“maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks”

I haven’t been writing much lately (obviously, as the silence here indicates), for a variety of life reasons, but I have been doing a ton of reading. I am nearing the end of my year long read through of a large part of Stanley Hauerwas’ bibliography. Accordingly, over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing here quite a bit that has caught my eye and stirred me from that reading, especially from Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, which I just recently finished. I have a lot to draw out from it, both as Excerpts and in extended thoughts. I know my readers may tire of hearing me respond to Hauerwas, but that is where my head (and my theology) largely is these days, and I do it out of a great debt of gratitude to Stanley and his work and the path it has set me on.

This passage from the introduction Performing the Faith is where I want to start, because I think it does a really good job of diagnosing much of our cultural malaise. Its all the more meaningful to remember that these words were written nearly two decades ago, because they still ring so true today. (Emphasis all mine.)

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Dimbleby Lecture (2002) interestingly calls attention to the challenge punishment presents for those living in societies like modern England. His observations about punishment follow his account of the loss of politics in what he calls the emerging “market states.” According to Williams, such states are now servants of global capitalism, which means that they are unable to be the focus for conversations necessary to discover goods in common. Rather, market states derive their legitimacy by trying to provide insurance to voters who seek the maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks. Such states push “politics towards a consumerist model, with the state as the guarantor of ‘purchasing power’, it raises short-term expectations. By raising short-term expectations, it invites instability, reactive administration, rule by opinion poll and pressure.”

Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence, pages 27-28.

We live in a world of market states, and no where is this more true than right here in America, the very nation that has led the charge to change our conception of all communities and relationships to one predicated first and foremost on marketplace values. We are conditioned to understand social interactions as taking place between a consumer and a seller; much of our social energy goes into determining which of these roles we are in whenever we interact with another person, another institution, or another state. Our politics have largely become a consumer-producer relationship, with us as voters expecting that we should receive some immediate tangible benefit for our votes or political support, rather than recognizing the long game that democracy really is at any level.1

And so, our politics have become characterized by “instability, reactive administration, and rule by opinion poll and pressure.” One need only look as far as the previous presidential administration to see these traits most blatantly, but they have been a part of our political culture for much longer than the last four years, and they continue on today in the Biden years. This isn’t either a random or an inevitable outcome. We’ve made choices as a people – or, at the very least, allowed those in power to make choices on our behalf with very little pushback – to get to this point, because we mostly want “the maximum possible freedom without the corresponding risks.” In other words, we want to have our cake and eat it too; we want to do whatever it is we want to do right now, and we don’t want to be reminded that there are consequences to our actions, consequences that affect those less fortunate than us, and consequences that determine the future of our world.

So I take these words as a reminder: politics is not a market transaction. We shouldn’t treat it as such. Politics are the language we speak together as a community to determine how we can live together. We’ve allowed it to become much less like a town meeting, and much more like speaking to a used car salesman. This is the wages of market states, of the rule of capitalism and liberalism and the attendant need within those systems to destroy any shared story or memories about who and why we are. The goal of our political arrangements has to be more than just “freedom.” We need a bigger story we tell about who we are and what we are doing here. Part of what I’m exploring in reading and writing about Hauerwas right now is how we as Christians do in fact have a better story to tell – and how it isn’t a story about how to rule the world directly. I look forward to exploring those themes here.


1 Please note I’m not making the standard conservative political claim that voters are being “bought” in order to benefit one party or another. This is a larger, system-wide critique of how we understand politics to work.

Beth Moore’s consistency

Alan Jacobs:

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.

a new moral majority

An aside in a recent Scott Alexander comments post caught my eye. The “this” he refers to in the first sentence is conflict theory:

The most famous example of doing this well was the Reagan coalition, where powerful business interests got to stay rich and powerful, and Moral Majority Christians got to have prayer in school or whatever. But the modern Democratic coalition works too – powerful class interests get to stay rich and powerful, and poor minorities get to have anti-racist math in school or whatever. This honestly seems like a pretty good deal for the Democrats, coalition-building-wise, and I’m not sure they can do better.

I had never thought about it in this way before, but as I become more critical of the identarian/”woke” wing of the left, this seems to ring true to me. Just as I strongly believe all of the culture war material on the right (Satanic panic, LGBT issues, euthanasia, stem cells, and above all else, abortion) has long been a convenient giveaway by economic elites in order to get everyday conservative voters to support an economic agenda that largely benefits the wealthy, I believe the same dynamic is increasingly at work on the left. These woke issues suck up a lot of time and energy and attention among progressive activists, and while they may in some ways be important, they also distract from economic issues that would be mire widely attractive to working class voters and harmful to elite interests. This kind of cultural distraction is very useful to those in power. The left would do well to re-embrace a class-focused progressivism, instead of allowing itself to fall into the trap of becoming a moral majority of the left.