Springtime for Ross Douthat?

Ross Douthat’s latest column offers proof of Godwin’s law in the headline—and goes downhill from there. And the headline (a sly reference to The Producers‘ “Springtime for Hitler”) isn’t even the worst thing in the article.

To be fair, journalists don’t write their own headlines [Dan didn’t write this one, for example. –the eds]. Also, I should point out that Douthat’s first three paragraphs go off without him tripping over his own shoelaces.

The fourth paragraph is where he begins to fumble.

It’s not just that the columnist relies on an old and now discredited theory about liberalism being the source of the decline in mainline Protestantism. It’s not just that he ignores evidence that church decline affects conservative denominations too. It’s not even only that he forgets to mention that white Catholics are leaving the church in droves, and the only thing saving it from total collapse is the influx of relatively liberal Hispanic immigrants, or that just about everybody hated Benedict XVI, and that’s why the cardinals elected Francis as his replacement.

And it’s not even just that he slips this in this tendentious riff: “American liberalism has become more secular and anti-clerical, culminating in the Obama White House’s battles with Francis’ own church,” without so much as a whiff of evidence, as though a bloodthirsty Bernie Sanders were about to pivot from his appearance at Liberty University to send the entire US College of Bishops to the guillotine.

Nor is it his failure to consider such alternative perspectives as “before Francis was even elected Pope the American bishops tried to submarine healthcare reform,” or “The Little Sisters of the Poor don’t have to endorse, allow or permit abortion in any way, shape or form.”

It’s that he does all that, and then, like a cherry high atop a five-scoop sundae of stupid, he throws this in: “In the intellectual arena, religiously-inclined liberals have pined for a Reinhold Niebuhr without producing one.”

Hmm. The only person I know of pining for Reinhold Niebuhr is David Brooks. If that’s your definition of a liberal, God help us all. No, liberal Christians these days have moved on from Niebuhr, who after all ended his run chastising Civil Rights leaders for moving too fast, and supporting Mutually Assured Destruction and the Vietnam War.

Most people these days look to Juergen Moltmann (even he’s kind of old-school by now), Gustavo Gutierrez, Marcus Borg, James Cone, Sallie McFague, or any number of other thinkers and theologians that Douthat does not recognize. The only people who want to bring back Niebuhr are conservatives. (I’m an admitted fanboy, but that’s about coming from the same church background as Niebuhr as much as anything.)

And that doesn’t even get to the worst of it. Douthat misunderstands Francis’ amazing, charismatic realignment of Catholic priorities as a cheap publicity stunt to get hippies in the pew. He completely misunderstands Francis’ speech to Congress as plumping for liberal values—and I’m not entirely sure he gets that Martin Luther King wasn’t a Catholic.

On and on it goes. Douthat snipes at “a liberalism that thinks it can impose meaning on a cosmos whose sound and fury signifies nothing on its own,” without bothering to understand the theological complexities of the religiously unaffiliated: that they are overwhelmingly believers, not atheists, much less anti-theists, that they feel pushed out of the church by exactly the judgmentalism that Francis works to counteract, that many of them have moved left exactly because they are so disgusted by the connection between religion and right-wing politics.

Then there’s the slur that liberal Christianity is simply “secularized faith, obsessed with political utopias” and the corresponding nod to the resilience of the black church, which Douthat ascribes to its being “supernaturalist”— as though its message of redemption and liberation of the African-American community has nothing to do with it.

And then there’s the bit about “religious liberalism’s urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works.” Cute. I wonder if a Times columnist might not want to consider the use of statistics in his work, like this one: 99% of all American women who have had sex have used some form of birth control, 98% of Catholic women. Are they of the Devil? Would Douthat like Pope Francis to cast them out like Satan? Why on earth does Douthat have a platform?

Believe it or not, I’m leaving some stuff out here. And we still haven’t gotten to the worst part about this miserable excuse for religion writing. That would be what it’s missing: a theological claim.

The closest Douthat comes is his talk about supernaturalism, but he never spells out what exactly he means by that. Nor does he say why it’s bad to embrace “the sexual revolution” or environmentalism or care for the poor—or really anything. This column is nothing but one long sneer at something Douthat doesn’t like but is too lazy to define and actually argue against.

I suspect he doesn’t because he can’t.

Ross Douthat is never going to tell us why exactly he thinks God would prefer a stern, censorious pope to shame us all back into submission. He never says why he thinks God wouldn’t like people wanting to take care of the poor or address climate change. He never says why liberal religious types should give two figs about whether their faith costs them adherents or not.

We literally worship a man who died by torture rather than compromise his ideals. When you start with that, who cares if anyone likes your positions on social reform? Ross Douthat, that’s who, because apparently he sees Christianity as a popularity contest.

