Douthat, Do Tell! Some Questions for a Columnist Longing for the Good Old Days of American Religion

Christian bowtie. Image: Etsy.

Sometimes it’s as necessary as a bowel movement to point out how some very smart pundits can conceal their very weak thinking by way of subtle appeal to a dangerous nostalgia.

Ross Douthat comes to mind, having just offered up another shining example of this sort of slimy sleight of hand. He wishes us all to understand “Why Liberalism Needs Nationalism and Religion.” This is a topic that automatically counts as Serious Discussion among a certain set of white guys who pine for better order, a straighter moral backbone and Sense of Purpose within what they see as an increasingly rotted out body politic. 

Bow-tied pedant George F. Will might function as the dean of the current lot, but guys like this have a much longer pedigree. Gee, we could go all the way back to fulminating figures like Lyman Beecher, Charles G. Finney, and William Jennings Bryan in the 19th century, or to the likes of Lowell Thomas, John Gunther, and Edward R. Murrow in the early 20th; moralists all, white guys with wrinkled brows, really worried about America. You can imagine them all in a nicely furnished faculty club somewhere, sucking on their pipes and muttering darkly about the sorry state of affairs in this land that we love. 

But I digress. My job here is merely to offer a close reading of certain redolent passages within the recent Douthat column in question. For example, Douthat invites us to believe that, 

the liberal order in America, at least, long relied for solidarity and purpose on a softer religious consensus, a flexible religious center, based on Protestant Christianity expanding to a more ecumenical but still biblically rooted vision. 

God, for those good old days! This nostalgia for what never was is deeply satisfying to my white Protestant self, I must say. But Ross: How real and how vibrant was this so-called “center” of yours? What about the social location of your soft consensus? When we had ur-Protestant moralists like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson riding high, on what basis would you say white folksthe white Christians in particularwere feeling that strong sense of solidarity and purpose? I doubt these are questions that Douthat wishes to have raised. He might consider them rather rude, in fact.   

Sticking to the standard revive-us-again script of the past 50 years, Douthat goes on to remind us how things went south because of those goddamn 1960s:

since the 1960s when the old Protestant consensus cracked up, the American system has been in search of a form of religion that can ground its liberalism in something like that [old] way. 

I call your attention to the introduction of the term “American system”: do we hear something just a tad bit proprietary? The legend of the Virtuous Republic has been invoked, the American system is what renews and guarantees the virtue, but that system is now malfunctioning on account of a God deficit. Or perhaps because of a Flag deficit. It’s hard to tell which, because in minds made like Douthat’s the two always run together. 

And now comes the hard slap at liberals whose faith is watery at best and whose weakness allows the overly woke to lead them astray:

the liberal Christianity of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, while in certain ways better suited to hold the religious center, lacks vitality and is easily subsumed into a mixture of pantheism and Gnosticism, with its moral vision supplied by a progressive activism that’s intolerant in its own distinctive way.

Wow, Ross: You smack the heretics and smite the woke in one giant stroke: how very manly of you!

But you never explain the “certain ways” you think liberal Christianity might be suited to hold the “religious center,” and you still haven’t told us what you think this center really consists of. You haven’t told us that you’ve got anything more than a flagpole of some kind. 

To be fair, much useful academic attention has been paid to how elite liberal Protestants of eras past advanced and embraced the idea of a secular society while also wishing to see that secular society imbued with a certain moral tonethus creating a center, if you willbased on the somewhat dubious idea that God gave certain white people the capacity to forge a secular but deeply ethical republic: One nation, Under God…etc. etc. 

But I don’t think Douthat really gives a fig for anyone inhabiting the nobler tier within that tradition, if only because that upper tier isn’t made of stern enough stuff to suit him. It’s too irenic. There’s too much dewy-eyed John Dewey-ism. He certainly scorns today’s liberals whom he regards as too eager to point out how the social glue of our imagined glory years was intermixed with white supremacy and militarism. In his view it is precisely the habitual inclination toward self-criticism that makes the liberals soft and weak and generally useless. 

So it’s really our fault, you seeit’s the crime of us limp liberals who left muscular Christianity behindthat what we are left with today is “a spiritual competition between an ascendant wokeness and a resentful Christian nationalism, which isn’t likely to supply unity or solidarity to anyone.” 

But Ross: What if your own longed-for vital center is also heavily laced with nationalism? After all, your column begins in celebration that the Ukraine crisis has awakened a martial spirit, a willingness to stand together against Satan (sorry, Putin) and his accursed minions. You want your flags flying and your trumpets blaring, and you have no notion that there could be a compelling religious critique of that martial stance coming from within what you call a “biblically rooted vision.” 

Douthat’s Sunday sermon ends in stern exhortation: you elite liberals (and you know who you are) need to scrap the illusion that a “post-religious order” can establish solidarity and purpose “without any of the old American appeals to Providence or Nature’s God.” So there! 

Alas, Ross Douthat is but a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. He rips the liberal Christianity of Obama and Biden for lacking “vitality,” and then he suggests that deism will get us all standing tall and ready to march? Leaving this absurdity aside, our columnist has never once allowed the possibility that what he variously calls “unity,” “solidarity,” and “purpose” could carry elements of danger in the nation state contextelements, that is, of hubris and arrogance and unseemly swagger. 

Douthat is not the first and will not be the last well-placed white guy to lament fragmentation and seeming drift and to recommend a strong draught of Ye Olde Time Religion as the remedy. That the draught might be laced with poison simply never occurs to them.