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Bad Douthat

The précis of Ross Douthat's new book Bad Religion that appeared in yesterday's New York Times Sunday Review is such a tissue of non- and half-truth, of historical misconception and ideological prejudice, that it requires an interlinear gloss to set the story straight. Here goes.

IN American religious history, Nov. 8, 1960, is generally regarded as the date when the presidency ceased to be the exclusive property of Protestants. But for decades afterward, the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy looked more like a temporary aberration.

The American presidency included a bunch of non-Protestants prior to 1960; to wit, five Unitarians: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft. And then there's Abraham Lincoln, who notoriously never joined a church as an adult. What the election of JFK marked was the effective termination of anti-Catholicism in American politics. Kennedy's election has never looked like a temporary aberration, despite the fact that no Catholic has been elected to the presidency since. 

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. Yet a nation that was increasingly nondenominational and postdenominational kept electing Protestants from established denominations to the White House.

Post-JFK (let's say, over the next three decades), "America's established churches" (a curious category) enjoyed different fortunes. Famously, the conservative ones--notably, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God--grew apace. Roman Catholicism did just fine, holding its own as the country's population grew. It was the Protestant mainline that went into unexpected decline, though not because its denominations had trouble making their message resonate in post-60s America. The clarion of inclusivity resonated only too well: It gave many adherents sufficient reason to walk away from church.

The six presidents elected before Kennedy’s famous breakthrough included two Baptists, an Episcopalian, a Congregationalist, a Presbyterian and a Quaker. The six presidents elected prior to Barack Obama’s 2008 victory included two Baptists, two Episcopalians, a Methodist and a Presbyterian. Jimmy Carter’s and George W. Bush’s self-identification as “born again” added a touch of theological diversity to the mix, as did losing candidates like the Greek Orthodox Michael S. Dukakis. But over all, presidential religious affiliation has been a throwback to the Eisenhower era — or even the McKinley era.

That is, until now. In 2012, we finally have a presidential field whose diversity mirrors the diversity of American Christianity as a whole.

The six pre-Kennedy presidents were rather less mainstream than Douthat makes out. The Quaker was Herbert Hoover--a pacifist in the eastern tradition of the Friends (unlike the non-pacifist California Quaker Richard Nixon), and definitely outside the Protestant establishment of his day. Dwight Eisenhower was raised a Jehovah's Witness--a fact that he and his family have been at some pains to suppress. That Ike became a Presbyterian when he became president testifies to the long-standing American tradition of faith-switching (see below). As for the post-JFK group, Jimmy Carter's self-presentation as "born again" was not "just a touch of theological diversity"; it signalled the return of evangelical witness to the center of American culture--a return locked in by George W. Bush. Having a Greek Orthodox major party candidate in Michael Dukakis was hardly a throwback.

Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all identify as Christians, but their theological traditions and personal experiences of faith diverge more starkly than any group of presidential contenders in recent memory. These divergences reflect America as it actually is: We’re neither traditionally Christian nor straightforwardly secular. Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit, and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.

I suspect that even Douthat remembers Joe Lieberman, a Jew, running for the Democratic presidential nomination and then for vice president on the Democratic ticket--a pretty stark difference with the various Christian types he was up against. As for decay of the old time Christian definitions, that's an old time lament in American culture. As Emerson put it in 1860: "A silent revolution has loosed the tension of the old religious sects, and, in place of the gravity and permanence of those societies of opinion, they run into freak and extravagance. In creeds never was such levity; witness the heathenisms in Christianity, the periodic "revivals," the Millennnium mathematics, the peacock ritualism, the retrogression to Popery, the maundering of Mormons, the squalor of Mesmerism, the deliration of rappings, the cat-and-mouse revelation, thumps in table drawers, and black art." 

This diversity is not necessarily a strength. 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 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.

Today, that religious common ground has all but disappeared.

And the inescapability of religious polarization — whether it pits evangelicals against Mormons, the White House against the Catholic Church, or Rick Santorum against the secular press — during an election year that was expected to be all about the economy is a sign of what happens to a deeply religious country when its theological center cannot hold.

Huh? The 1950s saw nothing like an acknowledgement of theological common ground shared by Protestant and Catholic. Neo-orthoodoxy, the regnant establishment Protestant stance, was deeply suspicious of Roman Catholic principles. And not until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was the Catholic Church prepared to think ecumenically. Meanwhile, conservative Baptists and Pentecostals regarded the ecumenical enterprise of the National Council of Churches as anathema, and created the National Association of Evangelicals to combat it. When Billy Graham announced his 1957 New York City crusade, Reinhold Niebuhr denounced it. And so on. What existed by way of a joint religious enterprise was "the Judeo-Christian tradition," a neologism that signified not theological unity but a banner under which the country's tri-faith establishment--Protestant Catholic Jew--could go marching as to war against the Communist foe. 

