The Toqueville forum on Democracy in America hosted its first event of the fall on yesterday afternoon. It featured Ross Douthat, author of “Bad Religion – How we became a nation of heretics” and New York Times columnist along with Father Matthew Carnes, SJ, an assistant professor of Government at Georgetown.
Douthat emphasizes in his book that America is facing a moral crisis due to decline in institutional Christianity, and Carnes thinks that this “calls for a living that is more moralistic and holistic.” The Catholic thinkers discussed ways to a “new orthodoxy” and “new evangelism” that can guide American behavior in all aspects of life, from the personal to the political.
Douthat mentioned debates that began after the 2004 presidential election as bringing this issue to the forefront of his thought. “There was a wave of panic after George W. Bush was reelected and all of these liberal journalists started noticing these polls that said that ‘values voters’ had helped put him over the top, and this prompted a series of anguished op-eds and articles about the looming specter of theocracy in America and the threat caused by new evangelists.”
He continued: “This culminated in the new atheist movement with people like Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and so on. It was this period where all of the debates about American religion were about this either or – it was either religious conservatism or secular liberalism. It was God himself versus Atheism.”
However, Douthat felt that this was “an incomplete picture of the religious scene in America” and responded in his book, “a story about the decline of institutional Christianity in the united states over the last 50 or 60 years, but why that hasn’t actually coorelated with the decline of religion itself.”
Douthat associates this decline of religion with moral decline, manifested in attachment to superficial faiths. Father Carnes said, “[Douthat does] a great job of skewering a great number of superficial faiths that we see in our day, from that prosperity gospel, to an Oprah spirituality, to a watered down social justice faith, to a journey that just becomes about self-discovery, about eating, praying and loving.”
Both Douthat and Carnes expressed hope for a new evangelization and regression to institutionalized Catholicism and Christianty. Douthat hopes for a return to ‘little orthodoxy’. “It challenges us to put all our talents to use, it confronts us with our responsibility to share what we have with those who are materially poor, it tells us that there are few greater threats to our soul than wealth. It calls us to fidelity in our relationships and a chaste reverence in our sexuality. It presents us with a vision of peace in which all life is sacred and protected.”
However, Douthat is worried about the next generation. “[It’s] not a purely atheistic generation, but it is the most un-church generation in American history, represented in spades among younger Catholics. That should at least offer a real caution to conservative Catholics in the sense that there is still a reckoning that has to happen,” Douthat said.
“These superficial faiths are proof of longing that people have for God and for community… they are perhaps the seeds of the next revival in the United States.”
Though a self-identified political and theological conservative who is “fairly critical of liberalizing trends in Catholic life and Catholic theology,” Douthat hopes to continue conversation with ideological opponents to affect this change in the next generation of Catholics. “There is a fruitful conversation to be had between various factions within the church about where we go from here,” Douthat said.
Carnes had a more optimistic attitude about Douthat’s goals. “Perhaps I have a privileged view here, sitting on this hilltop looking at the rest of DC, and perhaps in my privilege, I too often see signs of hope instead of signs of despair. But I see many signs of hope for this renewed Christianity that Ross has called for.”
Photos Cristina Ling