Douthat can’t engage any of these ideas, let alone the various liberationist theologies that have emerged since the 1970s because—and there really is no nice way to put this—he would have his ass handed to him. What is he supposed to say? Stop smiling at people whether or not you agree with them? Be more judgmental about things everyone does? God doesn’t care if you trash the planet? Be meaner to people whose marriages are falling apart?

These things are essentially what he’s trying to argue, but of course, he can’t come right out and say them, because they’re ridiculous, and because he doesn’t have the theological chops to give even a half-hearted defense. So he simply waves them away as inconsistent with the faith and not very popular, either, and hopes that nobody notices that he has no case. And this is who the Times thinks should be the marquee defender of Christianity in its pages. At least they didn’t hire Erick Erickson.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Douthat. Maybe he could rise to the theological task. So, I’ll make him a deal. I’ll even spot him all his fatuous arguments about liberal religion for the sake of argument.

If he gives me one good reason why God thinks liberal Christians shouldn’t live by Jesus’ words that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” I’ll take back everything I said about this column—and maybe one or two other things.

In the meantime, this liberal Christian will take a smiling Pope over a know-nothing columnist any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

17 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I understand your purpose here is to bring up a lot of unpleasant religious things, and that is important. But as a counterweight look at what the Catholic church is doing to help our nation. They encourage immigration to restock a church that is losing members. Those people coming to America have children who filter through the church, and become American and liberal in the process, and leave the church. Then the church encourages more immigrants and the process continues. The church is playing a critical role in stocking America with liberals through their creation of young ex-Catholics.

  • Ragtop44@hotmail.com' Cali Ron says:

    “It’s not even only that he forgets to mention that white Catholics are leaving the church in droves, and the only thing saving it from total collapse is the influx of relatively liberal Hispanic immigrants,” Hispanic immigrants are not relatively liberal, they are relatively conservative. In America conservatives have pushed the envelope on racism, especially aimed at Hispanic immigrants which has pushed them away politically, but they are socially conservative, family oriented and generally don’t support liberal idealism. There are other points that are quite debatable, but why bother to critique this pseudo-intellectual attack on a pseudo-intellectual article on intellectual grounds.

    He has a very exaggerated opinion of the influence Catholicism has on liberalism in America. People don’t leave the church because they became more liberal or vice versa. Studies have shown that liberal and conservative traits are personality traits and not dictated by religious believe or indoctrination. Ex catholic liberals tend to be liberals and ex-catholic conservatives tend to be conservative. God and relilgion don’t have near the influence on mankind than the religious will admit.

    The whole article reads like a cry baby rant because Doug doesn’t share his liberal christian viewpoint, criticizing his intellect. This from a man who believes in fairy tales. Maybe he and a few other self proclaimed religious intellectuals enjoy debating obscure and pointless debates on the finer points of their religions influence, but if they were really intellectual they would be noticing that their religions are completely impossible to intellectually defend, being based on superstition and having no basis in actual facts.

    Is that a mote in his eye?

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Oh man. Thank you.

  • david.carlton@vanderbilt.edu' David_in_Nashville says:

    “Most people these days look to Juergen Moltmann (even he’s kind of
    old-school by now), Gustavo Gutierrez, Marcus Borg, James Cone, Sallie
    McFague, or any number of other thinkers and theologians that Douthat
    does not recognize.” Maybe he doesn’t recognize them because none of these thinkers, whatever their real merits, remotely approach the stature Niebuhr enjoyed in his heyday. Niebuhr’s influence reached well beyond the seminary; he was a force in American intellectual life. None of these figures are. I have no idea who “most people” are, but I know hardly any of them.

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    Ross Douthat is one of those people who prefer to feel superior to everyone else, and let everyone else know it. The scolding gets tiresome coming from a wealthy white guy. He wants to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.

  • azmrb48@earthlink.net' Michael Bergman says:

    Pastordan gets a little judgmental here eh? Christ didn’t die for his ideals but for SIN, which apparently the author doesn’t feel exists apart from liberal cause celebres

  • pastorchristy@gmail.com' christythomas says:

    Excellent analysis. Thank you. I work on reading Douthat’s columns with generosity, but it is getting harder and harder.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    This is a question about one little part of this presentation.

    It’s not just that the columnist relies on an old and now discredited theory about liberalism being the source of the decline in mainline Protestantism. It’s not just that he ignores evidence that church decline affects conservative denominations too.

    What if it could be shown that liberal churches were declining faster than conservative ones? I think it might be possible to say that would be the fault of conservative Christianity. They would like to blame the liberals, but it is not that liberal Christians are switching to join conservative churches. The liberals might just be getting too fed up with all the garbage in Christianity today. They are fed up with Christianity in general, and it is because of conservative Christianity. If conservative Christianity was not becoming so insane, they might just stick with liberal Christianity. But the fact is conservative Christianity has poisoned the well for everyone. This is based on seeing Christianity as a continuum. Does this make any sense? Could conservative Christianity in America be a reason for rational people to blow off all Christianity including liberal Christianity?