Our president embodies this uncentered spiritual landscape in three ways. First, like a growing share of Americans (44 percent), President Obama changed his religion as an adult, joining Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ in his 20s after a conversion experience brought him out of agnosticism into faith. Second, he was converted by a pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose highly politicized theology was self-consciously at odds with much of historic Christian practice and belief. Finally, since breaking with that pastor, Obama has become a believer without a denomination or a church, which makes him part of one of the country’s fastest-growing religious groups — what the Barna Group calls the “unchurched Christian” bloc, consisting of Americans who accept some tenets of Christian faith without participating in any specific religious community.

This is offensive nonsense. Obama finding his way into a mainline Protestant church after growing up in a deracinated mainline Protestant  family is about as much of a change of religion as George W. Bush going from nominal Episcopalian to born-again Methodist. Jeremiah Wright may indulge in liberationist and Afrocentric rhetoric, but Trinity U.C.C. is about as self-consciously in tune with historic (Protestant) Christian practice and belief as it's possible to be. Hasn't Douthat read Obama's own account of his adult acknowledgement of Jesus as his Lord and Savior? And it's just plain silly to conclude from the fact that Obama hasn't joined a church since taking up residence in the White House that he is therefore, like Lincoln, among the "unchurched." 

Obama’s likely general election rival, Mitt Romney, has had a less eventful religious journey, remaining a loyal practitioner of his childhood faith. But that faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the ultimate outsider church, persecuted at its inception and regarded with suspicion even now. Christian theologians wrangle over whether Mormon beliefs should be described as Christianity; Mormons, for their part, implicitly return the favor, since they believe that true Christian faith was restored to earth by Joseph Smith after nearly two millenniums of apostasy. Indeed, between its belief in a special 19th-century revelation and other doctrinal embellishments, Mormonism is arguably as far as Jeremiah Wright’s black liberation from what used to be the American religious center.

Mormonism is distinctive, no doubt about it. But "ultimate outsider church"? it is more of a religious establishment today than any other religious organization in America, and has been at pains for decades to present itself as a normal American religious tradition. Mitt Romney is the ultimate expression of its buttoned-down approach to the outside world.

THIS leaves Romney’s last significant Republican opponent, the Catholic Rick Santorum, to represent what the America of 50 years ago would have recognized as a (relatively) mainstream religious body. Except, of course, that there’s nothing particularly mainstream about Santorum’s theological convictions. His traditionalist zeal has made him a bigger target even than Romney or Obama for fascination, suspicion and hysteria. In a nation as religiously diverse as ours, a staunchly orthodox Christianity can seem like the weirdest heresy of all.

More to the point, there's nothing mainstream Catholic about Santorum. He's hooked into the ongoing civil war within American Catholicism in a way that has rendered him largely incomprehensible to the mass of American Catholics, who recognize themselves in a beer-and-social justice guy like Joe Biden. As a result, even in the GOP, where Catholic conservatives cluster, more Catholics have voted for Romney than for Santorum this primary season.

In a sense, the fact that the 2012 presidential race has come down to a Mormon, a traditionalist Catholic and an incumbent with ties to liberation theology is a testament to the country’s impressive progress toward religious tolerance. It’s a striking thing that one of the nation’s two political parties is poised to nominate a politician whose ancestors in faith were murdered, persecuted and driven into exile.

It’s almost as remarkable that Rick Santorum’s strongest supporters are evangelical Christians in the American South, a population that once would have regarded a devout Catholic with the deepest possible suspicion. And if you took a time machine back to the tumult of the civil rights era and told people that Americans would not only someday elect a black president, but one whose pastor and spiritual mentor was steeped in the radical theologies of the late 1960s — well, that would have seemed like science fiction.

In what sense isn't this gang of of three a testament to religious tolerance? Santorum's evangelical support indicates that it's not their theological differences, as traditionally understood, that keep Christians on different political pages, but their cultural politics. As for Obama, it was not his theology, which is conventionally Christian, but his association with a  politically radical pastor, that got him into trouble.

But there are costs to being a nation in which we’re all heretics to one another, and no religious orthodoxy commands wide support. 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.

Let's be honest about this. What created the myth of Obama the Muslim was not Jeremiah Wright but birthers and the right-wing noise machine.

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.)

