Interview with Ross Douthat
Thinking in Public
April 23, 2012
This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line
theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your
host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Mohler: Ross Douthat writes a must-read commentary for The New York Times where he serves as the youngest regular Op-Ed writer in the newspaper’s history. He is the author of several books including Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class and his newest book is entitled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. He is a graduate of Harvard University. He writes also film reviews for the National Review and many other articles for other publications.
We are here to talk about his new book, Bad Religion. Welcome to Thinking in Public, Ross Douthat.
Douthat: Thank you so much for having me. It is a pleasure to be here.
Mohler: Well, I’ve looked forward to this conversation, and I’ve looked forward to reading your book ever since I saw the first publisher’s notation about it. It is the kind of title that immediately appeals to an Evangelical theologian. Someone writing about heresy, anyone writing about heresy is actually bucking the trend of the last two hundred years or so. How did you end up writing a book on heresy?
Douthat: Well, the idea for the book came to me, I would say somewhere in the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency when I felt like the debate over religion, religion and politics and so on in America was dominated by, well, really by the sort of new atheists assault on Christianity in particular and theism in general. So we had sort of endless debates between Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and so on and whatever champion of Christianity was being trotted out to meet them. And obviously, I found these debates very interesting and stimulating and provocative, but I felt like they painted a picture of America as a nation sort of divided between a traditional Christianity and secularism. And to me that is not actually the story of religion in America at all. And so I set out to write a book that I thought would more fully capture the more complex reality of Christianity in America. And the term heresy, obviously it’s a provocative term and theologically loaded and so on, especially coming from a Roman Catholic, but I felt like it is actually the precise word to describe what most of American religion looks like. We are no longer a traditionally Christian country. We are a country where the historic Christian churches, both protestant and Catholic are weaker, I think, than they have been in generations if not ever in our history. But I think the religious culture of the country is so deeply influenced by Christianity that it’s not really right to say, as I think some religious conservatives especially will say, oh we’re a post-Christian, we’re even a pagan country. And it is certainly wrong, I think, to say that we are anything like a secular country. So heresy seemed like an addition to being a provocative word to use in the subtitle, it seemed like an accurate word to use just for this kind of analysis.
Mohler: Well, you certainly are getting some attention here and deservedly so. And yet, I want to leave the Americans as heretics theme for a later bit of our conversation. I want to return to how you began the book, describing two misconceptions about American religion. I think that would be a helpful thing to unpack.
Douthat: Sure, I mean, so the first, you are putting me to the test in remembering my own structure, but the first misconception, well I mentioned before this sort of religious conservative versus secular binary. And the first misconception, I think, is kind of a religious conservative misconception which is the idea that the chief enemy of Christian’s faith in the United States is a militant secularism. And this assumption has real roots and real justification. I think it emerges from the Supreme Court decisions on school prayer and other issues and emerges from the fact that the American elite, particularly many of my fellow journalists and so on are rather conspicuous in their secularism and there is sort of, if not hostility, there is slight incomprehension of religion. So it comes out of that, and I think it is a very important theme for the religious right, going back to the 1970’s and it is still an important theme today. And you hear it a lot in the discussions of Christians, the new health and human services regulations being placed on Catholic hospitals and so on. Critics of those regulations would say, well this is secular liberalism making war on religion and so on. And I think that that is a misconception in part just because I think that true secularism is much weaker than a lot of people give it credit for. I think that even in western Europe which is supposedly the most secular society in the world, if you start drilling down into public opinion in polls about what people actually believe about God and the universe and so on there is tons of residual religious and spiritual commitment. And I think that is true in spades in the United States. Many, many, many people who no longer identify with a particular Christian church or denomination they still have religious convictions. They are going to the bookstore and buying books from the religion and self-help section that make metaphysical claims and their lives are oriented around metaphysical principles. And so even though, yes, there is a kind of secular hostility toward religion in the United States, I don’t think it’s the factor doing the most to pull people away from traditional Christian churches. And I think it is more useful in the case of something like the Obama White House’s directives to just say, yeah this is the Obama White House just picking a fight with a specific religious body, my own Catholic church, than to assume there is sort of a pure secularist crusade going on.
But then the other misconception that I sort of just hinted at in the answer I gave is the secularist misconception; the idea that it is 1) desirable or 2) even possible to create some sort of purely secular society. And with it I think the characteristic liberal and secular idea that everything they dislike about American religion is the fault of Christian orthodoxy of too much dogma, too much doctrine, too much institutional religion when in reality, as I’ve said, the story of religion in America is that institutional faith is remarkably weak and that many of the things that contemporary liberals don’t like about contemporary religion are things that orthodox Christians should dislike about it as well. The sort of garishness of prosperity preachers, the new age hooey that you get on talk shows and so on.
