Amid declining church attendance, and cultural storms, do Americans still take faith seriously? “We’re a no longer deeply Christian country that is not yet post-Christian and is still heavily influenced by Christianity,” says Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and author. Read the lightly edited interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
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Daniel Davis: I’m joined now by Ross Douthat. He is a New York Times columnist and author of the forthcoming book “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.” Ross, it’s great to have you in the studio.
Ross Douthat: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Davis: So Ross, we’ve been told that in America in the 21st century, we live in a post-Christian society [and] that things are only going to get more secular. And yet, in so many ways, Christianity almost has a zombie-like existence in our culture, even in the secular parts of the culture, where not just institutional Christianity but Christian concepts continue to inhabit our minds. How would you describe the state of Christianity in America, the role it’s playing, and the relative grip that it still has on us?
Douthat: I think one way to look at it is that on the one hand, there is a resilient core in American life of actual Christian practice and belief, right? Of people going to church on Sundays and identifying as Roman Catholics or Reformed Presbyterians and so on. And that core is somewhat smaller than it used to be, but it’s collapsed, [that] might be somewhat overstated. It’s still there. It’s still real. It still matters.
Then you have sort of two other zones of spiritual attitudes, both of which are more post-Christian, but are, as you say, still heavily influenced by Christian ideas.
And one is this sort of the kind of spiritual zone, which is a zone where people no longer believe in the absolute authority of Scripture or the authority of the Catholic Church’s Magisterium, but they’re still likely to believe in supernatural and metaphysical concepts that are—not always, but often—connected to Christianity.
This is sort of the zone that runs from Joel Osteen on the right to Oprah Winfrey on the left, if you wanted to. And it folds in a lot of people who identify as Christian, but maybe are in some prosperity gospel zone that is a little bit unorthodox, shall we say, and people who don’t per se identify as Christians but would identify with Christian traditions and ideas to some extent—that’s more the Oprah zone.
Then you have a zone that thinks of itself as secular, this is the world of the intelligentsia, the Academy, perhaps some readers of my own newspaper.
That zone doesn’t usually have Christian metaphysical concepts in the sense or it doesn’t have supernatural concepts. It’s unlikely to believe in angels, miracles, divine revelation, and so on. But it does still have a Christian moral framework in a lot of cases, a vision of the inviability of the individual, apart from the abortion debate, “Thou shalt not kill.” Right?
And a lot of progressive attitudes around human rights, especially, I think, still manifest a strong Christian influence and you can even see it sort of in what we think of as woke culture. The rituals of confessing your privilege and being ashamed of your associations with past sins, all of that, without being Christian, still participates in the Christian tradition in certain interesting ways.
So, I don’t think it’s correct to call us [a post-Christian society]. We’re a no longer deeply Christian country that is not yet post-Christian and is still heavily influenced by Christianity, [that’s] how I’d put it.
Davis: Yeah. That picture you paint is very residual and it points to a past where some of these institutions and ideas were much more shored up. Can you give us the broad strokes of say the last 60 to 70 years, how we got to where we are now from say the post-World War II consensus?
Douthat: Right. … The first thing to be said is that a lot of these quasi-Christian or semi-Christian trends are not … entirely new. Right? I mean, America has always been a nation of heretics, to use a phrase I used in one of my books, it’s always been a place with a lot of spiritual freelancers.
The American intelligentsia has been pretty secular for a long time. There have always been figures like Oprah Winfrey, let’s put it that way. Right? That said, there has been a shift where 60 or 70 years ago, there was a lot of clear institutional vitality and convergence between different institutional forms of Christian faith.
And you know, I use the example—because it’s relevant right now, because he’s about to be beatified—of Fulton Sheen, who was a Catholic bishop who had a Oprah-esque or Dr. Phil-esque prime-time show or maybe Jordan Peterson-esque, to pick a different figure, where he delivered a kind of moral and philosophical self-help to Americans of all faiths that was clearly rooted in a very strong institutional Catholicism and a strong Catholic framework. And of course, he wore the full bishop’s regalia while he did it.
And a figure like Sheen or a figure like Billy Graham or a figure like Reinhold Niebuhr, even a figure like Martin Luther King, all represent strong forms of religious influence that come out of strong institutional traditions—mainline Protestantism for Niebuhr, the black church for King, and evangelicalism for Graham.
