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.