Mohler: Now I want to give you credit. I think you set the case very well there. I also want to make a counter suggestion and that is I think that a part of this is a matter of, you might say, theological or social placement and then the use of vocabulary. Because when my tribe, so to speak, speaks about secularization, we’re actually speaking of it in a rather technical sense that would be measured by sociologists of religion. The kind of thing that is ideological, not just a part of the demographic. And at the same time we are also defining it over and against orthodox Christianity, not just someone who might have some kind of metaphysical principle. And I would have to say that one of the best lines in your book that affirms this, I think, in a very important way is the line that is on page 82 of your book and you speak about the crisis of orthodox Christianity in America and then you say this, “among the tastemakers and powerbrokers and intellectual agenda-setters of late twentieth century America, orthodox Christianity was completely déclassé.” And I think that’s a stunningly clear and accurate statement.
Douthat: Yes, and I also think it is absolutely true, you know the terminology issue makes a real difference. And there is, obviously, a whole argument associated with a lot of thinkers, for instance, the philosopher Charles Taylor and his book A Secular Age, the doorstop of a book that came out a few years ago that really modernity is by definition more secular than the more Christian society that it has gradually displaced and even the most religious person in early twenty-first century America is infinitely more secularized than was someone in the seventeenth century or certainly the fourteenth or twelfth century. And so, I completely respect that argument and in that sense I am happy to say that we do live in a more secularized society. The point that I am trying to make, though, is that I think that people on both sides of this sort of left/right religious conservative/social liberal debate underestimate the resilience of religious sentiment as a motivator in a post sort of orthodox Christian age.
Mohler: No, I think that is very well stated, and you know Charles Taylor in that massive book that you referenced speaks of three conditions of belief that are sequential. And he suggests that people who inhabit the intellectual elites in the West right now are living in a set of conditions of belief that he defines as impossible to believe. The complete reversal of what was the medieval synthesis with impossible not to believe. With modernity having this middle position of plausible not to believe. And so believing now, to use Peter Burger’s category, requires an assertion of will that believing did not publicly require during many of the periods your write about so eloquently in your book. I want to take you into that for a moment because you write about something of a high tide. You talk about the kind of religious establishment that existed at the midpoint of the twentieth century both on the Catholic and Protestant side, and quite frankly most people under the age of say, forty today don’t even know that ever existed. And that may be too generous a chronological reference.
Douthat: Yeah, the argument I start the book with what scholars of that era talked about as the mid-century revival basically of American Christianity which was this period after the Second World War when on the popular level you had a large increase in church attendance, people were moving out to the suburbs and church construction, there was a huge church construction boom. The popular culture, there was a spade of Biblical epics from Hollywood and so on, Bible sales went way up. But at the same time it wasn’t just a sort of popular and populous phenomenon, it was also an era of sort of real intellectual ferment. It was a period that produced some various giants of public theology, it was a very fertile period for Christian literature. I think particularly in the Catholic tradition there was what people talked about as the “Catholic Renaissance” in literature, everyone from Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Burton and so on. That’s where I begin and the argument I make is not so much that this high tide necessarily reflected sort of a status quo that had existed in American religion forever, it was more accurately, actually that this world had been kind of rebuilt after American Christianity had gone through a previous period of crisis in the early part of the century which obviously Protestants know as the very modernist, fundamentalist wars and so on. But there was this period particularly in the twenties and thirties when there was a sense that socialism, Marxism, fascism, some secular ideology, you know the future belonged to those secular ideologies and Christianity was increasing irrelevant and so on. And then the experience of the Depression, the World War and sort of the horrors associated with Totalitarianism created I think a real, if temporary, opening for the modern West to sort of reassess whether it needed to look back a little bit to the Christianity it seemed to leave behind.
Mohler: Yes, especially in that Cold War period. And I thought one of the most interesting sections of your book is where you look at those figures, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King, Jr. and you throw in some others such as Courtney Murray, so influential in the Catholic tradition, and other things, and to tell you the truth, as much as I found that fascinating, I found it really frustrating because I thought, Ross isn’t being entirely honest here. This is not intellectually honest. And then you corrected everything on pages 51 and following because you do present that as a kind of Golden Era and then you say true golden ages do not exist. And one of the things I have to point out as an evangelical is that as much as Niebuhr was a titanic figure and one of the last great public intellectuals who was a theologian in America, his orthodoxy was actually more neo than orthodox. He actually rejected; he wanted to recapture an understanding of sin and of sinfulness, but he relocated away from the individual and social structures and basically denied any sense of depravity or what we would call original sin. And though you really did a great correction there showing that even though there was this high tide of cultural influence, well I especially appreciated what you said about those who had made the transition in Roman Catholicism in terms of magisterial authority and then were completely undone by the intersection of the personal and political and theological that came with the sixties.
