Ross Douthat is a former senior editor of The Atlantic and current Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of Privilege: Harvard Education and the Ruling Class (2005), Grand New Party (2008, with Reihan Salam), Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012), and To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (forthcoming). Douthat spoke with Fare Forward about how Americans think about religion, Christianity in the Trump presidency, and the future of Christianity and liberalism. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
FF: You have professed an interest in what you call non-conversion stories, stories of people who have religious experiences of some kind, without being led into Christianity or Islam or some other defined religious tradition. Where does this interest come from and where does it lead you intellectually?
RD: Well, part of it is personal, in the sense that my own religious trajectory was shaped profoundly by personal religious experiences—not my own, but those of my parents and particularly, my mother. For all of the importance of intellectual argument and everything else, I wouldn’t be a Roman Catholic or a Christian today if it weren’t for some profound and hard to explain spiritual experiences that my parents had in the orbit of Charismatic Christianity when I was a kid.
So having that as a part of my background, and having been an observer of but not really a participant in strong religious experience as a kid, I have a certain interest in how people respond to that kind of thing intellectually. Because clearly one of the most important reasons that religion is resilient in our supposedly disenchanted world is that people keep on having religious experiences. So the different ways that people react to them is a place where thinking about my own personal experience bleeds into the sociology of modern religion.
Charles Taylor argues famously that the modern self is buffered rather than permeable, that it’s self-protected against a lot of experiences that people in past eras and societies would have defined as supernatural. And I’m interested in whether that argument implies that something has literally changed in our experience, or whether something has just changed in how we respond to experiences. A big, a big unanswered question about our world is: What do we mean when we talk about secularism? Does that mean a world actually denuded of religious experience? Or does it mean a world where religious architecture is missing but people still keep having the same experiences?
If you look at data on Europe and the United States, you can see a lot of evidence for the Chestertonian contention that the collapse of a specific belief in God leads people to believe in all kinds of wild things about the universe that aren’t Christian doctrines. Sally Quinn’s new book [which talks about witchcraft] is really interesting in that regard. Francis Spufford had an interesting review essay in First Things a couple of years ago where he took on Barbara Ehrenreich’s quasi-spiritual memoir and Sam Harris’s writing about meditation. Those are a kind of category in between: They’re not exactly non-conversion stories in the sense that Harris thinks meditation is really good and valuable and practices it—he just continues to reject Western monotheism. And similarly, Ehrenreich seems to be some kind of pantheist rather than an overt atheist.
FF: Spufford in his First Things piece says at one point, “If what we have managed to extend in her [Ehrenreich’s] direction seems to be only an offer of authoritarian parenthood, or a resistible politics, then we have made a mistake of our own about the place we allow for the wildness of God.” What role do you think Christian failure might play in this?
RD: I’m of two minds about his perspective because on the one hand, yes, there are many churches, my own Catholicism sometimes included, that have seemed to reduce Christianity to a framework for culture war and a narrow set of religious rules. And people pretty naturally reject it. At the same time, there are also many, many churches that have gone to the opposite extreme and have emphasized the centrality of experiences of the divine and de-emphasized the idea that you can draw a consistent, rigorous moral code from them.
Those churches are quite available to Barbara Ehrenreich and anyone else who’s had these kinds of experiences, and yet they are not often there—sometimes they are, but they are not often where such people seem to end up.
And there is a sense in which no matter how open you are, Christianity does imply a kind of moral code, it does imply a kind of judgment. So the extent that what we call secularism is really characterized by a wealthy and hedonistic society rejecting the Decalogue, it’s hard to know exactly how much that’s the fault of churches and how much it’s just the nature of our society, that people don’t want to leap from the experience to the possibility of rules because the rules seem very hard and onerous and unpleasant.
FF: Turning from some secular Americans to Christian ones, it’s been five years since you released Bad Religion and diagnosed what you referred to as heretical trends or developments in American Christianity, such as the prosperity gospel. Five years out, has your thinking about the topics covered in Bad Religion changed?
RD: I’d say it’s been confirmed in certain ways and undercut in others. It’s been confirmed in the sense that quite a few of the pathologies that I described have been visible in conservative politics, especially over the last couple of years. The phenomenon of Donald Trump sits at the intersection of prosperity theology and Christian nationalism, and the idea of a God who blesses the successful and the idea of a God who blesses American nationalism as thoroughly as He would have blessed the Israel of the Old Testament—those are ideas woven deeply into an important segment of Trump’s support. And they go a long way towards explaining how and why religious voters ended up not just voting for but, in certain cases, enthusiastically supporting, such a seemingly irreligious and even anti-Christian figure.
