America's God Is Dying
ABC RELIGION AND ETHICS UPDATED 21 JUL 2010 (FIRST POSTED 20 JUL 2010)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus got it right when he characterized American Protestantism as "Protestantism without Reformation."
That is why it has been possible for Americans to synthesize three seemingly antithetical traditions: evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology and commonsense moral reasoning. For Americans, faith in God is indistinguishable from loyalty to their country.
American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America. The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny. Thus 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 the pursuit of happiness.
Consequently, 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.
Just take, for example, the 1833 amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution that did away with church establishment, which 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."
In his important book America's God, Mark Noll points out that these words were written at the same time that Alexis de Tocqueville had just returned to France from his tour of North America. Tocqueville confirmed the point made in the Massachusetts Constitution by 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 America to make America Protestant. It was assumed that was to be done through 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.
But now 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 commonsense morality has worked its way through the system of our national life.
America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the society Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. Put as directly as I can, I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success.
Protestantism became identified with the republican presumption in liberty as an end in itself. This presumption was then reinforced by an unassailable belief in the commonsense of the individual. As a result, Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain those disciplines that are necessary to sustain a truly free people - people who are capable of being a genuine alternative to the rest of the world.
The great irony is that the almost pathological fervency with which the religious right in America tries to sustain faith as a necessary condition for democracy is the surest formula for insuring that the faith that is sustained is not the Christian faith.
More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives or the lives of the churches to which they go. For the church is assumed to exist to reinforce the presumption that those that go to church have done so freely.
The church's primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money. That is what Americans mean by "freedom." Thus the presumption that if you get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television you have had a "free choice." The same presumption works for choosing a President. Once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So there is a kind of resignation that freedom requires.
But this is where the entire "freedom" edifice begins to crumble. Just consider this question: "Do you think that people ought to be held accountable for decisions they made when they did not know what they were doing?" Most Americans would say no. They do not believe you should be held accountable because it is assumed that you should only be held accountable when you acted freely, and that means you had to know what you were doing.
This is what I mean when I say, in a rather convoluted way, that most Americans tell themselves the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. That we are, in other words, people of our own making, constituted by a free choice. And that free choice is the only thing we are responsible for.
But the problem with such an account of responsibility is that it makes marriage, among other things, completely unintelligible. How could you ever know what you were doing when you promised life-long monogamous fidelity? That is why the church insists that your vows be witnessed by the church, because the church believes it has the duty to hold you responsible to promises you made when you did not know what you were doing.
This obviously has profound implications for how faith is understood. The idea that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story produces people who can say things such as, "I believe Jesus is Lord - but that's just my personal opinion." This kind of statement obviously suggests a superficial person, but such are the people that many believe are crucial to sustain democracy. For such a people are necessary in order to avoid the conflicts that otherwise might undermine the order, which is confused with peace, necessary to sustain a society that shares no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common.
If I am right about the story that shapes the American self-understanding, I think we are in a position to better understand why 11 September 2001 had such a profound effect on the self-proclaimed "most powerful nation in the world." The fear of death is necessary to insure a level of cooperation between people who otherwise share nothing in common. In other words, they share nothing in common other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.
That is why in America hospitals have become our cathedrals and physicians are our priests. I'd even argue that America's almost pathological reliance on medicine is but a domestic manifestation of its foreign policy. America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. And thus "freedom" comes to stand for the attempt to live as though we will not die.
It is impossible to avoid the fact that American Christianity is far less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America's god is not the God that Christians worship.
We are now facing the end of Protestantism. America's god is dying. Hopefully, that will leave the church in America in a position where it has nothing to lose. And when you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth. So I am hopeful that God may yet make the church faithful - even in America.
Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. In 2001 he was named "America's Best Theologian" by Time magazine.
Theological Notebook: 2010 Hauerwas Article "America's God Is Dying"
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