Monday, December 20, 2010

Poor Beleaguered Ross Douthat

I posted a link to Ross Douthat's column from today's Times, and its has sparked quite a bit of comment. I think it best to clarify why I don't like it.

The very first sentence of Douthat's column tells a perceptive reader that it is not going to go well.
Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.
How is Christmas hard? How is it hard for everyone? How, on God's green earth, could anyone who is a Christian claim that it is especially difficult for them, compared to others?

Now, perhaps for non-Christians, the season is difficult. For Jews and Muslims, Hindus and others the saturation of cultural Christmas (which some folks on FB have dubbed Consumermas, a marvelous name) probably causes enough confusion. Is this a religious celebration or some kind of socio-cultural event? Are we remembering the birth of the Christian savior and also anticipating his return? Are we, rather, celebrating the triumph of consumer capitalism by buying a whole lot of crap, signifying that buying in and of itself is some kind of national liturgical rite?

For Christians, regardless of the depth of their faith, this is a marvelous time. For Americans generally - at least those with a lick of sense - it is a time for families to get together, to take a moment from the imposition of so much busyness and be together. Even more than Thanksgiving, the parties and meals around Christmas are a means to an end, rather than the reason for the day.

Yet, let us take for granted that Douthat is right, that Christmas is tough, most especially for Christians. Why is that so?
[T]his is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
The "multiculturalism" jab is a bit dated. The attitude toward Christmas-only church-goers is a large reason why they only go once a year.
These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.
Ross, you certainly aren't one of those "overdrawing" a Christian's anxiety about his or her place in our national life, are you? I thought not.
In the last 50 years, the Christian churches have undergone what “American Grace” describes as a shock and two aftershocks. The initial earthquake was the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which undercut religious authority as it did all authority, while dealing a particular blow to Christian sexual ethics. The first aftershock was the rise of religious conservatism, and particularly evangelical faith, as a backlash against the cultural revolution’s excesses. But now we’re living through the second aftershock, a backlash to that backlash — a revolt against the association between Christian faith and conservative politics, Putnam and Campbell argue, in which millions of Americans (younger Americans, especially) may be abandoning organized Christianity altogether.
I wondered how long it would be before those horrid 1960's reared their radical heads. As I write this, I'm listening to CSNY's Deja Vu, which should tell anyone where my sympathies lie.

I also find it amusing for Douthat to write about "sexual ethics", considering part of his internet fame/notoriety stems from a piece he did on-line a few years back detailing an encounter with a young woman he described as "a chunky Reese Witherspoon." Readers of that particular piece are unanimous the young lady in question dodged a bullet.

As for young people leaving the Church in droves, that might well be a good thing. Particularly since our churches are far more well known for what we are against, rather than what we support and actually do, is it any wonder? Douthat barely mentions the fact that conservative Christians spend quite a bit of their time in public ranting about how gays are destroying our country.

This should provide an opportunity for the various denominations to talk about what being a Christian means. It means living in love toward others - all others. It means talking to those in the pews, for all their various reasons, about the possibilities of the Christian life, about living in faith and hope and love with and for others. Instead of whining about it, we should be celebrating this chance for clarification.

Douthat chooses the path of victimization and whining.
Their argument is complemented by the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World,” an often withering account of recent Christian attempts to influence American politics and society. Having popularized the term “culture war” two decades ago, Hunter now argues that the “war” footing has led American Christians into a cul-de-sac. It has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

Thanks in part to this bunker mentality, American Christianity has become what Hunter calls a “weak culture” — one that mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future. In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight.
I have always maintained the "culture wars" were largely a distraction, a fake way for the powers-that-be to keep us occupied with peripheral issues with which politics is ill-equipped to deal. Rather than get incensed at out-sourcing jobs and cutting wages, we have Churches talking about how gays are a threat to the fabric of American society. Instead of talking about how we need to work together to feed the homeless, we get lectures on dirty art and sex education in our schools. Is it any wonder why the culture wars have rendered the Church's incapable of returning to the message of loving service to the world? Does Douthat even mention that core of who the Church is to be, those who bear witness to the Gospel?

In sum, Douthat's entire column is a pose. He writes of two recent books on the place of Christianity in America without really engaging the questions raised by these books. He does not set to one side the issue of the status of the Christian believer in the United States today, because he, like far too many, are invested in the long-lost inculturation of the churches, when priests and preachers were the voice of bourgeois conscience in small towns and commanded a presence in the halls of power. Far better to my mind that we are in the situation of social and cultural decline. This is an opportunity for us, not a reason to play the victim card.

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