By Marie Burns:
Ross Douthat’s New York Times column is “adapted and excerpted from his new book” Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The topic of Douthat’s Easter Sermon is this: “with the disappearance of a Christian center and the decline of institutional religion more generally, we lack the capacity to translate those desires into something other than what we’ve seen in this, the most theologically diverse of recent presidential elections – division, demonization and polarization without end.” This is hellfire and brimstone delivered in New York Times-speak. On its own “merits,” Douthat’s entire column is just as disturbing as any hellfire-and-brimstone emanating from the pulpit. That it appears as the lead opinion piece in the Times “Sunday Review” renders it a dangerous lurch back to the “bad religion” days Douthat longs for – days when American newspapers routinely published the sermons of popular preachers.
Douthat’s concern is that “as orthodoxies weaken, churches split and their former adherents mix and match elements of various traditions to fit their preferences, religion is more likely to become indistinguishable from personal and ideological self-interest.” What Douthat disdains is a kind of “cafeteria Christianity,” one that, as we’ll see, he glosses over when it comes to a favorite candidate. Rather, he thinks the churches should lead social movements, as he believes American religious leaders did in the 1960s.
I could not disagree more with Douthat’s thesis. Even popular opinion is turning toward my view. According to the Pew Forum,
The number of people who say there has been too much religious talk by political leaders stands at an all-time high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question more than a decade ago. And most Americans continue to say that churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics. Nearly four-in-ten Americans (38%) now say there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders….
The problem with Douthat’s analysis is a common one among religious believers. They assume that religion forms the basis for morality. The opposite is closer to reality; that is, religions develop doctrines that reflect general cultural mores. So all major religions adhere to some form of the Golden Rule, because it is a practical code under which society can best operate. Religions characterize their doctrine as their gods’ commandments, but they are really just ways of managing society. The Torah – Jewish Law – is chock-full of humanist principles, and the “sayings of Jesus” that appear in the Gospels of the New Testament are reflections of widely-held Mediterranean codes of conduct. The Gospels were, in many respects, reactions to Roman law; based largely on progressive Pharisaic interpretations of the Torah, they formulated a code of conduct for the oppressed. The Christian Gospels contain numerous suggestions on how oppressed peoples can negotiate Roman law. These sometimes novel ideas account for the conversion of many gentiles throughout the Roman Empire during the centuries before the Roman emperor made Christianity an authorized state religion. Religious threats have been used as a means to enforce moral behavior, but the moral principles derive from the realities of everyday life. That is, the roots of morality are secular and moral codes transcend religious and national boundaries.
Secular movements generally lead religious ones. The late-20th-century fight for women’s equality in this country, for instance, began as a secular movement; churches came late to the table, and many, like the Roman Catholic and Mormon faiths, still cannot be brought to the table, even kicking and screaming. The evidence for secular leadership on matters of morality is overwhelming, but it is lost on Douthat. He thinks that the fragmentation of religion is the cause and result of moral decay, but the opposite is the case. The insistence of some religious sects upon “special rules” is the root of a great deal of national discord. The purpose of the First Amendment was to eliminate a fraction of that discord, but religious disharmony remains vibrant even in a country whose Constitution never mentions the word “god.”
Still, Douthat has written an opinion piece, and he is entitled to his opinions, even if they are insupportable and especially because he is swimming against the tide. What he is not entitled to do is to distort the facts, as he does in this column. Nor should he forget – as he does – the millions of non-Christian Americans who would never agree with him that the U.S. should become a more Christian-centered nation.
In his essay, Douthat practically identifies the United States as a Christian nation. He ignores non-Christian religions and non-theists, thus omitting from consideration nearly a quarter of Americans who adhere to other faiths or are unaffiliated (no religion or self-identified atheists and agnostics). There are as many self-identified Jews as there are Mormons in the U.S. In New York City, the home of the newspaper that publishes Douthat’s Christian ramblings, the percentage of Jewish residents is more than twice that of Protestants. You might think Douthat would notice these “significant others.” But no. Douthat writes instead about the good old days when “the existence of a Christian center also helped bind a vast and teeming nation together.”
With Douthat the religious is always political, so his unacknowledged goal is to demonstrate that Barack Obama’s religious beliefs are more unorthodox than those of the two leading Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. To achieve his goal, Douthat must engage in some serious false equivalencies, as well as elision and distortion of facts. In so doing he also masks the actual tenets of the religions to which the three men adhere.
Here’s Douthat’s set-up: “Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all identify as Christians, but their theological traditions and personal experiences of faith diverge more starkly than any group of presidential contenders in recent memory.” A fair-minded writer would describe these candidates as “a Protestant, a Catholic and a Mormon.” That would be accurate. But no. Here’s how Douthat characterizes the candidates’ avowed faiths: “a Mormon, a traditionalist Catholic and an incumbent with ties to liberation theology.” That should disabuse you of any hope that Douthat is attempting to be even-handed and fair in this discourse.
