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Apr 12 2012

Douthat’s Oppressive Religious Center

Russ Douthat has an opinion column in the New York Times bemoaning the fact that this year’s presidential candidates show so much religious diversity. Religious diversity? They’re all one form of Christian or another. This is religious diversity? Douthat thinks it should be even less diverse.

In 2012, we finally have a presidential field whose diversity mirrors the diversity of American Christianity as a whole.

Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all identify as Christians, but their theological traditions and personal experiences of faith diverge more starkly than any group of presidential contenders in recent memory. These divergences reflect America as it actually is: We’re neither traditionally Christian nor straightforwardly secular. Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit, and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.

This diversity is not necessarily a strength. The old Christian establishment — which by the 1950s encompassed Kennedy’s Roman Catholic Church as well as the major Protestant denominations — could be exclusivist, snobbish and intolerant. But the existence of a Christian center also helped bind a vast and teeming nation together. It was the hierarchy, discipline and institutional continuity of mainline Protestantism and later Catholicism that built hospitals and schools, orphanages and universities, and assimilated generations of immigrants. At the same time, the kind of “mere Christianity” (in C. S. Lewis’s phrase) that the major denominations shared frequently provided a kind of invisible mortar for our culture and a framework for our great debates.

Today, that religious common ground has all but disappeared.

Good. It isn’t true, of course, but I sure wish it was. This notion that Christianity merely provided an “invisible mortar” for our culture is absurd; what it has provided, with remarkable consistency, is the primary opposition to every kind of social progress. In every single movement to end an unjust and destructive practice in this country — theocratic governments and established churches, slavery, the Jim Crow laws, legal discrimination against black people, women and gay people, etc — the primary opposition was the Christian establishment. In every single movement to extend the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the primary opposition came from the churches and theologians. Less influence over the culture has been, and will continue to be, a very good thing for human progress.

45 comments

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  1. 1
    tbp1

    Can someone tell me how this guy got a NYTimes column?

    Bueller? Anyone?

  2. 2
    Randomfactor

    They liked his movie reviews.

  3. 3
    eric

    In 2012, we finally have a presidential field whose diversity mirrors the diversity of American Christianity as a whole.

    That sentence is obnoxious in so many ways. First, its statistically inaccurate – American Christianity is not 50% protestant and 50% mormon. If you count the latter part of the republican primary, it wasn’t 50% RCC, 25% protestant, and 25% mormon, either. Second, many of his conservative bretheren would dispute his assumption that mormonism is christian at all. Some of them dispute that Santorum and Newt’s Catholicism counts as christian. Last and most importantly, the implication that there is something important in mirroring American Christianity is faily offensive to the 25-40% of the population that doesn’t identify as Christian.

    ***

    @1 – a few years ago, the NYT was getting bashed around a lot for not having (m)any conservative Op-Ed contributors. IIRC, they let a bunch of different conservative pundits write columns, sought feedback from readers, and selected Douthat as the best of the lot. Or more likely, because his column increased readership the most. :)

  4. 4
    raven

    Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit,

    and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.

    It’s always been that way.

    Ancient xianity was far more diverse than it is today. There were gnostics, Nestorians, Marcionites, Arians, and many other xianities now extinct. What we call xianity was hammered out by consensus, politics, and no small amount of violence.

    Then the Roman Eastern split, the Albingensian genocide, persecution of the Huegenots etc., culminating in the Reformation wars that killed tens of millions and ended a whole 12 years ago in Northern Ireland.

    Xianity has always been diverging and there are now 42,000 sects with more created every year. In my lifetime, the two Protestant sects the family belongs to have split several times and they are splitting right this minute again.

  5. 5
    raven

    with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit,…

    Xianity is very flexible. Despite some sects hatred of the word “evolve”, they evolve and rather rapidly.

    With nothing to anchor their truth claims in reality except violence, they can and do evolve in any and all directions.

  6. 6
    raven

    Second, many of his conservative bretheren would dispute his assumption that mormonism is christian at all.

    3/4 if all xian ministers and most xians don’t consider the Mormons xian.

    The Catholic church doesn’t consider them xians either.

    There is no xian central and no way for anyone to determine who is a True Xian without fighting wars. But that is what the majority of US xians think.

  7. 7
    anandine

    Ed wrote: In every single movement to end an unjust and destructive practice in this country — theocratic governments and established churches, slavery, the Jim Crow laws, legal discrimination against black people, women and gay people, etc — the primary opposition was the Christian establishment.

    I don’t think so. I think it is the basic redneck hatred of the other, and the fact that the Southern churches were on board was a symptom rather than a cause. They were on board because they were full of rednecks, who already hated blacks and gays; they didn’t cause the rednecks to hate blacks and gays. The Democratic Party (until the 1950s) and then the Republicsn Party were as strongly against integration as the churches were. It was George Wallace who stood in the schoolhouse door, not a preacher.

