Ross Douthat believes so, and he expounds on his theory in a new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, which argues that our religion has become as extreme as our politics as the two have intertwined. Douthat, always an intriguing conservative writer, expounds on this argument in an interview with the National Post in Canada. The Post sets up the central premise of the book in its prologue:
The centre began to crumble as the sexual revolution, globalization and increased wealth led to the decline of the mainstream churches. In its place emerged a nation that turned to the extremes: from Glenn Beck to Oprah Winfrey. Yes, that Oprah. The queen of self-actualization, says Mr. Douthat, preaches a brand of spirituality that is self-centred, destructive and parasitic.
There is much to agree with in Douthat’s interview. As people fall away from traditional churches, they tend to look for other saviors. Douthat calls this a “God haunted” affliction; we have a deep-seated religious impulse that will go in destructive directions when we try to elevate the secular to the divine. To the extent that people do so with Beck, Winfrey, and other secular figures is their own error, since neither figure explicitly claims to be a religious leader, even if their fans sometimes treat them as such.
Of course, we’ve often noted the messianic treatment of one particular secular figure in American politics, by both his supporters and a national media that should know better:
Q: What about when that impulse moves to politics?
A: When religious institutions are weak, as they are now, people with strong religious impulses are more likely to pour that fervour into politics. I argue that this take two forms — messianic and apocalyptic. Both are mirror-image heresies. It can take a messianic form where you assume that politics is the mechanism for bringing about the kingdom of heaven on Earth. This has always been the liberal temptation: to basically assume you can overcome human nature through political reform and bring the New Jerusalem down to Earth yourself. Look at the Barack Obama campaign in 2008 and its quasi-religious air: Magazine covers showed Obama with halos on his head and you had celebrities singing for him on YouTube. He had a messianic style.
Obama certainly had a messianic style himself, but that would have been a subject for lampooning by the media — if they hadn’t busied themselves covering Obama with the same messianic fervor as his fans. (Arguably, Obama’s fans and the media are redundant.) The difference between 2008 and 2012 is that fewer media outlets are treating Obama as The One, which is why his distraction strategy isn’t working very well, at least so far. Even when he gets the press to bite, as they did with same-sex marriage, they actually bit, castigating Obama for not having the courage to drop the “evolution” pretense and quit lying about his position. Instead of stretching out a “will he or won’t he” storyline all summer long as a distraction to sinking jobs and economic numbers, the attention forced Obama to bring the strategy to a quick conclusion … which was predictably followed by another burst of messianic coverage.
The problem in this case is that people move away from religion, though, and not so much (or not always) that religion itself moves. For instance, in Obama’s post-SSM justification, he claimed that Christian teaching led him to support the legalization of same-sex marriage, an absurd argument that is utterly unsupported in Scripture or in traditional teaching in any of the more established Christian sects. Nancy Pelosi made the same argument. None of the media challenged these statements, which shows how little reporters know about Christian Scripture or traditional teaching. That isn’t a church moving toward an extreme; it’s the churches staying in the same spot they have been for centuries or millenia, while the culture moves away from religion. That is hardly a case of bad religion, although a strong argument can be made that it might be bad religious formation for churchgoers, which is another subject entirely, and one of significant worth.
That brings me to one argument from Douthat which provides another example of the same:
But that being said, I do think in the civil rights movement, religion related to the culture as a whole and there was a sense that it was easier in that era for religious figures to be influential in a way that transcended partisan divisions. Look at today when the [Roman] Catholic bishops come out against abortion. The assumption is they are siding with the Republican party. At mid-century it was easier for religious figures to present a message that was Christian first and then liberal or conservative second.
Douthat offers this as though the Catholic Church decided in the 1960s that abortion went against Catholic doctrine, and was motivated by a desire to become more Republican (when Kennedy was President?). That reveals a rather large gap in knowledge for someone who wants to write about Bad Religion. While it’s true that the Second Vatican Council addressed abortion in 1965 by calling it “an unspeakable crime” (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, section 51), this was hardly the first teaching on abortion by the Catholic Church. It remains one of the few acts that can result in automatic excommunication latae sententiae from the Church (paragraph 2272 of the Catechism), although of course a remorseful confession and penance would remedy the status of the individual who procures one:
Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,”77 “by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.79 The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
This teaching goes back almost literally to the founding of the Christian faith, as the website Catholic Answers shows:
- “The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child” (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).
- Athenagoras: “What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers?
. . . [W]hen we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it” (A Plea for the Christians 35 [A.D. 177]).
- Tertullian:”In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed” (Apology 9:8 [A.D. 197]).”Among surgeons’ tools there is a certain instrument, which is formed with a nicely-adjusted flexible frame for opening the uterus first of all and keeping it open; it is further furnished with an annular blade, by means of which the limbs [of the child] within the womb are dissected with anxious but unfaltering care; its last appendage being a blunted or covered hook, wherewith the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery.”There is also [another instrument in the shape of] a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is managed in this furtive robbery of life: They give it, from its infanticide function, the name of embruosphaktes, [meaning] “the slayer of the infant,” which of course was alive. . . .”[The doctors who performed abortions] all knew well enough that a living being had been conceived, and [they] pitied this most luckless infant state, which had first to be put to death, to escape being tortured alive” (The Soul 25 [A.D. 210]).
- Council of Ancyra: “Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them until the hour of death, and to this some have assented. Nevertheless, being desirous to use somewhat greater lenity, we have ordained that they fulfill ten years [of penance], according to the prescribed degrees” (canon 21 [A.D. 314]).
- John Chrysostom: “Wherefore I beseech you, flee fornication. . . . Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit?—where there are many efforts at abortion?—where there is murder before the birth? For even the harlot you do not let continue a mere harlot, but make her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to prostitution, prostitution to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevents its being born. Why then do thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with his laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine” (Homilies on Romans 24 [A.D. 391]).
And so on. The USCCB is an odd target anyway for Douthat as an example of extremity in conservative politics. The bishops have pressed for universal health-care coverage for almost a century, a longstanding policy goal of Democrats, not Republicans, and were supporters of ObamaCare until it started to dawn on them last year that the law gave the Obama administration so much power that they could force the church to fund contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, all of which violate Catholic doctrine. The HHS mandate in late January showed just how much Obama and his administration cared about the concerns of their one-time allies in the health-care “reform” fight.
Once again, the issue isn’t that the Catholic Church (in this example) moved at all, but that Democrats so fiercely adopted a pro-abortion policy that the Catholic Church ended up with only Republicans as allies on that issue. The church didn’t move, and the religion certainly didn’t change; Catholics merely defended their position as they always have in a culture that has leaped toward a utilitarian view of life rather than see its sacred nature, the latter of which is foundational to Catholic teachings, and always has been.
That, it seems to me, is most of the problem that Douthat describes. As people move away from the moorings of traditional religion, they fill that vacuum with cultural substitutes, while the culture descends from those traditional values to a “whatever works” mentality. That’s the proximate cause for turning Winfrey, Beck, and Obama into ersatz Messiahs to the extent that they have become such, not that religion itself moved. Maybe what we need is a little more of that old-time religion, and better formation in it, to inoculate ourselves to those outcomes.