We have just passed through a rather odd election in which a weak president running on a doubtful record in the midst of an uncertain recovery was, nevertheless, able to gain a decisive victory over his Republican opponent. The loss has triggered a civil war in the Republican Party, a battle that has pitted principles against pragmatism. Those who would stand on principle assume that a “real” conservatism, whatever that might be, would have vast appeal across a sufficiently wide swath of the population to make the party competitive. The pragmatists contend that Romney was hampered by a “conservatism” that was mostly about social issues and missed the “real” conservatism of economic issues. The result is that that party has formed itself into a circular firing squad in an effort to root out the RINOs (Republicans In Name Only.)
But what if the real problem isn’t about politics, but about religion? What if the question is not about RINOs but about CINOs (Christians In Name Only) and the real issue isn’t about deviation from the party line but from the gospel message? This is the question implicit in Ross Douthat’s brave new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The bravery begins with the title: “Bad” religion? Isn’t that a charge we are likely to hear from conservatism’s enemies on the left? And who in this day and age speaks of “heresy”?
Yet if we are serious about conservatism than we must be serious about what it is we wish to conserve. And if religion is among those things worth conserving, then we cannot be indifferent to its content. Of course, one could take the position of Dwight Eisenhower, that our country depends on a deeply felt faith “and I don’t care what it is.” But surely, this already concedes too much to liberalism, already acknowledges that faith is no more than a feeling, and if this is so, then we cannot say that one person’s feelings are better than another’s. In such a case, there can be no “bad” religion because there can be no “good” religion, and the use of the term “heresy” is itself heretical.
But for Douthat, our politics are a reflection of our faith and can never be better than that faith. Faith is not something optional, as certain liberals would have it; indeed, the claim to be standing on some “neutral” ground is always bogus, always an attempt to gain an unfair advantage for one’s own faith by claiming it is not a faith at all. What is usually meant by this claim is a naïve and touching faith in something called “progress,” a progress that advances by crushing or at least marginalizing any competing faith. The great questions of politics will always involve contending faiths, that is to say, contending visions of what constitutes the “good” for men and society. Nor is this a question that can be settled by some “science,” for it lies completely outside the domain of empirical science and depends on sciences of a different order.
If faith is not something we can avoid, then the content of religion is not something we can ignore, even politically. Here, Douthat advances a radical proposition about the nature of America’s malaise:
America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place. Since the 1960s, the institutions that sustained orthodox Christian belief— Catholic and Protestant alike— have entered a state of near-terminal decline. The churches with the strongest connection to the Christian past have lost members, money, and authority; the elite that was once at least sympathetic to Christian ideas has become hostile or indifferent; and the culture as a whole has turned its back on many of the faith’s precepts and demands. (Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 3)
Douthat locates the high point of Christian influence in the period following World War II. The world wars made it difficult to maintain a naïve belief in Enlightenment and peace. Indeed, the wars pointed out the consequences of making man the measure of all things. During this time there was a kind of “Christian convergence,” where the Churches grew together. The leading Protestant lights of this convergence were Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King. Niebuhr was a proponent of a modern, neo-orthodoxy, which he preferred to call prophetic Christianity, an orthodoxy which rejected the liberal rejection of sin and judgment, but which was nevertheless “alive to the possibility of social reform but constantly attuned to the realities of power and to the perpetual temptations of hubris, self-righteousness, and pride.” (Ibid., 30)
Billy Graham managed to move Fundamentalism from the margins to the mainstream, mainly by softening the edges and being more open to more traditional Protestantism, and even by being open—or at least less hostile—to Catholics. And Martin Luther King married the Niebuhr’s neo-orthodoxy to the energy of the Black Churches.
But in many ways, this was a Catholic moment. The American Church, after a long struggle seemed to find a way to live with the modern world and yet remain above it; it was, “a church that (as Charles Morris puts it) ‘would be in America, vehemently for America, but never of America.’ By the Eisenhower era, they seemed to have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.” (Ibid.)
