Bad Religion, Good Conversation?

Bad Religion, Good Conversation?
 by Elesha Coffman

Despite being a basically optimistic, progress-oriented, and historically amnesiac nation, the United States remains fertile ground for jeremiads. Bookstore shelves groan with laments for the fall of America’s economy, global stature, higher education system, civil discourse, environment, family structure, capacity for innovation … you name it, it’s apparently going down the tubes. “There was a time,” sang the doomed Fantine in Les Mis, “then it all went wrong.” Even the reviewers who nuance these assessments—pointing out that Americans still manufacture a lot of stuff, for instance, or that our universities attract high numbers of foreign students—tend to stay with the minor key. The broad contours of the narratives of decline are rarely challenged.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion: How WeBecame a Nation of Heretics would seem to fit into this dirgelike cultural soundtrack. He introduced his argument in the April 8 issue of the Times, writing that, until recent decades, “a Christian center … helped bind a vast and teeming nation together.” Today, though, “that religious common ground has all but disappeared.” As evidence, Douthat cited the religious diversity of the field of 2012 presidential contenders: Obama, whom he calls an “unchurched Christian” with “ties to liberation theology”; Romney, a member of “the ultimate outsider church”; and Santorum, a “staunchly orthodox Christian” whose “traditionalist zeal has made him a bigger target even than Romney or Obama for fascination, suspicion and hysteria.” No wonder conspiracy theories have replaced political dialogue, Douthat asserted. These men, and their supporters, might as well have come from different planets.
My own copy of Bad Religion is on order at my local bookstore, so I can’t comment on it yet (maybe next week?). What fascinates me at this stage is the response Douthat is getting across the media and blogosphere. He’s lamenting the fall of mainline religion in America—hardly a new argument—but instead of “yes, but …” nuance reviewers are reacting with the sound of a needle scratched across the giant, dirgy, jeremiad record. Not all reviewers are pushing back so hard; Mark Oppenheimer at the NYT deemed the book flawed but “responsible and fair,”and John Presnall at First Things called it “exemplary of a serious grappling with these postmodern theological conundrums.” 

 But Michael Sean Winters at The New Republic judged the book “simplistic and coarse,” the product of a writer “who does not seem to have any idea what he is talking about,” while over at Religion News Service Mark Silk declared Douthat’s column “such a tissue of non- and half-truth, of historical misconception and ideological prejudice, that it requires an interlinear gloss to set the story straight” (which Silk then provided) Who knew that another flower laid on the coffin of mainline religion would provoke such a heated reaction?

Responses to Douthat’s column and book, probably like responses to all of his writing, break more or less along conservative/liberal lines, but I sense two other themes running through the commentary. One is the generalist’s constant vulnerability to challenge from specialists. Douthat is, by profession, an opinion journalist, while ranks his book atop its bestseller lists for church history, Catholicism, and religious studies/sociology. That’s at least three fields full of experts willing and able to offer critique.

Specialist critique can be devastating. Notably, David Chappell’s History Society blogpost pointed out that, contra one of Douthat’s major points in his column, it was political coercion—not widely accepted moral and theological arguments—that undermined support for segregation.  Specialist critique can also feel a bit labored. For example, Silk countered Douthat’s observation that “Post-J.F.K., many of America’s established churches went into an unexpected decline” by highlighting the growth of Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God churches. Surely those are not the churches Douthat meant, nor the ones anyone would expect him to mean in context—though, as Silk pointed out, “established churches” is a curious and insufficiently clear label.

The other thing that strikes me in this commentary is how much is still perceived to be at stake in discussions of 20th century religious declension. When I first read Douthat’s column, I was mildly surprised that someone with no direct connection to the Protestant mainline—Douthat was baptized as an Episcopalian but attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches before converting to Catholicism at age 17—would perceive that tradition’s decline as a loss. This wasn’t the familiar insider mourning (seminary professors asking “Whither the mainline?”), insider resignation (“We’ll have to make do with less, and it’s probably good for us”), or outsider celebration (evangelicals hailing the decay of mushy liberalism, religion scholars glad to have old divinity school monkeys off their backs). Granted, Douthat also expressed concern about Catholic losses, and about the erosion of a “mere Christianity” he judged to have been shared by the majority of American believers, but mainline decline clearly weighed on him. Why would he care? And why does anyone else care whether his nostalgic look back at the pre-Kennedy era, which he personally missed by about 25 years, paints a recognizable picture?

Indirectly, some of the criticism aimed at Douthat seems to confirm his premises that orthodoxy matters and that “religious common ground” is an important component of a functioning civil society. Among their other charges, Winters complained that Douthat ignored elements of Catholic social teaching (especially regarding labor and capital), and Silk argued that Obama’s and Romney’s religious traditions are pretty solidly mainstream (Santorum’s, not so much). In other words, although different writers populate the categories of “orthodoxy” and “religious common ground” quite differently, the categories are not going away, and they are considered relevant not just to the survival of a set of religious institutions but to the health of the body politic. Whatever else they did and did not do, mid-20th century mainline Protestants and Catholics kept these topics prominent in national conversation. Evidently, it’s a conversation a lot of people feel strongly enough about to continue.


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