Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Hauerwas, Liberalism, and Public Reason: Terms of Engagement?

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Hauerwas, Liberalism, and Public Reason: Terms of Engagement?

Article excerpt


As a theologian, Stanley Hauerwas offers a powerful Christian social critique of our politics, law, and public culture, emphasizing the perceived philosophical shortcomings of liberalism. Although I am neither a Christian theologian nor a student of Christian theology, I recognize that Hauerwas is an important, often penetrating, social critic. Nevertheless, his philosophical account of the alleged shortcomings of liberalism frequently misfires.

Many of Hauerwas's substantive moral concerns seem to me quite salutary: he opposes our increasingly warlike foreign policy; he calls attention to the plight of African Americans, the poor, the disabled, and the marginalized and excluded generally, seeking to mobilize people to work on their behalf. He expresses concern with sexual permissiveness, abortion, and the decline of lifelong marital commitment. He seems to me obviously correct in his effort to remind Christians that the example of Jesus and his cross should challenge us to question the rampant materialism, consumerism, and self-concern that characterize our popular culture. While I disagree with some of his specifics--his strict pacifism for example--these substantive criticisms all seem to me constructive contributions to public moral discussion.

However, Hauerwas's concerns with the reigning public moral culture are frequently aligned under a general philosophical characterization of liberalism--and liberal law and politics--that seems to me caricatured and unhelpful. The very fact that he uses the shorthand of "liberalism" to describe the dominant culture is decidedly misleading for a number of reasons. To begin with, many historical and cultural forces besides liberalism have influenced American politics and culture. (1) Moreover, the term "liberalism" can be used to cover a range of different and even opposed political positions. Our politics is increasingly libertarian and conservative--or, "classical liberal" if you will--and it drifts ever further from the concern with social justice that has been the hallmark of egalitarian liberalism for decades. Hauerwas ascribes to liberalism a variety of abstract philosophical commitments that have little, or nothing to do with the theory and practice of liberal constitutionalism and politics. (2)

With respect to his substantive moral concerns, Hauerwas writes mainly as an anti-accommodationist Christian--that is, in opposition to Christians accommodating themselves to the dominant culture. He complains that people have misunderstood him as a "theological and political reactionary." (3) While he obviously is not that, the confusion is understandable, and his jaundiced view of liberalism may well aid the forces of political reaction, as Jeffrey Stout has also suggested. (4) To adequately assess liberalism, and to constructively address the social and political problems that trouble Hauerwas, we need a livelier appreciation than Hauerwas offers of the practical contributions of liberal justice, rights, and constitutional institutions.

As I have said, I am neither a theologian nor a Hauerwas scholar. He writes primarily as a theologian speaking to his fellow Christians about Christianity. I am a political theorist who sympathizes strongly with the liberal political tradition, properly understood. We are both concerned with our shared political project and its justifiability, so that will be my focus here.


"Liberalism" is a capacious term: the liberal tradition is complex and multi-stranded, or as Hauerwas himself has described it, "a many-faced and historically ambiguous phenomenon." (5) There are various reasonable ways of characterizing it. I understand liberalism's moral core to be the emphasis on the political importance of equal basic individual rights. Persons are understood, in their political capacity, as free and equal, and an urgent political imperative is to secure citizens in their basic interests understood in the language of rights and justice. …

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