Douthat says that President Obama is “against the Catholic church.” Douthat further implies that Obama isn’t an “authentic” or “natural-born” Christian because he “changed his religion as an adult…. after a conversion experience brought him out of agnosticism into faith.” (The linked post is worth reading.) Not only that, Obama “was converted by a pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose highly politicized theology was self-consciously at odds with much of historic Christian practice and belief.” In this short essay, Douthat refers to Wright four times. (I can’t imagine why.) Wright, Douthat says, ties Obama “to liberation theology” (This April 2008 New Yorker article by Kelefa Sanneh on black liberation theology is helpful if you want to know the roots of these beliefs.) Douthat offers more evidence that the President isn’t a real Christian: “Obama has become a believer without a denomination or a church, which makes him part of one of the country’s fastest-growing religious groups – what the Barna Group calls the ‘unchurched Christian’ bloc, consisting of Americans who accept some tenets of Christian faith without participating in any specific religious community.” That is, Obama says he is a Christian but shows little evidence of it: he is “unchurched” and he accepts only “some tenets of Christian faith.” (This Sunday the President and his family attended Easter services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square. The First Family often attends this ultra-mainstream church, but that doesn’t fit Douthat’s narrative.) Moreover, Douthat argues, Obama’s “prior institutional affiliation is with a church that seems far more alien to many white Christians than did the African-American Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr., or even Jesse Jackson.” Okay, looks as if the President might be more radical than the Rev. Jackson.
The Wiki entry for the United Church of Christ, which Obama joined, describes the church as
a mainline Protestant Christian denomination primarily in the Reformed tradition but also historically influenced by Lutheranism, the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches…. The denomination places high emphasis on participation in worldwide interfaith and ecumenical efforts. The national settings of the UCC have historically favored liberal views on social issues, such as civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights and abortion rights. However, United Church of Christ congregations are independent in matters of doctrine and ministry and may not necessarily support the national body’s theological or moral stances.
As Christian denominations go, the UCC sounds pretty sensible and normal to me. Associated with the Harvard and Yale Divinity Schools and with New York’s Union Theological Seminary, among others, the UCC is the church of theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. Senators Max Baucus (D), Daniel Akaka (D), and Mark Kirk (R) are members.
Unlike the heretical Obama, Mitt Romney is a real Mormon. He has, Douthat reminds us, remained “a loyal practitioner of his childhood faith.” But that faith “is arguably as far as Jeremiah Wright’s black liberation from what used to be the American religious center.” Yep. Mormonism is pretty much like the United Church of Christ. Douthat does mention that Mormons “believe that true Christian faith was restored to earth by Joseph Smith after nearly two millenniums of apostasy.” Douthat also acknowledges Mormons’ “belief in a special 19th-century revelation and other doctrinal embellishments,” but he accidentally forgets to tell us what some of those “embellishments” are. It seems both God and Jesus spoke with Joseph Smith (which Mormons believe is “the most important event in human history after the resurrection of Jesus”), and Jesus still communicates directly with whatever “prophet” heads the Mormon church as well as with other faithful Mormons. Mormons believe that Joseph Smith copied The Book of Mormon from a couple of golden plates he found on a hill near his home in Upstate New York after the Angel Moroni directed Smith to the site. Later on, Smith got the idea that polygamy would be a good idea, a practice the church abandoned after continued conflicts with the federal government. Its rites today are so secret that Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents were not allowed to attend her Mormon marriage to Mitt.
What the Church of Latter Days Saints did in the past is less important, as Frank Rich wrote in New York magazine last month, than what Mitt Romney has done as a church leader. “Romney,” Rich writes, “is not merely a worshipper sitting in the pews but the scion of a family dynasty integral to the progress of an American-born faith that has played a large role in the public square.” Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times writes that, “First as bishop of his own congregation, and later as Boston ‘stake president,’ overseeing a region akin to a Roman Catholic diocese, he operated as clergyman, organization man and defender of the faith, guiding the church through a tumultuous period of rapid growth.” A prominent feminist Mormon told Stolberg, “Mitt is the type who liked to be called Bishop Romney or President Romney.” Frank Rich wonders if Romney, “in his various positions in the church, [has] countenanced or enforced its discriminatory treatment of blacks and women, practices [the Mormon church] only started to end in earnest well after [Romney] had entered adulthood.” Rich adds, “… these days, no major faith puts more money where its mouth is in battling civil rights for gay Americans.” We don’t know what Romney’s views are about the specific tenets of his faith because he won’t say. Rich argues the voters have a right to know. Let’s see if reporters at the New York Times press him.
