Ross Douthat’s Vanishing Christian Center

Ross Douthat’s Vanishing Christian Center May 2, 2012

In a recent New York Times column titled “Divided by God,” and more generally in his book Bad Religion, Ross Douthat laments the disappearance of the 1950s-era mainline Protestant/Roman Catholic establishment, a Christian center that once “helped bind a vast and teeming nation together.” Now, according to Douthat, we have become 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 religious polarization, according to Douthat, is best illustrated by the 2012 presidential race, matching Barack Obama, an adult convert into the United Church of Christ, and Mitt Romney, a lifelong devout Mormon. (Until he dropped out of the race, Rick Santorum supplied another religious dynamic to the race: traditional Catholicism. As Douthat notes, an orthodox Christian may seem like the “weirdest heresy of all” in today’s spiritual milieu.)

Douthat is one of best conservative writers in America. In a brilliant 2009 move, the Times made him their youngest op-ed columnist in history, before Douthat turned thirty. He is a real cultural conservative, without the moderate, establishmentarian inclinations of the Times’ other conservative, David Brooks. However, I don’t think Douthat gets it quite right on this topic, because I think he underestimates how fractious the combination of religion and politics has always been in America.

Yes, religion feeds today’s dismaying polarization of American politics. Bemoaning our fractured political culture, our lack of “civility,” and our cheapened partisan uses of religion has become a favorite pastime of many pundits. But the polarization we are witnessing today is about par for the course in our nation’s history.

What if you go back to the nation’s founding? Surely back then we were more religiously unified? Well, yes and no. A very high percentage of Americans in 1776 were at least nominally Christian, and almost all of those were Protestants—about the only other religious groups were small numbers of Catholics and Jews. But many colonists had come as religious dissenters—Puritans, Quakers, and others—who were accustomed to furious fights over religion, dating back to the wars of the Reformation. The Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century had both re-energized and re-fractured the American religious scene, with many established Congregationalist and Anglican pastors facing charges that they did not preach the true gospel, and might not even be born again.

The great British orator Edmund Burke actually attributed Americans’ political fractiousness to their dissenting Protestantism: their religion, he wrote, was “a refinement on the principle of resistance.” Their faith was “the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.” The British better not trifle with these spiritual brawlers, he warned.

As I argued in my book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, Americans of the founding era did share religiously-grounded beliefs, such as the equality of all people before God, and the role of God’s Providence in human affairs. Those commonly-held ideas helped to unify the Revolutionary movement, and brought together Americans of vastly different personal beliefs, from evangelical Baptists to Deists such as Thomas Jefferson. But once the Revolution was over, Americans showed that they also remained prone to vicious religious feuds.

Nowhere was that fractious tendency better displayed than in the presidential election of 1800, in which Jefferson faced the incumbent John Adams. Although Adams was growing less orthodox in his beliefs, too, he was very comfortable with employing religious rhetoric as president. His supporters launched attacks on Jefferson’s faith that make today’s incivility pale in comparison. One writer called Jefferson a “howling atheist” (which he was not), and Adams’ Federalist party repeatedly and unapologetically ran an ad in the fall of 1800 telling Americans to ask themselves, “Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!”

Perhaps Douthat is right, though, when he argues that Americans have lost a former semblance of orthodoxy. Prior to the 1960s, skeptics and “heretics” could certainly count on more universal condemnation when they publicly aired their views. Today’s mainline denominational hierarchies have given up almost any pretense to official orthodoxy or traditional moral norms. But this is an old story, too. Even by the early twentieth century, the “fundamentalist” movement was born as a reaction to theological slippage in the mainline denominations. Reformed theologian J. Gresham Machen concluded in 1923 that Protestant liberalism, with its emphasis on the “social gospel” and its doubts about biblical authority, had simply ceased to be Christian.

So yes, religion in contemporary America has no defined center, but I am not sure it ever had much of one to start with.

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  • Timothy Dalrymple

    Great to see your first post here, Tommy. I’m curious: if you do not quite see the change Douthat sees, because you do not believe the “before” picture is as he describes, do you see any change, perhaps a parallel one, that could explain the current religious situation? Or is there nothing to explain, since the current religious situation is not significantly changed from before?

  • John

    I would like to echo Thomas Kidd’s remarks, by pointing to Mark Noll’s book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis – a theological crisis that church people could not resolve, meaning there was quite simply no Christian center then, nor any clear Christian center after, highlighted by the roar of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.

    If there was a “christian center”, it was paper thin – and when the Civil Rights crisis, which had been boiling for decades with lynchings and “Slavery by Another Name” [see the immensely important book by Douglas Blackmon ] , the center could not hold and did not hold.

