Listening In: Ross Douthat

WARREN SMITH: Ross, welcome to the program. You know, you wrote a book gosh, it’s been 12 years ago now. 

ROSS DOUTHAT, GUEST: Surely not. I think only seven. 

SMITH: Okay. A mere seven years. 

DOUTHAT: A mere seven.

SMITH: A mere seven years. Bad Religion. It made a big splash when it landed and it’s made a big splash with me and the folks at the Colson Center since then. And I want to talk about that book a bit today even though it is seven years old and I should’ve talked to you about it when it came out. 

DOUTHAT: It’s more relevant now than ever. 

SMITH: Well, I’m gonna make that observation—

DOUTHAT: I’ll disagree with it a little bit. 

SMITH: But I want to start with why we’re here. You and I are both here at Trinity International University in Chicago area, Deerfield. And Touchstone is having this conference on fight or flight, which is kind of a debate in some ways about the Benedict Option and, you know, other options for Christians in the way we engage with culture. What are you going to tell the group? 

DOUTHAT: I’m going to try and be optimistic, maybe. Just a tiny bit. I mean, I think the framing of fight and flight—both those options—sound a little bit grim. You’re either headed for the hills or you’re strapping on your crusader sword. And I’m going to first try and give a sketch that’s probably similar to the sketch that’s in the brilliant book that you were just kind enough to mention of how we got here, how you know institutional Christianity in the U.S. has gotten weaker and sort of what the religious landscape in America looks like today as opposed to the way it looked 50 or 60 years ago in an era of greater Christians’ strength or greater institutional strength at least. So, that’ll be probably a chunk of the talk. But then I’m going to try and basically talk about what I think are opportunities for Christians and Christian churches in a culture where, you know, the hold of Christianity is weakened. And so that means sort of talking about some of the weaknesses and tensions within and contradictions within the less Christian parts of the culture. Whether it be sort of the elite level, more secular and skeptical institutions or the sort of I guess you could call it pantheistic quasi-Christianity where a lot of Americans sort of get their religion. So I’m going to talk about the limits, I guess, some of the limits of Christianity’s rivals and where Christians should sort of, you know, find a certain optimism about the prospects for renewal. 

SMITH: Well, yeah, I mean a level of confidence in the Christian worldview in part because the questions that the Christian worldview can answer other worldviews just simply can’t. And so it seems to me that that would be one cause for optimism, right there. In other words, as bad as shape as Christianity is in America, atheism and secularism is—in some ways—is even in worse shape, right?

DOUTHAT: Yeah. I mean, I think if you are a Christian, you sort of are obliged to believe that Christianity has some important answers that other worldviews don’t. 

SMITH: But sometimes even as a Christian, you find yourself shaking your head at your own team, so to speak? 

DOUTHAT: Well, I mean, I think one, obviously Christians are fallible and you know, err to the same kind of propensity for sin and just the propensity for sort of strategic mistakes that anyone else is. And, you know, the gates of hell may not prevail against the church, but it doesn’t say anything about the church in New Jersey, right? You know, the Presbyterian church in your local neighborhood doesn’t have a guarantee that it will endure if it’s pastors make mistakes or are corrupt or make bad arguments. And I think, look, there are a bunch of, you know, there’s a whole range of sort of sociological and intellectual challenges to Christianity that are persistent and real and don’t always have easy answers. Ranging everything from the sexual revolution to controversies over evolution and Darwinism and so on. You know, the whole long list of challenges is real. But with that being said, I also think it’s true that, yeah, the rival worldviews come with deep problems of their own, right? I think that there is a basic, you know, as much as Christianity sort of, you know, has endless debates about particular points within its worldview, I think there’s a fundamental coherence to the Christian worldview that’s often absent from the sort of mix of idealism and materialism, I guess you could say, that characterizes a lot of secular world pictures. And then when it comes to the world of sort of, you know, post-Christian spirituality, you know, there, I think it’s less about incoherence per se and more about, well on the one hand there’s a sort of sociological weakness of highly individualistic religion, right? Which is that it doesn’t form communities. It doesn’t form churches. It doesn’t form the kind of ways of life in which people usually find flourishing and happiness when they’re embedded. So that’s the sociological weakness. But then they’re also just sort of dangers. You know, I used to work for The Atlantic magazine and just about a year ago, The Atlantic did a big piece where it said, you know, it’s really interesting that even as a Christian identification in the U.S. has diminished and there’s all this talk about the quote unquote nones, people with no religious affiliation. That’s the big story of our times. But oh hey, the demand for Catholic exorcists way up over the last 15 years. And you know, if you take Christianity seriously, then that would make sense, right? You would sort of assume that a post-Christian spirituality would get people not just into sort of a lack of community place, but some dark— 

SMITH: Dark spiritual places.

