Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion
Lincoln was not an orthodox Christian, but we can look at his second inaugural address as a model for how Christians should think about these issues. He was open to the idea that history unfolds in a providential way, that the American Civil War could have theological as well as political significance.
But he tempered that by emphasizing that providence and God's purposes are mysterious. He emphasized that God simultaneously passed judgment on North and South alike, that the war is a chastisement rather than a pure apotheosis of the American idea. If you're too confident in assuming that America's and God's purposes are one, you tiptoe toward idolatry.
Why do you say that Mormons and evangelicals can bridge their divides through their love for the Constitution?
Mormons and evangelicals share the temptations that come with an admirable patriotism. There's a tendency for them to take patriotism one step too far and say not only that the Constitution is a wonderful document, but that it is divinely inspired. There's a reason so much of Mitt Romney's campaign rhetoric has focused on "believe in America," singing "America the Beautiful," and so on. These kinds of gestures and emphases offer a way to ease evangelical doubts about his theology. In effect, he is saying, "Whatever our different beliefs about the nature of the Trinity, we agree that America is uniquely favored by God."
Are there parallels between the desire to build an "evangelical empire" and the desire to build up America as a Christian nation?
You could connect the prosperity gospel—especially its idea that good Christians need never be poor—with Glenn Beck's view, that if America had stayed true to its founding, then God would not have given us the Great Recession
But the nature of heresy is not that it takes a Christian teaching and gets it completely wrong. Instead, it takes a Christian teaching and emphasizes it to the exclusion of anything that might counterbalance it. It isn't wrong to suggest that there are biblical passages that state that God blesses his servants in this life as well as the next. There are biblical passages that suggest a link between a nation's morality, a nation's religious beliefs, and its historical fate.
But Christian orthodoxy always counterbalances those emphases with other truths. Sometimes God uses a pagan nation to bring forth his justice. So you might succeed and prosper not because you are particularly virtuous, but because you're that pagan nation, Babylon or Assyria, not King David's Israel. You have to be aware of these possibilities. The same is true for wealthy people, and obviously all blessings come from God. But sometimes what you think of as "blessings" may be ill-gotten gains. Or the guy who is suffering financially isn't suffering because he didn't pray hard enough; he's Lazarus on your doorstep and you're the rich man who's ignoring him.