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Between Christendom and the Catacombs

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From July 12 to July 14, Fare Forward hosted its first annual summer symposium for its writers and supporters. Forty-eight emerging Christian leaders (in media, arts, academia, business, and law) gathered to explore the challenges and opportunities facing Christian witness in today’s culture and how Fare Forward’s voice can contribute to a revitalization of Christian presence in America. Keynote presentations were delivered by two influential Christian voices in mainstream media: New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and USA Today Cover Story Editor John Siniff. Additional presentations were made by Fare Forward writers to explore important aspects of Christian witness and faithful presence. The following is an abridgement of Mr. Douthat’s first keynote address. 

I find it useful in doing talks about Christianity to talk a little bit about my own religious background, so I’ll start there. I grew up in southern Connecticut in the 1980s and 1990s, which was for you guys a very, very long time ago. It feels just like yesterday. My mother went to Yale, and my father went to Stanford, and I lived in New Haven, Connecticut. My dad was a lawyer, and in many ways, I had a childhood that was very conventional,upper-middle class, with liberal, Ivy League parents. That was my upbringing. I went to private schools; my earliest political memory was walking down the street with my mom to cast a vote in the 1984 election—she was very insistent—for Geraldine Ferraro. Walter Mondale was incidental to the vote. And most of my school friends and peer groups were New England, liberal, upper-middle class—good centrist Democrats in their politics, and fairly secular in their theological worldview.

But there was also a sort of parallel track in my childhood, because my mother had fairly severe and hard to diagnose and treat allergies and chemical sensitivities. Basically all of the stuff that now, in our more enlightened era, has created the aisles upon aisles of detergents without and Waterbury, these Connecticut we did things like drive all the way to scents or dyes. If you shop at Whole Foods, there are endless shelves of this kind of stuff, all pitched to people with these weird sensitivities. But thirty years ago, there was none of that, and there was no awareness of these weird illnesses of modernity, if you want to call them that. And most of the people who suffered from this kind of stuff would end up living in stripped down huts out in the middle of nowhere with absolutely no access to the stuff of modern life.

And so my mother, in the course of looking for unorthodox treatments and cures for her illness, ended up taking us to a faith healing service—faith healing services, I guess I should say— that were part of a ministry run by a woman with the actual first name of Grace, from Connecticut, who had had a near death experience and returned from it with a kind of charismatic gift.

These were services that were basically Pentecostal in form, if not in theological substance. But there was guitar playing and preaching, and then there was a blessing line, and she would pray over people and they would be slain in the spirit. She would go around these high school auditoriums in Milford and Danbury towns, these Connecticut towns—where this wasn’t a normal thing—and pick out people in the crowd and say, “I think your lower back is bothering you, I think you’ve had arthritis for a very long period of time,” and so on. And my mother was literally picked out of the crowd one night and went out in the spirit and spent 30 minutes on the floor of a southern Connecticut high school auditorium. That was, not surprisingly, a life-changing event.

So while I was living my fairly conventional, upper-middle class, liberal childhood during the weeks, on the weekends we would drive around Connecticut and New England and go to these services, and I would watch my parents speak in tongues. And those were the two tracks of my childhood. We didn’t spend my entire childhood attached to this ministry. Ultimately, it opened into a sort of wider tour of American Christianity. So I was baptized and initially raised Episcopalian, and then we spent a fair amount of time coming out of this healing ministry in Pentecostal and evangelical circles. My parents were briefly involved with a much more disastrous attempt to bring Christianity to an Ivy League campus, Yale, and we did things like drive all the way to Toronto for this famous Pentecostal Vineyard outpouring of the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, where I didn’t just get to see my parents speak in tongues, I got to see them roar like lions. I was 13 at the time, so that was fairly intense.

This journey ended, for my family,in the way such journeys sometimes do, with my parents—and again my mother was driving force behind this—converting to the Roman Catholic Church when I was 16. So I became a Catholic at the age of 17. I’m in the unusual position of being neither an adult convert nor a cradle Catholic, but whatever the adolescent place in between is. For my mother it was very much a carry over of her intense mystical side, and the Eucharistic adoration and the various saints were the bridge from the charismatic side of American Protestantism to the charismatic side of American Catholicism. For me, it was again much more conventional. I read G.K. Chesterton, and I was like, “This sounds pretty good.” I was very relieved to join a the liberal, secular, upper-middle I was the editor of the conservative church where no one would put their hand on my shoulder and ask me in the middle of the service to testify to how Jesus had changed my life—I was 17 and awkward. Many of the things that Protestants complain about with Catholicism—the rote prayers, every- body sitting in the back at Mass—I was like, sitting in the back, yes!