DOUTHAT: Yeah. There are sort of dark spiritualities Christianity has always sort of critiqued and opposed and also sometimes tried to exercise. It’s weird to talk about the rise of exorcism as an opportunity for Christianity. Maybe that’s not the right way to frame it, but I think it is a signifier of the ways in which, again, if you know, if Christianity is true or to be as blunt as possible about it. If the name of Jesus Christ casts out demons, then Christians shouldn’t fear a demon haunted world.

SMITH: So to speak. 

DOUTHAT: So to speak. 

SMITH: Yeah, that’s right. Back to an idea that you introduced earlier, Ross, you said you were going to bring hope. What are some of the specific suggestions? 

DOUTHAT: A modest amount, a modest amount. 

SMITH: A modest amount. A modicum of hope. What are some of the specific suggestions that you’re going to make to the group here? 

DOUTHAT: Well, I mean, I think you can, you know, we were talking about about the—you brought up the Benedict Option, right? As one of the ideas that sort of floating around this conference. And you know, I think Rod Dreher, who’s a longtime friend, can sometimes be too pessimistic about the state of things. But I think you don’t have to agree with his pessimism to see the basic insight of the Benedict Option as an important one. You want to build up communities that are capable of transmitting the faith in a cultural context where people no longer take the faith for granted, right? I think that as a baseline for how to rebuild a Christian presence in the culture. It’s an obvious place to start. But then sort of the sort of this step, you can think of it as part of the Benedict Option or a step beyond the Benedict Option, but the next key is figuring out, alright, how do you make those communities sort of maximally visible and attractive to people in a society that is more atomized, more hyper-individualized, where people are falling into depression and suicide in larger and larger numbers. How do you have your arc be something that people want to row their lifeboats towards? And also how do you do it across lines of class? I mean, one of the big stories in American religion over the last couple of generations is that the stereotype of sort of the secular elite and the pious working class no longer really exists. That sort of the practice of Christianity right now in America is strongest among the middle- to upper-middle class. It’s obviously very weak among the upper, upper elite. But then it’s also weakened dramatically in working class life and figuring out how you, you know, sort of look at, you know, the parts of the heartland overrun with opioid epidemics or, you know, landscapes like that as mission territory I think is a really important thing for churches to think about. That isn’t part of, you know, some of the usual culture war debates and so on. It’s how do you plant a church in sort of communities that have been left behind by globalization? What does that look like, right? Like those are questions. So, those are a couple areas.

SMITH: Yeah. And that was sort of the thesis, in part, one of the ideas and JD Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, right? I mean he had personally religious upbringing, he was raised by religious people. But in some ways they got disconnected from that religion. And one of the interesting ironies of that book, I don’t know if it’s an irony, but it’s one of these funny aspects of that book is that, you know, JD Vance escapes from all of that and he goes off and gets an elite education and becomes a lawyer and writes this bestselling book and he returns to the Christian faith kind of in the midst of all of that. And the culture that he comes out of, it’s not a culture now of, you know, Richard Dawkins reading, you know, atheists scoffers. It’s a culture filled with people who still identify with some kind of Christian culture and still will show up in church occasionally. But the communal aspect of Christianity, and then I think inevitably with it, some of the sort of more serious moral and doctrinal aspects of Christianity has really fallen apart. And I don’t think any American church, you know, has a clear handle on the scope of this challenge or what to do about it. 

SMITH: Yeah. Well, it’s funny you mentioned, you know, sort of this—Flannery O’Connor might call it a Christ haunted, she called the South a Christ haunted land and some ways that’s kind of what the way you’re describing America is that it’s kind of Christ haunted in way. Which reminds me of something we’ve been talking about around the Colson Center related to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign is that here’s a guy, you know, pro-abortion, pro-gay, I mean progressive in every way. And yet he’s wrapping a lot of his views in Christian language. I think in part because the idea of Christianity, at least the idea of Christianity, if not the actual practice of it, still has cultural currency in some ways. 