So in that sense, I think the book offers a very useful blueprint for understanding a lot of things that surprised a lot of people, myself sometimes included, over the last couple of years.
At the same time, some of the trends we’ve seen have suggested that I was a little bit too quick to say that Christianity’s influence on American life was still really, really strong, even as people were drifting away from institutional forms of religion and any kind of common orthodoxy. I think that trends in the last 5 years suggest that there’s a stronger case for the post-Christian, or “headed towards post-Christian,” description of American religious life than I allowed for.
In Christianity’s social eclipse, among especially the working class, you can see a further weakening of Christian influence just in the last five years. And then in the realm of activist politics, I think that both on the further left and the further right, in campus movements and the overtly racist pro-Trump fringe, you’re seeing at least intimations of a post-Christian politics in the U.S., in a way that wasn’t as true with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and so on.
FF: In Bad Religion, you wrote, “Going forward, American Christians should be political without being partisan, ecumenical but also confessional, moralistic but also holistic, and oriented towards sanctity and beauty.” Do you still think that those metrics are the correct way to describe how Christians should engage with current trends? And if so, have you seen any good examples since the book came out of this path being followed?
RD: [Long silence.] I still think those are basically the correct metrics. Not that there couldn’t be other ones. But I would stand by them overall. I think that the first one has only gotten harder, how you engage in politics without being partisan. You have some attempts to model it among, especially, conservative Christians opposed to Donald Trump, ranging from the Russell Moores to the Ben Sasses. And in a certain way, the rise of Trump has created an opportunity by sharpening the tensions between a sincerely Christian conservatism and the conservatism on offer in the White House.
But I would say that the overall trend has been negative even as positive examples have presented themselves—which has pushed more people, more younger people, I think, away from political engagement entirely or to the idea of looking for communal alternatives to political engagement. I mentioned the “Benedict Option” in the conclusion to the book [Bad Religion]. And it’s clear that that idea has struck a large nerve in the last five years, in part, I think, because engagement with politics has come to seem so compromising in different ways.
Then, at the same time, on both the confessional and the holistic fronts, I think you’ve seen internal confessional divisions making that harder. There are perhaps more divisions within Evangelicalism over issues of sexual morality than people necessarily would have anticipated five or ten years ago. Or maybe they would have anticipated it, I’m not sure. But it seems like Evangelicalism is just going to go through a long debate about same-sex marriage and sexuality generally that is going to make unity hard.
And then on the Catholic side of things, I think the Francis era has been a missed opportunity for holistic morality and confessional unity. I think that his decision to essentially take the liberal side on a bunch of very fraught doctrinal questions has polarized the church more than ever, and pushed an eventual synthesis further out of reach. Or you could argue it has led to a necessary crisis that had to happen before the synthesis could come along. Both possibilities are certainly arguable. But in the short term, the idea of a Catholic center, a holistic Catholic political and economic message, seems to be receding.
FF: Another idea that you’ve worked on is “decadence,” which refers to the state of repetition in which old concepts and ideas are recycled. How do you see America as decadent in this sense?
RD: Up until the last couple of years, my view was that not just America but the whole developed world was sustainably decadent, in a sense that we were likely to be stagnant at a high level of social and economic development for a substantial period of time without pitching into full-scale crisis or collapse. And that meant, I thought, that we were doomed to repeat and repeat hard to resolve arguments from the last really dynamic era in Western life, which was, for better or worse, the 1960s and 1970s.
But events of the last two years have called the sustainability of our decadence into question. I saw Donald Trump’s campaign as a kind of decadent response to decadence, that Trump himself is clearly a decadent figure in all kinds of ways but his campaign was premised on the idea that we need to escape stagnation and, as he said, make America great again. We need to get back to the America that goes into space and builds big buildings and so on.
And this had more appeal than I expected. It had enough appeal to win him the presidency. And you can see in different ways similar dynamics at work in Western Europe. You have the return of the extremes in politics in a way that nobody really expected five years ago. And then, from outside the West, you have at least hints of major world-historical movements of peoples, that, again, call into question the ability of the West to just keep on as it is. I think the scale of the migration crisis in Europe a couple of years ago was startling and suggested that the rest of the 21st century may put a lot more strain on European institutions than people were predicting ten years ago.