And some of that is what we’ve lost, I think, over the 50 or 60 years since. That … there are very few figures who are directly associated with a mainline church or an important evangelical body, or even Roman Catholicism, who have nonsectarian and apolitical influence.
You have figures who have influence as conservative Christians, right? Like Franklin Graham has influence, but he’s seen as a sectarian and partisan figure in a way that his father was not. And similarly, Catholic bishops are always caught up in the Catholic churches post-’60s Civil War, where you’ll have Catholic bishops who are seen as liberal Catholics, and Catholic bishops who are seen as conservative Catholics, but very few who successfully speak to their own church as a whole, let alone the culture as a whole.
So I think it’s that decline of strong institutions and strong nonpartisan figures associated with them that’s the big shift since the ’50s.
Davis: And of course we couldn’t have this conversation without noting the sexual revolution that came after the ’50s. What effect do you see the sexual revolution is having on the church itself?
Douthat: I mean, I think the best way to understand it is to say that before the sexual revolution, if you weren’t a zealous, pious Christian, the basic Christian ideas about sex and marriage and sexual morality still seem to make a kind of basic sense, right?
So the idea that maybe you didn’t think sex before marriage was a mortal sin, but you accepted the social conventions that if you did have sex before marriage, it should be premarital sex in the literal sense, where you’re having sex with someone you’re likely to get married to. Or, you know, that divorce might be necessary, but it should be an extreme last situation. Or, you know, living together outside of marriage is socially unacceptable, even if it’s not going to send you to hell.
And that’s what shifts in the course of the sexual revolution, that … conventional, middle-class morality stops thinking of Christianity, a Christian morality, New Testament sexual ethics as generally good wisdom, and starts thinking of it either as an ideal that people can’t live up to or as a patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic burden that we’re better off without.
And I think it’s affected the Christian churches by basically dividing them internally between factions that think … the churches need to adapt to this new reality by dramatically shifting or evolving Christian sexual ethics, and factions that think, “No, you need to maintain tradition, maintain the traditional teaching, stay true to the words of Jesus and St. Paul, and eventually the culture can be reconverted or come back.”
… It’s not the only point of division within Christian churches, but it’s clearly one of the biggest ones. And it just … didn’t exist, anything like the same extent in the late 19th century, early 20th century. Not that these debates weren’t there, they were, but they just became much, much sharper. And neither the conservative approach nor the liberal approach has necessarily worked in the sense of building a recovered Christianity for a post-sexual revolution age.
Davis: Would you say that one of those approaches has worked in the sense of maintaining just internal integrity? I mean, you do, so if you—
Douthat: I mean, look, I’m a conservative, right? I identify, I guess, as a conservative Catholic. So I think the conservative approach has generally more moral and theological integrity—not, I think, on every issue and every argument, but generally so. And I think that sociologically, it’s been somewhat more successful at giving people a reason to remain in the pews and present a persuasive, coherent Christianity.
I think that the amount of creative editing of both church tradition and Scripture that you have to do to get to a fully liberalized Christianity—as Nadia Bolz-Weber, right, to pick a current liberal Protestant writer, who basically says the church needs to adapt completely to the sexual revolution—I think to get there, the editing required makes the larger Christian gospel and witness seem much more implausible.
But it does have to be said that the conservative approach has not reclaimed the culture. It can build a bunker mentality where people are hunkered down and saying, “We’re going to … defend my family against the culture.” But that doesn’t mean you have any idea of how to do missionary work. And a bunker mentality can breed a toxic and hermetic environment.
… I want to be cautious of the demographic triumphalism that conservative Christians sometimes get into where they say, “Well, our churches are still here, and the liberal churches have vanished.” Because that’s not always the case, right? I mean, Roman Catholicism has declined pretty steeply, even though Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were trying to hold the line on these issues. So, there isn’t a perfect correlation between conservatism and robustness on every front.
Davis: Right? I mean, even in my own evangelical tradition, the term evangelical, because it’s been so politicized, it’s become more of a political identifier. People respond to surveys and say, “Oh yeah, I’m an evangelical,” just because they live in a white or rural or conservative region of the country. But that doesn’t necessarily map onto their worldview.
