Liberal or Conservative

Is Hauerwas a liberal or conservative? This is not an easy question to answer, in large part because his political theology systematically undercuts the conceptual assumptions that give rise to such polar options in modernity. Nonetheless, the attempt is worth the effort, if only to clarify the ambition of Hauerwas' political theology.

For Hauerwas, the term "liberal" is best understood as a moral discipline and habit rather than a political program or philosophical agenda. To be a liberal entails adopting practices of critical detachment. Liberalism urges us to cultivate the "capacity to 'step back' from particular judgments and regard them from anyone's point of view" (Hauerwas 1983: 17). Instead of thinking and acting under the compelling influences of inherited and particular forms of life, as a liberal one thinks and acts objectively and impartially, always at a distance from the particular powers of tradition.

Hauerwas' intense polemics against the "step back" clearly make him an enemy of liberalism. Hauerwas might well commend trial by jury or the rights of private property, but in so doing, he would no doubt insist that such social goods must be nurtured by drawing ever closer to the narratives and practices that give them life and urgency in our culture rather than trying to justify them from a universal perspective. For Hauerwas, the problem with liberalism is not what it proposes, concretely, for the organization of society. Instead, the failure of liberalism rests in its antagonism toward all powers other than those supposedly universally resident in the human person (reason, will, feeling - take your pick). The upshot, for Hauerwas, is disastrous. We are given density and potency only insofar as we are initiated into formative traditions and practices. If we want to liberate ourselves from them, as liberalism endorses, then we are condemning ourselves to a weightless impotence; and, seeking a universality we cannot attain, we become victims of whatever formative powers happen to prevail in our society.

Does this, then, make Hauerwas a conservative? When he speaks about our general need for narrative and community in order to have particularized weight and gravity, then he can certainly sound like a defender of the properly superordinate role of tradition. In the American context, the Southern Agrarians, like Hauerwas, criticized modern, abstract humanism. Even more poignantly, the Agrarians decried the deracination caused by modern industrialization. To their collective mind, this detachment from land and tradition produces "fragmentation, division, chaos" (Twelve Southerners 1962: xiv). The rootless person lacks ballast, and the "liberated soul" is easily pressed into the service of the inhumane mass phenomena of modernity.

Not only did the Agrarians share Hauerwas' concern about weightlessness, they also shared his insights into the indispensable role of tradition and narrative. By their accounting, "Humanism, properly speaking, is not an abstract system, but a culture . . . lived out in a definite social tradition." That tradition, in turn, must be particularized "in its tables, chairs, portraits, festivals, laws, marriage customs" (Twelve Southerners 1962: xxvi). Therefore, in order to live a humane life, to cultivate a genuine humanism, we must "look backward rather than forward" (p. 1). We must work to re-establish contact with the particularized forms of life that give life density. Thus did the Agrarians understand our predicament, and no American reader has ever hesitated to call it conservative.

Is this Hauerwas' approach? It is, at least in part. For example, in his discovery of Iris Murdoch early in his career, Hauerwas highlighted her emphasis on the submissive basis for moral vision. We do not decide about the good; rather, we are ravished by its radiance. Or, as he states the point in his own idiom, "By letting the story live through us we come to be transformed, to be as the story is" (Hauerwas 1981b: 115). Here, a vigorous Augustininianism mixes with philosophical insight. God's grace, like the radiance of the good, is the real source of human empowerment, and our roles are given rather than fashioned, received rather than chosen. Thus, the task of the moral and religious life is to "step forward" into ever greater obedience, rather than to "step back" in order to critically assess. The "step forward" involves closer attachment to and closer immersion in the particular forms (the tables, chairs, portraits, festivals, laws, and marriage customs) that shape us into specific and dense persons.

