Hauerwas and American Identity
For U.S. Christians, the election of Donald Trump has been the cause of a bitter war of words in and between Churches about the nature of the new administration. Many white Evangelicals supported the Trump campaign, galvanized by his promise to appoint a Supreme Court judge who would overturn Rowe V. Wade. Auxiliary to this, there are some on the Religious Right, like Jerry Falwell Jr, who believe that the arrival of the Trump team will herald a new era of Evangelical influence in the White House. Falwell was asked back in January to head a White House task force on reforming the U.S. higher education system.Perhaps such an appointment are a sign of things to come. Likewise, Trump’s policy strategist Steve Bannon has spoken extensively about a return to America’s religious roots and what he refers to as ‘traditionalism’. On the other side of the religious and cultural divide, many Churches have been involved in demonstrations against Trump’s hardline immigration policies. As the Quaker blogger Micah Bales asks:
With the rise of Trump and his proto-fascist movement, I and many other followers of Jesus are asking: What does it look like for the church to become mobilized in the struggle for justice – not just as individuals, but as whole communities? How do we muster the courage and energy to live in solidarity with the many people who may be marginalized, ostracized, and terrorized under this new administration?
While my own sympathies are with Micah, the thought strikes me that both Christian accommodationism and Gospel-inspired resistance might actually circumvent some of the more important issues Christian communities need to wrestle with in relation to Trump. That is because both positions are in danger of assuming that it is the role of Christians to invest the public sphere with morality or decency, whether that is supporting civil rights legislation or opposing abortion. Yet such activism is always to the detriment of first order questions including, what is the proper relationship between faith and public life? And what is the moral and political structure of America? Answer these questions satisfactorily, then you will have a model of Christian faithfulness which transcends the often poisonous debate beyond the occupant of the White House, his policies, and agenda, and forces people to consider deeper issues of American Christian identity. The danger of not asking these sorts of questions is that Christians become sucked into the partisan political systems of democracy, rather than developing their own voice and practice. It is not the responsibility of Christians to make sure liberal democracy works well. It is the responsibility of the Church to be faithful to the God found in Jesus.
What might such Christian authenticity look like? Stanley Hauerwas, the contrarian Texan theologian is an insightful voice in the midst of his country’s political upheaval. His analysis of the sources of American self-identity provides a valuable cipher through which to decode the often bewildering character of present U.S. politics. At the core of his analysis is a sensitivity to the stories ‘good Americans’ tell themselves about who and what they are. Central to these narratives of ‘freedom. ‘destiny’ and ‘exceptionalism’ is a paradox. The strange thing about America is that Americans are said to ‘have no story’. As Hauerwas put in an article for the Guardian in 2010:
America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Americans, however, are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be “free”, which makes them all the more adamant that they have a right to choose the god that underwrites their “freedom.”
Thus, according to Hauerwas, American political identities are always inherently ‘liquid’ because American public institutions are intent on protecting the premise that story-less ‘freedom’ is of absolute and overriding value. What is it like to live under these conditions? For Hauerwas, to be American is to be projected perpetually into the progressing future, erasing all notion of past, custom, particularity, and roots. If America has a public philosophy for Hauerwas, it is a steely technological universalism, which cherishes the individual above the communities to which that individual belongs. While such a social order is flecked through with beguiling choice and playful excess, it ultimately leads to a monotone world where human experience is forced into a single techno-libertarian pattern. As Hauerwas puts it elsewhere: ‘To be sure America has a history, but we see our history as an outworking of our ideals, which are available to anyone, anywhere. America is, of course, a country, with a diverse and extraordinary geography that invites a sense of place. Yet as the most advanced capitalist social order our history and geography…are increasingly subject to the processes of modernity that require standardization. You have to be able to build a WallMart and sell MacDonald’s everywhere’ (War and the American Difference, p. 153).
This logic of standardization and rootlessness is always to be contrasted for Hauerwas, with the rootedness of the Church. While the Gospel can never be identified with any national community or secular political creed, it invites people into a community and a politics. It is a community and a politics ordered by a particular story: the narrative of the God of Isreal and his outworking in Jesus Christ. At the core of this narrative is not ‘freedom’ but character. God wants to enter our lives, to shape and enrich them. If freedom exists at all in the Gospel, it does so in relation to a God which longs for human life to take on a particular shape and direction. Life is not self-created but is ‘created’, to serve as a mirror of the divine life. God gives freely so that we might share in a transformed sense of ourselves and others. This doesn’t mean that local identity is of no significance. It only means that social labels like ‘British’, ‘American’, or ‘Korean’ must be ordered according to the shape and direction of the Christian story. Thus, the Church cannot properly know what ‘America’ means’ divorced from the component parts of the story that keep people Christian. To attempt an interpretation of national identity apart from the Gospel is liable to tempt Christians into a peculiar kind of ethnocentric idolatry.
