In God We Trust. Photo by Kevin Dooley via Flickr

Will God Save America?

Surveys claim religion is still strong. Politicians, in canvasing for votes, wave the Bible. And yet Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas believes that Christianity, in the nation born from the search for happiness, is becoming increasingly weaker.
Carlo Dignola

Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America in the early nineteenth century, wrote that the Pilgrim Fathers “went to the New World not to improve their lot or garner riches. They left the comforts of their homeland in response to a purely spiritual need.” The beginning of the adventure of a new nation–as Fr. Pino recalled at the encounter that opened the Meeting–raised the flag of freedom, including religious freedom. The Americans felt called by God to make their nation “the land of the covenant between Him and His people, like the people of Israel.”

What remains, today, of the piety of that beginning? Debating it on the platform in Rimini were the Protestant Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University in North Carolina, and the Catholic Dr. David Schindler, Professor of Fundamental Theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC.

America, notes Schindler, citing Nietzsche, hardly seems to be a country in which “God is dead.” Surveys record a very high percentage of citizens who believe in God, many of them taking part in the life of the religious communities and voting for openly Christian candidates. Yet the truth is that faith is collapsing behind the curtain of this seemingly Christian “cultural order.” This is what Hauerwas says, with a realism that is sometimes scathing, capable of delving to the bottom of the contradictions of his country.

“The Church that American Protestants are devoted to,” observes Hauerwas, “is actually the Nation.” Tocqueville wrote that Americans in their hearts may believe in God or not, but the obvious fact is that they all “believe that faith is essential for the maintenance of republican institutions.” The God of the Americans, says the theologian, “is the American God,” no longer the Christian one. Protestantism “nationalized” as such is cut off at its roots, “is coming to an end; it’s dying of its own success.” And even Catholicism is now tending to become a form of Protestantism. Just like their Evangelical brethren, the American Catholics “tend to believe there’s no substantial conflict between being Christian and being American,” and they end up living their faith as “a private matter.”

You described the United States as a country without a memory.
As Fr. Stefano Alberto observed, America is “unique.” The United States has the presumption to be different from others. They see themselves as the end point of history, which can do without the past. In this land–we Americans believe–there was no one here before and we started from scratch. In the New World, we don’t have to carry all the voluminous baggage of medieval Catholicism, royal dynasties, and the dialectics of social classes. The result is a kind of presumption that America is a nation different from others, a “new order.”

Do Americans see the nation as something “spiritual”?
We speak rather of the “American exception.” The “American exception” is a typical result of the idea that this nation is the end point of human history. This is how the story goes: it all began with the Greeks, who discovered the force of reason; then it passed to the Romans, with their great practical commonsense; then there was the upheaval of the Reformation, which fostered a yearning for human freedom. This extraordinary crescendo reached its zenith with the development of the Puritan consciousness of religious freedom in America. So this nation has become exemplary of how mankind’s whole path has always moved toward this goal. This is the great myth that dominates the American collective unconscious and is embodied in an extremely potent ideological-religious form.

Do you believe we are approaching the end of Protestantism in the United States? Are people losing faith? Or is it rather something to do with moral behavior?
Look at the numbers. I believe there are some 6 million Methodists in America: 60% to70% of them are probably over sixty years old. The Churches are literally moving toward bankruptcy. Sooner or later they will no longer be capable of supporting the institutions that represent their way of life. Also, they are no longer capable of attracting the young. In the same way, it’s becoming very difficult to organize a serious education in faith for those that still come to church. In the end, everyone thinks just what they like about religion.

Archbishop Francis E. George of Chicago says that Catholicism in America is “a form of Protestant Christianity.”
One of the salient points about Catholicism is that you come to the faith only through the testimony of others, so that a person always needs the Church as intermediary. In America, instead, you hear people happily saying things like, “Yes, I’m a Catholic but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a question of ethnic membership.” When Christianity becomes an “ethnic question,” that means you’ve become a Protestant.

Faith is increasingly enclosed in the private sphere.
I often hear people saying, “I believe that Jesus is the Lord. Mind, this is just my personal opinion….”

A contradiction in terms.
It’s the result of toleration. In America, no one ever wants to be or seem intolerant. The first rule is that you have to be nice. This produces a kind of superficiality that in the long run never measures itself with a real difference in convictions.

It is not heartening. And yet you’re not “anti-American.”
I’m American. I’d be ungrateful not to recognize that, despite the criticisms I make of America, this country has made me what I am. But, as Paul de Saint-Victor says, “Someone who feels at home only in his own country is still a child; someone who feels at home in two countries is becoming an adult; someone who does not feel at home anywhere in the world is on the road to perfection.” The very fact that someone asked me to come here to Rimini, to measure myself with a world that I ultimately don’t understand, is a good thing. It helps me not to feel “at home.” Being a Christian means your life is made vulnerable by people who are not American. This is “Catholicism.”
You are engaged in a profound dialogue with the Catholic world.
As a theologian, I represent the more “Catholic” side of Protestantism, the one that wants to recover the Christian tradition. Today, a lot of Protestant theologians have more in common with certain Catholic theologians than other Catholics have in common with each other, or certain Protestants with other Protestants.

What do you think of Luigi Giussani?
I read The Religious Sense and some of his writings on education. I think Giussani represents very concretely what I consider the Christological revival of Catholicism, which began with Vatican Council II. Or rather, already before the Council, Catholicism had begun to rediscover that the center of everything is Jesus. Giussani saw clearly that “without Jesus there is no God,” and also that “without a Church there is no Jesus,” and these two aspects are closely related. Above all, he was capable of making these things concrete in people’s lives in a truly outstanding way. I think that he was an extraordinarily great man. He represents a point of revival in Italian Catholicism, which is surprising and admirable.