Bill Moyers
April 20, 2012
Ross Douthat on Modern Christian ‘Heretics’

BILL MOYERS: Just as fifty years ago liberalism was the vital center of our politics, our religious landscape then was dominated by mainline Protestants and a Catholic Church becoming less Roman and more American every year. One of the most symbolic events occurred in 1958 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for the new headquarters of the National Council of Churches here in New York City. Before a crowd of 30,000, Eisenhower quoted George Washington, who described religion as the firm foundation of the country’s moral life.

That was the decade America put God on our paper money and in the Pledge of Allegiance. And though the churchly DNA often fostered racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry and Cold War dogmatism, many thought biblical religion, in its various incarnations, was the engine driving the American future.

But then, says my next guest, American Christianity went off the rails – and now threatens to take American society with it. Furthermore, the snake in the garden is not atheism, nor is secular humanism the worm in the apple. Our fall is the work of heresy, as you see in the title of his latest book: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

Ross Douthat has tasted widely from the buffet of American Christianity. He was baptized Episcopalian, attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches in his youth, and was converted to Catholicism at age 17. Now he’s widely considered to be one of the country’s most influential conservative voices. He’s the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and also has written Privilege – about the perils of a Harvard education, and co-authored Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.


ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you so much for having me Bill, it’s great to be here.

BILL MOYERS: I found your book fascinating because you seem to me to be carrying on an argument with yourself. And I'm never sure till the last chapter which Ross Douthat is going to win out. Am I right about this?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, tell no tell me more. What’s kind of argument am I carrying out?

BILL MOYERS: Well, there's the pious Ross Douthat whose faith was delivered to the saints. Historically and traditionally grounded. A believer in the dogma of the essential Christian experience. And the political Ross Douthat who seems, throughout this book, to be unsure about making peace with a Republican party and you are conservative, whose base embraces an absolutist theology.



ROSS DOUTHAT: I see. You see, you're trying to tug me. Well, let me--

BILL MOYERS: No, no. There is the suspense of where you're going to come out, is worth the price of the book.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, that's very kind of you to say. I mean, I think that I do consider myself a political conservative. And I do identify, you know, with religious conservatism broadly speaking. And I identify with, I think, the causes that animate religion conservatives. I'm pro-life and I think that cause is immensely important to American Christianity.

But I also do argue that what's happened on the religious right over the past 30 years is often a sort of captivity of religion to partisanship rather than a religious spirit influencing politics. And I think that's happened though on the religious left as well.

I think in part the story of what happened to American Christianity after the '50s and '60s is sort of a captivity on both sides.

And so you have Billy Graham, this you know, Evangelical preacher, and you have Martin Luther King, a civil rights activist. Both of those figures are religious figures who had political influence. And, you know, both of them were sometimes more partisan. Graham became more partisan in the Nixon presidency. King late in life became somewhat more ideological. But they were never in general thought of as specifically partisan figures.

But then flash forward a few decades to the 1980s and two figures who could have been their successors in a way, Jesse Jackson, a potential heir to Martin Luther King, and Pat Robertson, you know, similarly in a preacher with a wide audience.

When they decide to get involved in politics what do they do? They don't sort of stand outside a little bit and try to influence. They run for president as you know, Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson ran for president. And imagine how different the history of the 1950s would be if Billy Graham and Martin Luther King had run for president?

And I think in that, in that difference you can see the shift from, again, a faith that I'm arguing that Christian faith always has to be, in some sense, political because Christians are called to be engaged with the world. But, it needs to be political in a way that doesn't just become a sort of expression of a party line. And I think that's happened on the left and the right alike.

BILL MOYERS: But your quarrel is with what you call the heresies?


BILL MOYERS: Joel Osteen's gospel of prosperity. God wants you to be rich.


BILL MOYERS: Oprah Winfrey's therapeutic religion. You can make yourself feel better.


BILL MOYERS: Glenn Beck’s messianic nationalism which sees God as the president, the commander-in-chief, so to speak. Your quarrel is with-- you call those the heresies, right?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I and try look at sort of popular theology. Right? Where are people where are ordinary Americans actually getting their religious teachings from today. Right?

