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