So that was my religious background. And it also coexisted, because my mother had these illnesses, with a third aspect that also didn’t normally fit with the other two, which was that we spent a lot of time going to health food stores, and eating at vegetarian restaurants. And again, all this was long before the days of Whole Foods, and for any of you who live in D.C., Tea Zen—these restaurants that have the fancy plates of brown rice with a little seaweed sprinkled on them. To get that in 1987, you had to go to some weird basement covered with sawdust in Connecticut, and a guy in a tie-dyed shirt would slop tofu onto the plate.

But that world was different from the liberal, secular, upper-middle class and also different from the evangelical, Pentecostal, ultimately Catholic world—because it was itself religious, in a sense. It was deeply infused with post-‘60s New Age spirituality, and all these health food stores and restaurants had their little bookstores attached and you would read books with titles like Women Who Run with the Wolves. I didn’t necessarily think about the religious aspect of it that much. Although when we went to a three-day macrobiotic camp in Vermont, the religious aspect became hard to miss. The lectures were all about how this Japanese diet was ultimately going to bring about world peace—and then eschatological things beyond that. And there were some people who blended it with aliens, but I can’t remember how that worked.

But all of this was then the baggage that I carried into an Ivy League education and then a career in American journalism. I did college journalism, not Christian journalism, but conservative journalism at Harvard, and I was the editor of the conservative paper and the token conservation columnist at The Harvard Crimson, which was good preparation for my life vocation. And then I became a political journalist in the Bush presidency, so I entered into this already existing and very potent debate about religion and public life in the United States.

This debate went back all the way to the founding, but it went back really to the 1970s and, I think, to the sense among Christian conservatives that there was a liberal, secular elite that was in a sense taking the country away from them. There was a felt need for a kind of political populist Christianity to revolt against this elite misgovernment. By the Bush Era, that had inspired a counter-reaction on the left from liberals who were very, very worried that we were about to turn into a theocracy. After Bush won the reelection in 2004, this was the Number One explanation among a lot of people for how this could have possibly happened: It was that all those people out in Jesus Land had voted based on moral values, and that the next thing  was going to be that secular Americans were all going to have to wear numbers on their sleeves. There was a lot of very hyper-paranoid stuff circulating around, which then fed into the heyday—I think it’s a little bit passed now—of the so-called New Atheists, where the problem wasn’t just American Christianity or American fundamentalism, it was religion itself. For a while, you couldn’t turn on C-SPAN without seeing Richard Dawkins having his way with some well-meaning but hapless Anglican bishop.

Those were the religion and public life debates that were going on when I started participating in them. They were fun debates, and I participated in them fairly vigorously, I guess. I had one really unfortunate occasion where I actually debated Christopher Hitchens, and fortunately I think the video tape of that has been lost forever. A dark day for God. I was last- minute stand-in for Andrew Sullivan, if that means anything to you guys. It was just bad on all counts. But while participating in these debates, in large part because of my somewhat peculiar—though also certainly very American—childhood and religious background, I had a very strong sense that the binaries through which these debates were described, covered, and participated in missed huge swaths of the story of what was actually going on with religion in the United States.

On the one hand, they missed the deep and dizzying internal diversity of American Christianity, which I had passed through in various stages as a kid, and which wasn’t easily pigeon-holed into these evangelical versus liberal, secular versus religions binaries. And they also missed the diversity of religious sensibility beyond the Christian churches, which I had picked up at macrobiotic camp and Women Who Run with the Wolves, and which people were obviously picking up in all kinds of places and in all kinds of ways. […]