DOUTHAT: Yeah. And I mean, I think, you know, my assumption is that Buttigieg judge, I think he was raised Catholic and has ended up at Episcopalean. And I imagine it in part because of issues related to his own homosexuality, right? But I don’t see—

SMITH: Well, and the old joke about the Episcopal church is that it will interfere neither with a man’s religion nor his politics. 

DOUTHAT: Right, right. But I mean his, no, I mean he represents I think in certain way an admirable attempt to reground the egalitarian part of liberal politics and Christianity, which is ultimately, I mean, I think the challenge for secular liberalism, right, is that it has this intense commitment to sort of egalitarian ideas and ideas of sort of human rights and so on. It’s intensely moralistic, but it doesn’t have a clear theory of where you ground that. And then at the same time, you know, the Democratic party, the strange thing about the party is it’s become much more secular, but it’s most reliable voters are still African Americans and Hispanics who are much more religious in many cases than the American average. And this is something I think religious conservatives who vote Republican sometimes miss, right? That there still is this intensely Christian part of the Democratic coalition, even if it isn’t the part that sort of manifests in the Democratic elite. But it’s just an interesting, yeah. It’s, you know, the Democratic party is as Christ haunted as any other part of American life in that way. 

SMITH: Yeah. Except in some ways for social conservatives, the Christ haunted aspect is sorta Casper the friendly ghost and for the Democrats it’s—

DOUTHAT: For some Democrats it is, yeah. There’s sort of this, for some liberals, there is this idea, yeah, that Christianity is something to be escaped and that the Christianity of some Democrats is something that’s, you know, fine as long as it’s, you know, about sort of a religious gloss on civil rights, but it’s, you know, toxic and dangerous of it extends beyond that. 

SMITH: Ross, you said something in the first segment that I want to talk a little more about, and it also relates pretty directly to the ideas in your book Bad Religion. You mentioned Richard Dawkins by name—he who must not be named you named in the first segment. 

DOUTHAT: Is that, is Dawkins he who must not be named? 

SMITH: No, I’m sort of joking with you. But, you know, you mentioned that American culture is still very much concerned about religion. And interestingly enough, the elite in American culture, they tend to not be religious. And because of other factors, there is an aspect of the American culture that have been left behind and religion in some ways they’ve left the religion behind as well. And you say it’s that middle class, but you also say in your book that that middle class of religionist, shall we say, they don’t read Richard Dawkins and they don’t read encyclicals from the Vatican either. Yes,they’re Christian-ish in their theology. You talk a good deal in the book, for example, about Joel Osteen and others. And I mean, it is a distinctly Americanized and homogenized and synchronized sort of Christianity. Is that fair? 

DOUTHAT: Yeah, I think one way to think about it is that if you went back 60 years or so and you said well, which figures represent sort of the sort of popular religious center in American life. You know, you might’ve picked a Catholic and a Protestant—Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham, right? You know, Graham is sort of the classic evangelist, you know, and Sheen is the classic pre-Vatican to Bishop in his full regalia who is hosting a prime time show that is, you know, he’s offering a kind of Christianity infused sort of everyday morality and wisdom.

SMITH: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. I’ve watched some of those old Fulton Sheen videos and it is remarkable because you’re right, I mean, he’s in his full regalia, his full clerical regalia, and he’s not pandering to his audience either. He’s, he’s giving some pretty rich doctrine and theology in a lot of his talks and he was one of the most popular figures on television. 

