I wrote several thousand words on Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion, that ended up in my iMac’s trash bin. I felt my reactions to the book were either hazy or uninteresting, and, unfortunately, was too busy last week to spend enough time thinking about it. Now that’s it’s been widely reviewed, and Ross and Will Saletan have had a great debate over it, I feel like there’s even less point in writing a standard review that has to summarize and deal with arguments most people have by now already read. So I thought I would instead try to articulate what hasn’t been said. (Here’s some of the reviews worth looking at: my friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry; New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer; liberal Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters, to whom Douthat responded; and from an evangelical perspective, Books & Culture’s John Wilson.)
The obvious thing one could take issue with is Ross’ portrait of American history post-World War II, which he claims was a period where small-O “orthodox” Christianity kept America’s unique penchant for religious heresy in check, and had broad cultural influence both among intellectual elites and the majority of the population. We can quibble with what I feel is Douthat’s dubious notion of an American “orthodoxy,” and even he suggests there are other ways of looking at the history, but I don’t think the basic thrust of his account is incorrect. In simple terms, there was a time when Christian intellectuals were regularly on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr had a significant voice in mainstream political thought. And I think it’s safe to say that time is over, a situation Douthat blames on both the accomodationism of mainline Protestantism to cultural trends and the anti-intellectual retrenchment of conservative evangelicalism. Douthat, who is more or less in line with official Catholic doctrine on most political issues, sees this weakened, discredited state of Christianity as bad for America, the stuff of hubristic foreign policy, Wall Street greed, crumbling social morality, etc.
What I’m not convinced of is that the direction of the country would have been any different even with a Christianity that had worked to maintain a broad appeal while preserving the judgmental aspects of Christian orthodoxy. It didn’t stop the greed that led to the Great Depression, it didn’t stop the paranoid hubris of the Vietnam War, and it didn’t stop the arrival of the Sexual Revolution. It is simply in the nature of religion—particularly America’s hyper-flexible modernist-individualist Protestantism—to adapt to the demands and values of the surrounding culture, and to either collude so much that it becomes a baptizing force of cultural trend or an isolated resistance. Even if Christianity has always been the loose doctrine that organized American society, I don’t think it has ever had the sort of purity or power Douthat seems to ascribe to it in that little window of post-war history. It has always been hand-in-hand with America’s delusions of grandeur, and with its worst impulses as well as its best.
Late in the book, Douthat’s familiar ground starts showing through his argument: the thing he is most concerned about is the abandonment of the Christian “sexual ethic,” on which he blames the abortion rate, the rise of illegitimacy, the decline of marriage, etc. Contraception is Douthat’s central cultural enemy; while far from the only cause of this moral breakdown, for him it’s a huge one. The idea is that Christianity gave up on defending its fundamentals, its moral demands, and American society has suffered from the ensuring license.
But this is where I disagree with Douthat the most, though perhaps in a predictable and rather uninteresting way. Underlying his argument is a kind of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States’ success has had at least something to do with its religiosity, and that its religiosity has had played a central role in keeping it on track as a society—that it needs some kind of orthodox, metaphysically energized Christianity, which implies judgment, to keep society’s excesses in check. But this is obviously not true: almost every advanced Western nation besides the U.S. is predominantly secular, and all of them have lower abortion rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, and lower divorce rates than we do. But, as Douthat has said explicitly, the ways they accomplish these things—sex education, contraception, legalized abortion, policies supporting unmarried cohabiting parents—are not things he believes a Christian can accept. So he’s choosing a view of America—that religion is socially necessary—and excluding policy options that don’t accept that premise. And here’s the kicker: he makes this choice even if those policies he can’t accept are more likely to be more effective in ameliorating the real-world problems he is concerned about, and even if the policies his religion prefers have to exclude people in ways that just aren’t acceptable to modern liberal society.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Ross that the collapse of Christianity in the U.S. has, for example, seriously undermined marriage among lower-class Americans and put an increasing number of American children in single-parent homes. This is a problem we should be concerned about. But I’m not nearly as optimistic as Douthat that a revival of conservative religion is going to turn back the clock. The fact is, there has been a blossoming of conservative religion, and the broad ecumenical success of people like Rick Warren and the energy of the neo-Calvinist movement has not turned stemmed the cultural tide. Douthat is worried that the “world contraception has made” has “de-emphasized the moral weight of the sexual act,” but the reality is that the world advanced capitalism has made has de-emphasized the moral weight of every kind of human action. All the religious dogma in the world isn’t going to make community values widely credible and urgent in an environment commoditized to the extent ours is.
But the main reason I can’t accept Douthat’s prescription is what he believes it entails: teaching that rejects the advancement for women represented the availability of contraception, and the continued exclusion of homosexuals from the institution of marriage. This puts Douthat a lot closer to Christian fundamentalism than he would like to believe; not fundamentalism in the historical sense, but in the sense of a religious ideology that is unable to see past its own particular politico-cultural moment. Douthat is a fundamentalist because his ideology is total; if you reject any part of it—say, that contraception is bad—the entire thing collapses. This kind of rigidity is in no way necessary; there is simply no reason that even an energetic “orthodox” Christianity has to be absolutist on sexual issues to preserve its particularity and its demandingness, the characteristics supposedly required for religion to make a real difference in the way people live and behave. Christianity can still preach the importance of marriage and fidelity without rejecting gender equality and condemning gays and lesbians to lives without intimacy. But for Douthat, those particularly modern conservative shibboleths are integral to the kind of Christianity he thinks is necessary to save America. And I’m sorry, but I think we have more than enough of that already.
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