On Political Books

May/June 2012 Losing Our Religion

Ross Douthat rightly asserts that religious faith is essential to America’s understanding of itself. But his own understanding of religion is suspiciously selective.

By Paul Baumann

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.

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.


  • SteveT on May 19, 2012 8:42 AM:

    Douthat is like most of the rest of today's conservatives. He longs for a halcyon time in America that never actually existed.

    Conservatives want to roll back the clock, to a time before the Sixties changed everything. They wish we still were living in the America depicted in television shows like "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Andy Griffith Show". What they don't seem to understand is the deep ugliness that was hidden behind the facade of neighborly politeness.

    The Cleavers houses, first of Mapleton Drive and later on Pine Street were almost certainly in restricted neighborhoods. The country club where Ward Cleaver played golf on Saturdays would have been for whites only. And the happy little town of Mayberry, NC was probably a "sundown town".

    Instead of declaring that Americans need to be more traditionally Christian, Douthat could be arguing that Americans need to be more white Anglo-saxon. But, fortunately, that argument wouldn't fly in America today.

    Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, would have understood Douthat's longing for a more orthodox Christianity. But the spiritual aspects of the church didn't seem to be an important part of his live since he didn't allow himself to be baptized until he was on his deathbed 25 years after his conversion. What apparently appealed to Constantine was the Christian church's emphasis on submission to authority, especially since emperor Constantine was the biggest authority.

    Personally, I don't think the United States would benefit from a return to "traditional" Christianity's Inquisitions and forced conversion of the heathens. And despite what Douthat would have us believe, we are not separated from those "traditions" by centuries of enlightenment and an ocean. Survivors of "Indian Schools" here in the U.S. can attest to that.

  • Neildsmith on May 19, 2012 9:01 AM:

    I won't dispute Douthat's thesis. It may very well be correct. Unfortunately, in order to reclaim our lost innocence, Douthat will require us to believe that God himself is present in a piece of bread because... well, just because he says so.

    There is a reason millions of rejected this bit of silliness... because it is silly for an person with a high school understanding of chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy to believe anything of the sort.

    By all means - bemoan the lack of community and pine for the days when churches provided the glue that bound us together. Fine... lets attempt to reconstruct that sense of community in a way that doesn't require us to lie to ourselves.

  • jd--Central Florida on May 19, 2012 10:29 AM:

    As a 1950s Catholic graduate from a Catholic college in a big Northeastern city, I knew that there were some big local companies that did not hire Catholics as a matter of policy. And Catholic colleges were looked on as third-rate.

    I think it was in the early 1960s that B'nai Brith caught Penn in an admissions scheme that cut down sharply on the number of Jews and Catholics admitted.

    Douthat's idea of a halcyon yesteryear is one that he himself never experienced. If he graduated from Harvard in 2002, that makes him likely 31 or 32. In the 1950s I wonder how many Catholic students were admitted to Harvard, what was the proportion of those from traditional private WASP schools?

    And most Catholics in the 1950s were likely blue-collar in background/social level/income. Then, not good Republicans. During the Civil Rights era, the Ivy League schools suddenly reached down to the South for bright black students. I don't recall a similar outreach previously for blue-collar white boys (women came later into the fray, as Douthat appears to acknowledge).

  • HMDK on May 19, 2012 12:21 PM:

    "Christianity has in fact played a vital role both in sustaining democracy and curbing its excesses".

    And been the cause of many of the excesses and in its ignorant rightwing form an actual threat to democracy.
    Evil is as evil does, religion or no religion.
    Problem is, there's plenty of evil built-in in most religious texts.

  • grandpa john on May 19, 2012 6:29 PM:

    same old bullcrap from the same old idiotic, hypocritical moron. Mr douthat once again illustrates his ign orance of the bible as contrasted to the churches heretical intrepretation by the pope and cardinals of what the bible actually says. I am curious as to his hang up on sexual morality. When I read Matthew or John or Acts or Any of Pauls letters to the churches, you know what the major moral factor is? You are your brothers keeper, you are to love your brother as yourself, you are to care for the poor and needy, feed the hungry, Those are the principles that are emphasized time and again. Since mr. Douthats party of choice are the major politicians who seem to be against these things in favor rather of tax cuts for the rich, I will assume that Douthat is simply another lying repub trying to enhance his bottom line at the expense of
    the 99%, those that God said we are to love and care for

  • Painless on May 20, 2012 7:28 AM:

    Douthat's argument is essentially authoritarian.

    In the wake of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, it amazes me that anyone could argue on behalf of the moral authority of that religious institution.

    And he apparently hasn't read enough history to know that when the secular humanists have been vanquished, the Catholics and Protestants will once again turn on each other.