The argument of [my] book [Ed. Note: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics]in a nutshell is just that what has happened in American life over the past—I guess now it’s three generations—is a decline of traditional institutional Christianity that has not necessarily coincided with a decline in spiritual interest and religious belief. My ideas for how and why that happened are that there are these deep structural forces that have driven this, that have made people less likely to find traditional Christian ideas— small “o” orthodox Christian ideas— compelling, without making them likely to become actual fire-breathing, militant atheists, even really to become secular, in the way we use that term in conventional discussion to basically mean Sweden. America is not seemingly on the way to turning into Sweden—or really Sweden isn’t quite as Swedish, if you dig below the surface of the polls, as people think. Particularly, there is a deep resilience, as you would expect, of the religious impulse in American life and Western life writ large, even in an era when people are less likely to find that impulse satisfied by traditional Catholicism, Protestant denominations, and so on. […]

The term heresy is actually very useful for understanding what’s going on in religious culture in the United States today, because you get into these debates often where people will say, “We were a Christian nation; now we’re a secular nation. We were a Christian nation; now we’re a post- Christian nation.” You run through these different narratives. I think if you look at some of the most popular manifestations of non-orthodox Christian religion, spiritual sensibility, whatever you want to call it in American culture, they’re still deeply influenced by Christian ideas. You start with an example like The Da Vinci Code. The popularity of The Da Vinci Code is inseparable from American culture’s continued fascination with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. A book like The Da Vinci Code would have no interest to anyone if its whole point wasn’t to say, you can keep Jesus, he just will happen to look more favorably on the way you’re living now than the Jesus of the New Testament.

If you read Dan Brown’s complete oeuvre—I haven’t read his complete oeuvre; I’m working on it, but I’m not a completist yet—Brown’s books are pro religion in some sense. You could say he’s pro-spirituality, but he is very sort of New Age-y, sort of Deist in certain ways, sort of mystical here—but he basically wants to repurpose Jesus for somewhat different theological ends. So that’s what you see all over the place in American religion today. There’s a reason that Deepak Chopra can’t stop writing books about Jesus. And then there are also many figures that are more explicitly Christian: figures like Joel Osteen, basically everyone involved in the ideas of prosperity theology, and so on, that also clearly depart in significant ways from historic Christian orthodoxy. […]

To the extent that my argument contributes anything really original to discussions of religion in the United States, I hope it’s that: the idea that not just Christians but everybody should take seriously the theology that’s embedded in popular culture, because there is a lot of theology embedded in popular culture. Theology is, I think,basically inescapable—it’s more inescapable than you might think. If you spend a fair amount of time looking at the places most people encounter the spiritual and the numinous and the quest for God in their own lives, and therefore from a Christian perspective the struggle against secularism, the arguments about whether God exists or not, as important as they are, have to exist together with an engagement with the way that most—I don’t want to say ordinary Americans, because that sounds condescending—Americans who aren’t weirdoes who just read op-ed pages and blogs all the time— how those Americans engage with the deeper questions about meaning and purpose and so forth.

The good news is that religion isn’t going away, that even in an era where more and more people are no longer identifying with traditional Christian denominations, and every year you’ve started hearing headlines about the number of people who identify as “nones” has gone up—but even in that kind of world, you don’t actually have to convince people to be interested in the ultimate questions about meaning and the universe. And that’s particularly true, I think, once you get beyond the slice of the United States that’s represented by Ivy League universities and elite newspapers. Christians engaged in the elite level of public life, it almost makes you think the cultural challenge is harder than it is, because the elite level in American life is quite secular, more secular than the popular level. And so you have a sense of pushing against people who really just don’t understand why they should give religion the time of day. That’s a real and powerful phenomenon, but for the culture as a whole, it’s not the most important phenomenon, and the work of conversion for the culture as a whole doesn’t have to proceed by overthrowing secularism. That isn’t the crucial challenge.

The bad news, though, is that the old secular versus religious frame- work led a lot of American Christians to think, well, there’s the secular elite, and they’re bad, but the country is with us. The country is still a Christian country, we just have to mobilize the Moral Majority, to use the language of the 1980s, against the secular elite. And that isn’t right. Maybe it was more true in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, which is when these arguments were first being made, but today, the masses aren’t with us. There is no vast Christian army in the heartland, waiting for the right leader to march on Washington and tar and feather Anthony Kennedy. The country is in a different place, and that place—you can use the language of Christian hersy, you can use the language of spiritual-not-religious, it doesn’t really matter what language you choose— but it isn’t approaching a culture that’s already Christian and figuring out how to mobilize it against an elite that isn’t. The culture itself has to be converted, renewed, and reintroduced to what are for Christians very basic concepts and ideas.