By the 1950’s America had created a society that resembled the vision of the good society outlined in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which Franklin Roosevelt had proclaimed “one of the greatest documents of modern times.” America seemed to have fulfilled the Pope’s vision of a third-way between laissez-faire Capitalism and socialism. This was also the time of the “great compression,” when differences in income between rich and poor shrank to their lowest level evel. The portion of national income going to the top 10% fell from its pre-war high of nearly 50% in 1928 to a low of about 33%, and stayed there from 1947 to 1982. America had created, arguably, the most egalitarian society on the face of the Earth and quite possibly in the history of mankind. This was due, at least in some measure, to the efforts of Catholics in the political arena. Some measure of the popular prestige of the Catholic Church can be gathered by the fact that Bishop Fulton Sheen’s television program garnered 30 million viewers, beating the popular comedian Milton Berle in the ratings. Berle, the old-time vaudevillian, would say in his own defense, “We both use old material.”
And yet, this seemingly secure structure collapsed with amazing rapidity, allowing the heretics to carry the day and the country. Douthat indicts five major catalysts for the sudden change: Political fragmentation, the sexual revolution, globalization of culture, the effects of wealth, and the effects of class. Political fragmentation came about through the convergence of the two most divisive issues in America since the Civil War: Vietnam and civil rights. As the country became more divided, the Christian message became confused and compromised by being identified with one party or another. Religion, rather than being a secure place from which to critique the culture, became a mere prop of the political parties.
But no other change affected human society as much as did “The Pill.” Every other technology magnifies some human power—strength, or speed, or thought—but the pill changed the very nature of the relationship between men and women. Not only were two millennia of Christian teaching overturned at a stroke, but every cultural assumption was called into question. In the headlong rush to embrace the new technology, even before knowing where it would lead, the papacy was the only institution that would stand against the trend, and the Vatican received precious little support from the bishops and the national Churches. Indeed, little was heard of the issue until the current dust-up over the contraceptive mandate, and even then the Bishops would fight the battle not over the merits of contraception, but over the issue of “religious freedom,” as if contraception were just a religious quirk, like Lenten fasts or Church vestments.
The response to these changes alternated between accommodation and resistance. Accommodation took the form of demanding that the Churches become more secular, more concerned with this world and less with the next. Harvey Cox’s The Secular City asked us to pay attention to “what God is doing in politics.” This faction was strongest among the elites: the universities, the seminaries, the religious orders and church bureaucracies. Whatever one thinks of the Second Vatican Council, its interpretation and implementation was, in large measure, in the hands of the accommodationists. This is especially true in the United States, where the Vatican, through Paul VI’s apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Jean Jadot, took control of the appointment of bishops. Traditionally, this had been a process largely influenced by the local bishop’s councils, but Jadot, a liberal’s liberal, over-rode the local Churches to create a group of “progressive” bishops who would be known as “The Jadot Boys.”
At the same time, the Catholic Universities, under the leadership of Notre Dame’s Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, issued the “Land O’Lakes Statement,” demanding more autonomy from the Church. The seminaries became less attractive to “straight” men and all the more so to homosexuals, so much so that the priesthood came to be dominated by a “Lavender Mafia,” one which (although Douthat does not mention this) was more inclined to turn a blind eye to pedophilia.
The strategy left the Church’s position in ruins. As Ralph Inge noted, “He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower.” Religion calls for sacrifice which needs justification, and accommodationism simply could not provide it. As Douthat notes, “Why would you need to wash down your left-wing convictions with a draft of Communion wine, when you could take the activism straight and do something else with your weekends?” (Ibid., 109)
The second response was resistance, a response which united Catholics and evangelicals; members of both groups declared a theological truce for purposes of political cooperation. This cooperation was largely on the social issues, abortion and the consequences of the sexual revolution in general. The high point of this approach came with the “compassionate conservatism” of the George W. Bush administration. But while this approach achieved political success, it was a pyrrhic victory. In all the cultural controversies— the debate over embryo-destroying stem cell research, the arguments over abstinence education, the tragic case of Terri Schiavo— the conservative position became a distinct minority. With the politicization of faith came a decline in actual Church attendance. Attendance dropped by 30% among white Catholics between 1978 and 2000. Mass attendance was only sustained by immigrants. Evangelicals likewise saw a fall-off, especially among the young; in the 1980’s, 25% of people under 30 were evangelicals, but by 2008, that number fell to below 20%, and was dropping.
