice. Liberalism, both politically and economically, is doing such a good job of self-destructing it needs no help from me. More important, such a tactic theologically manifests a lack of faith. I believe that the American experiment, as some like to put it, is in deep trouble. Yet Christians are obligated to be a people of hope, not wishing for the lives of our non-Christian brothers and sisters to be worse than they need to be.
Some years ago I wrote an article titled "A Tale of Two Stories: On Being a Christian and a Texan." I wrote the article mainly to please myself and to honor my parents, but also in response to the oft-made criticism that I failed to appreciate that Christians are constituted by stories other than the Christian story—a point a Texan is not likely to overlook. However, my self-description as a Texan was insufficient. I am also an American. As much as I might like—as a Texan or as a Christian—to deny or avoid that I am an American, I know that any such denial would be self-deceptive. Even more important, I have to acknowledge I love the land and the people called American. Of course the issue is not my love of America but rather how such a love should be shaped and governed by the love of God.
So I should like to take this as an opportunity to explore in a more constructive way than is my "normal mode" what positive role the church might have in the project called America. Contrary to the critics of my position, I have no wish to have Christians withdraw from service to their neighbors, even their liberal neighbors. The object of my criticism of liberalism has never been liberals, but rather to give Christians renewed confidence in the convictions that make our service intelligible. In short, I have never sought to justify Christian withdrawal from social and political involvement; I have just wanted us to be involved as Christians.
From my perspective the problem is not liberalism but the assumption on the part of many Christians that they must become liberals or, at least, accept liberal political principles and/or practices in order to be of service in America. When that happens I believe Christians betray their non-Christian neighbors because we rob them and ourselves of exemplification of truthful speech forged through the worship of God. What follows is my attempt to suggest what I take to be some mistaken strategies for the negotiation of America by Christians. My criticism of these strategies, however, is meant to make intelligible my claim that Christians have no service more important than to be a people capable of the truthful worship of God.
The Problem with the Search for Foundations
I noted above that the subject of Christian ethics in America was America. The birth as well as the intelligibility of Christian ethics as a discipline drew on institutions we now call mainstream Protestant Christianity. These churches assumed a deep compatibility between Christianity and American liberal democracy. For most members of such churches it was unthinkable that being a Christian might in any way render problematic their full participation in American life. Christian ethics accordingly was understood as that mode of reflection that helped churches develop policies to make American ideals of freedom and equality more fully institutionalized in American life.
For both internal and external reasons, Christian thinkers learned, as I suggested above, not to describe their task as Christianizing the social order. The appeals of the social gospel to Jesus, as well as the movement's optimism about progress, were subjected to the withering critique of Reinhold Niebuhr. For Niebuhr, the Christian ethical problem became how to achieve relative justice in a world in which love can never be realized. Though Niebuhr understood himself to be a theologian, or at least a social ethicist, his work is almost completely devoid of any account of the church. Yet I think it also true to say that he continued to assume the viability of Protestant Christianity as the background for the stance he developed toward social problems. Such an assumption, of course, has become increasingly problematic.
The problematic nature of this project is not due to the increasing loss of membership, social status, and political power of mainstream Christianity. No doubt such losses are not unimportant for understanding the loss of a distinctive voice of Protestant Christianity in America. Yet I think more important has been the increasing recognition that even if such churches remained socially and politically powerful, they would have nothing distinctive to say as Christians about the challenges facing this society. That such churches have nothing distinctive to contribute is not surprising, since their social and political power originally derived from the presumption that there was no or little essential difference between the church and the principles of the American experiment. That presumption may, of course, also help explain the decline of such churches, because it is by no means clear why you need to go to church when such churches only reinforce what you already know from participation in a democratic society.
The increasing loss of social and political influence of Protestant Christianity has not meant Christian theologians and ethicists have abandoned the attempt to make America correspond to some assumed ideal. Faced, however, with America's increasingly diverse population, such an endeavor has been disciplined by the assumption that when Christians enter the public realm they cannot use Christian language. Rather, some mediating language is required and assumed to be justified in the name of a common morality or by natural law reasoning. For those who remain in the tradition of mainstream Protestantism, this often takes the form of trying to show that Rawls, or some Rawls-like account of justice, is the kind of bridge Christians need to justify our participation in the formulation of public policies necessary to govern a diverse society.
