Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion
You suggest that Christian leaders from earlier decades contributed to the decline of traditional Christianity by trying to accommodate cultural norms. Would you consider Oprah, Glenn Beck, and others to be today's accommodationists?
We're in a slightly different era today. There were tremendous cultural challenges to Christianity in the 1960s and '70s that both liberals and conservatives struggled to respond to, starting with the sexual revolution. "Accommodationists"—what we think of as liberal Christians, Protestant and Catholic—weren't out to destroy Christianity. They saw their mission as a noble one, preserving institutional Christianity in a new era. Their choices ultimately emptied Christianity theologically, but they intended to save the faith, or at the very least their own denomination.
The heretics I write about aren't detached completely from Christianity. Some of them identify as Christians and like the idea of identifying with Jesus. But they aren't interested in sustaining any historic Christian tradition or church apart from their own ministry.
Instead of trying to reform and strengthen institutional Christianity, they're picking through the Christian past, looking for things they like and can use, and discarding the rest.
Why do you claim that one of evangelicalism's contemporary struggles is an alignment with former President George W. Bush?
The Bush administration represented both the best and worst of a broader evangelical reengagement in politics and culture. It was the fulfillment of this post-1970s era when evangelicals reengaged with the broader culture, returned to the halls of power, and left the fundamentalist past behind. That you had an evangelical President and his speechwriter drawing on Catholic social teaching to shape domestic policy was a remarkable achievement, a sign of what you might call "the opening of the evangelical mind." And some of the Bush administration's initiatives, such as its aids in Africa efforts, made a real attempt to achieve a more holistic Christian engagement in politics.
But the administration exposed the limits of using politics to effect broader cultural change. The Bush era was the moment when religious conservatives finally had one of their own in the White House, but it wasn't a great era for evangelicalism or for institutional Christianity. But it's pretty clear that institutional religion in the United States has lost more ground than it's gained in the past 10 to 15 years. While evangelicalism is obviously quite robust, evangelical churches aren't growing as fast as they were during the 1970s and '80s. Instead of being a period of revival and renewal for evangelical Christianity, the Bush era looks like a period when evangelical Christianity hit a ceiling.
After 9/11, evangelicals were also particularly tempted toward what I call the heresy of nationalism: that promoting democracy overseas by force of arms would be God's will, which is at best a theologically perilous idea, and at worst, explicitly heretical.
How has Christianity historically tempered nationalism?
The idea that America has some distinctive role to play in the unfolding of God's plan is compatible with orthodox Christianity. But it should be tempered by recognizing that America is not the church. It's fine to see ourselves as an "almost-chosen people," as Abraham Lincoln put it, but if we decide we're literally chosen, then we've taken a detour away from a healthy patriotism towards an unhealthy nationalism.