Step-up, Stan! Stanley Hauerwas – America’s Theologian

About the Author
David Wagschal

Has Christianity been playing a role in the erosion of liberal democratic values? Has it been contributing to the rising tide of authoritarianism, tribalism and anti-rational discourse? If it has, does it have to? Is there another way?

These are the questions that have sparked my current exploration of contemporary political theology.

For the American scene, these questions find an obvious focal point in one theologian in particular: Stanley Hauerwas.

Stanley Hauerwas, an American ethicist and political theologian, is something of a theological celebrity. He’s been hailed as “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine. He’s received innumerable honors, and his work has generated a sizable secondary literature in both Protestant and Catholic circles. Almost all seminarians read something of him. Heavens, he’s even appeared on Oprah Winfrey.

The precise source of his appeal is hard to pinpoint. He probably hasn’t made any one particularly remarkable or original contribution. Perhaps his curious combination of Methodist, Anabaptist and Catholic thought has simply hit all the right buttons in late 20th/early 21st century America theology? Or maybe he is one of those thinkers who has somehow managed to perfectly articulate the “spirit of the times”? Probably his exceptionally readable and approachable style hasn’t hurt — not to mention his charming Texan accent and penchant for swearing.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Something about Hauerwas resonates very deeply in America, and that is all that counts for our purposes. Hauerwas embodies a significant aspect of the American religious consciousness – so we need to explore his thought very carefully.

Hauerwas, however, is a difficult theologian to review.  It’s not that his ideas are complex, but his corpus is very large and very scattered. It’s hard to treat him by reviewing a book or two. (As I did with Yoder.)

Fortunately there is a 750 page+ compilation of many of his key works, curated by John Berkman and William Cavanaugh.  It’s now a bit dated, but I think it will do for our purposes. Over the next few posts I’m basically going to plow through this reader, and offer a series of reflections on the political implications of Hauerwas’ sprawling theological project.

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UTS Review Essay: The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

A neo-Lutheran review of John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans 1994; first edition 1972). Part of UTS’ exploration of contemporary Christian politics.

  1. Yoder’s Argument
  2. Yoder’s Method
  3. What I Love About This Book
  4. Nevertheless…
    1. What Exactly Does Yoder Think Christianity Is?
    2. The Cross…?
    3. Sin?
  5. Back to Scripture? Unfortunately, Yes.
  6. Back to Politics.

This is in many ways a great book.

At first, it does not impress. It is not particularly well written. The scope of the work is odd, built around an idiosyncratic selection of scriptural texts. It contains numerous annoying caveats about its own limitations, of the type normally reserved for doctoral dissertations or other junior research projects. The second-edition chapter “epilogues” are a bit self-indulgent.

But once you get to the end of it, you realize that this is a book of unusual power.

Yoder’s Argument

Yoder’s shocking thesis – already evident in the title of the book (The Politics of Jesus) – is that there is one consistent and well-defined ethical-political vision in the New Testament. This vision can be formulated succinctly, and it is obligatory for all Christians.

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Making America Average Again

About the Author
David Wagschal

America Needs a New Normal – and Fast

The political drama taking place south of the border is in so many ways unreal. The spectacle of the Trump administration/family is bizarre – and getting more bizarre. I don’t need to give examples.

Yet Trump and his coterie simply exemplify a much broader disconnect with reality in the American social consciousness.

However bizarre Trump may be, what is truly unreal about contemporary America is how far the bar has dropped on our vision of what society can and should be. Standards has become so skewed, and society’s vision so dimmed, that I think even the progressives in the United States are often not clear about what “normal” is.

So in all the confusion and bizarreness, I feel the need to offer a quick reality check: what is normal, again, for a just, moral and healthy first-world society?

I would offer the following as a few minimum standards:

1) Health care. Health care is free, universal, and admits no difference in levels of service according to people’s wealth or status. It’s basically like electricity or running water. Free, universal healthcare is understood as a simple moral imperative. There’s no real debate — this just is.