  • kevin.m.carnahan@gmail.com' Kevin Carnahan says:

    As a former president of the Niebuhr Society, I should note that you appear to know very little about this seminal twentieth century theologian. For instance, he did not support the Vietnam war, but rather was an extremely early public figure in America denouncing the war. He was also and advocate and supporter of Martin Luther King’s protests against the war. I would recommend that you read over Daniel Rice’s recent article “The Fiction of Reinhold Niebuhr as a Political Conservative” in Soundings to get better acquainted with Niebuhr’s actual positions.

    Nor do you seem to know anything about the recent scholarly interest in Niebuhr, often expressed by liberals. It would not take much to find out about it – a google search would do it. Arthur Schlesinger wrote an essay entitled “Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr” for the New York Times in 2005. Paul Elie did a nice write up “A Man for All Reasons” in 2007 that covered many of the recent efforts to claim Niebuhr’s authority in public discourse. And then there was the revival of scholarly interest, which included John Patrick Diggens’ “Why Niebuhr Now” in 2011, and Richard Crouter’s “Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith” in 2010.

    Ironically, while citing Brooks, you entirely miss the fact that Brooks actually outed another liberal as a major fan of Niebuhr: Barack Obama.

  • pastordanschultz@gmail.com' pastordan says:

    Actually, I’ve studied Niebuhr, but I did get his positions on Vietnam and MAD wrong. I regret the error.

    “Scholarly
    interest in” and “pining for a new” are not the same thing at all. I
    took Douthat to mean that religious liberals have been disappointed in
    people who would like to claim Niebuhr’s prophetic mantle: Jim Wallis is
    the name who comes to mind. Perhaps I’m wrong about that, but I don’t
    believe Douthat was thinking academic circles, and again, “pining for”
    seems like a stretch at best. Outside academia, Niebuhr is definitely
    not the first name off the lips of pastors and church leaders, at least
    not in my experience. In 15 years of ministry, I could count on one hand
    the number of people I’ve run into who have read his major works. He’s
    simply not a factor for most people.

    There is a decent
    conversation to be had about what exactly constitutes the religious
    left: activist groups? Churches with liberal or progressive theologies?
    Seminaries or other educational institutions? But that’s for another
    time.

    Last, I didn’t miss that Obama is a Niebuhr fan, I just
    didn’t mention it. He hasn’t to my knowledge ever pined for Niebuhr’s
    return in the way Brooks has.

  • ellen.valle@utu.fi' red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    The concept of “sin” is a theological construction. In the real world, as opposed to the theological one, the person we know as Jesus did die for his ideals, which in many respects were universal and still applicable today; and a secularist like myself can respect him for that.

  • cathy_maslin@hotmail.com' ceige says:

    Jesus died for us not for any cause political or otherwise.

  • cathy_maslin@hotmail.com' ceige says:

    Then this is a shame because one is a part of the Church but it is Jesus who is to be followed. If Muslims become Christian and are willing to lay down their lives to do so, how humbling is that to those of us who live in nations who will reject Him over the arguments of men.

  • cathy_maslin@hotmail.com' ceige says:

    I am not in favour of the article in question, however, ‘impossible to intellectual defend’ and ‘based on superstition’ are strong words. Many intellectuals have, without the need to defend, based their life and their work on their Faith in Christ including, Newton, Pascal, Dr Paul Brand, Fred Hollows, Mother Theresa and a few more – the proof of the resurrection is evidenced in the lives of those who know or have known Him.

  • ellen.valle@utu.fi' red-diaper-baby 1942 says:

    That’s if you’re a believer. I’m not; I’m a secular humanist. So I guess not much dialogue or understanding is possible between you and me.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    “The only person I know of pining for Reinhold Niebuhr is David Brooks. If that’s your definition of a liberal, God help us all.”

    James Cone, the great figure in Black Liberation Theology recommended Niebuhr as someone George W. Bush could profitably read not too many years ago, he and a number of very liberal theologians often make reference to Niebuhr.

    If you don’t know that you aren’t qualified to be talking about him.

  • cathy_maslin@hotmail.com' ceige says:

    Oh I am sure there can be. I can acknowledge you see Jesus only as a historical person. You, if you are willing, can acknowledge if I believe what the bible says, I see him as God’s son incarnate whose life was given to reconcile us to God. And if you are a humanist then I am sure there are a lot of social justice issues we could dialogue on too.

    I just rule out Jesus died for ideals because as understood by the bible and history writers at the time. Jesus was crucified because he ‘claimed’ to be the Son of God. As C.S.Lewis wrote, therefore logically, one either accepts this or rejects it; history doesn’t provide a middle road where He was merely an idealist or moralist.

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