Monday, August 13, 2012

Is there a difference between public and private faith?

It's election time in the USA which means that all kinds of politicians are going to be saying ""God bless America" and voters going to scrutinize the church attendance record of the candidates. At the same time there will be a significant group of people who will insist that religion has no place in the public sphere.

Over at the Centre For Public Christianity there is a short interview with Stanley Hauerwas, professor of Theology and Ethics at Duke Divinity School, in which he explains why there cannot be a dichotomy between public and private faith.


  1. In his book, "How the Church Fails Businesspeople", John C Knapp looks at the same private-public tension within the work place. While reading it, I kept coming back to the fact that businesses have had a long journey to the place where they are now - not only Faith marginalized but ALL non-business views pushed to the background. Just as businesses have found that primacy of so-called private belief can be disruptive in the workplace, so too has society found that their idiosyncratic nature often makes them a divisive rather than a constructive force. Never discuss sex, politics or religion in polite company, right?

    While it is easy to say that all views should be welcome in public discourse, in practice some views claim an authority that brooks no dissent. In this interview, Hauerwas himself suggests that Christians' belief in the lordship of Jesus is inseparable from the bedrock of the faith. Is there room for civil or political compromise here? Are Christian's ready to have their beliefs subjected to the same scrutiny and potential dismissal as those of Ayn Rand or Karl Marx? When religious views enter the political arena (let's be honest: all public discourse is political) then it must lose the privileged status so many believers grant it. It will become fair game.

    Will Christians be willing to give up the special claim to Truth that their beliefs enjoy on Sunday morning in order to compete as "just another political position"? I am not so sure.

  2. I agree with Hauerwas that our faith should not suffer from a dichotomy between the public and the private. I think that this is a necessary stance given the countless examples of people and politicians acting in ways that are contrary to their beliefs, or perhaps it is better to say pseudo-beliefs. It doesn't take too much energy to convince people of this.

    The real problem, as I see it, seems to revolve around how one's faith is supposed to be made public. This is where I depart from Hauerwas. I cannot agree with him on the point that Church should have no business in effecting change in the political. It is ill-founded to suggest that the only way to maintain the subversive nature of our faith is to be uninvolved in the political. This position only serves to create opportunities for further injustice.

    That Christians have been engaged in politics is not the problem. Rather the problem is that Christians have, for far too long, used their political influence to push their own position, while attempting to silence the Other. Instead of remaining out of the political maybe we should realize that our role as Christians is not to project our narrative on others, but rather to create space for the Other to live without fear of being coerced and manipulated by another view point.

    So while we should point out that we must avoid driving a wedge between the public and the private, the real discussion needs to be one of methodology.

  3. Bryan, I disagree that Hauerwas believes that Christians have no place effecting change in the "political." For Stanley, and for me, it's a question of how Christians go about effecting that change. You use the term methodology. That's a useful term, but I prefer the term "posture." Christians are indeed to be political. The question is how do we go about being political. Where do we stand as citizens of the kingdom of God as we face the powers that know not God.

    1. I appreciate the response. I didn't not intend to suggest that Hauerwas fails to attempt to effect change. With that said, he does suggest that to engage in politics is nothing more than the support of democratic liberalism (this point cannot be disputed). To make this claim puts him in a place that does not allow him to institute social change, unless that social change comes through simply being a witness to the truth in a particular context. This is exactly the critique that Kathryn Tanner(a postliberal like Hauerwas) makes of the postliberal movement.

      I guess I would appreciate Hauwerwas more if he would not label everyone a Constantinian compromiser if they decide to use their faith in such a way that promotes justice and liberty for all people regardless of their belief. In short, while Hauerwas does engage the political in a particular way, he does not allow the possibility for social change through the political system. Rather he sees this type of engagement as the source of the problem. In so doing, he allows further injustice to transpire when he refuses to use the power given to him to create justice for others.

      This is what I really wanted to say, but I didn't want my initial post to be the length of a chapter in a book :-)