  8. 8
    busterggi

    At least he didn’t refer to it as Judeo-Christianity because as we all know they are not now nor have there ever been any Jews in the US.

  9. 9
    DaveL

    In 2012, we finally have a presidential field whose diversity mirrors the diversity of American Christianity as a whole.

    We’ve got both types of music – Country and Western!

  10. 10
    holytape

    Is Douthat dutch for “Asshat”?

  11. 11
    Modusoperandi

    This notion that Christianity merely provided an “invisible mortar” for our culture is absurd; what it has provided, with remarkable consistency, is the primary opposition to every kind of social progress.

    It is not absurd. Mortar holds. It solidifies. Mortar prevents change.

  12. 12
    greg1466

    @Raven (#4)

    My thoughts exactly. I wish more Christians, and religious people in general, would realize that and actually think about the implications. It was one of the original cracks that led to my ultimate loss of faith.

  13. 13
    harold

    Can someone tell me how this guy got a NYTimes column?

    Bueller? Anyone?

    It’s called Wingnut Welfare.

    If you can vaguely imitate an “intellectual” and you kiss right wing ass, you’re guaranteed a cushy job.

    I don’t know why NY Times surprises you; David Brooks is on the rolls there as well. Friedman isn’t exactly hard core right wing in every way, but if he were any less “conservative”, he’d be lucky to be writing a column in a free weekly.

    All major print and broadcast media outlets have a token “conservative” wingnut welfare recipient on a very high salary for an occasional column.

    If you aren’t even as good as David Brooks, there are the think tanks, the Weekly Standard type rags, and Fox News.

    If you actually get yourself fired from that level, like John Derbyshire, you may make a lateral move, or perhaps he’ll end up on Whirled Nut Daily.

    If you have a remotely fancy-sounding degree and high school graduate level grammar and spelling, you can probably be a “conservative columnist”. And I’m not saying that those things are necessary, just that they’re probably sufficient.

  14. 14
    d cwilson

    Douthat has public acknowledged that Obama is a Christian. He didn’t even use the “I take the president at his word” qualifier. That’s going to cost him some wingnut points.

    Of course, I would argue that football is far more of a unifying culture in America than religion is. Last year, students at Penn State rioted when head coach Joe Paterno was fired. When was the last time anyone rioted because a bishop had been fired?

  15. 15
    John Hinkle

    …nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.

    This diversity is not necessarily a strength.

    Well yeah, it would be nice if we were all members of the same tribe and all just got along.

    *holds my pitbull-boxer’s paw and hums kumbaya*

    But as an adult I understand there are differences in people and the best way to live harmoniously is to accept, or at least tolerate, those differences. Well, most of them. Oh alright, I can’t stand people who go slow in the left lane.

    Where was I?

  16. 16
    John Hinkle

    harold@13

    If you have a remotely fancy-sounding degree and high school graduate level grammar and spelling, you can probably be a “conservative columnist”.

    There is at least one hard and fast prerequisite: the ability to solely use other conservative sites and think tanks for your “research.” A slightly lesser rigid prerequisite is the ability to reword those sources. And if you’re too stupid to do that, there’s always copy/paste.

  17. 17
    Raging Bee

    To a significant extent, he’s right — though not in a way he’d be willng to admit. There was, indeed, a “Christian establishment,” made up of people who were strong and adept enough to incorporate reason, empiricism, science, and other heretical ideas into their beliefs and policies, and who were thus able to lead America into one of the most prosperous and enlightened ages our species has known. Trouble is, that establishment is now (and, in fact, always has been) under attack by religious lunatics, charlatans (like Douthat) and extremists who still despise the aforementioned heretical ideas, and pretend they had nothing to do with any of the good things the “Christian establishment” brought to their lives.

  18. 18
    heddle

    Raven #4

    Ancient xianity was far more diverse than it is today.

    and two paragraphs later:

    Xianity has always been diverging and there are now 42,000 sects with more created every year. In my lifetime, the two Protestant sects the family belongs to have split several times and they are splitting right this minute again.

    It’s that super-smart pharyngulytic uber-rationality once again on display. Myself, as a humble physicist, cannot comprehend how something that has been diverging since time To was actually “far more” diverse at time To. Is that because the universe is closed?

  19. 19
    birgerjohansson

    Somewhat OT but represenative of the mindset of the cultists:

    Pat Robertson: “Man up” and give money to the church against wife’s wishes http://freethoughtblogs.com/lousycanuck/2012/04/10/pat-robertson-man-up-and-give-money-to-the-church-against-wifes-wishes/

    I am reminded of the ads for Borat:
    “Dear customer. Do not buy food for your children. Buy my moviebox instead. It’s niiice! ”

    The memes giving priority to The Cult is a requirement for the cult to survive in the meme pool of competing cults.