  • SqueakyRat on May 20, 2012 2:06 PM:

    A spirit or intellect that can find nourishment in wrestling with the trinity or the virgin birth is a pitiful thing indeed.

  • LaFollette Progressive on May 21, 2012 9:23 AM:

    I'm generally sympathetic to Douthat's analysis of where and why organized religion in this country went astray -- around the time conservative churches began gleefully accommodating unrestrained avarice and militarism in order to wage war against the hippies, and liberal Christianity began sliding into irrelevance as most stopped believing in the factual nature of the scriptures and either left the church entirely or aimlessly went through the motions, seeking to bend the faith to their own modern views.

    I think the liberals who left the church entirely were in the right, but I'm willing to accept that something valuable was lost in the process.

    But at least judging by all the online discussion (I haven't read the book), I think Douthat's key error lies in his extreme naivete about how political and cultural power are actually distributed in our society.

    The worldly power of faith does not lie in the act of individuals grappling with the mysteries of the trinity. Not directly, anyhow. It lies in the institutional power of churches and religiously-motivated organizations to promote and advance an ideological narrative, particularly to children. People don't sit around pondering arcane mysteries unless a trusted source puts the ideas in their head, to put it bluntly.

    Given the all-consuming power of the market to sell lifestyles and personal images, the institutionalized power of political lobbying organizations (which are typically motivated by generating contrived outrage to raise funds), and the massive religion-industrial complex selling merchandise to and extracting donations from loyal footsoldiers, the idea that devotion to "Mammon" is some sort of equal or lesser heresy to "identity politics" is laughable. There is no god but Mammon.

    We live in the dictatorship of the marketplace. Anyone who wants a spiritual or political awakening of any sort has to seek power within the marketplace to do so.

  • Ted Frier on May 21, 2012 2:49 PM:

    As a recovering conservative myself, I immediately recognized my own intellectual weakness and my reason for eventually walking away from conservativism for its "aridity" and for its impracticability as a guide for real living, in this statement of Baumann's: "Ideas are Douthat’s strong suit, and no recognizably living and breathing person makes an appearance in these pages; the people he does invoke serve as mere placeholders for this or that argument. Bad Religion would have benefited greatly from a more sympathetic interest in how individual people actually struggle to make sense of their lives in terms of their religious or spiritual beliefs."

    Amen. Conservatism is lifeless. It is full of fine ideas and "principles" that have their value, but only when leavened with humility -- and humanity. But among true-believing conservatives who want their orthodoxy undiluted, like Douthat, how can that be possible when right wing conservatives are so busy waging campaigns to make "empathy" a four-letter dirty word.

  • Ted Frier on May 21, 2012 2:59 PM:

    I've been trying to find this quote about Ross Douthat from someone whose name I forget to the effect that it was a pity to see such a fine mind wasted struggling against itself in the rigid and brittle effort of putting the square peg of orthodoxy into the round hole of real life. Maybe that's what Baumann means when he says Douthat's book is a hodgepodge of ideas from Douthat's library back at home all trying to cohere into a practical philosophy we might be able to use since Douthat's subject is religious orthodoxy and how it might apply to real life, not real life and how it might be enriched by religious orthodoxy.

  • smartalek on May 21, 2012 7:57 PM:

    Douthat, and people like him, are powerful evidence in favor of the quantum-mechanical view of the universe, except operating at the macro level, instead of the usual subatomic realm.
    You know, the theories that posit that light and other electromagnetic radiation can be, simultaneously, a wave and a particle? That Schroedinger's famous thought-experiment cat could be simultaneously alive and dead, til we opened the box?
    What else could account for hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance of such breadth, depth, magnitude as to simultaneously profess to believe in the God of the Bible, and the inerrancy of scripture, while simultaneously rejecting and violating so many of His most important and central commands, and urging an entire nation to do so?

  • brian t. raven on June 09, 2012 8:11 PM:

    "...Still, if many of this book�s charges of heresy leave one with a furrowed brow, its framing argument remains persuasive. Christianity has in fact played a vital role both in sustaining democracy and curbing its excesses, and a more robust contemporary Christian witness is something to be welcomed, not feared..."

    Well, it's persuasive to Paul Baumann - who should speak for himself. There are plenty of US citizens who don't want Christianity to play a more vital role in our democracy - and they're Constitutionally in the right. We also don't want litmus tests for political candidates. We DO want Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. to feel they have just as much right to get elected to office as any Christian. So let's be careful about feeding more raw meat to the "We are a Christian Nation" band of Constitution wreckers - those who are only too happy to trash what our Founding Father's wanted to build.