The moral challenge is not consumerism or materialism. Such characterizations of the enemy we face as Christians are far too superficial and moralistic. The problem is not just that we have become consumers of our own lives, but that we can conceive of no alternative narrative. We lack the practices, and hence the imagination, that could make such a narrative intelligible. Put differently, the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.
I am aware that such a suggestion cannot help but be met with disbelief. You may well think I cannot be serious. Normal nihilism is so wonderfully tolerant. Surely you are not against tolerance? How can anyone be against freedom? Let me assure you that I am serious; I am against tolerance; I do not believe it is a good story, because it is so clearly a lie. The lie is exposed by simply asking, “Who told you the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story?” Why should that story be determinative for your life? Simply put, the story of freedom has now become our fate.
For example, consider the hallmark sentence of the Casey decision on abortion – “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Remember that was written by political conservatives. Moreover, it is exactly that view of freedom that John Paul II so eloquently condemns in the encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. A view of freedom, like that embodied in Casey, according to John Paul II, assumes we must be able to “create values” since freedom enjoys “a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom.”
In contrast, John Paul II, who is not afraid to have enemies, reminds us that the good news of the Gospel, known through proclamation, is that we are not fated to be determined by such false stories of freedom. For the truth is that we are not free to choose our own stories inasmuch as we are God’s good creation. Freedom lies not in creating our lives, but learning to recognize our lives as gift. We do not receive our lives as if they were a gift, but rather our lives are gift. We do not exist and then God gives us a gift, but our existence is gift. The great magic of the Gospel is providing us with the skills to acknowledge our life as gift, as created, without resentment and regret. Such skills must be embodied in a community of people across time, constituted by practices such as baptism, preaching, and Eucharist, which become the means for us to discover God’s story for our lives.Stanley Hauerwas, “No Enemy, No Christianity: Preaching between ‘Worlds’ in Sanctify Them in The Truth, pages 197-199.
I think a closely analogous situation obtains in the relationship between the Bible teacher Beth Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention. Beth Moore continues to hold the views that she held before Donald Trump came on the scene, and has never seen any reason why the rise of Donald Trump should cause her to abandon the biblical standards by which she has tried to govern her life, and by which she has expected other Christians to try to govern theirs. Just as the postjournalists changed course and despise those who have not changed with them, so also many leaders of the SBC shifted from their traditional conviction that “character counts” in order to enable rank idolatry, and cannot forgive people like Beth Moore for not shifting with them.
So much of the Church on the right shifted its moral bases during the Trump years that it can be hard to see the scope of that shift. But it really did happen, and it really is a big problem, and that fact that stalwarts like Beth Moore are standing like markers for us to see that shift is so important. Beth Moore is who she was prior to 2016; the rest of the evangelical right are the ones who have changed to conform themselves to the needs and whims of Donald Trump and his Republican Party. As Jacobs says, that shift is heresy in its purest form. Here is Jacobs again (emphasis his):
I’m old enough to remember when heresy was understood to be deviation from long-establish beliefs and practices. But in a social-media environment that issues new commandments every fortnight or so, the heretics now are the ones who don’t deviate when told to do so. And they are hated with particular intensity because they are a living, breathing reproach to their colleagues’ complete lack of ethical standards.
The presumption that the so-called moral precepts of the Decalogue could be separated from our obligation to worship God would, I think, strike the Church Fathers as distinctly odd. Augustine, for example, notes that ‘The beginning of freedom is to be free from crimes…such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, sacrilege and so forth. When once one is without these crimes (and every Christian should be without them), one beings to lift up one’s head toward freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom…” The commandments cannot be separated, viewed in isolation from one another, and in particular, from the first commandment.”Stanley Hauerwas, “The Truth About God: The Decalogue as Condition for Truthful Speech” from Sanctify Them In The Truth, page 47.