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Stanley Hauerwas, America and war (and a question about flags in churches)

Stanley Hauerwas, America and war (and a question about flags in churches) February 11, 2012

Two nights ago I stayed up late composing a post for this blog about Stanley Hauerwas’ most recent book War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Baker Academic, 2011). I ended with some questions about American flags in Christian sanctuaries of worship. Before I was able to post it to this blog, my computer crashed. I lost it completely. Fortunately, I didn’t lost much else that wasn’t already backed up on some other medium. Now I have a new PC and am ready to try to reconstruct that blog post. Thanks for your patience in the meantime.

I admit to having something of a bias against Hauerwas and that for two main reasons. First, I have seen and heard him operate on discussion panels (e.g., at American Academy of Religion meetings) and was not impressed. Second, I read his Gifford Lectures (published as With the Grain of the Universe) and was not impressed. In fact, I thought his argument there that Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology was not Christian was “in left field,” so to speak. Fortunately, it was refuted by Gabriel Fackre in Christian Century.

I am now reading War and the American Difference with a group of students and others outside the formal academic setting. One of the students chose it for our discussion and I as glad to be given the opportunity to give Hauerwas another chance. So far (having read up through Part I) I’m pleasantly surprised. What I mean by that is his argument seems very well-researched and expressed and even profound (which is not to say I agree with every aspect of it).

Hauerwas’ startling thesis (of course it’s “startling,” right?) is that “war remains for Americans our most determinative moral reality.” (p. 34) Lacking any common belief or value system, America, he says, has adopted war as the “glue” that holds us together. War is treated as “sacrifice” in a religious sense. And we are increasingly constantly at war because being at war draws us together. We need war for our American identity.

I have wondered for some time why it is the case that for the past several decades it seems America is constantly involved in some armed conflict somewhere in the world: Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia, Kuwait and Iraq, Iraq again, Afghanistan, etc. I can’t remember a time during the past three to four decades when America was not either involved in a war militarily (beyond just sending advisers) or talking war with some specific country. Now we are hearing rumors of possible war with Iran as we are winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hauerwas argues that the “war against terrorism” is an endless war and that one of its main purposes (unconsciously?) is to keep Americans identified together in the same way that a country with an established religion holds together (more or less, of course). War has become our established quasi-religion.

Of course, H. is a pacifist, but one does not have to be a pacifist to see some cogency in his analysis of American wars. He is attempting to peer behind all the public rhetoric and even the conscious justifications of war by those who wage it and defend it to see what is really driving this apparent need always to be at war.

I am half convinced. I remember watching a religious leader, an evangelical pastor who heads up a national network of churches, being interviewed about America’s invasion of Iraq (“Shock and Awe”) when it was beginning. He said that anyone who criticized the war is a traitor. I had the strange feeling then that he meant “heretic” just as much as “traitor.” It seems that during the past few decades, any criticism of our American war efforts have been greeted with the same condemnations as a blatant heretic would be treated in an orthodox church. Has America become a quasi-church? Hauerwas thinks so and I think it’s work asking and considering.

One sort of case study (for me) is American flags in church sanctuaries. I have discussed that here before. But now I’m asking this question and would be interested in hearing answers. Why is it so important to have the American flag in the sanctuary? Beyond the bare fact that it has always been there (tradition), what makes it so essential that it be there? I’m asking this, of course, of people who do think it’s important or essential for the American flag to be in the worship sanctuary. I have met them and heard them talk, but I have not asked them this face-to-face. (One gentleman in one church said that if someone removed the flag he might do something violent about it. In anther church some people in the congregation kept returning the American flag to the worship space when the pastor moved it elsewhere in the church building.)

IF the purpose is NOT to mix Christianity with American nationalism, what is the purpose? Or, if that IS the purpose, how is that defended? Are there any thoughtful theological defenses for the American flag being there and remaining there?

I am thinking, for example, of the fact that we (Americans) gather in all kinds of placed without American flags present. Does anyone insist the flag must be everywhere they gather? What about movie theaters? I haven’t seen an American flag in one and I haven’t heard anyone argue that it ought to be there. What about restaurants? What about grocery stores and malls? What about concerts, plays, live theater performances (on or off Broadway)? My question is why Christians who are so adamant about the American flag being in the sanctuary (and it must be up front, of course) are not equally adamant about it being in all those common spaces?

Of course, my concern is that what is really going on in people’s minds, even if they are not fully aware of it, is that they mix and mingle American nationalism with their Christianity. How is that not idolatry? That is, how is it not idolatry to place the flag on the same level of importance with, say, the cross? (I know of churches where nobody would balk at the cross being removed from the sanctuary, but they would balk at the flag being removed.)

What does my question have to do with Hauerwas? Well, I would think it would be obvious. His underlying argument is not just about war; it is about civil religion. What he adds to the idea of Americanism as our civil religion is the idea of war as essential to that civil religion. My question is so far not whether he is right about war, as I don’t know how that can be proved or disproven, but about civil religion focused especially on the symbol of the flag.

It seems to me that it would be a very good test of idolatry (or lack of it) to remove the flag and see what happens. It seems to me that anyone who gets angry and insists the sanctuary must include the flag might be flirting with idolatry. Not necessarily conscious, willful idolatry, like bowing down to an idol or something, but idolatry in the sense of elevating a human symbol to absolute status alongside the symbols of the cross and the bread and wine and the Bible (as a symbol of God’s Word).

Do I have any takers? Does anyone care to explain why the American flag is essential to the Christian worship sanctuary? My mind is not made up about the issue of idolatry; I’m open to being convinced that is not the case, so please try.


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