In spite of this conservative pattern of submission, Hauerwas diverges. He wishes us to nurture the identity-forming powers of the church. This means drawing closer to the particularized disciplines and forces that shape persons into church members, and this is a conservative move. But this emphasis upon increased loyalty to the church is not a general principle for the maintenance and enforcement of culture. Instead, even as Hauerwas endorses the identity-forming power of the church, his anti-Constantinian polemics always remind us that the church, and only the church, can and should demand such loyalty. We should distance ourselves - "step back" - from the many other, non-Christian traditions and loyalties that clamor for priority. We must detach ourselves from the secular traditions that shape our lives, especially, thinks Hauerwas, the traditions that motivate our loyalty to the nation-state, and this is very much a liberal move. Thus, we should say that Hauerwas' conservatism with respect to the church - one cannot become too deeply enmeshed in the church - produces a liberalism with respect to all other forms of power. Formed by the church, one can never be more capable of the "step back."

For this reason, Hauerwas' political theology is best understood as a thoroughgoing Christian liberalism. Without doubt, he rejects the liberal ideal of critical detachment. We can never begin by distancing ourselves from that which gives life. We must seek the density of a properly Christian life; otherwise, our claims to freedom and reason are fantasies. Only as we fall under the power of another - God - do we participate in practices that will empower us as agents with sufficient ballast and force to act rather than react. But for just this reason, Hauerwas can consistently adopt the vigorously critical tropes of modern, liberal thought. The "step forward" into a life of discipleship allows us to "step back" from economic, political, military, and cultural forces that dominate contemporary life, because the church has given us a place to stand. In this way, Hauerwas vindicates the liberal desire to escape the debilitation and diminish-ment of powers presumed and imposed. We can say "no" to the world's rules, if we will but say "yes" to God's law.

So we can say that, for Hauerwas, the Christian who submits to the shaping power of the church is more successfully "liberal" than any secular liberal, or any theological liberal who keeps the identity-forming practices of the church at a distance. It is, perhaps, a great irony that this ardent critic of liberalism should draw such a conclusion. But the irony is fruitful. For Hauerwas may well succeed in doing exactly that which his bête noire, liberal Protestantism in America, has failed to do - articulate a theological vision for men and women who wish so to serve the kingdom of God that they will be citizens of the world rather than representatives of an imperial nation and a liberal culture.


1 Hauerwas' denunciations of the practice of ethics in America are legion. For a particularly witty illustration, see Hauerwas (2000), 55-69.

2 Arne Rasmusson's perceptive and helpful study (Rasmusson 1995) provides a detailed brief against the European tradition of political theology, clearly taking his cues from Hauerwas.

3 Hauerwas later backtracks from such broad characterizations (see Hauerwas 1985: xxvi); nonetheless, he has continued to dismiss the notion that sanctification and justification are rivals in a zero-sum game.

4 See his comments on St. Augustine: Hauerwas (1977), 33-5.

5 For an insightful examination of the future-oriented structure of Hauerwas' use of notions such as truth, see Robert W. Jenson's assessment: Jenson (1992), 285-95.

6 See e.g. his analysis of H. Richard Niebuhr's use of "transcendence" to deracinate Christianity. On its face, Niebuhr's strategy would seem utterly congenial to Hauerwas' attack upon "Constantinianism," and yet he rejects it outright (Hauerwas 1998: 158-60).


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Gustafson, James (1985). "The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections on Theology, the Church and the University." CTSA [Catholic Theological Society of America] Proceedings 40, 83-94.

Hauerwas, Stanley (1977). Truthfulness and Tragedy: Further Investigations in Christian Ethics, with Richard Bondi and David B. Burrell. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

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-(1985). Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics, 2nd edn. with new int. San Antonio: Trinity University Press. (First publ. 1975.)

-(1988). Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living in Between.

Durham, NC: Labyrinth.

-(1991). After Christendom: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a

Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas. Nashville: Abingdon.

-(1997). Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth-Century Theology and Philosophy.

Boulder, Col.: Westview.

-(1998). Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified. Nashville: Abingdon.

-(2000). A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and

Postmodernity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos.

-(2001). With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology.

Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos. Jenson, Robert W. (1992). "The Hauerwas Project." Modern Theology 8: 3, 285-95. Rasmusson, Arne (1995). The Church as Polis: From Political Theology to Theological Ethics as Exemplified by Jürgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

Twelve Southerners (1962). I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

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