And I think the places that they're getting it from are places like The Oprah Winfrey Show. There're writers like, you know, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love which I think is a fas - actually a theologically fascinating book. Writers like Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle and so on.

And then, as you said, preachers of sort of a religion of prosperity like Joel Osteen who argue that, you know, God wants you to have that big house on the corner. That, you know, you need if you aren't rich now it's just 'cause you aren't praying hard enough. And I think that those-those aren't necessarily, you know, you could argue that Osteen is sort of right wing and Oprah is sort of left wing, but they aren't really political, they aren't really political figures.

BILL MOYERS: They're not Jesse Jackson.

ROSS DOUTHAT: They're not Jesse Jackson.

BILL MOYERS: Right, right.

ROSS DOUTHAT: But they are some of the, what I call in the book, heretics. And I use the word heretics because I think that - what is religion in America like right now? Are we a traditionally Christian country? I don't think so. But are we a secular country? Well, surely not. I mean if you look at public opinion polls on belief in God, experience of miracles, people claiming personal encounters with the divine, we're probably just as a religious as ever.

So we-- I think we occupy this interesting middle ground between sort of traditional Christian orthodoxy and sort of secularism or something more post-Christian where we're deeply influenced by Christianity but sort of flying off in all kinds of directions. And I think heresy, it is obviously a loaded word, but I think it's the right word.

BILL MOYERS: But the premise of your book it, to me is that once upon a time, 50 years ago, 60 years ago religion was the - it was a robust center.

ROSS DOUTHAT: There was, there was-

BILL MOYERS: And it was broad-

ROSS DOUTHAT: There was a Christian center, yes.

BILL MOYERS: And heresies can be even more robust, can they not?


BILL MOYERS: Than the institutions from which they split off?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Absolutely. And the book is very critical of a lot of the religion trends I'm describing. But it’s also…

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you call it bad religion.

ROSS DOUTHAT: But it's bad, but it's also what I do try and do as well is take them I think more seriously, theologically seriously, because you're right. They can be deeply robust. And I think, take the example of prosperity preaching. Right? I think a lot of people, especially our fellow journalists, turn on a prosperity preacher, whether it's somebody smooth like Osteen or one of the more ridiculous figures in their garish suits. And they say, "This is absurd. This is just something to be made fun of."

But the point I make in the book is that, no, there's actually a real core theological appeal to that idea. And the same is true, the same is true when I talk about sort of what I call the god within and sort of therapeutic religion and Eat, Pray, Love. I think that these are-- these theologies have an appeal for a reason. They answer people's questions about God and the universe.

BILL MOYERS: Well, they're writing theology irrespective of what the faith of our fathers and the old time religion might have believed.

ROSS DOUTHAT: What's different about our era is not the presence of, as you say, people writing their own theology. There's nothing more American than that.

What's different is the absence of a sort of institutional Christian response. I think there's been this, one of the points in the book is that we're used to thinking that orthodoxy without heresy is dangerous. Right? And that's absolutely true.

But the era we're living in now is a landscape were we have heresy without orthodoxy. That, you know, when Emerson stands up in the eight, I think the 1830s and gives this famous Harvard Divinity School address and says, "I can no longer agree with this, this and this Christian doctrine," that's a fascinating and intellectually important moment because the people in his audience disagreed with him because there were people though there who did believe in those traditional doctrines and you had that clash.

If Emerson - if an Emerson stood up and said that at Harvard Divinity School today people would say, "Well, sure. We don't, you know, we don't believe in that either." And it's that, it's that tension between orthodoxy and heresy I think that's been lost as the traditional mainline denominations have declined and as my own Catholic church has weakened as well.

BILL MOYERS: The charged word in the title of your book is not, to me, heresies, because I think the faith is a long narrative of heresies and many fights over them. The charged word is "bad religion."

ROSS DOUTHAT: Bad religion.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that fundamentalism, along with the gospel of prosperity, the cult of therapy with Oprah and the chauvinist, nationalist, god-soaked patriotism of a Glenn Beck are bad religion?