Douthat: Right, and the challenge, you know, and the book has to start somewhere, and the challenge in sort of celebrating the era is that, as you say, ends up being sort of intellectually dishonest in underestimating the extent to which true golden ages don’t exist; the extent to which too, the present day heresy that I talk about in the book obviously, they were present in 1950’s America as well. So, you know, we have Joel Osteen, they have Norman Vincent Peale, we have Elizabeth Gilbert Eat Pray Love they had Anne Morrow Lindbergh Gifts from the Sea. But I appreciate that you thought that the correction worked because it is a challenge because part of the argument I’m trying to make is that there were things about this mid-century era that contemporary Christianity, both Protestantism and Catholic have lost and that deserve to be remembered, celebrated and potentially recaptured. That doesn’t mean that, you know, everything was perfect in 1957 and the New Jerusalem had descended to earth and so on. So, for instance, I talk a lot in that chapter about Christian convergence, the idea that neo-orthodoxy was pulling mainline Protestantism back toward historic Christianity to some extent. That figures like Billy Graham and Carl Henry and so on were tugging evangelicalism a little bit out of the fundamentalist ghetto. That figures like John Courtney Murray and Fulton Sheen and so on were bringing Catholicism to the American mainstream. So that there was more than there had been before, a kind of Protestant-Catholic center, a kind of meeting of the minds and so on. But, obviously, all of that coexisted. The Catholic church was still the Pre-Vatican II church, evangelical Protestantism was still thick with people who were convinced the Pope was the anti-Christ and so on. So it’s not as if, the existence of the conversions was real, but so were continued divisions, polemic and all the rest of it.
Mohler: I think you landed in your chapter that you entitled “The Lost World” in a very interesting place, and I think you made an assessment that many from inside institutional Christianity now recognize as being true, I noticed at the time. You write on page 53, “The crucial element in each of these cases,” when you are writing about these titans of public intellectual and theological life in the 50’s and their institutions, you said, “in each of these cases the crucial element was a deep and abiding confidence, not just faith alone but a kind of faith in Christian faith and a sense that after decades of marginalization and division orthodox Christians might actually be on the winning side of history.” And then you offer a statistical analysis that is just devastating in which you indicate that all of these mainline Protestant denominations that thought themselves on the growth curve of American energy found themselves within the span of less than a generation precipitous decline and Catholicism facing its own internal challenged.
Douthat: Well, in a way that story is well known. I think people who follow American Christianity have a general understanding that, ok mainline Protestantism was potent in 1955 and has been weak and getting weaker ever since. But it really was astonishing for me to go back into the statistics and, you know, drawing on obviously famous books like Why Conservative Churches are Growing and so on from that era. But it wasn’t just the decline, it was the precipitousness of that decline, the speed with which the number of United Methodists and, you know, various branches of Presbyterianism and so on fell off; the collapse of their foreign missions and all of the aspects of the sort of rich, vibrant institutional Christian faith. And yes, in Catholicism that was less true in terms of church attendance, I mean mass attendance falls off, but not as deeply and the overall number of Catholics keeps going up. But if you look at the number of priests and nuns and religious vocation and so on, again, the decline in the 60’s and 70’s is just staggering and one from which I think American Catholicism hasn’t really recovered.
Mohler: Like the skilled writer that he is, Ross Douthat sets the stage for his further analysis by giving us an understanding of what has come before. His incisive, indeed devastating analysis of the decline of institutional Christianity from the midpoint of the twentieth century to the present is something we desperately need to understand. His statistical recounting just in terms of the number of the institutional loss, the membership losses of organized Christianity tell part of the story. But of course, he goes deeper than that and in the next part of our conversation we’ll go deeper still.
So you set the stage for us in this part of the book by demonstrating misconceptions that you want to correct by also setting forth an understanding of what has changed so dramatically in American public Christianity from the midpoint of the twentieth century to the present. And from that point we can really talk about the subtitle of your book “How We Became a Nation of Heretics”. So let’s talk heresy. When you use the word heretic or you use the word heresy, what do you mean by that?
Douthat: I mean religious ideas, movements, books, people, you name it, that on the one hand are still so either influenced directly by Christian ideas or sort of personally fascinated by Christianity in general, Jesus of Nazareth in particular. But it doesn’t make sense to say that they founded a completely new religious movement, a new faith. But at the same time whose ideas diverge sharply enough from what I consider, and I’m trying to sort of pitch a pretty big tent here, one that encompasses Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Catholics alike, but diverges from what I think is a common core of great tradition Christianity. Inevitably I’m trying to not write as a Catholic, so I’m not relying on sort of magisterial pronouncements to determine who and who is not a heretic, so obviously the lines I draw and so on are going to necessarily be a bit fuzzy. But I do think that a lot of the people and trends that I am talking about fit pretty well into that category.