    Raven. It is like species spliting off from each other. Some strains/species die out, but new ones form. As S. J. Gould mentioned, we have fewer phyla now than 540 million years ago [analogous to the nestorians, arians etc] but more species than ever.

  20. 20
    Ingdigo Jump

    Myself, as a humble physicist, cannot comprehend how something that has been diverging since time To was actually “far more” diverse at time To. Is that because the universe is closed?

    The say way that as a physicist who believes what you do and thus ‘intelligent’ you are remarkably more idiotic than someone of less education

  21. 21
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Heddle, more sects != more diverse. You’re a moron physicist.

  22. 22
    slc1

    Re F @ 321

    Heddle, more sects != more diverse. You’re a moron physicist.

    AFAIK, there is no such thing as a “moron physicist”. I say that as someone whose PhD thesis adviser was a religious fundamentalist like Prof. Heddle.

  23. 23
    slc1

    Re raven @ #4

    It is my information that Arians are considered heretics by the existing Christian churches. Issac Newton was probably an Arian, as, quite possibly, was Thomas Jefferson.

  24. 24
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    When was the last time anyone rioted because a bishop had been fired?

    When was the last time a bishop was fired?

  25. 25
    raven

    It is my information that Arians are considered heretics by the existing Christian churches.

    If the Arians had won it would be the other way around. They won the battle by invading Rome and sacking it. The Germanics who destroyed the Roman empire were Arian xians. They lost the (religious) war and ended up Roman Catholics anyway.

    A heretic is just a xian from the church down the road. All xian are heretics to some other xians.

    The JW’s are nontrinitarian and The One True Church. So are the Mormons.

  26. 26
    heddle

    Ing #20,

    The say way that as a physicist who believes what you do and thus ‘intelligent’ you are remarkably more idiotic than someone of less education

    Could you rewrite that in English? Or at least pidgin English? Or even LOLcats?

    F, #21,

    Heddle, more sects != more diverse. You’re a moron physicist.

    Actually it does. But even if it didn’t (which it does) you have conveniently ignored raven’s words prior to making a claim on the number of sects:

    Xianity has always been diverging and there are now 42,000 sects

    If it has always been diverging, then it is more diverse today than yesterday, let alone 2000 years ago. Even a moron physicist knows that. (Are you a regular on pharyngula? if not you report there and immediately apply for an OM.)

  27. 27
    dmcclean

    Heddle,
    Everyone else is using diversity to mean the diameter of the weighted graph of sects (where the weights measure differences between their doctrine and culture). You are using the number of nodes. You are also conflating the two in an effort to make some sort of “gotcha” point.

    It most certainly is possible for there to be less diversity (in that first sense) and nevertheless more sects.

    Whether or not either of these things is the case (that there is more diversity, or that there are more sects), I do not know. All I am saying is that they aren’t the same concept.

  28. 28
    Modusoperandi

    All this talk of sects is making me horny.

  29. 29
    dingojack

    Physicists – Genera diversity has fluctuated but are more diverse now than ever before (certainly compared to early Triassic), but species numbers have generally increased.
    Any other questions?

    Dingo

  30. 30
    bad Jim

    Another sectual deviate heard from.

  31. 31
    Forbidden Snowflake

    1. Diversity as in “actual range of opinions” =/= diversity as in “number of sects”
    2. One sect which contains within itself a breadth of opinions – a diverse Christianity
    Many hardliner sects with minute doctrine differences who call each other heretics – a Christianity that doesn’t tolerate diversity

    The thing is: the less diversity of opinion is tolerated/celebrated within a given sect, the more splitting, and hence more sects, there will be. Christianity is no better at diversity than the People’s Front of Judea.

  32. 32
    Aliasalpha

    Generic, tasteless wheat flake cereal #1 is slightly less awful with white sugar
    Generic, tasteless wheat flake cereal #2 is slightly less awful with brown sugar
    Generic, tasteless wheat flake cereal #3 is slightly less awful with honey

    GAH! This diversity blows my mind!

  33. 33
    Nick Gotts

    It’s that super-smart pharyngulytic uber-rationality once again on display. Myself, as a humble physicist, cannot comprehend how something that has been diverging since time To was actually “far more” diverse at time To. Is that because the universe is closed? – heddle

    The faux-humility doesn’t work very well when you’ve just made a stupid error, heddle. Whether raven is right or not in this specific case, it is indeed possible for something that has been diverging since time T0 to have been far more diverse at that time than later. The key here, heddle, is extinction: just as many biological clades have continually produced new species, with those species continually diverging in their form, but are nonetheless now less diverse than they once were due to extinctions, Christianity has continually produced new variants, while many older ones have become extinct.