ROSS DOUTHAT: And you've left out the "Yes, we can" utopianism of certain Obama supporters, which I do throw in there as well. But I’m--

BILL MOYERS: That, oh, it seems to me that's political rhetoric. What, every president--- "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Maybe that's theology, but it's political.

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think, I think--

BILL MOYERS: Are you equating Obama with Osteen and--

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that, I'm not equating Obama himself with those figures. I think in some of the enthusiasm for Obama in 2008, if you go back and look at some of the things that were written, there was this famous column in The San Francisco Chronicle where you know, a writer said, "I think Obama is the light bringer. He's this great soul." And you had all the endless sort of religious iconography and magazine covers.

And or you go watch that famous Will.i.Am video where, you know, everybody's singing about Obama. I think there, yes, you do see a sort of, a liberal, a liberal form-- I think the investment of partisan causes with sort of religious enthusiasm is part of what I call heresy. And I yeah, I think--

BILL MOYERS: All right. But--

ROSS DOUTHAT: Yeah, I think it happened with Obama supporters too. I think there’s a mirror.

BILL MOYERS: You're too young to remember how people sang for John F. Kennedy and--

ROSS DOUTHAT: I, but I-- well, I--

BILL MOYERS: And even Lyndon Johnson before the fall. And at the rhetoric, how did the rhetoric of Barack Obama differ from the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan in terms of its- -

ROSS DOUTHAT: Oh, no. I think, all but what I'm saying is that-- I mean I talk about Reagan a bit in the book too.


ROSS DOUTHAT: I think there are mirroring-- I just think there's a mirroring on the left and right where on both sides you've had this sort of you know, as institutional religion weakens, but people remain religious. Right? They still have religious enthusiasm, because man is naturally a religious animal, it becomes easier and easier to invest partisan causes with religious enthusiasm.

And I agree. You see that in sort of the Republican cult of Reagan sometimes. Sort of, you know, "Morning in America, city on the hill." I'm just saying-- I think you saw it in the 2008 campaign a little bit too. But I haven't answered your question about badness.

I think the badness comes from the fact that they have the field to themselves. And it's the absence of this, this creative tension between, between some of these heretical forms of faith and stronger institutional churches, you know, I think you can draw a bright line between certain forms of prosperity, theology and the housing bubble.

I think you can draw a bright line between some of the cult of the god within and the fact that Americans seem to have harder and harder-- a harder and harder time living in community with one another. Our, you know, we marry less, we have more children out of wedlock, our community organizations are weakening. And some of that I think does have to do with a kind of narcissistic form of spirituality. So, so, yes okay. I will own up to the badness. I just want to emphasize that I'm a believer in that tension between heresy and orthodoxy.

BILL MOYERS: Let me come back to what was going through my mind as I read this book. It seems to me you're just not all that comfortable with the conservative religious sanction of politics that has turned the Republican party into a church of capitalism. Is that right?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think it’s, you know, what - part of what makes me a political conservative today, is that I think that that synthesis of Christianity and the welfare state isn't always as easy as people thought it was in the '40s and '50s. And it isn't always as easy, in part because I think people in those eras were often a little bit over-optimistic about what centralized planning could accomplish in an economy.

And also I think a little bit, a little bit naive about the extent to which original sin, right, which works itself out in the marketplace all the time, can also work itself out in, you know, corrupt bureaucracies and administrations just as easily.

And at the same time, I mean I think there has to be a distinction that Christians have to be willing to draw between saying we as a society need to be open to caring for the poor, but we as a society don't necessarily need to feel a Christian obligation to maintain, let's say, middle class entitlements as they are now indefinitely into the future. Right? There's no New Testament passage where he says, you know, "Remember the middle class and their Medicare, now and forever, world without end."

So again, I am a political conservative overall. And my broader sympathies at the moment are with sort of having some sort of limiting factor on government. That being said, I think you're absolutely right to see in my writing a discomfort with sort of an easy valorization of sort of anything that capitalists want to do.

BILL MOYERS: Jesus was hard on the money changers. Right?


