I don't often read Ross Douthat's columns, but his Easter message this year gives some insight into how some religious Americans are thinking these days.
In this column he argues that American society was traditionally held together by a kind of religious orthodoxy—mostly mainline Protestant originally, then later including some Catholics, but this is now falling apart thanks to a growing tolerance in the country, or as he puts it:
Post-J.F.K., many of America’s established churches went into an unexpected decline, struggling to make their message resonate in a more diverse, affluent and sexually permissive America. The country as a whole became more religiously fluid, with more church-switching, more start-up sects, more do-it-yourself forms of faith.
For him, this is illustrated by the present presidential campaign. The traditional campaigns of the good old days included almost no one but Protestants—and of course J.F.K—but this one involves a Mormon, a rather unorthodox Christian (Obama's earlier pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has been considered very suspect by the Right because of his "damn America" political stance, and the First Family's church-going is conspicuous by its great rarity), and a very traditional Catholic, who is embraced, strangely enough, by evangelical Christians, who used to bitterly oppose Catholics.
This suggests that Americans (even Republicans, despite their concerns about Romney's religious affiliation) may be becoming more tolerant of "odd" religions. But Douthat worries that this increasing tolerance in religious matters is also making the population more polarized, which, he thinks, is generating all sorts of potentially dangerous polarizations and paranoias.
Our diversity has made us more tolerant in some respects, but far more polarized in others. The myth that President Obama is a Muslim, for instance, has its origins in Obama’s exotic-sounding name and Kenyan-Indonesian background. But it’s become so rooted in the right-wing consciousness in part because Obama’s prior institutional affiliation is with a church that seems far more alien to many white Christians than did the African-American Christianity of Martin Luther King Jr., or even Jesse Jackson.
Romney faces strong anti-Mormon prejudice from the Right and the Left, according to Douthat. And Santorum has a similar problem:
Likewise, while Santorum no longer has to worry (as John F. Kennedy did) about assuaging evangelical fears about Vatican plots and Catholic domination, his candidacy has summoned up an equally perfervid paranoia from secular liberals, who hear intimations of theocracy in his every speech and utterance. (And not only from secularists: The liberal Catholic writer Garry Wills recently resurrected the old slur “papist” — once beloved of anti-Catholic Protestants — to dismiss Santorum as a slavish servant of the Vatican.)
He argues that these various polarizations and paranoias are nourished by the fact that America's churches are increasingly too institutionally weak, too fragmented and internally divided, to bring people from different political persuasions together.
Americans have never separated religion from politics, but it makes a difference how the two are intertwined. When religious commitments are more comprehensive and religious institutions more resilient, faith is more likely to call people out of private loyalties to public purposes, more likely to inspire voters to put ideals above self-interest, more likely to inspire politicians to defy partisan categories altogether. But as orthodoxies weaken, churches split and their former adherents mix and match elements of various traditions to fit their preferences, religion is more likely to become indistinguishable from personal and ideological self-interest.
At the end of the column, he sums up his view this way, after praising the way the civil rights movement was inspired by religion:
Here it’s worth contrasting the civil rights era to our own. Precisely because America’s religious center was stronger and its leading churches more influential, the preachers and ministers who led the civil rights movement were able to assemble the broadest possible religious coalition — from the ministers who marched with protesters to the Catholic bishops who desegregated parochial schools and excommunicated white supremacists. Precisely because they shared so much theological common ground with white Christians, the leaders of the black churches were able to use moral and theological arguments to effectively shame many Southerners into accepting desegregation...
The result was an issue where pastors led and politicians of both parties followed, where the institutional churches proved their worth as both sources of moral authority and hubs of activism, and where religious witness helped forge a genuine national consensus on an issue where even presidents feared to tread.
Today’s America does not lack for causes where a similar spirit could be brought to bear for religious activists with the desire to imitate the achievements of the past. But with the disappearance of a Christian center and the decline of institutional religion more generally, we lack the capacity to translate those desires into something other than what we’ve seen in this, the most theologically diverse of recent presidential elections — division, demonization and polarization without end.