2) Wealth and class. The middle and lower classes dominate the income curve, and control the majority of society’s wealth.  Wealth and status differences between and within all classes are comparatively small. Social mobility is high. The political class is drawn mostly from the middle or lower classes. Generally, the upper classes view it to be in poor taste to display their wealth conspicuously – indeed, the upper class is relatively invisible, and class differences are hard to spot in day-to-day experience (i.e. it’s hard to tell class from how people talk, dress, etc.)

3) Employment. Everyone has multiple reasonable and realistic opportunities to obtain stable and secure employment, and all jobs have basically equivalent benefits, proportionate to the level of income/hours. (Health care is, of course, not a “benefit”; see #1 above.)  A dignified, if not lavish, retirement is more or less guaranteed.

4) Firearms. Aside from licenced and controlled hunting rifles/shotguns, which are mostly restricted to rural areas, possession of firearms is exceptionally rare, and is a serious criminal offence.  Handgun licenses might be (rarely) available to collectors, or on designated shooting ranges, but only under extremely controlled circumstances. Military-style weapons of any type are, of course, strictly forbidden.

5) Military. The military is a) highly professionalized and specialized; and b) segregated from civilian society.  It is (therefore) exceptionally effective, disciplined and respected. It is not commonly visible in the civil sphere. With the exception of defence and security positions in government, there is relatively little personnel “bleed” between the military and government – the military and government are very much separate career tracks.

6) Politics and business. Stringent rules are in place to prevent finances from determining elections. Campaign budgets are strictly capped.  Lobbying is limited and highly transparent. “Pay to play” or “pay for access” are equated with corruption, and are criminal offences. The firewall between business and politics is strictly observed, and morally internalized: a business person would be ashamed of even appearing to try to influence a politician via donations or similar inducements, much less actually attempting it. Likewise, a politician would avoid even the appearance of granting privileged access to the wealthy. The input of business on economic, industrial, and financial policy is critically important, but it happens only through transparent, open and regulated channels. Career moves from politics into the corporate sphere is rare, regulated and difficult – there is no “revolving door” between Wall Street and Washington.

7) Prisons. Incarceration rates are low, and incarceration is mostly used for violent offenders – less as a punitive measure. Prisons are never private. Broadly, in fact, only the government can legitimately restrict a citizen’s rights or inflict sanctions. Sanctions against citizens can never, as a point of principle, be delegated to private companies/agents.

8) Education.  Education is mostly public. Private schools, as a whole, are not substantially different in quality from public schools.  Aside from different specializations and sizes, there is comparatively little difference among institutions of higher learning.  (America’s highly stratified university system is, I think, a much larger problem than is generally acknowledged.)

9) Economy. The free market is a cornerstone of a peaceful, free and prosperous society, but it is recognized that markets are complex and must be prudently regulated. Anti-trust, financial, environmental and labour regulations are robust. The free market is not considered a default model for the administration of education, culture, politics, the military or other parts of civil society. Boards of directors have a fiduciary responsibility to assure that the interests of all stake-holders in a company, including society and the broader public good, are represented; share-holder interests are only one interest among others. Banking regulations are strict, and commercial and investment banking are carefully segregated.

10)  Judiciary.  Access to law is broadly equal for all, and not dependent on wealth. Civil suits are comparatively rare — there is no “culture of lawsuits”. There are numerous alternatives to the formal court system for the resolution of civil matters.

I could go on about race, immigration, refugees, police etc.

For a lot of Americans, I suspect that many of the above standards may seem like pie-in-the-sky.

But they shouldn’t. Most of the above are, to a greater or lesser degree, realities in other developed nations.  (Ok, most countries are still weak on 10, and 2, 3, and 9 have been very much weakened since the ’80s; some countries, like the UK, are also quite weak on 8.)

This means that if the US achieves even most of the above, this will not make America great. This will make America average.

If it excels in the above, this will make America a bit above average.

What would make America great? I don’t think a real proposal is even on the table.

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