Last week a Christian Today article from 2017 about a speech given by pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas on U.S. President Donald Trump found a second wind, making rounds on Twitter and Facebook. The article’s second wind followed Hauerwas’ recent trip to London to speak about at the book launch of Luke Bretherton’s Christ And The Common Life.
In the talk, the famed Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School, a Methodist member of the evangelical left, gave a series of hot takes at the London-based Theos, a think tank that “stimulates the debate about the place of religion in society, challenging and changing ideas through research, commentary and events.”
As a public intellectual and prolific writer on the intersection of Christianity and public life, Hauerwas, throughout his career, has been an outspoken critic of Christian fundamentalism, liberal democracy, and capitalism. Hauerwas’ anabaptist absolutist pacifism leads him to believe the United States should not have intervened in World War II, an opinion that IRD President Mark Tooley has rebutted, here.
Hauerwas’ talk, ostensibly focused on trying to explain what the Church should do in the age of Trump, primarily articulated a series of progressive political talking points. His quote that, “Donald Trump is a reality TV show, and it’s very hard to resist becoming part of the show,” generated much web traffic, but little edifying advice for Christians who adhere to Christianity’s traditional teachings and social witness.
Hauerwas’ Hot Takes on Christian Convictions’ Role in Public Policy
Hauerwas argued that evangelicals, a group that judging from his tone he holds in contempt, voted for Trump because they “presume that America, as a democracy, is the expression of what a Christian nation should be.” Hauerwas thus concluded that for evangelicals “to defend American democratic process à la Donald Trump is a way of expressing your Christian convictions.” This description is an oversimplification bordering on caricature.
Though the speech was given in 2017, it remains remarkably politically relevant, as Hauerwas accused Christians, evangelicals in particular, of using the state for what he believes are inappropriate purposes. Specifically, Hauerwas condemned evangelicals’ use of state institutions to defend the sanctity of life. About pro-life evangelicals, Hauerwas said, “The very presumption that they represent so-called ‘Christian values’ is a very selective presumption.” In addition to casting doubt that defending the sanctity of life is a “Christian value,” Hauerwas posited that personal Christian convictions have no place in public policy:
I don’t think we can be too ecclesiastically centric in the world… The Church is not a secondary political community; it is first and foremost that community that commands our ultimate loyalty to know when the demonic has raised its head and therefore I think we now live in a time when we may be discovering that the Church must be a political force that doesn’t first and foremost look to the state as the expression of what will give you justice, but as a matter of fact we must be a people of justice, which reminds us that justice is first and foremost a virtue and not a public policy…. You can have strong convictions as long as they’re private. At Harvard you’re taught to be good pluralists and by good pluralists it means that you can say at a school board meeting, “As a Muslim…” or, “As a Jew…” but I can’t say, “As a Christian…” And the reason you can’t do that is because we assume as Christians we are still in control, and therefore we have to be tolerant while other people get to be Muslim and Jewish. I think it’s a very important development that as Christians lose power in America, we discover that we can speak the way that Jews and Muslims do. That means we can take being Christian as a public declaration seriously because we’re not in control anymore.”
Hauerwas also opted to criticize pro-life evangelical Christians for not channeling their efforts into increasing the level of government handouts, rather than defend the sanctity of life:
They voted against Hillary because of abortion- that may have been one of the issues… but you never heard the evangelicals say, we want important developments for family allowance, for example, where women will not feel the need to have an abortion for financial reasons.
While Hauerwas managed to publicly say that “the state is one of God’s good creations,” he was not able to say that the lives unborn people are included amongst God’s good creations and should be therefore be protected by law. Increased welfare spending is fine, though.
Hauerwas’ Hot Takes on Economics & Social Justice
On the question of income inequality, Hauerwas claimed that it is “unbelievable” that “CEOs make a hundred million dollars a year while people are starving,” and expressed a desire for Christians who run for public office to champion social justice causes. He also described globalization as “shorthand to talk about American capitalist imperialism” and an “attempt to turn every human being in the world into a consumer.” About the trend in the U.K. for tertiary education to be viewed less as a public good and more as a private investment, Hauerwas said, in a defeated tone, that “Margaret Thatcher won.”
Notably, during the Q&A session when asked about the intersection of Christianity and social justice, Hauerwas expressed his support of social justice, saying, “I never use the phrase ‘social justice’ because I don’t know what kind of justice isn’t social.” He identified immigration as a crucial issue for Christians in America, adding the Church should be “a community of hospitality that refuses to let national boundaries determine our lives.” Hauerwas also suggested it may be a good thing for Christians to break U.S. law by assisting immigrants on the southern border to illegally migrate into the United States.
More recently during the book launch of Luke Bretherton’s Christ And The Common Life at St. Mellitus College, a brief written statement from Hauerwas was read aloud (Hauerwas was unexpectedly hospitalized due to a kidney stone and was unable able to function as the event’s keynote speaker as originally planned). In the statement Hauerwas praised Bretherton’s analysis of the black power movement and its “constructive role of power, anger, and conflict.” About social justice and the black power movement Hauerwas’ also claimed that “such emotional resources are critical for a people capable of challenging white supremacy.”
Hauerwas’ Hot Takes on War and U.S. Foreign Policy
IRD has written multiple times about Hauerwas’ pacifism. I haven’t much to add what has already been said, but it is worth noting in his speech Hauerwas decried the “militarization of the American society,” claiming that America “can’t live without war.”
While discussing the ethics of war, Hauerwas recalled an instance when he was invited to visit the Washington National Cathedral during the days of the Iraq War and Bush Administration. Having no interest in going to the cathedral Hauerwas told the clergy who invited him, “If President Bush came to the cathedral today and wanted to receive eucharist, I hope you wouldn’t commune him.” Hauerwas said that his would-be hosts were good Episcopalians that said, “Oh no, grace is everywhere!” to which Hauerwas retorted, “Well how would he know he has blood on his hands? He needs saving?!” Later during Q&A when asked by an audience member about whether he thinks it is “never right to invade another country,” Hauerwas curtly answered, “yes.” When asked if whether it is possible to both be a U.S. president or U.K. prime minister and a faithful Christian, Hauerwas said, “Good Christians get to run for office once. If they do the right thing they won’t be re-elected.”
For Hauerwas, “doing the right thing” apparently includes using the state to run healthcare, abolish “American capitalist imperialism,” and embrace social justice, and but not protect the sanctity of life or use military force as a defensive tool to protect the innocent and vulnerable.
A recording of Hauerwas’ 2017 talk at Theos is available online, here.Google+