Russ Douthat has an opinion column in the New York Times bemoaning the fact that this year’s presidential candidates show so much religious diversity. Religious diversity? They’re all one form of Christian or another. This is religious diversity? Douthat thinks it should be even less diverse.
In 2012, we finally have a presidential field whose diversity mirrors the diversity of American Christianity as a whole.
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. These divergences reflect America as it actually is: We’re neither traditionally Christian nor straightforwardly secular. Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit, and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.
This diversity is not necessarily a strength. The old Christian establishment — which by the 1950s encompassed Kennedy’s Roman Catholic Church as well as the major Protestant denominations — could be exclusivist, snobbish and intolerant. But the existence of a Christian center also helped bind a vast and teeming nation together. It was the hierarchy, discipline and institutional continuity of mainline Protestantism and later Catholicism that built hospitals and schools, orphanages and universities, and assimilated generations of immigrants. At the same time, the kind of “mere Christianity” (in C. S. Lewis’s phrase) that the major denominations shared frequently provided a kind of invisible mortar for our culture and a framework for our great debates.
Today, that religious common ground has all but disappeared.
Good. It isn’t true, of course, but I sure wish it was. This notion that Christianity merely provided an “invisible mortar” for our culture is absurd; what it has provided, with remarkable consistency, is the primary opposition to every kind of social progress. In every single movement to end an unjust and destructive practice in this country — theocratic governments and established churches, slavery, the Jim Crow laws, legal discrimination against black people, women and gay people, etc — the primary opposition was the Christian establishment. In every single movement to extend the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the primary opposition came from the churches and theologians. Less influence over the culture has been, and will continue to be, a very good thing for human progress.