DOUTHAT: He was Dr. Phil. I mean, you know, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but,  and then Graham, too. I mean Graham is not a heavy duty theologian, but Graham is offering a gospel that is on the one hand incredibly sort of open and certainly is ecumenical, you know, calling all men and women to Jesus, but at the same time it’s shot through with themes of you know, sin, hell, the risk of damnation and so on. And then if you flash forward to our era, and this is sort of the change that I wrote about in the book, the center is, you know, it sort of runs from Oprah Winfrey on the left to Joel Osteen on the right. You could say. I mean O’Steen is more of a red state figure. Oprah is more of a blue state figure. They’re both religious in certain ways. Oprah would probably call herself a Christian. Osteen certainly would. But their theology has thinned out dramatically relative to Graham and Sheen. They’re much more concerned on the one hand with a sort of therapeutic form of religion where Christianity is supposed to make you feel good in the here and now in this world and the material side of things. You know, Osteen there a sort of tinge of prosperity preaching to Osteen. There’s a tinge of prosperity preaching, especially in her early days when she was, you know, you get a car and you get a car and you get a car, right? That’s diminished as, you know, Oprah’s become a little less of that with time. But they both, I think that’s sort of where the American spiritual center sits and they’re both Christian-ish. They’re both, I mean, I think it’s reasonable to describe them both as Christian heretics, not as a sort of pejorative, but as a, you know, this is what they are. They’re connected to the Christian theological tradition, but they’ve strayed further from its central streams and sort of wiped away some of it’s, you know, it’s paradoxes. It’s, you know, I mean, Christianity is all about  holding complicated ideas in tension, right? And there’s a blithe simplicity to the spirituality of an Osteen where it’s just, no, God wants you to be happy. And that’s really all there is to it. And if you’re not happy, you’re probably just not praying hard enough, which is not, I think, yeah, it’s not the real Christian tradition, even though it owes something to it. 

SMITH: Yeah, you say early in Bad Religion that religion has been a durable idea in American politics from very beginning. I mean really from the settling of the North American continent really. So not just 200 to 250, but really 400 years. Today we have a secular left that says religion is bad and a theocratic right that says, you know, we were some form of a Christian nation or we need to be fighting for, you know, restoring a Christian nation. And then you say though, that the problem isn’t that America has too much or too little religion, but the problem is that we have a bad religion. The slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo Christianity is in its place. That’s sort of a summary of what you just said, right? 

DOUTHAT: Yeah. That’s the stronger way of putting it. I was being more, you know, politic and moderate, but in the book itself, I think that’s probably in the introduction, in the introduction you’re trying to sort of set it out in the starkest possible terms. But no, I think that is the core argument, right? It’s ultimately, you know, Graham and Sheen are closer to the truth about human existence than Oprah and Osteen and therefore a society that has figures who come out of those deeper Christian traditions at the center will be in better shape than a society that has this sort of Christian-ish therapeutic spirituality.

And the book, you know, I wrote the book seven years ago and I think portions of it I think have played out on both the left and the right in the time since. I mean, I think a lot of shifts in American culture just over the last seven or eight years, the continued decline of marriage, the decline of the birth rate, the rise of sort of deaths of despair and suicide and teen depression and so on. All of those, I think, you know, they represent a lot of different things, but one of them I think is the insufficiency of the kind of religion that predominates in the U.S. And again it’s not—well, so I guess I would say this, you know, every author changes his mind a little bit in seven years. And I think the one thing that is true now that maybe wasn’t as true when I was writing is that it’s easier to see a sort of fully post-Christian landscape at the edges of our national life, right? So I do still think it’s true that basically we’re a Christ haunted country and basically liberal politics and conservative politics are both informed by Christian ideas. But if you go out to, you know, the alt-right and portions of the social justice left, I think you get far away enough from Christianity that you begin where instead of heresy just saying it’s post-Christian makes a little more sense. And you know, you see this in sort of, you know, the sort of nationalism and white identity politics of some conservatives and you see it among some secular progressives, too, that at a certain point the link to historic Christianity just thins out to a point where it doesn’t make sense to emphasize it anymore. 

SMITH: Well, we’ve been talking about the book Bad Religion and as you said, you wrote the book in 2012. That was long enough to see George W. Bush and sort of his version of Christianity. It was kind of the compassionate conservatism kind of Christianity give way to Barack Obama who became sort of—he was viewed by many as kind of a Messiah figure. So there was a veneer of religiosity that was, or a mantle of religiosity that was placed on him by the people who loved him. And then 2010 comes along and the Tea Party movement sort of rises up this populous rebellion. Now fast forward to 2016 which was after your book, locate what happened in 2016 in that timeline that you were able to outline, you know, you were able to lay out pretty reliably up until 2012 but what’s happened since? 

DOUTHAT: Yeah, I mean, so part—

SMITH: As it relates to religion specifically.

DOUTHAT: Part of what happens on the right is a lot of people said when Donald Trump was on his, you know, marching through the Republican primaries, how can a party dominated by religious conservatives possibly vote for this, you know, hedonistic Playboy from New York who had never evinced much religious interest in his life. And one answer is that religious conservatives are—sort of the obvious answer is that religious conservatives felt much more besieged by 2016 than they had even when I was writing the book. That they felt like a sort of aggressively anti-Christian or at least anti-conservative Christian liberalism was on the march and they needed, you know, a protector basically. And it didn’t matter if their protector was a little pagan that that was okay because he fought. He was tough. 