So that’s one framing of the challenge. Another way to look at it is, and I’ve thought about it a lot since I’ve finished the book, comes from a lot of time over the past couple of years traveling everywhere from Vancouver, which I know technically isn’t in the United States, to North Dakota, to Tennessee, to Houston, to California. And on the one hand those experiences of going to middle tier Catholic and Protestant colleges and speaking to groups has given me a tremendous sense of optimism. Because once you get outside of Washington, D.C., the Acela corridor, the northeast, it really is remarkable how much vibrancy and vitality there is in American Christianity all over the country, and not just people in their 60s, but people in their teens and their twenties as well. So that experience definitely gives you a sense that Christianity in America isn’t going away. There’s going to be a Christian culture embedded in broader American culture for as far as the eye can see. There’s tremendous opportunity for those pockets of vitality to become something more than pockets.

But at the same time, that kind of traveling also highlights—and this idea comes up in James Davidson Hunter’s book, of how Christians have tried and failed to change the world— the vitality in American Christianity tends to be all on the periphery. It is not in the center, and it is in the really impressive little Catholic college that I visited in Bismarck, North Dakota. It’s in Union University in the middle of Tennessee that no one in New York or Washington has ever heard of. It’s in these places that are important and powerful and changing people’s lives, but are often marginal to the culture as a whole. And you have to not let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security about the culture as a whole by moving from pocket to pocket. Because you have to be willing to look at the general statistical drift of the United States and recognize that it is both the case that there is real vitality in American Christianity and that the culture as a whole is drifting further and further away from what we think of as orthodox Christian faith.

There’s an unusual difficulty to this kind of landscape, because I think when Christians think about their history, people tend to fall back on Christendom on the one hand and the catacombs on the other. Once you convince people that America is no longer a Christian nation—it was never truly a Christian nation, but it was more Christian in certain ways in the past than it is today—once people become convinced of that, it’s an easy leap for a lot of believers from that to saying, “Okay, we’ve lost the culture, now we’re either going to be persecuted face the lions and the arena, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that, but there’s at least some romance to it.” Or, “I’m going to take the Benedict option. I’m going to go cultivate my own vineyard and raise my two kids or my seven kids and run an organic farm and homeschool my kids and teach at a Christian college—and eventually watch American fall apart around me, and then we’ll emerge from the rubble and rebuild.”

The problem with that option is that the culture isn’t far gone enough for Christians to have the right to withdraw from it. But it is far gone enough that it is difficult to see how it is regained and rebuilt. And this is a problem we particularly see in the case of my own Catholic Church, because the Catholic Church is built for a population of 70 or 80 million Catholics. It’s built around huge archdioceses and huge cathedrals and huge bureaucracies, and there’s a sense in which if you look at the actual state of the Catholic Church, you would say, “You know, it would be a lot better if we shrank precipitously, and maybe if a lot of lukewarm self- identified Catholics didn’t identify as Catholic, that would be clarifying, and we would have smaller, more beautiful churches and smaller more orthodox religious orders.” That’s in certain ways happening; it has to happen in big northeastern dioceses. Parishes are closing, there’s consolidation happening. But that process coexists with the reality that all of those 70 million Catholics in the United States are baptized and confirmed Catholics. They are actual Catholics. They may be theologically mis-educated, they may be in a state of mortal sin, but they’re one good confession away from not being in a state of mortal sin anymore. God knows I’m always one good confession away from being there. And it’s very difficult, particularly if you’re in a leadership position in the Church. You can’t just say, well, to hell with the lukewarm and the liberal and the disaffected and we’re just going to have our smaller, purer church, because as Christians—Christian shepherds or Christian intellectuals, whatever the case may be—you have an obligation to your fellow believers, to your fellow baptized Christians, whatever kind of situation you’re in.

And so when I think about where Christianity goes from here, it’s that challenge that has to be addressed, this combination of decline that hasn’t yet let to a smaller purer core, and the question is either you’re managing the decline or you’re figuring out a means to revival. But either way, you can’t just withdraw from the struggle, you have to address yourself to the whole scope of the problem, and not just to building particular communities.

Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and was previously a senior editor for the Atlantic. He is the author of "Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class", "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (with Reihan Salam), and "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." He lives in Washington, D.C.