More on Politics First Religion Second

Republican JesusLast night I discussed Ross Douthat’s commitment to his conservative ideology over his commitment to Christianity and the Catholic Church. And look, I know that I’ve been writing a lot about Pope Francis these days. But it’s important stuff. In a nation that is 80% Christian, it highlights not only our hypocrisy (not that interesting), it highlight the paucity of theological thought on the part of a people who claim that religion is very important to them.

As others have noted, Pope Francis is not the first Pope to talk about the immorality of our economic system. He’s just the first one who the media has paid attention to. Remember the last on, Pope Benedict, who everyone thought was just a mean old curmudgeon? In is encyclical Caritas in Veritate he wrote:

Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers’ associations. Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum[60], for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past, as a prompt and far-sighted response to the urgent need for new forms of cooperation at the international level, as well as the local level.

Oh my God, and I do mean that God—that Catholic God who made Pope Benedict infallible! The (infallible) man is talking about the importance of labor unions! Where was Stuart Varney when we needed him?!

But let’s be perfectly honest with no exaggeration: Stuart Varney is an idiot who no one with any sense takes seriously. Ross Douthat, however, is taken seriously. He’s one of the non-ranting conservatives who holds up his Catholic faith as a badge of honor. He even wrote a whole book about how we needed to get back to traditional religion, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. But as Michael Sean Winters, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter wrote in his devastating review of Bad Religion:

My problem with Douthat’s book is not that his opinions differ from my own. My problem is that he does not seem to have any idea what he is talking about. In the West, there has been no universally accepted authoritative voice on orthodoxy since the Reformation. “What am I to do when many persons allege different interpretations, each one of whom swears to have the Spirit?” asked Erasmus in 1524. But Douthat does not see the larger picture that he aims to explain, and his treatment of his subject is so pitifully mistaken in things large and small that what we are left with is a meandering, self-serving screed. The book has the same reliance on private judgment that anyone who was really concerned with heresy would recognize as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Ouch! But it goes right along with my argument that Ross Douthat should not be considered a Catholic thinker. Garry Wills he is not. He is first and foremost a conservative and then he uses his religion to justify that. Douthat’s big gripe is that religions are liberalizing to appeal to modern people. He is against such “accomodationism.” Winters calls him out on that issue:

Of course, not all accommodationisms are equal in Douthat’s rendering. He may not like the “prosperity gospel” as preached by Pastor Joel Osteen, but he has many nice things to say about the accommodation to laissez-faire capitalism that American Catholic conservatives have been championing. He labels Michael Novak’s works a “breakthrough” and approvingly quotes this passage:

It is wrong to imagine that the spirit of competition is foreign to the gospels, and that, in particular, competition for money is humankind’s most mortal spiritual danger. Under God, a wealthy nation faces an especially harsh judgment, but that judgment will not be aimed so much at the existence of wealth as at the character of the uses made of it. On Judgment Day, the rich may find it especially hard to get through the eye of the needle, but this will not be because they had money but because their use of it will be subjected to an accounting on different ledgers from those scrutinized by the Internal Revenue Service. The rich have reason to tremble. If their wealth has been productive for others, though, the world has reason to be merciful to them even if God’s standards are higher.

If that is not accomodationism, I do not know what is. Collapsing Catholicism into capitalism is as much of an “accommodation” as collapsing it into the counterculture. Novak is so eager to pour the Scottish Enlightenment into the Gospels that he fails to note that it is a spirit of gratuitousness, not competition, that must characterize a Christian culture.

What I’m getting at here is not that Ross Douthat or any of the other conservatives who claim to be Christians are horrible people. And I’m not saying that a righteous Christian cannot be a conservative. But if you are a Christian, your religious should come first. But for most Christians I talk to, their politics come first and they use their religion to justify their politics—mostly with regard to reproductive and same sex marriage rights. And this to me means they are pretenders.

I like to think of myself as an interfaith atheist. I love the best that religion is and I take great joy in talking to peoples of all faiths about their beliefs and what they think of the great questions of life. But I have no tolerance for dogma. We are living through a dark ages of religion. More people than ever claim to have faith and all that, but it means less than it ever did. For most people, God is just the trump card, “I’m right because God says I’m right.” That’s all Ross Douthat does, although admittedly, he does it with much skill and obfuscation.

I may be an atheist, but I do have a creed: inclusion, equality, empathy, compassion. And my politics follow from it. I do not follow the teachings of the power elite and then justify them by cherry picking from a three-quarter million word tome. But I too can point to literature to justify my creed. Here is one by Emma Lazarus that you will perhaps recognize:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand that
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That is a real welcome, not a theoretical one. That is a sincere desire for equality, not nice words hiding the granite that separates them from us. That is real empathy because I and mine have struggled too. And that is real compassion and not the tidy platitude that all are equal in America. My creed may be wrong, but it is my creed. Ross Douthat’s creed is that of the American Enterprise Institute covered over with platitudes about peace and good will toward men.

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