SMITH: He brings a knife to a gun. 

DOUTHAT: He brings a knife to a gun fight. That’s right. Chicago. 

SMITH: Or a gun to a knife fight. Yeah. 

DOUTHAT: This is Chicago. But then I think another part of the story is that Trump was actually really good at tapping into a couple of what I would call the sort of more right wing heresies that I talk about in my book. On the one hand, sort of, you know, a kind of Christian nationalism that does say, you know, well America is a Christian nation and God is choosing Trump. You know, the people who write the Trump prophecies and books like that. And then also prosperity theology. Because one thing that’s interesting about Trump is that while I don’t think he ever particularly went to church in his adult life, he did have a boyhood connection to Norman Vincent Peale’s church in New York, the sort of power of positive thinking. And you can see Trump in certain ways as, you know, Norman Vincent Peale without the God and with, you know, a little more sort of ruthless capitalism and that’s, you know, if you look at the core religious figures who are around Trump, you know, Paula White, these kind of people, they tend to come out of that world. So in that sense, it wasn’t just that Trump was playing on conservative Christian fears. He was also, you know, he sort of leaned into these real nationalist and prosperity theology tendencies on the American right. And that that helped him win. And it’s helped him sort of maintain a strong religious base of support despite, you know, being who he is.

SMITH: Yeah. You know, Ross, I’m going to test out a theory on you that I actually got from your book and I’m just wondering, you know, what you think about this, how badly I’ve done violence to your book with my theory. Cause you know a lot of a lot of Christian conservatives compare Trump to King Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar or even David, you know that these are, you know, men that God used even though they had feet of clay, shall we say? You introduce a figure in your book, you don’t spend a lot of time talking about but you him a little bit in that is John Brown. And I’m just going to read one particular sentence. And this is in a section in which you talk about, you know, America’s flirtations with Christianity. It has been a flirtation with all stripes of Christianity over the years. And then you say this, “Think of self-appointed prophets like John Brown—violent and half mad, but also visionary in his absolutest condemnation of chattel slavery.” And when I read that again as I was preparing for this interview, I was like, that’s kinda Donald Trump in a way, right? I mean, he’s half mad to a lot of people, but he is absolutist on a few issues that Christian conservatives care about and they’re willing to overlook the madness, the sort of the soul madness of the man is that a fair comparison at all?

DOUTHAT: It’s a bold comparison. I guess my doubt about that is that I think the Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar comparisons are more plausible because I think the reality with Brown was that he believed it absolutely, right? He believed, you know, that slavery was an abomination, that God wanted wiped out. And he was, yeah, he was—

SMITH: You don’t think Trump really believes—he’s just a populist? 

DOUTHAT: No, I think Trump believes, does believe some things. I think his views on trade, for instance, I think he’s held for his entire adult life. The view that America is getting screwed over, pardon my language, by people around the world that Trump believes, absolutely. I think on the issues that matter most to religious conservatives, abortion above all his views are just transactional. It’s this is what I needed to do. This is, you know, you could hear it in his language. He says the evangelicals, they love me. You know, like he—it’s a deal. He made a deal and that, you know, I think there is a political case for making those kinds of deals. I don’t think it’s crazy to say that sometimes you have to support, you know, a flawed or un-Christian guy to get certain things done. But I don’t think your support, I don’t think in Trump, I don’t think you’re supporting someone who is sort deeply, passionately sincere on the life issue. I think you’re supporting someone who has made a calculated move on that issue in order to retain conservative support.

SMITH: Well, how long will Trump maintain conservative support, especially, you know, religious conservative support if he doesn’t honor his agreements? He’s honored his agreement in some ways on the judiciary. He’s in part he was able to do that because Mitch McConnell and others who social conservatives often hate, was able to stand against Barack Obama in the last couple of years of the Obama era. I mean, there were more vacancies whenever Trump took office than at any time in recent history. But, you know, Planned Parenthood is going to get more federal—despite a couple of, you know, Title X cuts, the reality is that Planned Parenthood is going to get more money from the federal government this year than any year in history. He did not build a wall and make the Mexicans pay for it. He did not repeal Obamacare. At what point does he not get a pass on not fulfilling these campaign promises? Is that too hard to predict?