In short, if Obama is a lackadaisical Protestant, Romney has long been a prominent Mormon, and Douthat is exceedingly disingenuous to equate Obama’s generic liberal Protestant faith with Romney’s intimate relationship with the operations of his church.
Douthat’s treatment of Santorum’s faith is equally dishonest. Douthat describes Santorum as a Catholic who adheres to “a staunchly orthodox Christianity” which “is not particularly mainstream.” I’m not sure what orthodoxy Douthat is writing about. As Lisa Miller of the Washington Post wrote,
… the Republican candidate who most stands for orthodox religious faith. He has been called ‘devout,’ ‘traditionalist,’ and even — by the Catholic historian Garry Wills — ‘a papist.’ So it is worth pointing out here that Santorum is not, in fact, all that Catholic…. Santorum observes the teachings of his church selectively.
Miller points out a number of areas in which Santorum violates the Roman church’s teachings: Santorum has voted for the death penalty, he endorses torture, he advocates use of force in Iran, and he has explicitly distanced himself from the Church’s position on immigration policy. Santorum even disagrees with Church’s teachings on evolution: the Church says evolution and other advances in scientific knowledge should be integrated into its worldview; “back in 2001 [Santorum] attempted to have Congress require the teaching of creationism in public schools all across the United States while undercutting the scientific integrity of evolution.” More important, Santorum differs radically with his church on aiding the poor. Church leaders have criticized Roman Catholic House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner and budget guru Paul Ryan for budgets that violate Catholic teachings by giving to the rich and failing to care for the poor and vulnerable; Santorum said that the latest Ryan budget doesn’t go far enough and fast enough in slashing spending, almost all of which would come from social safety-net programs. So Santorum is even more of an apostate than Ryan and Boehner. Douthat claims Santorum is an “orthodox Christian,” but in fact he is a “cafeteria Catholic” who happens to feed off one lane of the cafeteria, the lane that deals with matters “in the sexual realm.” Douthat never describes Santourum’s peculiar, rigid views on sexuality, views Santorum plans to enforce and encourage if he becomes president. Opposition to contraception – something that 98 percent of sexually-active American Catholic women have used – is hardly the equivalent of President Obama’s professed beliefs, which are based on mainstream Protestant teachings.
Yet instead of demonstrating how unusual and anachronistic are Santorum’s views – views he hopes to instill nation-wide from the bully pulpit of the presidency – Douthat blasts Santorum’s critics. He writes that Santorum is the target of “suspicion and hysteria” and the victim of “perfervid paranoia from secular liberals, who hear intimations of theocracy in his every speech and utterance.” Oh, do call me “perfervid” when I hear intimations of theocracy like Santorum’s remarks at Ave Maria University. At Ave Maria, Santorum spoke of “a spiritual war,” a war in which Satan had prevailed over academia and over the Protestant churches (“Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.”). Now, according to Santorum, politics and government are falling to Satan, too. From this speech, it is easy to understand why Santorum “wanted to throw up” when he read John F. Kennedy’s defense of separation of church and state. It also explains his antipathy to public schools at all levels, schools he sees as “government-run” and “aberrations of … mass education… factories.” Santorum also opposes free prenatal care, apparently because of his religious objection to abortion: “free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and, therefore, less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society.” Again because of his religious beliefs, Santorum says climate change is a hoax designed to increase the power of the federal government: “This is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and give more power to the government: “This idea that man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth – and I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do…. We’re not here to serve the earth. The earth is not the objective. Man is the objective….man is – should be – in charge of the earth and have dominion over it and be good stewards of it.” (See Genesis.)
To be fair, Douthat also criticizes the right for perpetuating “the myth that President Obama is a Muslim.” However, Douthat finds the myth understandable “in part because Obama’s prior institutional affiliation is with a church that seems far more alien to many white Christians.” It doesn’t take a genius to see that even in his criticisms of the left and right, Douthat sets up a deliberate false equivalence. President Obama has said and done nothing whatsoever to suggest he is a Muslim, but Santorum has repeatedly made statements that attest to his plan to govern based on his outlier religious beliefs, beliefs he would force upon everyone else. Critics are right to worry about Santorum; there is no rational basis for the Obama-is-a-Muslim myth. But Douthat portrays a false belief as just like a reasoned observation.
It’s too bad that Ross Douthat doesn’t write his columns based on his own religious faith. The Romans church to which he belongs teaches that lying and deceit are sins and “offenses against God.” I hope Douthat went to confession before Easter and said he was heartily sorry for the falsehoods he was about to lay on New York Times readers.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com