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IPR Director Stephen Schneck on Christian Politics and Policy: Hauerwas at Notre Dame

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Christian Politics and Policy: Hauerwas at Notre Dame

Dr. Stephen F. Schneck


hauerwasI was a grad student at Notre Dame in the mid-‘70s when Stanley Hauerwas was teaching there. John Roos, a professor of American government, for whom I was a perennial TA, and, on a personal level, a man I adore, was good buddies with Hauerwas in those years. In Roos’s messy office in the basement of Hesburgh Library, he and Hauerwas would argue politics, policy, and theology over coffee and cigarettes, and I was lucky enough sometimes to get to participate.

In one way or another, the topic usually came around to what Christianity should mean for public life. Should Christians focus on changing the world or should they devote themselves to being a church? And, if there was a responsibility to change the world, how should that change be accomplished? By individual, personal transformation? Through local Christian communities? By engaging in politics and government?

Roos, as I remember, made arguments that might have been informed by neo-Thomists like Jacques Maritain. In that approach, the moral obligation to promote the common good requires Christians to work to change the world. That same common good demands church and state to be integrated and ultimately harmonious. Government and politics were part of the divine plan and Christians should work within such institutions, as well as with the church, to effect the common good. Perhaps influenced by Vatican II theologians like John Courtney Murray, Roos also saw something of a fit between Christianity and liberal democracy.

Hauerwas disagreed. I realize now that he was probably then working through the postliberal theology for which he would later become famous. Hauerwas’s later books such as A Community of Character and Resident Aliens maintained that it was morally dangerous for Christians to try and make the world more just. Unlike Roos’s neo-Thomists who insisted that the world was still luminous with divine meaning and, thus, not fundamentally in tension with the church, Hauerwas argued against the temptation to see politics, government, or public policy as part of Christianity’s mission. Indeed, liberal democracy with its emphasis on co-opting individual liberty for public purpose was especially suspect.

Were a time machine handy, I’d love to spend a few afternoons back in Roos’s office – maybe without the cigarette smoke. I’d hope to talk more. If I spoke at all in those days, it was murmured support for the idealism of Roos against the realism of Hauerwas’s Anabaptist inclinations. In retrospect, I’d agree a bit more with Hauerwas now, than I did then.  (Sorry John!)

Though not for the same reasons, it seems clear to me that Hauerwas was right about an important dissonance between Christianity and liberal democracy. Don’t get me wrong; I contend that strong and egalitarian democracy is inseparable from the practice and essential for the purpose of Christianity in the world. But, traditional liberalism’s self-regarding conception of liberty poses insuperable complications for Christianity’s insistence on the primacy of the common good for public life. Vatican II era Catholic thinkers like Murray glossed over that disconnect, perhaps overreaching theologically. Dots can be connected between Murray’s political theology and later work by some American neo-liberals – such as Robert Sirico – to force an accommodation of free market economic ideologies within an interpretation of Catholic social teachings. Hauerwas’s critique of that linkage is devastating.

Hauerwas raises other important points for political theology today. We should honor the inculcation of virtue and the inner transformation of the person. Likewise, we should endorse calls for enriching civil societies and acting locally in voluntary communities of virtue.

Yet, these are not enough. Today I’m even more sure that Roos was right about the bigger question – about the moral necessity for Christians to engage in politics and to bend government toward the task of making the world just. My faith requires attending both to personal virtue and the common good. Tremendous deficiencies of justice that are everywhere evident in public life pose an immediate moral responsibility of enormous scope that Christians cannot shrug or defer. The scope and immediacy of many of these needs of justice are addressable only in workings of political life. Moreover, I now think Hauerwas’s realism overweights the corrosiveness of power in public life and thereby does not sufficiently allow for the role that participation in politics and governing must play in the formation of human virtue. Politics and governing in light of the common good are a naturally and ordained aspects of the condition for human dignity in which the life of virtue can be achieved.

Where is the time machine when you need it?

If the argument is right, though, that Christians are obliged to do politics, policy, and governing for reasons of faith, then the next question is: How? Prophetically or prudentially? Radically or incrementally? That’s a topic for next week.