BILL MOYERS: But conservative Christians today seem quite at ease in the service of wealth and power. Quite uncritical. Quite unquestioning. In fact I think if they read this book they'll be harder on you for your judgments about the heresy of worshipping mammon and those who produce it than they will be you calling them heresies. But I think all of those Christians out there who think that the free market was set up in Genesis 1:1 will have a real quarrel with you. As you do with them.

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that there are conservative Christians who think that way. I also, though I spend a lot of times with conservative Christians. And I think that what you also have from a lot of them, younger Evangelicals especially and then also Catholics and so on, is a, I think an agreement with the point I make in the book. Right? And that you just expressed. That the New Testament is very critical of great wealth and so on.

But also a fear that if they - if they spend too much time sort of rhetorically focused on those issues, that they will be essentially giving aid and comfort to a liberalism that they feel is hostile to their basic beliefs.

BILL MOYERS: I wrote down something you said elsewhere. Quote. "If you don't think the government should be responsible for cutting great fortunes down to size that should only heighten your responsibility to issue a moral critique when rich people let greed and hubris get the better of them." Where on the religious right do you find that moral critique of wealth today?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that you've, I mean, I think you sometimes find it from even conservative Catholic bishops. And I think you do find it particularly among a lot of younger Evangelicals who are still sort of identified as conservative.

BILL MOYERS: But is a faith that has made its peace with laissez faire capitalism and that theologically justifies the pursuit of wealth, in your own frame of reference is that truly Christian?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I would distinguish in a way between the two. I think that laissez faire capitalism is, for all its faults, the system you know, it's what Churchill said about democracy, right? It's the worst system except for all the others. And so in that sense, yes, I think Christians do have to make their peace with some form of capitalism.

Having made that peace, though, as in the quote you just read, I think it's important for Christians not to then proceed to make theological justifications for everything that people within the capitalist system do. So that's a distinction I would draw. I am a supporter of capitalism but as a Christian I'm not always a supporter of capitalists, if that distinction makes sense.

BILL MOYERS: Should Christian societies do everything in their power to make the largest possible provision for the poor?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that Christian societies have an obligation to do two things. They have an obligation to, one, make a provision for the poor, but they also have an obligation to make sure that that provision doesn't create dependency and sort of rob the poor of their independence and ultimately their ability to rise.

And that the state doesn't become a substitute for institutions that I think Christianity is ultimately more in favor of. So sort of the family, private initiative and so on. Jesus of Nazareth, as you said, incredibly hard on the money changers. Incredibly hard on the rich. But his exhortations are usually focused towards individuals. He doesn't have a specifically political program.

And so there's a danger if you're too political, if you say, "Well, the state is just going to be solely responsible for taking care of the poor," then there'll be no room left for sort of genuine acts of charity. So that's, that's the balancing act. I support a welfare state, but it doesn't mean I support every expansion of the welfare state.

BILL MOYERS: Who is closer to your sense of Christian conservatism, Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Now that's a very good question. And it's a hard one. On the sort of big picture question of how faith should relate to public policy I have a lot of sympathy for the passion that Santorum brings and the fact that, you know, he's-- I mean there are a lot of nominally pro-life politicians in the Republican party.

Rick Santorum actually cares about the issues, that issue. And he's spent a large part of his career in the Senate working on that issue. By the same token, Rick Santorum has also been an example, to some extent, of the kind of thing we were talking about earlier where you want your politicians, your Christian politicians to not just be partisan. I mean Santorum as a senator, he was very conservative, but he was also would reach across the aisle, particularly on issues related to poverty.

BILL MOYERS: Well, on progressive taxation--

ROSS DOUTHAT: He was a tax--

BILL MOYERS: He was to the left of Romney--

ROSS DOUTHAT: He would, he would--

BILL MOYERS: --on progressive taxation.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Right. And he was attacked by Romney for a bill allowing felons to vote and so on. So there is a sort of a secret left wing side of Rick Santorum that was created by his Christian faith. So in that sense I say Santorum not Romney.

But then if you ask me on sort of you know, who, you know, aren't just voting for someone whose sort of overall premises you admire. You're voting for someone on policy positions and on competence. And on those grounds I'm probably closer you know, closer to Romney.