But the path of political resistance had another effect, one that Douthat does not mention, but is crucial in understanding what happened. By confining themselves to the so-called “social issues,” the resisters lacked a coherent Christian response to economic and regulatory issues. Into this void stepped varieties of “capitalist” orthodoxy, running the gambit from Austrian Libertarianism to crony capitalism, that is to say, all the things that used to be called “liberalism.” This meant that the content of the new “conservatism” was nothing less than the old liberalism. The distinguishing mark of paleo-liberalism was the reduction of all values to one value, namely a poorly defined “liberty” which itself was reduced to nothing more than a lack of external restraint, especially any restraint by the governing authorities. The result was a strict traditionalism on marriage and sexual issues, and an aggressive liberalism on everything else. Thus, these new conservatives were demanding that people adopt on Sunday principles which they insisted they abandon on Monday. So while the social issues may have led to short-term political victories, they tended towards long-term cultural irrelevance.
The collapse of orthodoxy, whether Catholic or Protestant, led to the spread of heresy, and by “heresy,” Douthat means something very specific. He points out that every argument about Christianity is really an argument about Christ, is really an answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” But the Christ of the gospels escapes any simple definition; he is a contradictory figure in every way. Heresy is that attempt at a “simplified” Jesus, one stripped of the contradictions and one that was, frankly, less able to demand of us any real commitment or sacrifice.
The heresies are legion, as heresies always are, but they are united by a search for a god that will give us exactly what we want, not ultimately, but right here, right now. Of course, this god will not help us shape these wants; he (or she) is a cosmic Santa Claus, far too busy passing out gifts to have time to keep lists of the naughty and the nice.
For the more ‘refined,’ the heresy comes in the search for the “authentic” Jesus of history, who always turns out to be a Jesus conformable to our desires. This is the Jesus of Elaine Pagels and John Dominic Crossan, the Jesus suppressed by a conspiracy of the Father of the Church. The “search” is largely predicated on a lack of evidence, which itself is proof of a conspiracy. These writers combine, as Douthat notes, a brave certainty with a paranoid style; it comes as little surprise that the popular expression of these theories comes with Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.
For those with less need to cloak their hedonism in academic robes, there is the Gospel of Wealth, the “pray and grow rich” gospel which provides a convenient marriage of God and mammon. As silly as this sounds, it really isn’t all that different from the Gospel of Americanism. John Courtney Murray insisted that the Church must learn from American democracy, but Michael Novak goes him one better by insisting on “Democratic Capitalism,” as the one true Church, and a church with some strange saints. Mr. Novak compares Ken Lay (of ENRON fame) to the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. To this day, he has not acknowledged the absurdity, much less the blasphemy, of this comparison.
While these heresies may seem diverse, they are all actually about the “God within,” the god of Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). Here the spiritual quest leads no further than the mirror. If the prosperity gospel makes god your broker, the god within makes him your shrink. But not a particularly demanding shrink, since the one rule seems to be, “The god within never has to settle.” This is, of course, not really a new thing; the quest for the supreme self goes back to the garden and the serpent’s promise that “You shall be as gods.”
Is there any way forward for Christians? Douthat believes that a Christian renaissance will have to be political without being partisan, ecumenical but also confessional, moralistic but also holistic. He sees some potential sources for the recovery of Christianity. The first he calls the postmodern opportunity, which appropriates the language of postmodernism to deconstruct modernism itself, for God is what remains when every other human foundation has been deconstructed. The second is almost the opposite of the first, not a movement towards the postmodern world, but away from the world entirely, with a period of withdrawal and purification, or what Rod Dreher calls “The Benedict option.” In any case, the lived reality of the moral breakdown contains its own call for renewal, and in the end, we can foresee the “survival of the Godliest,” on demographic grounds alone.
In any case, the debate cannot be what the debate has been. As Douthat notes, “a conservative Christianity that lets figures like Newt Gingrich and David Vitter serve as its public champions shouldn’t be surprised when its claim to be protecting the sacredness of the family falls on deaf ears.” (Ibid., 290) And a Christianity that attacks the cult of Dionysus, but ignores—or even aligns itself—with the cult of mammon, no longer opposes the world, but becomes part of the world’s problems. In the end, it is only Beauty and sanctity that can save us, and the Christian faith has to provide examples of both, or else it must become just another faction, and the losing faction at that.