Ross Douthat on Christianity and the GOP
Q&A | The conservative <em>New York Times</em> columnist talks about how Republicans have helped and hurt evangelicalism
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 8/26/15, 09:38 am
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times whose opinions run counter to the liberal and anti-Christian voices at that paper. He writes sympathetically and eloquently about Christians and in favor of many Christian causes, including life, marriage, and religious liberty. I had this conversation with Douthat at a recent convention sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
We’re here at the ERLC event in Nashville, Tenn. Tell me what you’re going to tell the audience in a few minutes. I guess we’re talking about the future of Christianity, and the society that a lot of people think is becoming more secular or post-Christian. When people have those debates, I usually end up making a couple points. The first is that it’s important for conservative Christians especially to recognize the extent to which American society at large is still very religious or very religiously interested and engaged, even as it has clearly drifted away from institutional Christianity in its traditional forms. I think it tends to be a mistake around hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and so on to look at current trends and say what we’re seeing is a clash between the secular and the Christian worldview. I think it’s more reasonable to look at America as divided into roughly three parts: a traditionally religious cluster, a highly secularized cluster, and then a vast mushy middle that ranges from lukewarmly religious to the spiritual category.
What happens on particular issues—same sex marriage, for instance—is that middle can swing one way or another, and it’s swung into alignment with the secular vision on the marriage issue. It hasn’t swung in the same way on the abortion issue, but overall, that middle remains a defining feature of American life. I think it’s a mistake for Christian believers, even when they’re feeling an understandable state of possibly siege, possibly ongoing marginalization, to just think of it in terms of pure secularization. In fact, it’s a very diverse and complicated religious landscape in which Christianity, in particular, has lost some ground.
Your book a few years ago, Bad Religion, explored some of these issues. Is the bad religion of your book the religion of the mushy middle? It’s mostly the religion of the mushy middle, but it bleeds in both directions. I think it’s visible in the secular part of America because I don’t think true secularism is actually necessarily possible. I think even secular worldviews have religious concepts, often, at bottom. So to the extent that I’m critiquing a debased or spoiled Christianity, I think it’s visible among people who don’t consider themselves religious believers, too.
But I also think it leaks the other way into what are in culture-war terms defined as the conservative Christian camp. It’s more likely to do that around issues of money and finance and wealth than it is around issues of sexual morality. But I think that part of what’s happened to the church as an American life is just an acculturation in a society that has a basic civic religion that overlaps with Christianity, is in certain ways a heresy of Christianity, but isn’t necessarily Christianity itself. The civic religion of the United States is a religion well-designed for an inquisitive, commercial republic with a libertarian spirit, and those attitudes on the personal level, on the financial level, necessarily influence how people of every form of religious belief end up making their decisions and thinking about what God wants for their life.
As you and I are having this conversation, the campaign is heating up. Do you think evangelicals and religious conservatives will align early behind a single candidate? I think the history of Republican politics since the rise of the Religious Right suggests that evangelical voters never unite around a single candidate early. In every cycle, evangelical leaders say, “We’ve got to find someone to get behind.” That never works out. … I do think, though, you’re seeing with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and, to some extent, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, that the candidates who are seen as most electable and possibly closest to the so-called Republican establishment in this cycle are more so than in the past also … genuine social and religious conservatives themselves, and that’s different from the Bob Dole model. It’s different for different reasons from the Mitt Romney model, where he was religious but a Mormon, which unsettled some evangelicals, and he had a record of social liberalism as governor of Massachusetts. I think [Bush] and Rubio and Walker are closer to the George W. Bush model, where they’re people who are acceptable to … moderate Republicans, but are also people who could reasonably be considered trustworthy by a lot of religious conservative voters.
Is that a victory for the Religious Right or for religious social conservatives in this country? Have they shifted the conversation so the frontrunners are acceptable to them? It’s a partial victory within the context of Republican politics in the sense that the Republican Party has changed to the point now where the socially liberal, hostile-to-religious-conservatives candidate is just a non-starter in a Republican primary. That is a victory. That victory co-exists, though, with a couple of losses. One loss is the fact that as religious conservatives have become concentrated in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party has become more strictly secularized, and, therefore, more straightforwardly hostile to religious conservatives and their concerns. So you’ve had the benefit of consolidating power in one party, [but] you end up, when the other party is in power, in more trouble. There’s less willingness to compromise and make deals.
The other downside is that on ... certain specific issues, same-sex marriage above all and some of the religious liberty issues related to it, the Republican leadership class clearly regard religious conservatives as a problem for the party. … The apparatus of the party thinks that on those issues in particular, the religious base of the party needs to essentially be quiet and not be involved in national politics. They think that those issues end up being a vote loser, which, depending on the issue itself, sometimes they have a point. … The danger for religious conservatives is that they end up in a position where they feel that they have to vote for Republicans because only the Republican Party will protect them, but the Republican Party itself at its elite level takes their votes for granted and disdains their concerns. That problem isn’t going away just because Bush and Rubio and whomever are seen as religious conservatives themselves. It’s a structural problem.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Ross Douthat on Listening In.