There are a number of problems I see with this argument, but the main one is that religiously-imbued minds like his tend to observe the society through piety-colored glasses, which distort the way religion actually works to "unify" and create "national consensus." These glasses cause folks like Douthat to have what I think is much too admiring a view of how beneficent a religious establishment is.
For one thing, Douthat not only focuses on the "Christian" in "Christian establishment"; he seems to forget non-Christian Americans altogether. His last paragraph betrays this in the reference to "a Christian center." To this sort of thinker, their own religion is the controlling force for everything that happens. Of course, the various types of Christianities (which were never unified since the first Europeans landed on American shores, and, I would argue, since the beginning of Christianity itself) account for a majority of the country's population when added together, but the civil rights movement was certainly not in its essence a "Christian" phenomenon. This was an illusion which I believe was created by the media's focus on Martin Luther King, and a few of his pastoral associates, in the leadership. In fact, though, that leadership was not entirely made up of Christian ecclesiastics, and their followers were not all Christians, either. (And not many white Southerners were induced by their Christian beliefs to embrace desegregation, either, as anyone who takes a close look at what is going on in Southern states today will recognized.)
More generally, the dominance of most of American history by the various Christianities was an instance of the way religions have functioned to control societies throughout most of human history. As Douthat admits,
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, he says, this old lack of diversity had its benefits.
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.
Note again a blindness to non-Christians: did the "Christian center" help to assimilate Jewish immigrants, for instance? In a negative way, perhaps, in that it denied Jews access to many important parts of the society for generations. And those Jewish generations built plenty of hospitals, schools, orphanages, and universities, too. Many Jews fought back, consciously or unconsciously, by attaining strong positions in the motion picture industry and other parts of show business, for example, where subversive attitudes towards the establishment still cause resentment in the Right wing.
The way many religions, especially Christianity, have created "consensus" in society throughout history has been by defining orthodoxy and heresy, and branding revolutionaries as heretics, to be fought by any means necessary. I am presently reading Norman Cohn's great study, The Pursuit of the Millennium, which describes in great detail how this worked in medieval Europe, and Cullen Murphy's God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, which argues the provocative thesis that the techniques of interrogation and organizing file systems for record keeping, etc., which were developed by the medieval Inquisition have direct historical descendants in modern totalitarian control systems.
The "exclusivist, snobbish and intolerant" American Christian Establishment that Douthat apologizes for was (and is, to the extent that it survives) not quite as grim as the Inquisition, but neither was it as humorous as Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition. As modern capitalism developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, conformity to its standards of thinking and behavior was generally linked with orthodox notions of piety, and struggles by workers against capitalist exploitation were frequently denounced by clergy of any and all denominations as inspired by Satan. And of course the same politics-religion link is still quite active today, as can be seen in the Right's loud cries against banning "God" (by which they of course mean the dominance of their religious convictions) from "the public square."
I think that what religious conservatives like Douthat fear in today's American culture is in large part a very disorganized, sometimes chaotic and fearsome process by which many people are trying to break out of this domination by the old elite, which was indeed largely mainline Protestant. Because so many Americans still see the world in Christian terms, they do not consciously orient themselves in a secular way; much of the incipient working-class struggle is expressed in a "fundamentalist" or "evangelistic" opposition to the Elite (these terms are quite inaccurate, but commonly used). But the similarities that some observers see between the languages of working-class "Right-wing" Christians and the secular Left indicate some real commonalities.
If we have any luck at all, this process of the breaking down of the old religious establishment, which seems to have Douthat and others trembling and sweating with fear of the future (and which, by the way, Douthat suggest no way of opposing or even coming to terms with), may well contribute to a new, more democratic way of working out differences among sub-groups of the American population, and a process for bringing people together which is not as subject to social control from above as the old structure was.
It won't be a completely pure, "orthodox" anarchism, which many of the Occupy folks would apparently like to see develop. And most convinced Christians will retain their religion, though the history of the country clearly shows that religious workers can raise as much ruckus as non-religious ones, when they want to (look at Appalachian coal miners struggling agaisnt the coal companies, for just one example). But this kind of democracy could be close to what the Left in general hopes for.