May 20, 2024

Theology and bioethics 1: Stanley Hauerwas

A leading American Protestant theologian has published an intriguing essay in the ABC (Australia) website about America’s distinctive brand of Christianity. Stanley Hauerwas, of Duke University, argues that patriotism, for reasons connected with America’s unique history, has become a civic religion which has absorbed Protestantism.

Hauerwas was named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time Magazine in 2001 – and who should know better than Time? Consolidating his reputation as a leading left-leaning intellectual, he has also appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

This history has left a deep and lasting mark on America’s attitude to medicine – and perhaps accounts for its soaring health care costs:

“If I am right about the story that shapes the American self-understanding, I think we are in a position to better understand why after 11 September 2001 the self-proclaimed ‘most powerful nation in the world’ runs on fear. It does so because the fear of death is necessary to insure a level of cooperation between people who otherwise share nothing in common. That is, they share nothing in common other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.

“That is why in America hospitals have become our cathedrals and physicians are our priests. Accordingly medical schools are much more serious about the moral formation of their students than divinity schools. They are so because Americans do not believe that an inadequately trained priest may damage their salvation, but they do believe an inadequately trained doctor can hurt them.

“The American desire to use medicine in an attempt to get out of life alive is but the domestic form of American foreign policy. 11 September 2001 gave America exactly what she so desperately needed after the end of the cold war, for it is unclear if America can live without a war. Otherwise, what would give us a moral compass? So we got a ‘war against terrorism’, which is a war without end.”


Michael Cook
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Stanley Hauerwas