Bannon and the ‘Nation’
Hauerwas’ analysis flowed back to me as I watched Steve Bannon’s contribution to Conservative Political Action Conference on the 23rd of February. As the closest thing Donald Trump has to be a paid-up ‘public philosopher’ Bannon provides a vivid (and at tines troubling) articulation of the aims and ethos of the new administration. At the heart of his public vision is the assertion of the ‘nation’ in the midst of the fluidity and unpredictability of the globalized world. “We’re a nation with an economy,” says Bannon, “not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” But what does “the nation” mean for Bannon? What is fascinating is that it is easier for Bannon to say who does not belong to ‘the nation’. He rejects the ‘corporatist, globalist media’, ‘the administrative state’, ‘Muslims’, and the meddling of ‘Progressives’. According to Bannon, the nation will be formed when there is a genuine ‘a fight’ with vested interests. Why is Bannon so keen on defining his vision in negative terms? In part, the answer may lie in the Hauerwasian contention that the American project is inherently about a story-less future. Consequently, most of Bannon’s claims are less to do with cultural essence and more to do with economic freedom of the nation ‘to do things’ (‘sovereignty’, ‘bringing back jobs, and ‘supporting deregulation’). But these are merely conditions of American choice. They don’t actually tell us what it means to be an American. It is almost as if what is being suggested is that America is what a Trump administration does. But if you think about it for a second, that’s all a story-less politics can really do. It can only talk about conditions of action, it has no account of what actions should be preferred and why. Beyond the defense of doing and choosing, it has little substance.
In this respect, Bannon’s deployment of the ‘nation’ seems to be something an empty signifier. But this is exactly what we should expect if Hauerwas is right about the structure of American identity. Bannon cannot go beyond the logic of exclusion because deep down he does not know what to include. This is despite all his bluster about how capitalism depends on the presence of “Judeo-Christian values.” How could his analysis not contain this problem of substance? If Hauerwas is right it is not some ‘cultural other’ that has led to a crisis in American identity, but the modern project itself. Sure, the U.S. contains many ‘local cultures’, but “the Idea of America” has always been about universalist liberalism (America is a cosmopolitan country offering a refuge to ‘the poor, hungry and tired of the earth’. So in one sense ‘Americanism’ is the philosophy of universal citizenship so that to live in America is to live ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere’ at the same time. America has never been a nation like the organic political identities of Europe, built on ancient linguistic, tribal, geographical and religious ties. It is a political experiment in Lockean liberalism. Thus, the most such a politics can do is promise is defend freedom from outside interference. It cannot really build any kind of community with common bonds because there is no real direction at the heart of political life. Conservative activists may try to fill this gap with ‘getting the right guy’ on the Supreme Court bench’ or the assertion of ‘family values’, but most of these reflexes either boil down to procedural issues or turn out to predicated on hating some ‘nebulous’ political other. Of course the same can also be said of the dynamics of much of American Leftism today. They only know what they are by what they are against (racism, sexism, homophobia) yet they lack a coherent account of what a good life together really consists of. On both sides, the issue of ‘the point of being American’ is scarcely addressed.
This lack of clarity is exacerbated by the fact that ‘American civilization has increasingly re-made the world in its own image. There is now a very real sense in which America’s liberal vision is now the world’s default culture through the power of the U.S. media, military power and corporations.That was the great irony of Trump’s policy of the wall. It was a measure to keep the world out, but that world increasingly looks and feels like America. This, in turn, raises a thorny question. If America sits enthroned at the heart of a global culture, what exactly is Bannon trying to protect? And how does this nationalist agenda relate to America’s liberal founding myths? Perhaps the election of Trump is fundamentally about a deep recognition of American ’emptiness’ among its citizens. Such has been the relentlessness of American liberalism that it caused the world to ‘melt into air’.By recycling the language of ‘America First’ Trump’s election attempts to reassure that there really is ‘something called America’ in modernity’s hall of mirrors. The fact that many American Christians have found solace in such assurance would suggest to someone like Hauerwas, that they are not looking to their story, or to put it another way, it is more important to such folk that they remain loyal Americans, rather than loyal Christians.
Standing in the Midst of Emptiness
Of course, it is likely that the politics of America is far more complex than Hauerwas’ analysis first supposes. Not all forms of liberal politics are rootless, nor is there simply one way to be modern. But Hauerwas does seem to have put his finger on the profound hollowness at the core of American public life. If Trump’s election represents a moment of unmasking (the moment when the idea of ‘America’ is revealed as a ‘ghost’) how should Christians led by their story proceed? In his book America (1986), the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard suggests that:
America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real and pragmatic, yet it is the stuff of dreams too. It may be the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulacrum – that of the immanence and material transcription of all values. The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the mode.