Douthat: Right? I mean, there’s a zone of residual cultural Christianity on the American right that is not practically practicing the faith. And this is sort of the conservative equivalent of Christmas-and-Easter liberal Christians, right? It’s people who—when Donald Trump or before him, people on Fox News talked about like how there’s a war on Christmas, right? There’s a certain kind of American who doesn’t go to church but wants to say “Merry Christmas,” right? I mean, I don’t want to be reductive, but that’s a real phenomenon.
… As a Christian, you want to say in certain ways that any residual form of Christianity is worth nurturing. And the impulse to say “Merry Christmas” is a Christian impulse and it’s worth nurturing. But if you’re reducing your Christian identity to identity and not practicing the faith, then you’re not going to pass it down and the church itself is not going to survive over the long haul.
Davis: And you mentioned some key names from the ’50s, Reinhold Niebuhr, Fulton Sheen. And then you mentioned Martin Luther King. You could speak of a religious center in America in that era, who is the religious center of America today?
Douthat: I mean, I think it is figures who are supernaturalist in the sense that they believe that prayer, divine intervention, miracles, all of these things are possible, but fundamentally, individualist in their religious outlook.
And so, it’s sort of you’re accepting that God is real and that life has purpose and the universe has meaning and prayer works, but you’re not submitting yourself to the authority of Ccripture or the Magisterium of the Catholic Church or any kind of traditional religious authority.
I mentioned both Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey earlier in this conversation. I tend to think of the American religious center in the ’50s as being somewhere between Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham and the American religious center today being somewhere between Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey, which means, again, … Osteen describes himself as a Christian. It’s not a post-Christian religious center, but it’s much more individualist and much less institutionalist and therefore much less orthodox by any definition than it was a few generations back.
Davis: So looking from our present toward the future, what are some possible trajectories you see happening? I mean, I think a lot of us were very surprised to see Kanye West come forward as a born-again Christian, and then go up and speak with Joel Osteen and that whole thing and are watching closely to see what happens next.
Davis: … I, with enthusiasm and hope, look at this and think, “Oh, he is very influential. [He] could bring new people to hear the message of the gospel and of the faith and that could be a means.” So, I mean, history is so unpredictable like that. What are some of the future trajectories you see?
Douthat: Right. So one possibility is that this is actually kind of self-stabilizing, right? And you mentioned that my next book is about decadence, and this is the decadence argument … [where] you have a situation where institutional religion has declined but it never gets weak enough to fall apart entirely. And it remains, what you said, a zombie, a sort of zombie Christianity, right? That you can stay in this kind of zombie state for a long time with a core of religious believers keeping the churches going, enough Christian influence in the culture that you don’t get massive new religious transformations … like mass conversion to Buddhism or Islam or something.
But things stay much as they are—that we’re a rich society, that religious individualism works for a rich society, a society where people are pretty comfortable and don’t want priests or … biblical literalists telling them what to do.
So I think that’s possible, right? That actually, that … we could have gone through this transformation that started in the ’60s and have reached a kind of stable decadent zombie point.
But as you say, history is unpredictable, right? And the reality is that one, there’s a lot of, I think, religious impulses that are unfulfilled in the current landscape. I think religious individualism doesn’t fulfill impulses toward community and solidarity and it doesn’t necessarily work for people when things go really bad.
And secularism, this secular world picture with its residual Christian moralism, can’t really explain where that moralism comes from because it doesn’t believe that God created the universe or that human beings are beings independent of their bodies.
So there are those points of tension that could be points of fracture and points of change.
And then, if you look at just Western religious history alone, you can’t predict individual figures. You can’t predict a Martin Luther, a John Calvin, you can’t predict a Francis of Assisi or Thomas Aquinas. You can’t predict Jesus of Nazareth. You can’t predict the Prophet Muhammad, right?
Nobody in the year 550 AD would have said, “Well, obviously, the next religious thing is a monotheistic religion that claims to be the heir to Christianity and Judaism that comes surging out of the Arabian Desert.” No one would’ve predicted that.
So, I mean, Kanye—you know, Bob Dylan had a Christian phase. I think with artists and celebrities, you want to be simultaneously supportive of their conversions without putting too much hope and weight into it. But it’s certainly an example of how the unexpected rules religious life. And the reason that religion is resilient in a secular age isn’t just that there’s a general predisposition toward religious belief, but also because people just keep on having religious experiences and that has an effect on the culture whether we like it or not.