Mohler: No, I think you captured it well and one of my concerns when I picked up the book is whether or not you are going to go for a kind of soft understanding of heresy in the sociological sense or whether you were actually going to deal with heresy as a theological category. I have to tell you as a theologian I was pleased you acknowledged the theological importance there because that’s really the only thing worth talking about. Because if the other is just a sociological process there’s not much that can be said in terms of analysis. But we’re actually talking about truth claims, doctrine, teaching. And this is where you actually get at what you identify as many of the streams of heresy. And heresy as you said is derivative of something else. So we are talking about things that at least owe their origins to Christianity or the Christian truth claim or the Christian tradition, but has significantly eviscerated that truth claim that faith of its doctrinal center. So talk about some of those things that you see as evidences of bad religion in America today.
Douthat: Well, I start with a category that I think is hard to pin down to a specific theology. But I start with the broad category of sort of revisionist accounts of the life of Jesus Christ himself. Because I think that is the clearest example of how American religion remains sort of in the shadow of Christianity and obsessed with the person of Jesus Christ himself. And so I sort of run through the scholarly treatments of this material, everyone from sort of the Jesus Seminar to Elaine Pagels, basically everyone who since the 60‘s has tried to fashion usually a more sort of politically and socially liberal Christianity out of the Gnostic gospels, the various rereading and revisions of the canonical gospels themselves and so on. But then I sort of end that chapter not with a scholar but with the figure of Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code because I think that is sort of the best cultural expression of the insolence of that kind of revisionist. You know, it’s less about the entire “Real Jesus Project” in the end has been less about building up a single coherent alternative picture of Jesus, a single coherent alternative to this canonical New Testament account and it’s more just been about sort of destabilizing and creating the idea that Jesus could have been anybody, that His identity depends on whatever you want to find in him. And Brown’s book which is completely non-scholarly and totally ridiculous is sort of the perfect encapsulation of how that works. So I think that chapter tries to sort of lay the foundation for the rest of what I’m talking about about heresy. I’m saying other heresies are emerging in the context of a destabilized understanding of Jesus’ life, His message, His works, His crucifixion and resurrection and so on.
Mohler: You know, Ross, one of the things that just surprises me is how people think that this is new. And you know, just a little bit of historical consciousness takes us back to the late nineteenth century and the first quest for the historical Jesus and a figure such as Albert Schweitzer who was no evangelical, let’s just say, who said all these questers trying to argue for this or that historical Jesus were actually looking into a well and seeing the reflection of their own faces at the bottom. And that is pretty much what you have now. I mean, if it is Elaine Pagels you have a Jesus that is ready for tenure at Princeton and you just have the same thing over and over again. But one of the effective points you make in that chapter is the fact that these revisionisms are destabilizing. In other words, they haven’t produced some new thing, they have just produced many, almost countless individual new things.
Douthat: Right, and I finish up the chapter because it is mostly a chapter about political liberals with a long quotation from Glen Beck’s radio show because, you know, that is obviously, politically speaking about as far from the Elaine Pagels and the Princeton Theological faculty that you can possibly get. And yet, there is this moment on Beck’s radio show where he is drawing some sort of analogy about preserving America’s founding principles in an age of persecution and so on. And the analogy he reaches for is a Dan Brown Gnostic gospel analogy where he sort of spins out this story about how the truth about Christianity was hidden in a way because the Emperor Constantine was going to persecute the Gnostics, just this totally historically ridiculous story. But I think that example just reflects, as you said, just how far and wide this destabilization has rippled so that a right wing radio host finds himself saying the same thing as a left wing, you know, Ivy League scholar about the history of the early church.
Mohler: I have to say, I chuckled out loud when I read that. I felt the pain of it too, but I also thought that you left out a very crucial category here. And that is Glen Beck is not only a political conservative of sorts, he is also a Mormon. And Mormonism fits within your narrative as well, but Mormonism has actually made the argument before Dan Brown made it that the Trinity is just an imposition of Constantine and politics. And I thought, well isn’t that fascinating.
Douthat: You are absolutely right. I mean, one of the things in the book is that I do talk a bit about Mormonism, but I do try to focus particular energy and specifically what I think are the most potent mid-century heresies. So Mormonism, Christian Science, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a lot of the various nineteenth century American heresies are treated somewhat more glancingly in the book.
Mohler: Yeah, but you also do draw a good historical line. For instance, from Christian Science and new thought to the prosperity gospel. So track that out for us.
Douthat: I do try to root it a bit in the American past. But of course the prosperity gospel is the next example of a heresy and I think it is actually the cleanest example because there you really are talking about people who explicitly say we are Christians, full stop, no questions asked and who have a sort of core doctrine divergence from New Testament Christianity just in their sort of overall attitude towards wealth and in their specific view of sort of the mechanics of prayer and sort of what happens when we approach God in prayer and what we should expect.
