Ross Douthat quotes and sayings
November 28, 1979
Like most places, America has always had potent strains of anti-Semitism - crude and polished, K.K.K. and country club. But unlike many places, we have always had important strains of philo-Semitism as well; there is a long American tradition, with both Protestant and Enlightenment roots, of really liking Judaism and the Jews.
In fact, the religious right consists of an alliance of several groups that, without experiencing anything like the oppression visited on black Americans, have consistently occupied lower rungs in the American social hierarchy.
One of the things I try to do is take seriously some of the forms of American religion that people consider to be shallow and try and figure out why they have such a strong appeal and tease out the theology they actually represent.
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one's own.
It's an oversimplication to say that more monks and nuns are the answer to the Joel Osteen-ification of Christianity... but it wouldn't hurt.
I think it was a good and necessary thing that the American upper class diversified, and that more African-Americans and Jews and Catholics (like myself) and women now share privileges and powers once reserved for Protestant white men.
I think that liberalism and the centrist governing elite of this country need to learn lessons from the Trump phenomenon. It is part of the way that the country is governed and the country is shaped that induces spasms of populism, including spasms of bigoted populism.
I think you can see a clear link between certain kinds of Christian nationalism and support for Trump. Then, I also think that Trump is benefiting from the weakening of religious participation. He's winning evangelicals who aren't in church.
In general, I think that not voting is a perfectly honorable and civic-minded course in an election with two options that you consider unacceptable. I think casting a protest vote is a totally acceptable course. I have done both in my life.
I think what you see a lot of in American religion, even in areas of American Christianity that don't go all the way with Osteen to the idea that God wants you to have this big house and so on, the nature of American religion right now, the fact that it is so non-denominational and post-denominational, the most successful churches have to be run more like businesses than ever before. I think that just exposes Christians to a constant temptation to think about the ministry more as a business than they sometimes should.
There may be left-wing or liberal solutions to our deeper problems. But an elite that tries to manage them away with more enlightened media curation deserves to inherit nothing but the wind.
Donald Trump could win the presidency without a popular-vote majority only because both parties have been locked into base-turnout strategies that are partially responsible for our government's ineffectiveness and gridlock.
There are all kinds of great things that megachurches and successful fundraising appeals can allow you to do, especially in terms of overseas charity work, and so on. I'm just arguing that American Christians need to recognize the temptations that can expose you to as well.
The best time to make deficit reduction a priority is when the inflation rate and the bond market give you some indication that you are headed for a dangerous inflationary spiral.
In Barack Obama's second term, with his legislative agenda dead in a Republican-controlled Congress, the president turned to executive unilateralism on an innovative scale.
To visit the West Coast, now and always, is to be overwhelmed by its beauty - the blue water and blue skies, the temperate air and the beaches and the looming mountains not so far away.
Our crisis of the house divided was a Christian civil war.
Our great national drama was a westward expansion that conquered a native population rather than coexisting with it.
The neoconservatives of the 1970s, former liberals who became Nixon or Reagan backers, eventually accepted the 'neocon' description instead of calling themselves 'The Real New Deal Democrats' forever.
Great preschools are no easier to build than great high schools, and if you think your kids might be better off in the care of a parent or with some extended family member, then a system designed around a dual-income plus day care norm will likewise feel like a burden, or a trap.
The rhetoric of anti-Catholicism, whether its sources are Protestant or secular, has always insisted that the church of Rome is the enemy of what you might call healthy sexuality.
It's a long way from Martin Luther's 'On the Freedom of a Christian' to 'Eat, Pray, Love,' and a vigorous Protestantism should be able to prevent the former from degenerating into the latter.
Our culture has few taboos that can't be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place. Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing. This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that "bravely" trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.
Even secular people can't really escape from the need to rest their ideas on some belief, some sort of commitment that is not scientific commitment.
The idea of universal human rights may not seem as weird to some people as the idea of a personal God, but it is still a metaphysical idea that liberalism, at least as we know it, couldn't really survive without.
I had just been sort of raised and formed in a general Christian context, and it seemed to my teenage self that I found the argument for Catholicism very compelling. To the extent that there was a personal driving force, it was more on the intellectual side of things than the mystical or deeply personal. When I converted, I thought it was true.
It is not white nationalism to believe that countries like the United States would be better off with more babies. That belief can be held for racist reasons by racists, but it can also be held, reasonably and righteously, by people who worry about the economic consequences of demographic decline.
Yeah, I think that social conservatives recognize that they didn't just lose the debate about same-sex marriage. They lost the debate about the institution of marriage, and those two things were sort of connected to each other. The way people thought about marriage changed.
Cultural change is always incremental, so the most important thing for any right-leaning artist, writer, or media mogul is to focus less on making political statements and more on producing high-quality work.
