Haberski: How Stanley Haurwaus Has Benefited From James Madison’s Views of Church and State

Raymond Haberski Jr., in a post at US Intellectual History, reflects on how the radical theology of Stanley Hauerwas, particularly as it relates to church and state, has benefited from the thought of James Madison.  Here is a taste:

In considering the public role Hauerwas has played over the last three decades, he clearly has not remained (if he ever was) a resident alien.  His work has been, as he would be the first to  claim, overtly political in the sense that being Christian and considering ethics is nothing if not about power and how wexercise and critique it.

However, I have been teaching about James Madison’s challenge to the way religion became enshrined politically in the founding the American government.  I wondered with my students the other day what kind of career someone like Hauerwas would have had if Madison’s recommendation of a strong statement regarding religion had found its way into the Constitution.  Instead of Madison’s argument that civil government cannot need religion in order to survive and operate and Americans should have acknowledges that fact clearly, we have a Constitution that promises no state interference in religious worship and that’s about it.

David Sehat in The Myth of American Religious Freedom, a book that I find to be one of the most important to appear in 2011, has made me consider a way to conceive of what Madison wanted: the test for religious freedom is not whether churches flourish, they will or will not based on the people who worship in them, but whether a society supports (not merely tolerates) those who reject religion and, most especially, mainstream religion.  In short, religion didn’t need the state and the state didn’t need religion.  But that’s not we got. And Tocqueville was perceptive enough to recognize that within a few decades after the ratification of the Constitution, American society had developed a co-dependent relationship with the idea of religion.   

Stanley Hauerwas has, in a way, benefited from that relationship, in that his work constantly seems relevant because he challenges the way we speak about God.  But at the same time, I read his memoir as recovery of  sorts of the dream Madison had of a society in which religions rose and fell without any consequential connection to the health of the state.  In the end, there is an irony to Hauerwas’s prominence—like his foil, Reinhold Niebuhr, his fame is based on the way his theology plays a role in the politics of the nation and not in the creation and understanding of Christian ethics.  Madison’s warning continues to haunt the religious.

One thought on “Haberski: How Stanley Haurwaus Has Benefited From James Madison’s Views of Church and State

  1. All I get from Madison definitively is an opposition to the state financing the churches. Did he oppose congressional chaplains, or just the Gov't paying them?

    There's a passage in Adam Smith that notes how fat, happy and unresponsive gov't-financed clergy get. Madison seems to be a Smith man. One Madison quote [second-hand] evinces an affinity for unitarianism. But gov't-financed clergy and churches only ossify existing doctrine, dogma and theology.

    In other words, Madison wasn't necessarily opposed to religion-in-the-state, but could have seen gov't finance of it as inhibiting theological progress of the sort he'd have liked to see.


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