Mohler: You know, I have to say as a theologian my response to prosperity theology is that it is exactly what you say. It is a heresy. But I have to say, the other level, this is where your cultural analysis is invaluable. At the other level, I have to wonder how can people hold on to something that is so self evidently false?
Douthat: To me, one of the things that I try and do in the book is at least come up with a partial explanation for that. Because I think it is easy both for serious Christians and for secular liberals to look at something like the prosperity gospel and say, well this is just complete rubbish, how could anyone possibly believe it? And I think even as I’m criticizing it I try and come up with an explanation for its theological appeal. I think part of the answer, and I could be wrong about this, is the extent to which it seems to, in a way resolve the problem of evil. Right? This sort of resolves the theodicy question, the whole why does a good God let bad things happen to good people? And the answer of course is that God lets that happen because those good people haven’t actually figured out, you know, they don’t have sufficient faith and they haven’t figured out how to ask God for things in the correct fashion. So it is sort of a version of some of the things that are said to Job by his friends in the Book of Job. And that can seem like a cruel message, right? Let’s say you have just been foreclosed on and a prosperity preacher says, well the problem is you haven’t been right with God. But it can also be a kind of comforting message because it suggests that there really is actually something you can do about any kind of suffering you face. And there isn’t that sort of mystery of suffering that I think traditional Christianity tends to emphasize where there is the cross, there is the idea that when good people suffer it is not necessarily a reflection of their failure to pray hard enough.
Mohler: Ross, I have to tell you that about twenty years ago I guess it would have to be now when I was a newspaper editor I got a call from a reporter at your newspaper who asked me, if you had to identify the most credible faith healer to interview, to whom would you point? And I simply said, I wouldn’t talk to one who is under two to three hundred years old. That would establish credibility with me. And that’s why when I look at this they all tend to die right on time, just look at the gravestones. And you look at this and you think, how can that happen? And yet it is quintessentially American. This is something that is explainable in America in the twentieth century, and I think you do a pretty good job of not only the theological analysis but the culture analysis as well.
Douthat: Yeah, it is interesting, I personally, I’m a Catholic because my family became Catholic when I was a teenager but before we were Catholic we were, for a time, both evangelical, but also in the Pentecostal world. And in fact, you know, my parents basically went from being sort of religious, but somewhat lukewarm Episcopalians to being more serious Christians in part because of the experiences they had with a faith healer in southern Connecticut of all places. She had a healing ministry and would fill high school auditoriums and so on and people would speak in tongues and so forth. And what I would probably say to a reporter, I guess one of my colleagues now who asked me about that, I would say, well look for the faith healer whose ministry never seems to have that much money. Because one of the things that was actually authentic about the ministry that my parents experienced was that it wasn’t, at least as far as I could tell, admittedly I was seven or eight years old at the time, but it really didn’t seemed to be set up to enrich the people running it. You know, they were sort of perpetually short on cash and driving their battered bus from one high school auditorium to another. To me that is sort of what is striking about so much prosperity preaching is just sort of obvious, the lifestyles of the preachers themselves.
Mohler: Well, and that raises a very interesting point. I think it was a famed southern historian who wrote about that particular substratum of American religion as the religious of the dispossessed and he made the interesting observation that wealthy people don’t need prosperity theology. Those who feel that they are financially on the short end of the stick, they are the ones who need prosperity theology. And by the way, then you have the kind of Marxist analysis that comes in a say, well that’s why you didn’t have a revolution in the United States because you had the dispossessed looking for spiritual answers rather than revolution. So there are all kinds of avenues there, but you wrote very perceptively. I want to turn the chapter to where you deal with this God within, kind of the new age, the transformation of doctrine into mere spirituality. What are you talking about there?