Modern conservatism was forged in the crucible of the 1970s inflation crisis, and in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash many conservatives were convinced that there was nothing the Federal Reserve could do about the vast army of the unemployed without touching off a similar inflationary spiral.
When a newspaper columnist wants to write about a novel, the rule is that you're supposed to have a 'hook,' an excuse, a timely reason to bring up the book in question.
During a frustrating argument with a Roman Catholic cardinal, Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly burst out: Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church? The cardinal, the anecdote goes, responded ruefully: Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.
Where conservative Catholics have the power to resist what seem like false ideas or disastrous innovations they must do so.
What replaces Christianity isn't going to be Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and so on. It's going to be something else and something secular people may not like very much.
Even conservative columnists tend to prefer humor that isn't fit to print.
If you're too confident in assuming that America's and God's purposes are one, you tiptoe toward idolatry.
I think it is very clear that, though great difference remained, evangelicals moved closer to Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants moved closer together, and this convergence coincided with greater institutional strength for all the Christian churches than, for the most part, you see today.
I am not a post-liberal and I do not think that such a return to full 19th-century anticlericalism inevitable or even likely - which is one reason among many that I doubt the bargain many religious conservatives have made with Donald Trump.
In the end the recrudescence of racism on the right is conservatism's problem to solve, and it has to be solved independently of whatever liberals and leftists happen to be saying. But the task of solving it still gets a little harder with every nonsense charge or bad-faith accusation.
There are many families that want to raise kids on one income, or one income and some part-time work, and instead find themselves pressured, financially and culturally, to keep up with the dual-earning Smith-Joneses next door.
It's clearly the case that there's not some moment in American history when every evangelical is holding hands with every Catholic who is holding hands with every mainline Methodist, or what have you. Obviously, American Christianity was deeply divided in all kinds of ways at mid-century too. But there was a kind of convergence going on. Even though Reinhold Niebuhr, the great mainline Protestant theologian, didn't think highly of Billy Graham, he and Graham still, clearly, had more in common, both theologically and in their attitudes toward religion in public life.
If you're willing to recognize the religious element in one secular ideology, you need to be able to recognize it in your own.
I read a lot of G.K. Chesterton. It was a fairly conventional intellectual path to the Catholic church, I would say.
One of the frustrating tics of our society's progressive vanguard is the assumption that every evil it discovers was entirely invisible in the past, that this generation is the first to wrestle with dominance and cruelty.
The idea of a post-religious society is a fantasy, ultimately. Human beings are, by nature, religious in various ways.
Now fiscal responsibility is generally a good thing, and so a centrism mindlessly focused on tweaking legislation away from deficit spending has its uses.
No one doubts that pure libertarianism is simple, but that's just why it remains on the ideological fringe - because it boils down the most difficult questions in human affairs to a simple equation, a What Would the Market Do bumper sticker.
Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that's formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind.
You start reading C.S. Lewis, then you're reading G.K. Chesterton, then you're a Catholic.
I think that for social conservatism to make sense as a political world view, it has to have a more capacious understanding of what kind of society it wants than just saying, 'Leave us alone and let us pass laws against abortion.'.
America's gravest moral evil, chattel slavery, was defeated by an authoritarian president in a religious civil war, not by proceduralism or constitutional debate.
Even Warren Buffet is allowed to have an awful year from time to time.
Time and again a close election leads to hand-wringing about the need for Electoral College reform; time and again, politicians and parties respond to the college's incentives, and more capacious and unifying majorities are born.
A diverse elite may be good in its own right, as a matter of justice and representation. But nothing about being a woman or a minority makes you immune to meritocracy's ruthless solipsism.
As a generalization, fantasy writing has leaned more on political storytelling the more it's tried to escape the inevitable influence of Middle-earth, and revise the Eurocentric and Christian tropes that Tolkien's particular worldview bequeathed.
If we had a populist president who didn't alienate so many persuadable voters, who took full advantage of a strong economy, and who had the political cunning displayed by Modi or Benjamin Netanyahu or Viktor Orban, the liberal belief in a hidden left-of-center mandate might be exposed as a fond delusion.
Whatever role the structure of the Internet plays in radicalization, the root causes are still primarily sociological and political, and they will perdure and manifest themselves somewhere, somehow, no matter what YouTube suggests for your next video when you watch a Milton Friedman lecture.
Independent of the critique I'm making, I'm just trying to paint a more comprehensive portrait of American religion than you get from a right versus left, religious conservatives versus secular liberal, believer versus atheist, binary. Too often, we just look at religion in America through that kind of either/or lens. I think it's much more complicated than that.
I think that ultimately the Christian vision of sexuality - the New Testament vision - is not compatible with same-sex marriage. And I don't see a way to change that without entering into a kind of deception, basically.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama represented somewhat different party factions, but they both embodied wonkery, a vision of competence and expertise governing to some extent above ideology, in which there are assumed to be 'correct answers' to policy dilemmas that a disinterested observer could acknowledge and the right technocrat achieve.