Santorum's nauseated assault on JFK's famous speech to the Houston ministers invited questions about the role of ecclesiastical authority in the conduct of political office. Is it perfervid paranoia to suppose that Santorum does not, like Kennedy, believe in an America "where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote"?

Nor has Mitt Romney’s slow progress to the Republican nomination altered the fact that his fast-growing church is viewed by many with deep distrust. The same polls showing that many religious conservatives don’t want to vote for a Mormon also show that many independents and Democrats feel the same way, and explicit anti-Mormon sentiment percolates among evangelical preachers and liberal columnists alike.

The LDS Church is growing at a crawl.

These various fears 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. About 75 percent of Mitt Romney’s co-religionists identify as Republicans, and it’s safe to assume that President Obama didn’t meet many conservatives in the pews at Jeremiah Wright’s church. American Catholicism still pitches a wide enough tent to include members of both parties, but the church has long been divided into liberal and conservative factions that can seem as distant from one another as Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher.

In this atmosphere, religious differences are more likely to inspire baroque conspiracy theories, whether it’s the far-right panic over an Islamified United States or the left-wing paranoia about a looming evangelical-led theocracy. And faith itself is more likely to serve partisan purposes — whether it’s putting the messianic sheen on Obama’s “hope and change” campaign or supplying the storm clouds in Glenn Beck’s apocalyptic monologues.

What is this even supposed to mean? Evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, Hispanic Catholics, African-American Protestants, and the non-religious are all pretty much politically homogeneous. White Catholics and (white) mainline Protestants are divided, but generally more Republican than Democratic. Historically, ethno-religious groups have been more or less politically homogeneous. Bringing people from different political persuasions together has rarely if ever been what America's religious institutions have been about. Back in the day, institutionally strong Protestant churches inspired anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon paranoia, and an institutionally strong Catholic church built high the barricades against Protestant depredations. 

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.

Americans have sometimes separated religion from politics. New Englanders did that when they decided to call an end to the bitter Yankee-Irish warfare of the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. The religiously inflected politics of the past three decades--during which one of the country's two major political parties bound itself at the hip to a religious movement--is unprecedented. One person's public purpose is her opponent's personal and ideological self-interest. Prohibition was an evangelical Protestant movement for social betterment that was opposed by Catholics. Strong orthodoxies both.

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 latter story is told, masterfully, in David L. Chappell’s “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.”)

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.

Except, of course, for the institutional churches in the white South, which for the most part bitterly opposed faith-based civil rights activism as destroying what they called "the spirituality of the church." Civil rights leaders in the black churches had enough trouble enlisting fellow black pastors in the struggle, let alone the white churches. It took decades for the Southern Baptist Convenion to confess its racism.

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.

Once in a lifetime--if you're lucky--you get to live through, and participate in, a moral crusade that enlists a wide range of religious actors and rights an historic wrong. But even then, the struggle entails division and denunciation, if not demonization. The problem in our time is not that religious causes have polarized the polity, but that they have been mapped onto partisan politics. The civil rights struggle was, like the Civil War, a sectional conflict--such that Northern Republicans joined with Northern Democrats to advance the cause, while Southern Democrats fought it. By consciously building a base of supporters on religious lines, the Republican Party has taken the normal cut-and-thrust of religion in America and institutionalized it politically. It's not bad religion that brought this about. It's bad politics.

Topics: Culture
Tags: douthat


  1. “American Catholics who recognize themselves in a beer-and-social justice guy like Joe Biden.”

    No, sir, we do not.  Not since Obama has decided to impose on the Church his mandates for contraception and abortion, not since he has embraced the leaders of terrorist states that are butchering Christians around the world, not since Biden began straining our credulity with his absurd defenses of an indefensible regime,

  2. I am a Mormon. While a strong majority Mormons vote conservative, there are quite a few Mormon Democrats in office starting with Harry Reid at the top of the list. The LDS Church is outpacing all other churches in growth as a percentage from year to year, and you claim it grows at a crawl? There are well over 14 million members worldwide, with 6 million in the United States. That’s a huge increase since the early 19th century when a handful of Saints founded the religion. 
    You wouldn’t trust a historian to teach you math, nor should you expect the media to do a good job explaining religions. For that, you must go to the source. To learn about Mormons, for example, go to,, or Here you may fact-check news articles or just learn about Mormons for yourself.
    Thanks for listening.

  3. All Mormons are not Republican, but Mormons are the most politically homogeneous religious community in America. As to their growth, the best independent study, by a sociologist and a demographer, shows that they are just holding their own as a percentage of the American population. See Phillips and Cragun, “Mormons in the United States 1990-2008”:

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