  • Dothat is indeed a refreshing voice inside the Times. I agree with much of his view of the contemporary scene. Having pastored in Southern Baptist circles, I would encourage all pastors to spend a few Sundays on a chair just outside the doors of their adult Bible study groups and eavesdrop as to what their parishioners really believe. Many simply do bend and tailor definitions and lifestyles to our own palates while giving intellectual assent to theological orthodoxy – theology and truth aka “Mr. Potato Head”. Frances Schaeffer warned about emptying theological language of truth content (“true” truth) and cited mainline Protestants and neo=orthodoxy as examples. Bear the end of his life, he warned that evangelicals were in danger of following suit. Examing the current scene, we would have little cause to want to stone him as a false prophet.

    But this column presses a good point. Be it mainline denominations, evangelicals or whoever, there has never been a Golden Age of Christianity in ur country. Christian faith in America has always been an earthy, frothy and wild untamed business where evangelicals have both vibrantly marked parts of our history and culture and rarely passed up an opportunity to jump into a good fight.

  • John Haas

    “Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
    For it is not wise to ask such questions.”

    Ecclesiastes 7:10

  • Paul Matzko

    The irony of the post-WWII religious consensus that Douthat elegizes is that it was a product of a state-protected mainline religious cartel (I borrow “cartel” from Finke and Stark’s “The Churching of America”). For example, the mainline denominations received preferential treatment by the Federal Communications Commission. Heather Hendershot’s recent “What’s Fair on the Air?” shows that the FCC during the 1940s-1970s adopted policies that favored the National Council of Churches and its ecumenical outreaches at the expense of fundamentalist broadcasters. The NCC received free airtime because they served the “public interest” with a non-sectarian message while the fundamentalists were forced to pay for airtime (and at times were barred even from doing that). In other words, Douthat’s religious center was in part a product of state coercion. Do we really want to return to that?

  • Thomas Kidd

    Thanks Tim–perhaps there is a wider range of religious expression publicly aired today, for instance, the discussion about whether Mormonism should be considered mainstream or not. But really, when you go back to the 18th and 19th centuries, there were always “exotic” new religious groups popping up, leading to public debate/consternation. I fundamentally don’t think we’re in a novel religious situation today.

  • Thomas Kidd

    Thanks, John, and I agree with you and especially appreciate Noll’s book, as well as his America’s God.

  • Thomas Kidd

    Totally agree, Dave. Thanks.

  • Thomas Kidd

    No, we don’t. Excellent point, Paul.

  • dmwelch02

    Very interesting point.

  • John Haas

    Paul, I think saying “The irony of the post-WWII religious consensus that Douthat elegizes is that it was a product of a state-protected mainline religious cartel . . .” somewhat overstates the case. Getting free air time may have amrginally enhanced these churches’ authority and influence, but I don’t think those were “a product” of that air-time.

    I don’t know if you’re old enough to recall those broadcasts, but they were rather pathetic little affairs most of the time. Shunted off to the graveyard shifts, some very uncool guy or nun would appear for a word of inspiration that was generally anything but. As many people, no doubt, found oppasion to revile this stuff as were impressed by it. How all the differing reactions affected these churches would be very hard to assess, but it was not all of it positive.

  • Paul Matzko

    John, you’ve raised a good question about assessment. I’m not sure how we would gauge the benefits of free air time for the mainline denominations post-WWII; surely, it didn’t hurt, but how do you measure the positive gain? I don’t have an answer.

    Likewise, to some extent, with the flip side of that question. How do we measure the negative affects on religious conservative broadcasters? We know that Charles Fuller, Carl McIntire, Billy Hargis, Percy Crawford, etc…broadcast on hundreds of radio stations. Given free airtime, might their networks have been even larger? By how much? Those are imponderables, but I can tell you that access to the airwaves was a matter of survival for some rightwing broadcasters. When McIntire was forced off the air in the early 1970s by the Fairness Doctrine, his ministry–including a seminary, Bible college, conference center, and a nursing home–went into a freefall in large part because of his reliance on radio listener contributions to sustain it.

    I can also say with certainty that the struggle for access to the airwaves played a major role in the formation of important conservative religious organizations–like the National Association of Evangelicals (and the National Religious Broadcasters)–and in the politicization of the nascent New Christian Right, including figures like Carl McIntire, Clarence Manion, and Charles Fuller.

    So I don’t think I’m being too bold in my thesis. Following WWII, the National Council of Churches received favorable treatment while their fundamentalist competitors faced discrimination and censorship by an antipathetic state bureaucracy. Sounds like harnessing state-power to protect a religious “consensus” to me.

  • John Haas

    Good points. One wonders how financially healthy McIntire’s littleempire was in the first place?

    Btw, about that “center,” I found this anecdote over at Tom Ricks’ site. It sums up my memories of the ’50s:

    “The more religious members of Eisenhower’s cabinet asked that he begin its meetings with a prayer. Ultimately the cabinet decided to do so in silence. Once when Ike launched straight into a meeting, he was slipped a note, and then blurted out, “Oh, goddammit, we forgot the silent prayer.” (P. 566, Jean Edward Smith’s new biography of Eisenhower.) “