Christian pacifist Stanley Hauerwas was hailed by Time magazine in 2001 as America’s “best” theologian. Whether best or not, he is certainly one of America’s most influential theologians and ethicists.
Hauerwas helps enable otherwise orthodox Christians feel enjoyably naughty by opposing the American “empire” and all the “Constantinianism” that supposedly enslaves most of Christianity. At about the same time that Time was acclaiming his influence, Hauerwas implied that 9-11 was America's chickens coming home to roost. He likened al Qaeda’s attack on America with another blast of supposed terrorism on 9-11-1973, when Chile was ostensibly victimized by America’s alleged support for Pinochet’s coup against the Allende regime.
Although a profound theologian, Hauerwas is a considerably less profound historian and observer of contemporary politics. Trashing America as the reincarnation of Caesar is his specialty. But Hauerwas trashes with a charming Texas twang that winsomely beguiles religious audiences striving for a form of down home sophistication.
Earlier this Summer, Hauerwas spoke at a trendy “emergent” church in Charlotte, North Carolina called “Renovatus,” whose name Hauerwas smilingly derided as “pretentious.” America’s “best” theologian was asked for whom he is voting in November. “I’ll probably vote for Obama, if you want to know,” he responded. “Not that it [matters] … I mean, it’s quite an extraordinary symbolic vote, and I care about it because I’m a white Southerner. I understand race.”
More characteristically, Hauerwas denounced the concept of democratic elections, American-style. “First of all, if you want to know what coercion looks like, it’s called a democratic election,” the Christian ethicist pronounced. “It’s where 51% get to dominate 49%.” Noting his commitment to “Christian non-violence,” he admitted his own “anarchist view of the world.”
Hauerwas described American elections as essentially the “Roman circus where you’re given entertainment to stop the American people from concentrating on … what really should be at the heart of the political process. Namely, such as, why is it that no one is angry at the inequality of income in this country? I mean, the inequality of income is unbelievable. Unbelievable. Why isn’t that ever an issue of politics? Because you don’t live in a democracy. You live in a plutocracy. Money rules.”
Although clearly not a political theorist, Hauerwas is not reluctant to disclaim on the evils of American democracy, even while he insists that politics don’t matter. Oddly while he deems elections as coercive, and essentially sees all government as innately violent, he is not immune to the charms of the Welfare State. Self-described as pro-life, Hauerwas has “strong views about abortion. … I don’t mean to say I want Roe versus Wade overturned. What I want, for example, is for some American politician to come along and say, ‘We’re going to give every child that’s born in this society a living wage.’ I mean, let’s start on the positive end …” So the “violence” of a coercive state compelling certain wage scales appears to be acceptable to the Christian pacifist/anarchist.
Referring to his traditional self-description as a “sectarian fideistic tribalist,” Hauerwas observed that typically he is “asking Christians to withdraw from the world.” But he added with his usual wry sarcasm: “I wouldn’t mind withdrawing, but hell, we’re surrounded. There’s nowhere to go. The question is how to just keep going through, and you’re going to take some losses. So we have to be wily as serpents on these matters. I’m not asking you to withdraw from politics. I’m just asking you to be there as a Christian.”
For Hauerwas, "being there as a Christian" in politics requires ranting against the evils of AMERIKA and its fear of the nasty truth about itself. “Do we want to know that we’re the richest people in the world, raping the rest of the world [so] that we can remain rich?” he asked. “Do we want to know that Iraqi war really is about cheap oil? Do you really want to know that?” He added: ““Do you really want to be told that, ‘Look, America is a racist country, and the terms keep getting changed to hide that from ourselves?’
Speaking of racism, postmodernist emergent church guru Brian McLaren just wrote for Jim Wallis' Sojourners website about Hauerwasianism, and quoted a critique by "Postmodern Negro" blogger Anthony Smith. "That voting is seen as a means of violence can only come from Christians who don't know what it is like to be without the gift," Smith blogged. "This is why the loudest voices for political disengagement on Gospel grounds tend to be of lighter hue. It is another form of advantage to eschew voting.”
In other words, the Hauerwasian disdain for pedestrian American democracy is just another hobbyhorse for privileged white academic elites. Even Rev McLaren, a fellow Obama supporter, chimed in his affirmation of Smith's critique of Hauerwas. "When I hear folks in the U.S. dissing voting as dirtying ourselves with the business of the empire, I keep wondering, 'How would somebody in Zimbabwe respond to that kind of talk?'" Naturally, McLaren had to sully his pro-democracy point with left-wing gibberish: "Or considering how few votes in Florida it would have taken for George Bush not to have been elected in 2000, I wonder how bereaved and maimed Iraqis – and Americans – would respond to Floridians who decided to make a religious statement by not voting?" On that, McLaren and Hauerwas are no doubt agreed.
Hauerwas is at least brutally consistent. If America is indeed the Evil Empire, then why should virtuous Christians sully their hands in the dirty work of imperial politics? Most of the Religious Left is not ready to accept that point, not wanting to risk their own political disempowerment. Or, from a more positive perspective, perhaps even they intuit that some aspects of the "empire" are indeed a "gift."
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.