  34. 34
    heddle

    KG,

    You know, I deserved some criticism for nitpicking about Raven #4, but it (making a cheap comment) was worth it to see geniuses like you try to defend the indefensible. Really it is quite amusing. Raven listed a handful of the early variants such as arianism and gnosticism– all of which are still found today. There has been no extinction of Christian variations.

    So if there were, say, 100 (way, way of an over estimate) of identifiable variants at To, all of them, or least least the vast majority still exist today. Next we tack on the 42,000 additional sects (*) Raven claims. So we have all the old ones. And 40K more. Yet you are trying to defend that Raven was correct. Your “extinction” explanation is nonsense, as it most of what you write, at least in your responses to my comments.

    ———————
    (*) Which, by the way, is another one of Raven’s errors (and irrelevant) from his/her small repertoire of over-the-top Pavlovian responses (the very thing that makes them so well received on Pharyngula). A defensible number is probably around 8K (again, who cares?) and even that is an over-estimate in that it counts, for example, doctrinally indistinguishable independent Baptist groups as separate denominations.

  35. 35
    dingojack

    Heddle – reslly? Where’s the largest concertrations of Arians? What about Semi-Arians or Nestorians?
    Dingo

  36. 36
    democommie

    Re: heddle and the others:

    MUST.NOT.GO.THERE!!;>)

    “All this talk of sects is making me horny.”

    It’s okay, unless it’s teh GAY Buttsects.

  37. 37
    slc1

    Re Raven @ #25

    The Arians didn’t win so that’s all irrelevant. Just for the information of Mr. Raven, if Newton’s views had become known during his lifetime, he would have been arrested and, at the east imprisoned or even executed. Heresy was a serious matter back in those days.

  38. 38
    heddle

    Dingo,

    Heddle – reslly? Where’s the largest concertrations of Arians? What about Semi-Arians or Nestorians?

    The largest collection of Arians would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The largest collection of Nestorians would be in Iran and Iraq, although you can certainly find some in the US as well.

  39. 39
    dingojack

    And Semi-Arians?
    Dingo

  40. 40
    Nick Gotts

    heddle,

    I was not defending raven’s claim, I am pointing out your stupid error. If you care to reread my comment, you will see that it starts:

    Whether raven is right or not in this specific case

    Your implied claim was that it was impossible that Christianity should be less diverse now than previously, if it has been constantly diverging (literally, you said you “could not comprehend” how this could be so). It is possible, as I showed. You do not try to defend your error, but you are too dishonest to admit to it.

  41. 41
    dingojack

    Doesn’t ‘diverging’ relate to increasing displacement and ‘diversity’ relate to how heterogeneous it’s composition is?

    If two stars are formed in the same OB association, and are then flung out in opposite directions, are they not diverging but their diversity (relative to their intial state) is virtually unchanged?

    Dingo

  42. 42
    Nick Gotts

    dingojack,

    In evolutionary biology, increasing differences between species over time are certainly referred to as “divergence”, and in this case, divergence produces diversity.

  43. 43
    Nick Gotts

    Although it was not my main point, there certainly have been Christian sects that became extinct, even if others have later adopted similar ideas. There is no historical continuity between the followers of Arius and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, nor, as far as I know, any other modern sect or group. Similarly the Donatists, the Monotheletites, the Bogomils, the Cathars, the Lollards, the Fifth Monarchists, the Muggletonians, the Glasites, all, as far as I am aware, did indeed become extinct – in many cases, as a result of persecution by other Christians. I’d be surprised if there are not many others I don’t know of, since I’m not a student of the history of Christianity.

  44. 44
    heddle

    KG,

    You are of course being dishonest (no surprise) pretending you are only being theoretical when in fact your last sentence

    Christianity has continually produced new variants, while many older ones have become extinct.

    gives you away (and is factually wrong, unless “many” means a tiny and possibly seriously percentage) You must have forgotten you wrote that.

    And at any rate you are wrong, period. At least mathematically. If your model is that we had, at To, N distinct communities that split into two or more, but some of those lines stop (become extinct) so that today there are fewer than N (even as they continue to split) then you are not talking about a system that is net diverging but a system of net negative divergence.

    In an extreme example (designed for your advantage) if you have a billion plus one sources and a billion go extinct and the remaining one bifurcates, you do not have a situation that was “much more diverse at To and yet always diverging.” You have a system with an extreme negative divergence.

  45. 45
    slc1

    Re Heddle @ #38

    Some members of the Unitarian/Universalist church in the US are really Arians by belief. In fact, it is my information that the line between Arians and Unitarians is somewhat fuzzy to begin with.

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