I have no intention to be drawn into debates concerning the adequacy of Rawls's account of justice. Yet I want to make clear why the attempt to use Rawls for developing a way for Christians to participate politically in America distracts us from understanding as Christians the contribution we might make. Nicholas Wolterstorff provides a trenchant analysis of Rawls that makes clear why Rawls is such a distraction. Wolterstorff notes the reason Rawls thinks a basis for constitutional democracies is necessary: political issues remain contested in our society. For example, it is not clear how liberty and equality can be expressed in the basic rights and liberties of citizens in a manner that answers the claims of both liberty and equality. From Wolterstorff's perspective, Rawls seeks a way to resolve the conflict in the American tradition between Locke and Rousseau—that is, between freedom and equality—by offering his two principles of justice based on common human reason.
Yet, Wolterstorff asks, how can one possibly move from
a tradition with internal unresolved conflicts, to a pair of principles which resolves those conflicts, by doing nothing other than analyzing that tradition and elaborating the principles embedded therein? How can common human reason, exercised reasonably, propel one across the chasm separating unresolved conflicts from proposals for resolution? The essence of Rawls' strategy is to make do with our common human reason working on the public political culture of our constitutional democracies. Nothing more than that. Of course analysis and elaboration can in principle clarify for us the content and contours of our public political culture. But if there's conflict in our public political culture as to the relative weighting of liberty and equality, then the application of "our common human reason" to this culture will make clear to us that there is this conflict. It won't yield a proposal as to how they ought to be weighted—unless, perchance, our common human reason is a source of moral principles. But that's the Lockian view which Rawls is trying to avoid, by proposing to extract the relevant moral principles from the extant culture rather than from Reason. If the culture is of different minds as to the relative weighting of liberty and equality, then any proposal as to how they ought to be weighted will perforce go beyond what can be extracted from that culture itself.
Wolterstorff, I think, rightly concludes that, contrary to Rawls, we must learn to carry on in a politics without a foundation. We shall have to conduct our political deliberations without a shared political basis—that is, without a neutral or coherent set of principles sufficient to adjudicate conflicts. Which means, according to Wolterstorff, our best strategy is to move from one set of deliberations to another, employing whatever set of considerations we think may be persuasive for the persons with whom we are in conversation. A Rawlsian political unity of overlapping consensus is neither possible nor desirable, but all we need, Wolterstorff argues, is the unity that
emerges from dialogue among persons each of whom approaches the dialogue with his or her own distinct frame of conviction, and each of whom is willing to live within the confines of a democratic constitution and with the results of fair votes. That's all the unity we have ever had, in these constitutional democracies of ours characterized by religious, moral, and philosophical pluralism. We don't need, and have never had, an ever-present, never-changing foundation of which all of us who are "reasonable" agree and on the basis of which all of us conduct our deliberations.... Agreement must be wrought ever anew in ever new ways among ever new parties. For two hundred years now that's been enough for the endurance of pluralistic constitutional democracies. We have no guarantee that it will prove sufficient on into the distant future. Only hope.
I believe one of the great advantages of Wolterstorff's way of understanding our situation is it does not ask Christians to learn some third language in order to participate socially and politically in America. If this is a "pluralist" society, a description I find far too complimentary, then I see no reason that Christians (any more than Jews or secularists) should be asked to put their convictions in some allegedly neutral language in order to talk with one another. Of course "talk with one another" may be a far too innocent way to put the matter in the light of controversies such as those about abortion and assisted suicide. The problem is not that we do not talk with one another but that such talk makes no difference. Yet we will make little progress in even finding our disagreements as long as we search for a "foundation" assumed to be necessary before the conversation begins.
On Telling the American Stories
A more promising way to begin to think about how Christians might contribute to the ongoing American project is that proposed by Martin Marty in his book The One and the Many: America's Struggle for the Common Good. That Marty is a historian rather than a philosopher is why I find the account he provides promising. Rather than looking for foundations, he directs our attention to the stories that constitute the life of that strange entity called America. In this respect he develops a strand of Christian reflection exemplified in H. Richard Niebuhr's The Kingdom of God in America, Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History, and the work of Robert Bellah. (No matter how Bellah has tried to distance himself from his early work on civil religion of America, I believe it is to his credit that the kind of analysis he and his colleagues provided in Habits of the Heart, as well as The Good Society, is in moral continuity with his attempt to name the American civil religion. Bellah's passion has been the attempt to discover the story or stories that can make our common as well as individual lives as Americans morally good.)
