Ross Douthat rightly asserts that religious faith is essential to America’s understanding of itself. But his own understanding of religion is suspiciously selective.
Unfortunately, Douthat often uses unconvincing dichotomies to make his arguments. Isn’t the 1950s civil rights movement—which this book celebrates—an example of the liberal messianism that righted a great wrong? And is Obama any more messianic a cult figure among liberals than Reagan was to conservatives?
He can also be tendentious. For instance, he asserts that in voting for the Affordable Care Act, pro-life Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak “had to choose between his liberalism and his church.” Not so. What Stupak had to choose between was an interpretation of the bill’s language about abortion funding as offered by the bishops’ legal counsel and the interpretations of other legal experts. As a Catholic, he was free to make his choice. Similarly, Douthat writes that the Terri Schiavo case showed how “orthodox Christian views on matters of life and death have become a distinctly minority persuasion, easily dismissed as sectarian by the press and the wider public alike.” In fact, the traditional Christian view is that providing artificial hydration and nutrition to a person in Schiavo’s condition is voluntary, not mandatory. Douthat also fails to mention the two pastoral letters issued in the 1980s by Catholic bishops, one on war and peace and the other on the economy. Both were seen as quite critical of popular Reagan policies of massive defense spending and deep cuts in social welfare.
Regarding sexual morality, many will find Douthat’s charges that the churches have largely abandoned the field too simplistic. “The traditional Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge,” he writes. “It seems easy enough to snip a single thread out of the pattern, but often the whole thing swiftly unravels once you do.” This is not an unreasonable intuition; it certainly informs the Catholic Church’s refusal to budge on such issues as premarital sex, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. But is it true? Does the whole teaching hang together in the way Douthat suggests, and is it as fragile as he thinks? Let’s not forget that a number of threads have already been snipped out of those teachings. It was once taught that marriage was the “remedy for concupiscence.” And that the sole purpose of sex was procreation. And that a wife must be submissive to her husband’s sexual demands. And marriage itself was long considered inferior to the celibate priesthood as a spiritual vocation.
The “orthodox” teaching today is quite different, with marriage and the priesthood granted equal spiritual dignity, procreation no longer viewed as the sole purpose of sex, and wives freed from the sexual beck and call of their husbands. Snip, snip, snip. What does Douthat make of these significant changes in how Catholics think about sex and marriage? Many Catholics view them as a much-needed development—and welcome further changes, especially as the experience and theological reflection of women are taken into account. Conspicuously missing from Douthat’s discussion of sexual morality is any serious attention to the changing place and roles of women in society and religious institutions over the past fifty years. It is a telling lacuna.
And what of the threads that have been snipped from Christianity’s traditional teachings on economic justice over recent decades in America? The church, of course, has long been critical of capitalism, insisting that any economic system be judged not by the sum of wealth it produces but by how it treats the poor and those who work to support their families. Great concentrations of wealth are seen to be inimical to the health of society. But while Douthat exudes confidence in the truth of Christianity’s teaching about sexuality, he is less certain about its condemnations of capitalism. Bad Religion goes so far as to venture that economic inequality may be salutary. “Perhaps the uncertainties of the capitalist economy make us cling more tightly to the promises of God,” Douthat writes; “perhaps the absence of a cradle-to-grave welfare state encourages us to rely on the networks of family and community instead.” Indeed, “the understanding that capitalism is the economic system best-suited to man’s fallen nature” may indicate the need for “some kind of Christian compromise with Mammon.” One has to wonder, why is Douthat so doubtful on this subject?
Bad Religion is on firmer ground when it addresses the social nature and implications of belief systems. Every society, Douthat observes, embraces some belief about the ultimate nature of reality and what role human beings play in it—and these beliefs profoundly shape our expectations and behavior. Since that is the case, we can’t be indifferent to what our fellow citizens believe, and we must recognize that some beliefs are more conducive to human dignity than others. Hence the importance of Christianity for American democracy. “Secular as well as pious Americans will have a strong stake in the forms that American religion takes,” Douthat writes.
Both doubters and believers have benefited from the role that institutional Christianity has traditionally played in our national life—its communal role, as a driver of assimilation and a guarantor of social peace, and its prophetic role, as a curb against our national excesses and a constant reminder of our national ideals. Both doubters and believers stand to lose if religion in the age of heresy turns out to be complicit in our fragmented communities, our collapsing families, our political polarization, and our weakened social ties.
American religion is very much complicit, says Douthat, and we have already lost a lot. He admits to writing his book “in a spirit of pessimism,” and the gloom is indeed thick at times. These pages offer only speculation on how Christians might revitalize their faith and wield it to help avert a larger catastrophe. Tentatively, Douthat suggests a number of options, ranging from various forms of Christian separatism to the possibility that America will be reconverted by missionaries from the Third World. He offers up bromides, urging Christians to put “allegiance to principle over party” and bring “their faith to bear on debates about justice and the common good.” Politically conservative Christians are cautioned that “Rush Limbaugh’s take on tax policy and Donald Rumsfeld’s views on water boarding are not inscribed in the New Testament.” Liberal believers are reminded to “speak out loudly against the ways that liberalism can provide a warrant for libertinism.”
In the end, Douthat asserts, “only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.” But sanctity, as he acknowledges, is rare in any age. For better and for worse, the Christian communities and institutions that provided so much care and guidance to Americans in the last century were built not by Mother Teresas but by far less single-minded believers. The element of romance in Douthat’s concluding peroration is more a retreat from the messy business of “Christian realism” than a brief for it.
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