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.