One of the virtues of approaches like Bellah's and Marty's is that they have the potential to take account of aspects of American life that are morally richer than any account liberal theory can provide. It is often suggested, for example, that liberalism has worked in America exactly because it has been parasitic on forms of life for which liberalism takes no responsibility or may even undermine. Marty's focus on narratives about this nation, then, provides an opportunity for thicker accounts of such American characteristics as generosity, a thicker account that can in turn help us better understand America's politics.
That I find these historical and sociological approaches more promising for articulating how Christians might make a contribution in the American context does not mean I agree with what Marty, for instance, takes that contribution to be. To his credit Marty has discovered Alasdair MacIntyre. Not only does Marty credit MacIntyre for helping us see how important it is that we discover the narratives we inhabit, but he also takes seriously MacIntyre's judgment that "many citizens in their various competitive groups do inhabit incommensurable universes of discourse, universes that lack a basis of comparison and hence an ability to communicate." Yet Marty thinks MacIntyre's pessimism can be countered by drawing on Felix Frankfurter's contention that this society is not held together by law, creed, or ideology, but by sentiment.
Marty quotes Frankfurter to the effect that "the ultimate foundation of a free society is the binding tie of cohesive sentiment" and observes that such sentiment remains available for us even today in our multicultural society. Indeed Marty, the great celebrator of America, has taken to heart the increasing sense that America is not constituted by one story. Accordingly he criticizes Jefferson and the other founders for using the ideology of the Enlightenment to produce sameness and repress difference. In particular he criticizes the development of the "common school," as well as the texts used in those schools for the repression of difference in the name of creating a common culture. Yet Marty cannot bring himself to abandon the attempt to create a common "sentiment" through what he calls the "commensurable possibilities in storytelling."
He thinks this possible if we learn to think of the nation less as a community and more in terms of Michael Oakeshott's understanding of a "civil association." An association does not demand a credal bond or personal intimacy but rather requires us, like porcupines, to stand at a distance from one another learning the delight in the other that only distance can produce. Drawing on the work of Calvinist social theorist Althusius, Marty suggests that we best understand a commonwealth not as a community of communities but as an association of associations. This would allow people in various groups to live in partly incommensurable universes of discourse and yet to find it valuable to interact in ways other than military force and cultural conflict. Rather than reaching for guns, people will learn to "reach for argument, and the telling of stories from different perspectives is a form of argument. One cannot have a republic without argument."
Marty's story remains the optimistic story of America. He expects the conflicts to continue but believes that, in the longer future,
every story well told, well heard, and creatively enacted will contribute to the common good and make possible the deepening of values, virtues, and conversation. At the outset I described this book as an effort to contribute to the restoration of the body politic, or, with the many groups in view, the bodies politic. We have been speaking throughout of the "re-storying" of the republic and its associations. The advice for every citizen who wishes to participate in American life and its necessary arguments: start associating, telling, hearing, and keep talking.
In short, Marty seems to think all this will work out if we just learn to be "civil" to one another.
Whatever one may think about the strength or weakness of Marty's account, what I find striking is the absence of any theological justification. Marty, like Reinhold Niebuhr, assumes his task is making America work. The story Marty tells is the story of America in which Christians get to have a role. That such is the case should not be surprising, since Marty represents the discipline of American religious history. Accordingly it never seems to occur to him that he needs to tell the church's story of America. As a result he fails to see how the story of America can tempt Christians to lose our own story and in the process to fail to notice the god we worship is no longer the God of Israel.