Davis: Yeah. Well, that sort of gets to the secularization thesis that I want to ask you about. You mentioned Islam and that’s a factor that is disrupting the secularization thesis in Europe where secularism really did triumph for a long time and now you’ve got Islam coming in through immigration and filling a kind of spiritual vacuum. In America, we don’t have that so much, but America’s always been the exception to the rule of secularization. Given those contexts, do you think secularism really has a viable long-term future?
Douthat: … I think hard secularism is a little bit overstated even in the European context, right? … The sort of secularism that is represented by a Richard Dawkins, right? A sort of real atheism is actually pretty rare. Even in Sweden or England or in sort of Northern European countries where church-going has fallen off a cliff.
I think what triumphed in Europe was much more really the kind of religious individualism that I was talking about earlier that was a little bit more secularized in the European context because Europe didn’t have this tradition of religious entrepreneurship and startup churches and so on.
But as for, I think, religious individualism though, I think that it has the capacity to last as long as wealth and stability last in a sense. And I think if you look at, whether it’s Muslims in Europe or Mormons and Orthodox Jews and the Amish in the U.S. and so on, I think you often see religious communities that thrive within secularism and people have a lot of kids and they grow rapidly at the beginning. But then, there’s also a lot of attrition because it’s hard to practice a faith intensely in a context of general disbelief. And it’s harder in the context, again, of wealth and stability and pleasure-seeking, right?
That sort of hedonism really is attractive to people. … Even like getting up on Sunday and going to church, having kids and raising them, nothing made me more sympathetic to the life of the secular European then having kids because I realized, “This is really hard.” Right? And you can see why, given the choice, people might not. And the same is true of intense religious practice, which, frankly, I’m not very good at myself.
So I don’t think that religious people should look at the real weaknesses of secularism and assume, “Oh, it’s going to collapse and we’ll have a Muslim Europe and a church of Kanye America tomorrow.”
I think there is, up until the point when the whole system seems to be in crisis, there’s likely to be a certain resilience to a certain kind of secularism. Again, not militant atheism, but a softer kind.
Davis: When you look at political divisions within the church, particularly along racial and ethnic lines, you see two parties in America that have lots of Christians in them. Well, I think [the] Democratic Party is very secular, but has a large base of Christians. Do you think that political split within the church has weakened the church’s ability to have an impact on society at large?
Douthat: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think one of the big shifts from the ’50s to the present is just political polarization is more powerful and people put more of their identity into their political party and less into their religion, right? People used to—the Catholics wouldn’t want their daughters to marry Lutherans and vice versa, and now that’s a lot weaker. But it’s Republicans don’t want their daughters to marry liberals and Democrats don’t want their sons to marry conservatives. And that, yeah.
Any time when political identity becomes more important than religious identity, the church is going to be in a lot of trouble and it contributes to this sense that if you wanted to be a Billy Graham or a Reinhold Niebuhr or Fulton Sheen, you wouldn’t have a place to stand that was seen as not liberal first and conservative second, conservative first and liberal second.
The racial polarization is, on the one hand, in certain ways, it’s a deeper scandal in the sense that it’s connected to America’s original sin and slavery and everything else, right? Which has created, I think, very historically understandable reasons that African American churchgoers don’t feel comfortable in a party dominated by Southern white evangelicals, even though they have a lot in common theologically.
The only thing that might be said about that that’s more positive is that on the one hand, a political reconciliation between black and white Christians is obviously desirable. On the other hand, it might be good for America that there are reasons why there’s still a strong religious presence in one of our political parties that’s otherwise secularizing and actually American politics might become much more toxic if it was purely, you know, all the religious people are in one party and all the secular people or all the non, you know, all this spiritual mushy middle people are in the other.
So, I mean, there are ways in which the secularization of the Democratic Party is constrained by racial division and the racial division is bad. But I don’t necessarily want a world where there aren’t any churchgoers in the Democratic Party anymore.
Davis: Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. But you mentioned a book that you had written, it’s “Bad Religion.”
Douthat: Yeah. If listeners are interested in more of these thoughts, they can read my 2012 book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” which some of it needs to be updated probably, but a lot of it is still relevant.
Davis: I am waiting for the second edition right now. Ross, thanks for your time.
Douthat: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.