BILL MOYERS: What more do Christians conservatives want from Romney? I just made a list. You know, he's already says he's pro-life and has pledged to de-fund Planned Parenthood. He pledged to appoint an attorney general who will defend the Defense of Marriage Act. And he supports a constitution defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.

He pledged to repeal the healthcare overhaul. He says that Americans are victims of unbounded government appetite. He argues that Obama wants the repress the freedom of conservative Christians. Those are right out of his statements. So what more do Christian conservative want of him?

ROSS DOUTHAT: They want, they want what Americans always want from their politicians. They want to feel like he loves them. They want to identify with him. No, I mean, this is the thing. Politics is not just about sort of reciting the right list of positions.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, it's not even that.

ROSS DOUTHAT: People want you to support.

BILL MOYERS: You're on the right track. It's not even that.

ROSS DOUTHAT: It's not even that. And Mitt Romney in their hearts, conservative Americans know, it's not just Christians. It's just conservatives across the board. They know Romney isn't really one of them. That he is, he is what, you know, what Gingrich called him. A Massachusetts moderate. Not in the sense of being, you know, really liberal but in the sense of--

BILL MOYERS: That's a real heresy.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Being a sort of technocratic, you know, businessman. And that, it's that sense of identification that has been missing for Romney. Whereas, you know, I mean conservatives want to feel what liberals felt with Barack Obama. Right? And what liberals felt for Barack Obama in 2008. Again, it wasn't just about the policy. Isn't wasn't even about the policy. It was about this almost religious that, I said before, identification. And that's where Romney falls short. But it might also be why he would be a good president. But I tend to think it actually better sometimes when politicians don't inspire that kind of affection from us.

BILL MOYERS: I would challenge you on one point. I don't think the liberals I knew felt that way about Obama. They thought his election would be the apotheosis of 300 years of racism. But I think they wished he-- I wished-- they would like to feel the way they once felt, and my father felt, about Franklin Roosevelt. Which is, I think, the same thing that Ronald Reagan made a certain generation feel.

Look, we have to close. But you quote in your book my friend Bill McKibbon, who says that America is, quote, "simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior." Right?

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well I, but I quote him to disagree with him slightly. I think that in quoting him, I think what – I think that argument does sometimes miss the good that conservative Christians do not by voting for government programs but in their homes and their charities and their overseas missions and so on.

And that if there was one thing I would say to liberals who think that all conservative Christians are sort of hypocrites and so on it's that, you know, look at the way a lot of American Evangelicals in particular live their lives. Look at someone like Michelle Bachmann, right? Who's kind of a hate figure on the American left. Michelle Bachmann really did you know, she really was a foster mother to a lot of children.

And I think that kind of impressive personal behavior is present, I mean it's present on the left and right alike, but I think it's a big - it's a big part of what it means to be Christian. And so as much as I'm critical of conservative religion, I think it does also get part of the Christian story really right.

BILL MOYERS: Can we continue and I'll put this on the web?


BILL MOYERS: The book is Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Ross Douthat, thank you very much for spending this time with us.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you so much, Bill. It was a pleasure.

BILL MOYERS: You may recall that recently we talked about how the media giants who own your local commercial television and radio stations have been striking like startled rattlesnakes at a simple FCC proposal. It would shed light on who’s bankrolling political attack ads by posting the information online.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the rule April 27th, and this past Monday, its chairman, Julius Genachowski, walked into the lion’s den, the annual get-together of the industry’s lobby, the National Association of Broadcasters. In his speech, he cited a letter from the deans of several leading journalism schools who said quote: “Broadcast news organizations depend on, and consistently call for, robust open-record regimes for the institutions they cover. It seems hypocritical for broadcasters to oppose applying the same principles to themselves." We’ll link you to his entire remarks. In fact, we now have a special area on our website -- Campaign Ad Watch -- dedicated to keeping the story of political advertising and all the big, often secret money pouring into it, front and center. You can share your opinion on the idea of super PAC ads on public television. What do you think? Let me know. I’ll be reading. That’s it for now. See you next time.

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