In this respect it is fascinating to compare Marty's account of the challenges before American life with MacIntyre's reading of America. What Marty finds admirable about American life—that is, our desire to get along by being likable people—MacIntyre finds our greatest defect. MacIntyre observes:
This wanting to be liked is one of the great American vices that emerges from this refusal of particularity and conflict. Americans tend under the influence of this vice to turn into parodies of themselves—smiling, earnest, very kind, generous, nice people, who do terrible things quite inexplicably. We become people with no depth, no depth of understanding, masters of technique and technology but not of ourselves. Colonel Tuan of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which we so generously aided and then so treacherously betrayed, was once asked by Paul Theroux what he thought of the Americans. He called them "well-disciplined" and "generous." "But we also think that they are a people without culture...." He did not mean by this that they lacked high culture. He meant that he could not recognize what it was about them that made them Americans in the way that he was Vietnamese. And that I think is what happens to people with no story to tell of themselves, people who do not confront their future as a narrative future. They, or rather we, become superficial people, people with surfaces, public relations people.
From MacIntyre's perspective, Marty's account of the role of stories but reproduces the liberal presumption that the "good thing" about America is how being an American makes you aware, alienates you, from your story. That is why, for MacIntyre, what he calls "the American idea" cannot help but be tragic. It is tragic because the conflict between the basic American principles of every person to live, to be free, and to pursue happiness cannot be reconciled with the demand for equality. Slavery is but the most obvious contradiction of the American dilemma. According to MacIntyre, this contradiction represents a conflict so
deeply embodied in the American character that no care for a surface appearance of consistency or a superficial disguise for hypocrisy could have got rid of it. It is the contradiction between a profound commitment to the principles of equal rights and liberty on the one hand and an equally profound commitment to individualistic practices which generate inequality and unfreedom on the other. American history is the tragic working out of this internalized contradiction.
Marty regrets the general tendency in America for historical amnesia, but he fails to see that a loss of memory is at the heart of the American project. Indeed, as I suggested above, Rawlsian strategies for securing justice require just such a loss of memory. Justice requires the presumption that a genuine break with the past is possible. That is why MacIntyre suggests that America is not just a country but a metaphysical entity, "an intelligible abstraction always imperfectly embodied in natural reality. It is always not yet, it is always radically incomplete; and because the values it aspires to incarnate were from the first seen as the essential values, anyone and everyone may be summoned to take part in that completion." Thus America was the attempt to found a historical tradition to connect a particular past to a universal future,
a tradition that in becoming genuinely universal could find a place within itself for all other particularities so that the Irishman or the Jew or the Japanese in becoming an American did not cease thereby to be something of an Irishman or a Jew or a Japanese. In assuming the burden of this task America took unto itself a genuinely Utopian quality, the quality of an attempt to transcend the limits of secular possibility. America's failures are intimately connected with this grasping after impossibility; but so are its successes.
The tragic character of American history is unavoidable, since rights cannot help but conflict with rights; yet the very moral commitments that shape such a conflict produce a people incapable of recognizing, much less responding to, such conflicts. America is at once the name of an aspiration to liberty and equality of rights and the name of the power that stands in the way of that aspiration. As a result Americans find themselves at war not only with one another but with themselves. MacIntyre observes that "citizens of other nations are free to measure what their government and society does by external standards of liberty and right and can choose between their loyalty to these absolutes and their loyalty to their own nature; but the American finds that these absolutes are his constitution, that he cannot disown his national allegiance without disowning these moral absolutes or vice versa."
Part 1: The Church in the Time Called America
1. On Being a Christian and an American
2. The Christian Difference: Or, Surviving Postmodernism
3. Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality
Part 2: Christian Ethics in American Time
4. Christian Ethics in America (and the Journal of Religious Ethics): A Report on a Book I Will Not Write
5. Walter Rauschenbusch and the Saving of America
6. Not Late Enough: The Divided Mind of Dignitatis Humanae Personae
7. Only Theology Overcomes Ethics: Or, What "Ethicists" Must Learn from Jenson
8. Why The Politics of Jesus Is Not a Classic
Part 3: Church Time
9. Why Time Cannot and Should Not Heal the Wounds of History, But Time Has Been and Can Be Redeemed
10. Worship, Evangelism, Ethics: On Eliminating the "And"
11. Enduring: Or, How Rowan Greer Taught Me How to Read
12. Captured in Time: Friendship and Aging
14. McInerny Did It: Or, Should a Pacifist Read Murder Mysteries?
Appendix: The Ekklesia Project: A Declaration and an Invitation to All Christians