xbn .
States of Exception

Hauerwas’s Christianity vs. Secular Citizenship

Dave True forwarded to me Stanley Hauerwas’s June 19th post on the ABC Religion and Ethics website, “The politics of the church and the humanity of God”, and asked if I’d be interested in responding to it. I hesitate to do so because the theoretical differences between Hauerwas’s views and my own are so huge that it’s not clear that a productive dialogue is possible. On the other hand, the idea that productive dialogue isn’t possible rankles me, so let me nonetheless have a try.

Hauerwas is extremely forthright about what his project is. The project is to undo the privatization and political domestication of religion in liberal societies. Hauerwas writes: “the politics we [Christians] helped create has made it difficult to sustain the material practices constitutive of an ecclesial culture to produce Christians”; what “we” want instead, by implication, is a vision of politics (and institutions instantiating that vision) at the service of Christianity. Locke was wrong, on Hauerwas’s view, to present religion as a matter of conscientious inner belief, distinguished in a principled way from the appropriately political matters that are arbitrated, ultimately, by the (if necessary) coercive authority of the state. Yet it isn’t quite accurate to say that Hauerwas wants to de-privatize and re-politicize religion; what he wants is to de-privatize and re-politicize Christianity, since Christianity on his view is the true religion.

My first counter to Hauerwas is that he seems not to have given sufficient attention to Locke’s unanswerable point that “every church is orthodox to itself,” and hence that whatever claims Hauerwas makes on behalf of Christianity, adherents of other religions will make on behalf of their religions, and secularists will make on behalf of their lack of religion. Bear in mind that Hauerwas is unhappy with forms of Christianity that attempt to focus on “the kernel of the Christian faith” and jettison “the outmoded husk” (citing Alasdair MacIntyre’s rejection of liberal theology). So we’re talking about de-privatizing and re-politicizing not some watered-down, ecumenical version of Christianity, but rather a pretty robust, “sectarian” version of Christianity.

OK, so Hauerwas wants to restore political authority (presumably on a par with the authority of the modern state) to “the church” (which church?), and have us all repudiate the currently entrenched understanding of churches as merely “voluntary associations of like-minded individuals.” Fine. But where exactly does this leave the civic status of non-Christians like me? (Obvious answer to this question: more or less the same civic status likely to be enjoyed or suffered by Christians in an Islamist Egypt.) To be sure, Hauerwas’s project wouldn’t be a problem if all non-Christians in a given society underwent an overpowering religious conversion experience that left them utterly convinced of the truth of Christianity (i.e., Hauerwas’s own Barthian version of Christianity). But we all know this won’t happen. So we’re fated to belong to a political community composed of Christians and non-Christians, believers and secularists; and as citizens of such a political community we’re in need of laws (which are ultimately coercive, or back-stopped by coercion) that set the civic parameters for shared political arrangements among all these different citizens. None of this is to bar from the political conversation that we have as citizens, the opinions of those with strong religious convictions – e.g., Christian pacifists protesting the decision of their government to go to war in a particular situation (or, conversely, Christian millennialists pushing for aggressive policies toward Iran in order to safeguard Israel as a site for the Second Coming). Far from it being the goal of the modern secularist enterprise to muzzle religionists, its aim, in seeking a political domestication of religion, was to do something different (and it was broadly successful in achieving that aim): namely, to rule out the political authoritativeness of any particular sectarian identity in a political society composed of people of different faiths (or composed of believers and non-believers).

I honestly don’t see how Hauerwas’s politicized Christianity differs in any principled way from the project of the Muslim Brotherhood to found Egyptian citizenship on an existential commitment to Islam. This may seem like a resort to heavy-handed rhetoric on my part. It isn’t. I’m simply stating my view: I really don’t see a principled distinction between Christian politics as Hauerwas envisions it, and Islamist politics as currently practiced in Egypt. It may well be that Hauerwas in fact thinks that Islamists in Egypt are to be applauded for seeing more clearly than most Christians in liberal societies that if one is genuinely serious about one’s faith, one should embrace it as the authoritative guide to the whole of life, certainly not excluding the organization of political existence. And if so, it would seem to follow that Christians in America ought to follow their example: that is, confer the same political centrality upon Christianity that Islamists in Egypt confer upon Islam.

Hauerwas insists that his kind of Christian theocracy wouldn’t be coercive, because Christians as Christians reject coercion. But this in turn prompts one to wonder whether Hauerwas has wrestled deeply enough with Reinhold Niebuhr’s challenge that theology discredits itself if it is overly nonchalant about the stern responsibilities associated with sustaining a shared political community.

Hauerwas is completely dismissive about liberal narratives concerning pre-Enlightenment wars of religion and all that. But the Hauerwasian line of thinking sketched above is precisely why Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and their 18th-century successors from Shaftesbury and Montesquieu onwards saw it as a matter of absolute urgency that religion (not least, sectarian versions of Christianity) be de-politicized and domesticated. Hauerwas writes: “Rousseau [in Beiner’s account of him in his book on Civil Religion] saw clearly that the modern state could not risk having a church capable of challenging its political authority.” Insight into the perils of having churches wield privileged political authority is something that joined in common cause liberals like Spinoza and Locke and civil religionists like Hobbes, Spinoza, and Rousseau. (Spinoza, somewhat paradoxically, was both a liberal and a civil religionist – although one of the themes of my book is that there’s much more mutual alliance in these two traditions than is apparent at first glance.) My suggestion in response to Hauerwas is that all of us as citizens of multi-faith societies should concertedly embrace that shared cause.


Ronald Beiner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1982 he published an edition of Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (foreign-language editions have appeared or are forthcoming in 15 other languages). He is the author of Political Judgment (1983); What’s the Matter with Liberalism? (1992); Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit (1997); Liberalism, Nationalism, Citizenship (2003); and most recently, Civil Religion (2011). His other edited or co-edited books include Democratic Theory and Technological Society (1988); Kant and Political Philosophy (1993); Theorizing Citizenship (1995); Theorizing Nationalism (1999); Canadian Political Philosophy (2001); and Judgment, Imagination, and Politics (2001).

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!