I plan on writing a fuller review of the book, but one of my concerns with my column was that I’d inadvertently given the impression that Douthat spent a lot of time discussing the issue of sexual morality, hypocrisy and homosexuality. In fact, he spends very little time on that front — mostly, in fact, as he is building to his rather humbly offered summary-solution — and much more time examining all the ways the “gospels of prosperity” have shrunken, distorted and trivialized Christianity. Fearing that I had misrepresented the book, I was very happy to see Douthat adapt a little of the book for this column in the Sunday NY Times:
Americans have never separated religion from politics, but it makes a difference how the two are intertwined. When religious commitments are more comprehensive and religious institutions more resilient, faith is more likely to call people out of private loyalties to public purposes, more likely to inspire voters to put ideals above self-interest, more likely to inspire politicians to defy partisan categories altogether. But 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.
Here it’s worth contrasting the civil rights era to our own. Precisely because America’s religious center was stronger and its leading churches more influential, the preachers and ministers who led the civil rights movement were able to assemble the broadest possible religious coalition — from the ministers who marched with protesters to the Catholic bishops who desegregated parochial schools and excommunicated white supremacists. Precisely because they shared so much theological common ground with white Christians, the leaders of the black churches were able to use moral and theological arguments to effectively shame many Southerners into accepting desegregation. (The latter story is told, masterfully, in David L. Chappell’s “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.”)
The result was an issue where pastors led and politicians of both parties followed, where the institutional churches proved their worth as both sources of moral authority and hubs of activism, and where religious witness helped forge a genuine national consensus on an issue where even presidents feared to tread.
Today’s America does not lack for causes where a similar spirit could be brought to bear for religious activists with the desire to imitate the achievements of the past. But 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.
As I’ve said elsewhere, if you liked Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism, and you are politically-aware (and as discomfited by the notion of Ameridolatry as I and some others are), this book should be on your reading list.