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

Ross Douthat has written a pious and evangelical book—no small feat for a New York Times columnist. It is also a dense book, crammed with what seems like a lifetime of reading, most of it drawn from conservative historians and polemicists. And while many readers will remain skeptical that “heresy” explains as much about contemporary American life as Douthat claims it does, few will doubt Douthat’s own fervent belief in this theological interpretation of history. Nevertheless, in certain key respects, Bad Religion is unsatisfying. Its pell-mell manner keeps it from spending enough time elucidating the causal relationship between ideas and events, or vice versa. It also suffers from a certain pervasive aridity. 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.

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. Douthat is also right that the nation’s deep divisions can best be understood in religious terms. Given his pessimistic mood, he might even agree with Norman Mailer that “the country had been living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled schizophrenia which had deepened with the years.” One suspects that Mailer would welcome Douthat’s stern moralizing and frequently incisive sociological observations. After all, Mailer liked to call himself a “left conservative,” and in Armies of the Night he complained that the younger generation had been “utterly lobotomized away from the sense of sin.” Sounding very much like Douthat, he declared himself “ready to cast much of the blame for such success into the undernourished lap, the over-psychologized loins, of the liberal academic intelligentsia.”

But Mailer was willing to cast a much harder look at how economic power is leveraged in America. Unlike Douthat, he saw that the real source of the nation’s derangement was the unprecedented, but rarely acknowledged, power of the modern corporation, a power that shapes nearly all aspects of people’s lives. If American food is tasteless, its architecture nondescript, and the lives and deaths of its citizens overmedicalized, Mailer insisted that the blame be laid at the door of the modern corporation’s relentless search for profit and control. “Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation, had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul,” Mailer the fitful theologian wrote. “For the center of Christianity was a mystery, a son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ.”

Amen to that.

It’s unlikely that Douthat would ever commit a political and cultural analysis as eschatologically freighted as Mailer’s. Still, like Mailer, he traffics heavily in such unfashionable concepts as soul, grace, saint -hood, sin, and damnation, and warns that the nation cannot survive without a “commitment to mystery and paradox.” To that end, he places a compelling case for the intelligibility of his ardent Catholic faith at the center of this book, insisting that what many see as the irrationality of Christian beliefs (Is God one or three? How can God be pure spirit and incarnated flesh? How can a virgin give birth?) are in fact theological puzzles that inexhaustibly nourish the intellect and spirit. Mailer took very seriously Christianity’s strange story about a “God-man” who once walked the earth and rose from the dead; he even wrote a novel, The Gospel According to the Son, that attempted to illuminate that mysterious and paradoxical story. Perhaps Douthat will someday come to appreciate the threat corporate power poses to everything he cherishes in that story. Is there any doubt that the country is more firmly in the grip of the moneyed classes than it was forty years ago? Liars still control the locks! At some point compromise does become capitulation, and there can be little doubt that accommodating ourselves to this New Age of Mammon is very Bad Religion indeed.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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.