May 24, 2012

Excerpts from Douthat's "Bad Religion"

Interesting tidbits:
Nothing prepared Catholic America for the flood of 2003, which began in New England but ultimately left no diocese or community untouched, reaching even to the doors of the Vatican itself. Horror upon horror, cover-up upon cover-up, and sacrilege piled on sacrilege—it was like an anti-Catholic polemic from the nineteenth century, except that it was all too terribly true. No atheist or anticlericalist, no Voltaire or Ingersoll or Twain could have invented a story so perfectly calculated to discredit the message of the Gospel as the depredations of Thomas Geoghan and the legalistic indifference of Bernard Cardinal Law.


Although the “para” [church] groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren’t as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations. They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith, you might say, which meant that they were organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of comprehensive, intergenerational community that both the Mainline churches and Catholicism had traditionally offered. You couldn’t spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughter as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle. For that kind of staying power you needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders. Instead, Evangelicalism became dominated by empire-building megachurch pastors whose ministries often burned brightly and then just as quickly burned out.

The emphasis on potent individuals over enduring institutions tends to incline Evangelicals to a great man theory of political engagement, in which all that’s required for good to triumph over evil is for the right Christian politician to “stand at the crossroads and change things for good.” The widespread sense that George W. Bush was such a figure helps explain why Evangelicals, more than any other constituency or cohort, remained intensely loyal to him long after the rest of the country had given up on him. Saints may deserve such loyalty, but politicians rarely do. The urge to rally around “their” president robbed many conservative Christians of the capacity for prophetic witness and left them captive to a team player mentality that was fatal to religious credibility. The ease with which Evangelicals (and many conservative Catholics as well) fell in line behind the invasion of Iraq was understandable, if unfortunate in hindsight. The vigor with which they sealed themselves off from bad news from the front was much more depressing. The polls showing that frequent churchgoers were the most fervent supporters of waterboarding detainees, among other seemingly un-Christian practices, were more depressing still.

No sooner had Barack Obama succeeded Bush in the White House than there was an immediate search for the next political hero or heroine, the next godly Evangelical come to save the republic from itself. Many of the candidates for this role (including Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry) embodied Evangelical politics at its worst: the tendency toward purely sectarian appeals, the reliance on the language of outrage and resentment, the conflation of partisanship with Christian principle and the confusion of the American political system with the Church itself.


Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts.

In the revisionist mind-set, synthesis is always suspect. We have to choose between Mark’s Jesus or John’s Christ, between the aphoristic Jesus and the messianic Jesus, between Jesus the Jew and Jesus the light to the Gentiles. There’s no possibility that the original Jesus married eschatology to everyday ethics, or that he seemed both divine and human, in different ways and at different times, even to the first apostles. There’s no chance that he actually contained multitudes...

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