Douthat: Well, to pick up on what you were just saying, if you think of prosperity theology as the theology of, let’s say sort of the striving, struggling working class American, potentially, who has some money, but whose chief challenge is sort of figuring out where the next pay check is coming from and who feels reassured by the message of a figure like Joel Osteen. Then the next chapter in the book, what I call “The Cult of the God Within” or therapeutic theology and so on, that is pitched towards maybe the upper middle class, people who feel a little more comfortable about their wealth and their sort of economic position and who are looking for something different from religion. They are looking for sort of personal contentment and the validation of their own lifestyle choices. So I start that chapter with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, this huge bestseller from I guess five years ago now, that is a book about a successful upper middle class woman who, you know, is married and has a devoted husband and so on but feels completely discontented with her life and wants to sort of set out in search of authentic spiritual experience even if that of course means, you know, divorcing her husband and traveling the world and ending up with a handsome Brazilian divorcee in Bali. And I think it is a fascinating book again because I think that her quest for mystical experience is entirely genuine. I don’t see anything fraudulent at all about Gilbert. You know, some of these sort of new age holy men and gurus and so on, as with prosperity preaching seems like something of a racket, but with Eat Pray Love her quest is genuine, she is really looking for enlightenment, she is really looking for an encounter with God. But it is just all of the mystical experiences she has just serve to sort of validate the things she already believed in about her life choices to make her feel better about her divorce, better about how she left things with her husband and so on. To me that is the essence of this sort of god within heresy is sort of the idea that you look for God inside yourself which, again in traditional Christian mysticism there are elements of that idea, but it elevates the self over God. It says, well whatever you find inside yourself, that’s sort of the promptings of your highest thought, your innermost spirit, you need to listen to that and not to any exterior authority. And obviously from a Christian point of view we think your innermost self might just be the self that is most corrupted by original sin.
Mohler: Exactly. Well, then you would have analysts such as Phillip Rieff and Christopher Lash who would come along and define it as nothing more than just barely disguised narcissism.
Douthat: Right, and it was fascinating to go back to Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic because that was a book that was written in the middle of the 1960’s in this period when all of these religious writers thought that the future of religion was in sort of secular politics, right? This was the age of Harvey Cox’ The Secular City, you know books like that where Christianity was going to be transformed into sort of a cause of political improvement. This sort of refurbished social gospel. And Rieff, looking at the same trend says, no, no the future of religion isn’t politics at all, if anything it is going to be increasingly apolitical, it is going to be more therapeutic, more about sort of the meeting of personal need. And I think there is a passage in there where he talks about, I’m forgetting the exact line, but the society of the future will mount psychodramas as often as medieval society mounted miracle plays. And I think just this uncanny anticipation of reality television. What is so much of our television today? Sort of the mounting of this semi-therapeutic, semi-hysterical psychodrama.
Mohler: And you know, Rieff pointed to something that people of the time thought was this grotesque exaggeration when he said, and I’m paraphrasing him here, that basically in the future everyone would be seen as either in therapy or in denial. And that is pretty much where we are.
Douthat: That is where we are, but I do think that my one disagreement with his book is that I think that he was writing in an era when sort of Freudianism still had a certain amount of power, and I think he overestimated in a way that sort of purely psychological element of the therapeutic and slightly underestimated the mystical element, but that is just sort of my own read.
Mohler: Okay, now speaking of your read, we have to get to the end of the story and you clearly have set up the dynamic, you have perceptively diagnosed the problem. Let me just ask you, is there a cure? Do you see the future as a regaining of the kind of confidence you wrote about Christianity having in the mid-twentieth century? Or what do you see?
Douthat: Well, the book is, as I say at one point, written overall in a spirit of pessimism. In part, because I do have a slightly determinant side both when I am talking about the decline of institutional Christianity and its future. I think that the decline of institutional faith in the United States is bound up in part in a broader movement away from institutions that you see across our national life in sort of disillusionment with political institutions, the breakdown of the family and so on. It is sort of the working out of Alexis de Tocqueville’s fears about where sort of democracy and individualism would ultimately go. And so to the extent that I find that, I think that is a very powerful force in American life. It makes it harder to see where a revived institutional faith would come from because part of what made that mid-century moment so distinctive is that it was again, a sort of high tide of American institutionalism in all its form. It was a high tide of faith in government, a high tide of elks’ clubs and Masonic lodges and so forth.
Mohler: That’s right, and newspapers.
Douthat: That is sort of the root of my pessimism. But I do also try and sketch out different reasons for optimism and just more generally different paths that Christians can take. There is sort of the idea that what is needed is a kind of withdrawal from the world into whether it is into homeschooling or sort of within my own church the sort of Latin enthusiast for the tradition Latin mass and so on. This idea that Christians should just withdraw into their communities and reemerge eventually as the light of the world, the salt of the earth and so on. And what I worry about with that is just the fact that I don’t know if America is sufficiently post-Christians for Christians to be allowed to withdraw from it, if that makes sense? Both in sort of Protestant and in Catholic circles. I hear this from my fellow conservative Catholics a fair amount, the sense that well, we’ll just let the liberal wings of Catholicism drift away and decline and then we’ll have a sort of smaller, purer church. But, you know, all of those sort of lukewarm sort of Catholics, they are still baptized, confirmed Christians. They are not actually pagan. We have obligations towards them. That’s what makes me doubtful of that sort of more withdrawal side of contemporary Christianity. But what that leaves is sort of the challenge of engagement amid a sort of general cultural skepticism about orthodoxies of all kinds. And so, it is a tremendously difficult thing to do.
