Stanley Hauerwas: The Death of America’s God

Stanley Hauerwas wrote a fascinating article in August of 2011 entitled: “The Death of America’s God.” Hauerwas is world famous for saying what many are thinking; using words the rest of us wish we could sting together with the same eloquent rhythm. Reading this article I found myself quietly celebrating each line as I read; pounding the table in my mind with heartfelt “yes”es and “amen”s.

Then it occurred to me that one of  Hauerwas’ basic premises was highly flawed – that American Protestantism is somehow non-representative of real Protestantism; a sort of sham Protestantism that lacks a “Reformation” due to the fact that Protestantism was imported to America without the presumption of a Catholic trained public in matters of moral habits. No doubt, American Protestantism, particularly American Evangelicalism, lacks the deep-seated pathos of protest against Rome – the true guts of classic Protestantism. However, ideologically, American Protestantism is indeed the world standard of a pure Protestant experiment in social thought. America has served as a sort of ‘laboratory’ which has tested the ambitions of some Protestants who believed they could create a nation that was truly “One nation under God;” or to put it in playground terms – to prove they could do anything Rome could do, better.

By Hauerwas’ estimation, the experiment has been a complete disaster, with contradictions on both doctrinal and ethical fronts. If one follows his train of thought it is difficult to disagree. However, the idea that this disaster is somehow the problem of an American Protestantism, which is inherently flawed because it lacks the need to “define itself over against a previous Catholic culture” is, in my opinion, a half-baked conclusion.

First, it seems that his argument requires its Protestant adherents to walk the awkward line of both deploring Roman Catholicism yet relying on it as the necessary antecedent for a full-orbed Protestant ethos – i.e., that big o’l ‘religious something’ which is necessary to protest for self-defining purposes. But this is more or less a side note.

Second, American Protestantism is not at all antithetical to those ideologies which Hauerwas sees it attempting to synthesize with: i.e., republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. If anything, these represent the logical end-game of a purely Protestant influenced political ideal. Protestantism is that form of Christianity which grew out of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment consciousness. Far from contradictory, Protestantism, at its core, encourages hyper-individualism, the “lack of an established church,” “an unassailable belief in the commonsense of the individual” for moral discipline, and the idea of “liberty as an end in itself.”

America is in fact a great Protestant experiment, perhaps the only pure Protestant experiment history has to offer. Whether or not American Protestantism will die out as Hauerwas predicts is a matter that time will surely tell. But to imagine European Protestantism as somehow superior to, or as being a more authentic variety than, American Protestantism (which is not explicitly but implicitly gained from the article) is nearly comical when one considers Europe’s role as the world’s leader in post-Christian thought. The so called “Death of America’s God” is really a story of the “Death of the Western God,” in general.

All that said, I think this article brings up some essential considerations for the Protestant believer: (a) Protestantism’s dependance on Catholicism, and (b) its rapid disintegration when removed from its core pathos of religious “protest,” and used instead as a rubric for political and social liberation.

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5 thoughts on “Stanley Hauerwas: The Death of America’s God

  1. Dear Eric, as a rather typical ‘via-media’ Irish Anglican I shall resist the urge to dive headlong into a dissection of ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Reform’ á la Stanley. Save to say that Hauerwas’ thesis fails in its totality to understand ‘America’s God.’ As I am sure you know well, the Reformation(s) did not disembark the Mayflower a monolith of religious consensus. The fluidity within the driving dynamic of Protestant philosophy, from its inception, with Jan Hus in the fifteenth century did not contain anything like the central ‘authority’ of the early Papal Monarchy or the Roman Magisterium. So, if we are to assume by implication that Hauerwas’ ‘American God’ is the ‘Protestant God,’ all I can say is, “best of luck identifying it.”

    This said, I am writing with an ulterior motive. Over on homophilosophicus we are launching something of an inter-faith dialogue. The hope is that we will have a list of guest contributors from different faith traditions and walks of life submitting well-thought and rational articles (from their perspective) on topical issues. It was either this clever reduction of Hauerwas or your witty and insightful line on the Spirit that convinced me.

    “…either my understanding of the Holy Spirit was seriously messed up, or the Holy Spirit was inept to fulfill His ministry of unifying the Body of Christ. I had to opt for the first choice since the second choice was a heresy…(Journey with Orthodoxy: The Holy Spirit, January 31, 2011 )”

    If you would consider being an Orthodox Christian voice on this forum (accepting the formal invite to be a contributor), we would consider it an honour to host you. If you are interested, please just drop us a line at homophilosophicus.wordpress@gmail.com and we will send a link to ‘unite’ you to the dashboard. Thanks again for the wonderful read,

    Jason Michael

  2. I know this is a dated article, but wanted to offer some points to think about. John Calvin, a purported “father of the protestant Reformation” was never excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, and he never left the Church. His ambition was to reform the Catholic Church, not leave and start something new. In the book “Imputation and Impartation” by William Evans, a change in the protestant mind is documented, revolving around the question of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin had taught that Christ’s physical self, was spiritually present in the elements, and there was a mystical union at work in communion.

    The 17th century English “Separatists” (this would embody most of the Puritans) moved from this belief to one of communion being just a memorial. Consider how such a belief impacts the Church. People are no longer joined ontologically together, as the body of Christ, at communion, but only internally, through a memorial, a symbolic act. The “Separatists” of England hijacked the Protestant movement during the English Civil War, and then fled to America.

    Also consider the different views of politics between the early Calvinists (particularly Johannes Althusius) who saw politics in leau of a duality of Church and State (the western Medeival tradition) and the “Separatists” who place no direct role of the Church in politics (primarly the Baptists view). I think it makes perfect sense to speak of this Protestantism, that gives no authority to the Church, in contra-distinction from original Protestantism. Calvin would have never accepted the Calvinists of today.

    America was a “Separatist” experiment, not a Protestant one. Haeurwas makes no such distinction (perhaps this has something to do with his own ana-baptist roots? I don’t know), but if you can make one, Hauerwas’ argument finds solid footing.

  3. Hello Tim,

    Thanks for your comment, always a pleasure to visit older articles. 🙂

    If I’m reading your thoughts correctly, could one make the argument, from your argument, that modern Protestantism is simply not Protestantism?( Btw, your argument for Calvin work nicely for Luther as well on many points.) And if there is such a major distinction, grave enough to render modern Protestantism something else entirely, then Protestantism is already dead since it only lives in the past. Or so it seems to me.

  4. I think “modern Protestantism” expresses itself, today. in the forms of the Dutch, and German Refomed Churches that have retained their liturgy, the conservative Anglican Churches, and particular interest groups that still reside within the Roman Catholic Church, who are still seeking reform (Reformation movements are better recieved within Roman Catholicism today, than they had been 500 years ago).

    America is predominately a Baptist (read “Separatist”) nation. It does not exhaust Protestantism.

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