America's problem isn't too much religion or too little of it. It's bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.
I do think that evangelicals in general need to think seriously about how you pass on your faith across generations and over the long haul.
I get the sense people sort of imagine that in my personal religious life I must be an intense rigorist wearing a hair shirt under my clothes while scourging myself. And, really, I'm not a rigorist by temperament.
On the evidence we have, the meritocratic ideal ends up being just as undemocratic as the old emphasis on inheritance and tradition, and it forges an elite that has an aristocracy's vices (privilege, insularity, arrogance) without the sense of duty, self-restraint and noblesse oblige that WASPs at their best displayed.
The idea that America has some distinctive role to play in the unfolding of God's plan is compatible with orthodox Christianity. But it should be tempered by recognizing that America is not the church.
I think generally, Pope Benedict did a good job cleaning up the way the church handled abusive priests but didn't go far enough in how he handled bishops who enabled them.
There are voters out there that a moralistic and populist conservative right might win but a flagrantly hypocritical and ethnonationalist conservatism cannot.
In the end, you do need institutions to transmit the faith for the long haul. That's why I make the case that, in certain ways, American Protestants could stand to recover the denominationalism that they've left behind over the last 50 years. They are real values in having a confessional tradition that can sustain your faith over the long term.
The thinking person's case for Romney, murmured by many of his backers, amounts to this: Vote for Mitt, you know he doesn't believe a word he says.
It's not always clear where a healthy patriotism shades into a dangerous nationalism.
We've always been a nation of heretics.
When I started reading George R.R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' novels, it was the late 1990s and obsessing over fantasy novels was (if painful memory serves) a super-nerdy thing to do.
In many ways, American evangelicalism is somewhat stronger today than it was in, say 1955 - certainly more mainstream and influential in the culture as a whole. But, the increased strength of evangelicalism hasn't increased fast enough to compensate for the total collapse of mainline Protestantism and the pretty steady weakening of my own Roman Catholic Church.
Institutional Christianity has had clear secular benefits to American life for hundreds of years. It's played both a prophetic role in terms of generating moral critiques of American excesses, and so on, and also a communal role, in terms of building community as the country moved westward to the role my own Catholic Church played in assimilating generations of immigrants.
Americans are an "almost chosen people," which is meant to suggest that there are clear parallels, literal, theological and everything else, between the American story and the Old Testament story of Israel and then the broader story of the Christian church. It's OK to recognize the parallels. It's OK to invoke them. But, you have to keep that "almost" in front of the "chosen." You can't go all the way and say, "America is Israel, America is the Church." That's where I think patriotism shades into, what I call, the heresy of nationalism.
It's just silly to look at the incredibly steep decline in the mainline and the clear institutional weakening of Catholicism in the 1960s and 70s and pretend that something really big didn't change then. It did change. There really was a significant institutional decline.
When it comes to explaining the phenomenon of right-wing populism, liberals are likely to argue both that the populist era has exposed a darkness always present at the heart of conservative politics and that a toxic, post-truth new-media ecosystem has greased the skids for President Trump, Brexit and the rest.
Many things about American life, that even secular people consider good, have flowed from the presence of a robust, resilient institutional Christianity.
For all its deranging effects, I am always grateful to Twitter for the interesting ideas it surfaces.
I identify, I guess, as a conservative Catholic.
I think it's totally possible and plausible that racial balkanization is a recurring aspect of the nature of human politics.
Jewish Americans weren't just integrated, like other ethnic and religious groups. They also attracted a particular sympathy and admiration, rooted in Holocaust remembrance, affection for Israel, and a distinctive pride in the scope of their success.
The days of noblesse oblige are long behind us, so our elite's entire claim to legitimacy rests on theories of equal opportunity and upward mobility, and the promise that 'merit' correlates with talents and deserts.
I grew up in a household that spent most of my childhood on a religious pilgrimage through American Christianity.
That clerical celibacy doesn't guarantee asceticism is obvious, any more than attending Mass guarantees prayerfulness (trust me on that one). But it preserves the call even when the system is corrupted.
I think with artists and celebrities, you want to be simultaneously supportive of their conversions without putting too much hope and weight into it.
I think true atheism is a rare thing in human affairs: Even in the most secularized precincts of Europe, a lot of nominal nonbelievers turn out to have all sorts of supernatural and metaphysical beliefs.
For a divided, balkanized America, it might take the looming-up of a rival power, the rise of a dark but all-too-plausible alternative, to remind us of who we are, and what we do not want to be.
There were times at Harvard when I actually longed to hang out with a few more Trotskyists, rather than yet another set of future consultants and investment bankers. At least the Trotskyists cared about the important stuff.
Henry David Thoreau
C. S. Lewis
J. K. Rowling
George R. R. Martin
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Julie Anne Peters
Roy Jones Jr.
Robert W. Service
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