Mohler: I have two thoughts about that that I want to test with you. And the first is internal and the second is external. Internally, we can note several things such as renewal movements that were attempted in all the mainline liberal Protestant denominations and every one of them failed. And then in your book you reference a fascinating study that has been central to my own research for a long time and it is about twenty years old now, or getting there. It is the “Vanishing Boundaries” study. But you know at the end of that book thevanishing boundaries, by the way are two-fold they are doctrinal boundaries and behavioral boundaries, you have theology and morality there and especially the exclusivity of the gospel of Christ and the rest. And they come down to the end of the book and they say, we could, and the idea of course is that they’ve so erased the boundaries between the church and the secular world that there is no longer any sufficient reason to stay in the church and to identify with the church. And so at the end of the book they say there might be a possibility of a reversal of these trends if we were to forfeit our doctrinal pluralism and our moral liberalism. And then in one sentence they say, but since we’re not going to do that we’ll have to find something else. I thought well, yeah, ok if you could come up with a parody, you couldn’t do better than the way they just all of a sudden at the end of the book just say, yeah but we’re not going to do that. So I think internally in most of mainline Protestantism and, at least by my perception in terms of at least academic Catholicism, it is going to be very difficult to revitalize a commitment to orthodoxy, even as there are going to be some very, very articulate spokesmen and leaders to argue otherwise.
The second thing I want to test you on is the external because, I think something that is not so much in your book as you look toward the future, but I am certain is on your mind and that is that the external pressures on orthodox Christianity are going to become inevitably far more heated and intense because increasingly orthodox Christianity is going to look more sectarian in a sociological sense over and against the larger culture. So what do you see in those terms?
Douthat: Well, what I see there, I spent a fair amount of time particularly in the historical sections of the book talking about sort of the common ground and common efforts that the culture war created between evangelicals and Catholics. And I think that the phenomenon you are describing where the external pressures on orthodox Christian churches mount whether it is health and human services, regulations on contraception in Catholic colleges or sort of the act of the spread of gay marriage, sort of laws about non-discrimination and so on, there are going to continue to be places where, many, many places where if only from a sort of defensive side of things that evangelical-Catholic alliance is only going to be strengthened. What I think is the challenge for both Protestants and Catholics is that in the end a thriving robust orthodoxy really depends on confessionalism and it depends on institutions, and of course my Catholic bias coming into play, but I think it is true, on institutions that are capable of transmitting the faith across multiple generations, that don’t just depend on sort of personalities of certain individual leaders and pastors and so on. And in a way I think that one of the big dangers of Christianity right now is the political ecumenism that has been necessitated by the phenomenon that you described, the sort of cultural pressure against orthodox Christianity might make it in a way harder for sort of both on the Catholic and the Protestant side, a kind of robust confessionalism that Christianity needs in the long run. I’m not sure about that, but I went to an evangelical event recently where they asked participants to list their affiliation and so on and huge proportions listed their affiliation as non-denominational. And in a way that is sort of part of what strengthens American evangelicalism since the Billy Graham era, right? A sort of willingness not to have sort of endlessly fragmented one breakaway sect versus another breakaway sect but to sort of identify, to rally around a common evangelical identity which in culture war debates becomes a common evangelical and Catholic identity. But in a way my big fear is that as important as that is, it provides for the next ten years, but not the next hundred years. So that is sort of the maybe slightly idiosyncratic place where I worry about how Christians will react to this sort of new world we’re entering in.
Mohler: You have no idea how non-idiosyncratic that sounds to this confessional Baptist.
Douthat: Well, actually I’m speaking to the right audience.
Mohler: Absolutely, and I think you speak as you write with incredible perception and Ross, it has been an honor to have you today with me on Thinking in Public. And I’ll just remind you that there are many folks out there who are reading your column and now reading your books and at least in some part due to this conversation also hearing your voice. I appreciate your time today.
Douthat: I really appreciate the opportunity, thank you so much.
Mohler: Ross Douthat has given us more than a little bit to think about. He has actually presented something of an encyclopedic analysis of religion in America not only in the twenty-first century, but looking back to the twentieth. He also raises some of the most important questions that we can consider as we think about Christianity in the twenty-first century looking ahead. To that we now turn.
I really did look forward to reading Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. For one thing, I was just glad to see a book that used the word heresy or heretics in a very serious way. As I said in the interview, I was a little concerned before I saw the book that it was going to take that soft understanding of heresy, the Peter Berger definition in which heresy is just the condition of making choices, the condition of holding to a specific doctrine or theological system in the face of pluralism. That is not what Ross Douthat did. Instead he went right into the heart of the historic Christian understanding what constitutes heresy and what makes one a heretic. And then he really does the scandalous thing in looking back to the twentieth century when most American Christians, Protestant, Catholic and otherwise thought that religion, the institutional presence of Christianity was at its very zenith and he showed that the seeds for its destruction were already sown there. And those seeds were not only cultural and philosophical and ideological and sociological, they were deeply theological as well.