This description offers an excellent hint about the urgent tasks of U.S. Christians in the age of Trump. In the years ahead the simulations of ‘America’ (its destiny and its enemies) will doubtless grow in noise and intensity, in order to fill the hollowness of the body politic. Public discourse will likely become more bitter as participants continue with the fiction that they ‘believe in something’ no matter how dark or brutal such belief turns out to be. The chilling possibilities of such logic appeared soon after Trump’s election in the form of the White Supremacist Richard Spencer who declared that ‘Donald Trump’s movement, whether [Trump strategist] Kellyanne Conway wants to admit it or not, was fundamentally about identity for white people.’ In times of crisis, the idols of blood, soil, and nation can be a tempting way to the fill the political void. Instead of allowing such clay gods to stand, U.S. Christians need to remind their fellow citizens of the ephemeral nature of political platforms, party machines and even America itself. They must unmask the illusion of national greatness and subject their country’s most cherished myths to heated criticism. Above all, they must steer clear of those like Bannon who talk about something called “Judeo-Christian values” which are divorced from stories Christian tell about hospitality towards the stranger, strength through weakness, and justice for the poor.
All that being so, should American Christians ignore the political cycle and cocoon themselves in insular piety? No, Micah is right. The Church must stand against unjust policies. It cannot just sit back and watch people being scapegoated. But alongside a willingness to act, Christians need to always place political activity in a proper theological context. Augustine of Hippo, writing of another civilization in crisis observed that while Christians should cherish the brilliance of temporal life as created by God, earthly peace and happiness is like the ‘fragile brilliance of glass’ (4.3). While ‘sojourning’ on earth, Christians may ‘make use’ of this peace, as long as they do not mistake it for the final peace found in God alone. The task of U.S. Christians should not to ‘make America great again’ nor ‘save the Republic’, but, to follow the example of their Teacher. As Paul defines this political task:
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12: 12-18)
‘Be faithful in prayer’ says Paul, but what should we pray for? If we take our cue from Trump at the Washington Prayer Breakfast last month, we might suppose that we should pray for the ratings of the President’s media enemies, or maybe even for robust U.S. trade figures in the Spring. But Trump’s bizarre behavior at this event merely underscores the confused state of Christianity in America, where prayer has been confused with the lure of the American dream, akin to some secret mode of positive thinking. But this is all wrong. Prayer, as Paul understood was about service and not about accomplishment. The prophet Jeremiah puts it this way: ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jeremiah 29:7). But this isn’t just any kind of peace or any kind of prosperity (just enough peace and prosperity for Sales figures to tick over) but the kind of prosperity and peace which is governed by the imperatives of justice and care. Such an imperative is not identical with any one political tribe or platform, but it does force us into the public square to contend for both peace and justice. In doing so there is always the temptation that Christians start talking in political accents they have inherited from the wider culture (the language of Progress, markets, redistribution, or liberty) and forget their own story.
What are the key plot points of this narrative? “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). But such a living invitation is not about a sentimental self-satisfied kind of love because as Scripture says, ‘your God is a consuming fire’ (Deuteronomy 4:24).God desires that his love should burn up all before it, everything in ourselves and in our world which resists his shattering light. This includes political structures which have grown too big for their boots, or else actively hide from view the ‘created’ nature of the world and its gifts. In this mold, Christian political activism is about recalling to the world its deep meaning. The trick for Christians (myself included) to keep their distinctive Jesus-shaped reasons for being political always before them, testing the applicability of diverse political claims to the Good News they seek to proclaim. But such a practice often feels like walking a tightrope without a safety net. If we move too far in any given direction we will be in danger of tumbling flat on our face. If we immerse ourselves in a particular political theory or movement, we are in danger of submerging the Gospel in an agenda not its own. If we are too keen to separate the Gospel from concrete political situations people face, our faith becomes insular, twee and sentimental. The early Christians were not persecuted by the Roman state because they ‘told people to be nice to one another’, but because they made a political claim about the nature of power and authority. If ‘Jesus is Lord’ (kyrios Iesous) this means that Caesar and his successors aren’t.
The Gospel puts all political parties and ideologies on notice. This is because the Incarnation shows us that the methods of Pharoah and Herod are a perverted shadow of the beloved commonwealth God really intends. The model of public life inaugurated by Jesus is the source of the fullest politics and polis. Unlike its secular counterparts, which are always extensions of coercion and violence, the politics of Jesus is guided by the ethic of love, sacrifice, and service. This is where for the early Church, true community is found. There are times when this radical politics is best served by a pragmatic use of existing institutions and processes to serve God’s peace in the world, just as Paul appeals to the justice of Caesar (Acts 22:22-23:11), but such pragmatism is never an end in itself.We might join a political party or a protest movement, but such an act does not have saving power in itself. It may help to keep us faithful to the Good News we seek to live out, but it can never be a substitute for it. In the midst of the political turmoil, this perspective may help American Christians to continue to tell their story of God’s love faithfully.