So both from inside the West and from outside—and, of course, the two are connected to each other—you can see hints of a return of history. But I’m honestly not sure how to read recent events. It’s possible that this is the beginning of a sustained crisis, that decadence is giving way to real chaos and turmoil and upheaval. It’s also possible that this a virtual 1930s, you might say, where people go online and pretend to be fascists and communists on Twitter, but they’re still too risk averse to leap to a more extreme politics in the real world.
FF: Do you see any moves towards a constructive approach to addressing decadence? Or is it increasingly looking like it’s just going to be alternatives of decadence and chaos?
RD: If you had to bet, you would bet on those alternatives. Not that something better couldn’t come out the other side of chaos, but I think it’s hard to turn a decadent civilization around without a period of crisis and disruption and general misery. This is one of the tensions of being anti-decadence. You may dislike decadence but it’s still immoral to wish for crisis in certain ways. You don’t want to say, “Oh, what we really need is to bring the 1930s back.”
That being said, the world is a big and complicated place. And I think you can certainly find places in Western society that offer examples of what a non-decadent future would look like. Within the general decline of religion there are revivals of monasticism, revivals of religious community, of religious life that look to both the past and the future in a constructive way, I think. Anyone who has a large family—and I say this as someone who only has three kids, so I’m not holding myself up as an example—is in a certain way working against decadence. Anyone who takes up a religious vocation is working against decadence.
Then in the secular realm, I think you can imagine out of the currents of right-wing populism in the West a more communitarian conservative politics that might get us out of the “Reagan versus McGovern” trap we’re stuck in. I’m pretty pessimistic about that coming to fruition, but it’s certainly not impossible. And the fact that people are willing to vote for Trump suggests that they are willing to consider very strange alternatives to the status quo. You have to find at least slivers of optimism in that.
Then on the technological front, my basic view is if Silicon Valley succeeds in extending our lifespans by twenty years and we spend those lifespans wearing a VR headset, then Silicon Valley is plunging us deeper into decadence. But if Elon Musk actually succeeds in kickstarting a transportation revolution or putting human beings on Mars, then Silicon Valley will have been the place that started us on the path out of decadence.
FF: A last question: Among some young Christians today there is skepticism towards liberalism that makes appeal to traditional Christian sources perceived to be at odds with the tenets of liberalism. What do you make of such skepticism?
RD: I’m not sure whether I’m drawn to it or tempted by it. And that tension I think defines my response. Because on the one hand, the arguments in this vein that are put forward are very compelling. And events of the last ten or fifteen or twenty years especially already seem to have heightened the contradictions between any kind of orthodox Christianity and liberal society. Therefore it makes sense, in a way, to return to older Christian critiques of liberalism that were put aside in the 1960s, and to reflect anew on the idea that Christianity and liberalism can be partners in some cases but that they are ultimately worldviews in tension. And then that that tension has to lead at some point to a decisive break.
That’s a compelling argument, and it’s certainly become more compelling in the last ten years. But the reason that I worry that it’s a temptation is that, at least as I read the writers making this case, it’s very hard to tell how the alternative approach to politics that they propose would manifest itself in the world in which we live.
It seems to me that that the Christian critique of liberal modernity, in certain ways, came to real grief in the early 20th century, insofar as it was allied with non-Christian critiques of liberalism that led to some very dark places politically. Of course, you can come up with exceptions and say, “Oh, well, look, Salazar’s Portugal was actually pretty awesome.” There are always counterarguments. But in general, the trend the last time there was a strongly anti-liberal Christian politics, it didn’t build anything that lasted as an alternative. And it ended up being connected to some regimes that we rightly consider basically barbaric.
So that’s a challenge for the new Christian critics of liberalism. And it can’t just be hand-waved away with appeals to an ideal relationship between church and state that apparently only existed for about 30 years in a France ruled by a literal saint—
FF: We have a review of that book [Before Church and State] in this issue.
RD: It’s a good and interesting and fascinating book! But it feels to me like the very beginning of a conversation that needs to be developed much, much, much further before we could say, okay, from this critique of liberalism, we can actually generate a coherent alternative politics. The work on that practical agenda seems to me conspicuously undone as yet, which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done and I support and enjoy reading people who are trying to do it. But the anti-liberal project needs to have a clear recognition both of its limits at the moment and of the serious temptations into which it can fall.
FF: Thank you.