Now the rest of the conversation was absolutely fascinating. And in the main I find Ross Douthat’s diagnosis of the problem very convincing. As a matter of fact, we are reading a lot of the same books, thinking a lot of the same thoughts. He’s writing, however, from a very privileged position as an editorial columnist for the New York Times, someone who is in a rather constant conversation with some of those about whom he is writing. He is also in a position there in Manhattan to see even institutionally the significant shifts in the fate of organized Christianity in metropolitan, post-modern, whatever you want to call, the contemporary state of America. And then you start to read the book, and you realize that this is a deeply thoughtful man. He is not just writing in order to tell a story, he is writing because he cares deeply about the story. And that’s where it gets even more interesting. I read his book as an evangelical theologian. I read it knowing that Ross Douthat is a Roman Catholic. I knew of his background being in Pentecostalism and then being a teenage convert to Catholicism, and I understand his concerns thinking as a traditional practicing Catholic about these very trajectories and trends of which he is writing. And you know, when he writes about evangelicalism I think he often gets it right. As a matter of fact, I’ll go ahead to say that he most often gets it right. The criticism he makes of conservative evangelicalism is one we need to look at very carefully. He suggests that especially in the last part of the twentieth century what evangelical Christianity became for many was a haven for political conservatism rather than a deep theological conservatism, a deep embrace of theological orthodoxy. And then he suggests that this opened the door or at least facilitates the expansion of the kinds of heresies he talks about openly, the self-help movement, the narcissism of the god within, the revisionist theologies that of course are openly embraced by the theological left but have an amazing, at least interest and traction even among those who think themselves to be theological conservatives. And of course the prosperity theology itself and the false gospel of prosperity which not only is still with us, but quite frankly is the great engine of much Christian publishing and Christian radio and what is called the Christian media out there in the larger world. We need to recognize the fact to our humiliation that that is the public face of what is called Christianity that is seen by many Americans.
Now, what we did not have time to cover in any great detail in terms of our conversation is what Ross Douthat has done, for instance, with the co-belligerence he writes about with evangelicals and Roman Catholics and other moral and theological traditionalists. I think on the one hand he does recognize the sociological and cultural context that has forced this kind of commonality. It is not just that you had all of a sudden at the end of the twentieth century traditional Roman Catholics and then orthodox evangelicals all of a sudden discovering their commonalities because they were looking for friends, it was that in the face of very real challenges, moral challenges, ideological, apologetic challenges; challenges to truth itself and especially to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith and the basic moral teachings of historic and Biblical Christianity, well we found ourselves in a very declining and shrinking social space. And that is where the co-belligerence really originated.
But I think Ross is exactly right when he got to the comment at the end which is exactly where I had hoped he would end. And that is with his concern that that kind of restricted social space, that kind of forced commonality, of purposes and concerns can lead to the loss of theological conviction in the name of theological conviction. In other words, it is not enough to be conservative, it is not enough to be evangelical, it is not enough even to be little “o” orthodox in terms of propositional truth. It is very important to be confessional. In other words, I am one who must be clearly understood as I stake my life upon the fact that the only future for evangelicalism is a confessional evangelicalism that is evermore committed not only to traditional Christianity, but to the specific fullness of the understanding of what it means to be deeply convinced of the truth of the gospel and the implications of the gospel, the truth of the Scripture and the teachings of the Scripture in a way that is confessionally full and confessionally accountable and confessionally transmittable as well. It is going to be very interesting to see in the generation to come how these trajectories are either altered or corrected or continued. This much is clear, Ross Douthat has begun a very healthy conversation in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The reality is that in this book, Ross Douthat helps us all to see the danger of heresy not only out there far afield, but far closer to us in far more subtle ways. Reading the book is a good way to start a conversation, a kind of conversation that Catholics will take in one direction and conservative evangelicals, biblical evangelicals will take in a different direction, but this is the kind of book we read for our profit and think about in order to be more faithful.
Thanks again to my guest Ross Douthat for thinking with me today. Before signing off, I want to encourage you to begin making plans now to attend D3, a special conference for high school students which will take place June 25-28 on the campus of Southern Seminary. D3 is now in its third year. It is an important summer opportunity that comes complete with worship, activities and life-shaping opportunities. We are going to be talking about the very kinds of convictions confessionalism and doctrine that come alive to young people in order to keep them grounded and rooted in the faith, able to give a reason for the hope that is within them. Join Dan Dumas, Eric Bancroft and join me as we seek to develop students’ understanding of leadership, worldview and missions. For more information visit sbts.edu. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.