Home > By the Rivers of Babylon...ie, Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, etc. > Stanley Hauerwas: American Christians Believe in Belief Instead of in God.

Stanley Hauerwas: American Christians Believe in Belief Instead of in God.


i'm still a good person“American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief.  That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists.  The god most Americans say they believe in just is not interesting enough to deny.  The only 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.”

I read an essay by Stanley Hauerwas, a famous theologian (such as that is possible today) at Duke University, from which the choice quote above is taken.  He does a remarkable job of explaining why the widespread American belief in God seldom results in much that is recognizably Christian:

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 a constructive Protestant social imagination.

I believe – as Mark Noll rightly suggests in his book, America’s God – America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. Americans were able to synthesize these antithetical traditions by making their faith in God indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that insured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in. That is why Bonhoeffer accurately characterized America Protestantism as “Protestantism without Reformation.”

American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in America. The god most Americans say they believe in just is not interesting enough to deny. 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 happiness.

Thus 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. For example, Noll calls attention to the 1833 amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that did away with church establishment but nonetheless affirmed “the public worship of God, and the instructions in piety, religion, and morality, promote the happiness and prosperity of a people, and the security of republican government.” Noll points out that these words were written at the same time Alexis de Tocqueville had just returned to France from his tour of North America. Tocqueville descriptively confirmed the normative point made in the Massachusetts Constitution, observing:

“I do not know if all Americans have faith in their religion – for who can read to the bottom of hearts? – but I am sure that they believe it necessary to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion does not belong only to one class of citizens or to one party, but to the entire nation; one finds it in all ranks.”

Protestantism came to the land we now call American to make America Protestant. It was assumed that what it meant to be American and Protestant was equivalent to a 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 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. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.

Noll ends his account of these developments with the end of the Civil War, but the fundamental habits he identifies as decisive in the formation of the American religious and political consciousness continues to shape the way Christians – in particular, Protestant Christians – understand their place in America.

Yet I think we are beginning to see the loss of confidence by Protestants in their ability to sustain themselves in America, just to the extent that the inevitable conflict between the church, republicanism, and common sense morality has now worked its way out. America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought but the world Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself.

for the whole article:

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/07/02/3794561.htm

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  1. July 26, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Your talking about one outgrowth of the American experiment here. A more positive outgrowth is a church that still attempts to be founded “sola scriptura”, and not appearing to place more prominence on the traditions and rituals of the catholic church or other “high church” denominations that have accumulated over the centuries. People read their Bibles now, instead of relying on a few clergy to study it and interpret it for them.

    • July 26, 2013 at 7:23 pm

      This is not me writing, it’s Stanley Hauerwas.

      As far as what he says about American religion, I think he’s totally right on. For the older people being an American and being a Christian are the same thing and essentially denominational distinctions are irrelevant.

      I just started to write a big thing about sola scriptura and evangelicalism, but I’m going to turn it into a different post.

      I’ll have to reread this article to see what you’re responding to.

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