DOUTHAT: I mean, I think the centrality of judges and the Supreme Court to so many of our debates means that his delivery on that issue has made a lot of religious conservatives feel like, yeah, the—

SMITH: That’s the vital few. 

DOUTHAT: Now I mean with this caveat, I mean, I don’t have incredible confidence that Brett Kavanaugh wants to overturn Roe V Wade. We have a couple abortion cases before the court this term. I think it will be very interesting to see how Kavanaugh rules. You could imagine, I think, a world in which, you know, if Kavanaugh is ends up seen as, you know, somewhere between Anthony Kennedy and have some conservatives viewed John Roberts, then maybe that chips away a bit. And I think, you know, as we’re recording this interview, I think a sort of unexpected danger for Trump is his decision to effectively remove U.S. protection for Kurdish militias, which a lot of evangelical Christians had been very focused on. They’re sort of skeptical foreign interventions writ large, but they’re very focused on Middle Eastern Christians. They’re very pro-Kurd and that has attracted more rebukes for Trump from Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, than pretty much anything he’s done, including I think some of his more cruel policies on the border. So that, I mean, to me that was a frankly crazy thing for Trump to do facing impeachment. But even with that said, my sense is that, you know, people sort of, there were a lot of religious conservatives who opposed Trump in the primary campaign and some of whom who were even really skeptical and maybe didn’t vote for him in the general election, who because we live in such a partisan environment, have decided, you know, that you join the side you’re on, right? He’s our guy. The Democrats want to take him down. We can’t let them win. That’s such an important part of politics on both sides. You saw it with the Democrats under Clinton. Democrats would have been way better off letting Al Gore become president in 1998 but they were like, we can’t let Ken Starr win. We can’t let the evangelicals win. And I think that’s where a lot of Trump’s supporters are now. So, if he survives impeachment and his up against Elizabeth Warren, I think it would take something bigger than just more funding for Planned Parenthood to keep religious conservatives from turning out for him. That’s how polarization works. 

SMITH: Ross, I want to pivot maybe a good bit in our conversation and talk to you about it a whole other aspect of your life. You talk in your book about culture a good bit. Literature, movies. I know you used to be the movie critic of the National Review. 

DOUTHAT: I still am. 

SMITH: You still are the movie critic. Sorry about that. I missed that. And I’m a bit of a cinephile myself and so I always appreciate, you know, anytime that somebody refers to the cultural landscape whenever they’re talking about the political landscape, because I think it is so important. I mentioned that because of this paragraph in your book you say, “Culturally,” — and you were talking specifically about Catholic artists, but generally Christian artists in the mid 20th century, there was a strong resurgence there. You know, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Elliott, you know, T.S. Elliot and many others. I mean, you know, you look at the great writers of the mid, early, mid 20th century, let’s say the mid 20th century, because in the early part it was more sort of the lost generation writers. They were often Christian writers, often Catholic writers, and you say this, “Culturally, the Catholic difference has all but disappeared. There were still plenty of novelists and filmmakers and poets in the Roman Catholic fold. But it was harder and harder to discern the kind of particularly Catholic artistic sensibility that once bound Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Burton, Walker Percy, Walter Miller, and even Frank Capra and John Ford.” And then you say this, “The sensibilities endured in cinema into the 1970s, including filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paul Schrader. But their tormented blend of Catholic guilt and counter-cultural transgression inspired no significant heirs.” And it was pretty tormented. I mean, their worldview was, they were very much questioning the Christian worldview and the Catholic worldview. Has that changed? 

DOUTHAT: And Shrader, I should say, was actually a Calvinist. That’s Catholic imperialism. They’re lumping— Or he was raised, I think he was raised Dutch Reformed. I could be misremembering. 

SMITH: Well, and of course his latest movie was First Reformed.

DOUTHAT: First Reformed, right. Which is f I think of a really, I think the ending fails a little bit, but I think that’d be really interesting portrait of sort of—

SMITH: Yeah, which causes me to ask, I mean, has that changed? Has that aspect of it changed since you wrote this? I mean, are you seeing any signs of hope in sort of the cultural or anyone—We’ve got a lot of really bad Christian art out there these days—bad Christian movies and so on. But we also do have out there, you know, still working. We have a Paul Schrader who will put out a First Reformed, which was in some ways a more serious you know assessment or look at religion than I’ve seen in a long time. And even, you know, someone like a Mel Gibson who is coming out with the new movie, The Resurrection of the Christ to go with The Passion of the Christ. 

