13 Jul

Only domesticated religions are safe to be free

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 07/13/16

Stanley Hauerwas on why “freedom of religion” carries subtle temptations

“The First Amendment, when interpreted against the backdrop of political liberalism, has had disastrous results for church and society. I do not want to take the sting out of the argument to follow, but I hope it will be clear that I am not suggesting we repeal the First Amendment. The First Amendment could be a politically significant way for a state to acknowledge those public enterprises so essential to the public weal that they should be protected from command of the government. It is the brunt of my case, however, that for a complex set of reasons the First Amendment does not serve that end in our society. Moreover, my concern is not with the failure of American society in this respect, but with the failure of the church to hold the society to be true to its own best commitments.

“Because Christians have been so concerned with supporting the social and legal institutions that sustain freedom of religion, we have failed to notice that we are no longer a people who make it interesting for a society to acknowledge our freedom. Put differently, in such a context, believer and nonbeliever alike soon begin to think what matters is not whether our convictions are true but whether they are functional. We thus fail to remember that the question is not whether the church has the freedom to preach the gospel in America, but rather whether the church in America preaches the gospel as truth. The question is not whether we have freedom of religion and a corresponding limited state in America, but whether we have a church that has a people capable of saying no to the state. No state, particularly the democratic state, is kept limited by constitutions, but rather states are limited by a people with the imagination and courage to challenge the inveterate temptation of the state to ask us to compromise our loyalty to God.

“Freedom of religion is a temptation, albeit a subtle one. It tempts us as Christians to believe that we have been rendered safe by legal mechanisms. It is subtle because we believe that our task as Christians is to support the ethos necessary to maintaining the mechanism. As a result, we lose the critical skills formed by the gospel to know when we have voluntarily qualified our loyalty to God in the name of the state. We confuse freedom of religion with freedom of the church, accepting the assumption that the latter is but a specification of the former. We thus become tolerant, allowing our convictions to be relegated to the realm of the private. . . .

“The religion we have [in America] is one that has been domesticated on the presumption that only a domesticated religion is safe to be free in America. Rather than being a church that could be capable of keeping the state limited, Christianity in America became a ‘religion’ in the service of a state which then promised it ‘freedom.’ For what free means is the right to entertain personally meaningful beliefs that have only the most indirect relation to the state. The state by definition is just since it provides for freedom of religion. The inability of Protestant churches in America to maintain any sense of authority over the lives of their members is one of the most compelling signs that freedom of religion has resulted in the corruption of Christians who now believe they have the right religiously to make up their own minds. There is every sign that this is now also happening among Roman Catholics. As a result, neither Protestants nor Catholics have the capacity to stand as disciplined people capable of challenging the state.”

— from Stanley Hauerwas, “Why Freedom of Religion is a Subtle Temptation,” in After Christendom: How the Church is to Behave as if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Abingdon Press, 1991)

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