DOUTHAT: I’m not sure. I’m not sure the world is ready for it. But, no, I’m a huge—I think Gibson is, speaking of tormented geniuses in John Brown and so on—I think in certain ways, I once wrote a piece when Scorcese’s Silence came out, his movie about Jesuits martyred in Japan. And I said you can take Gibson and Scorcese as sort of the two big post-Vatican to Catholic filmmakers with Scorsese was the sort of anguished liberal and Gibson as the traditionalist. And Scorcese, I mean, Silence is—it’s a movie that inspired endless arguments among Catholics over its theology and it’s portrait of martyrdom and it’s, you know, sort of the main character’s ultimate decisions. But it was a fascinating film and I think there’s been a lot of, you know, here and there sort of rich and interesting movies. First Reformed as a good example. So is, you know, there’s a Polish director who’s made a movie called Ida about a nun. 

SMITH: Yeah, I’ve seen that movie. I’m a huge fan of that movie. 

DOUTHAT: There’ve been a number, you know, there was Of Gods and Men, a movie about the monks martyred in Algeria. There’ve been a few pretty good movies from a non, you know, purely skeptical perspective about the Catholic sex abuse crisis.

SMITH: Well, I know you’re a movie guy, but, you know, on TV, you know, the TV show The Americans religion played a strong role. A TV series like Rectified. I don’t know if you’ve seen that. But you know, Flannery O’Connor books are laying on coffee tables in that one. 

DOUTHAT: No, and I think one question is, you know, is what I’m describing the collapse of that sort of, you know, Christian or, in that case, Catholic upper middle brow culture. Is that just a problem of, you know, what happened to Christianity after the 60s or are we just talking about this broad trend in American culture where if Flannery O’Connor were around today, she would be much more of a niche writer, right? Like, I mean, part of what made the period around World War II and after distinctive is you had this kind of consolidated high middlebrow common culture where you had a few networks, you know, sort of a bunch of big city newspapers and national news magazines and you could have this kind of, you could have a world where time would put C.S. Lewis or Reinhold Niebuhr on the cover of their magazine and it’s sort of these public theologians could become big deals.

And that world I think is gone in part because of Christian weakness and disintegration, but also just because of social and technological change. And that is definitely something that Christians have to wrestle with. The extent to which, you know, the world that now, you know, not just cable television but the internet has created the world of sort of endless, personalized entertainment experiences is a world where it’s hard to have the Christian artist as sort of a signal. Like someone like Terrence Malick, right? Whose movies have become more and more difficult as you know, and less narratively, more narratively abstract. But there are a bunch of Malik movies that would have been big movies if they’d come out, even in like 1975, which was when he started like his movies, like, you know, The New World and Tree of Life. And he has a new movie coming out about a Christian martyr and under Nazi Germany.

And we just don’t live in a world where a director who’s that sort of artsy is going to command a huge audience anymore. And that’s not his fault. That’s just a cultural shift. 

SMITH: Well, it is a culture shift and it’s not his fault, but it does bring me to sort of the final point I wanted to land on if I could with you, Ross. As you say this, Joseph Ratzinger shortly before becoming Pope Benedict the 16th said this, “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints that the church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” So it is different. It is harder. And yet we’ve got to do something. We can’t just say, well, it’s different and we can’t be there. 

DOUTHAT: And yeah. Now I’ll end it by criticizing the churches again. Which is that yes, there is still lots of interesting individual Christian artists in American life. But, you know, one huge thing that happened everywhere but in the churches especially from the sixties and seventies onward, is that this sort of ugly, utilitarian, un-Christian aesthetic came to dominate church architecture all over the country. And things are better now. We aren’t building churches as ugly as we built in 1970 but there hasn’t been a recovery of sort of, you know, the church as a communal project in beauty, I think, that, you know, maybe it was sort of a stronger Catholic than Protestant tradition, but it was powerful for both. And I think that’s something where, you know, institutions, churches that look like gymnasiums are I think a failed opportunity for Christian witness. And that’s something that you don’t have to find a Michelangelo to do something about.

SMITH: Well, Ross, I could talk about that idea all day long, but I know you’ve got other places to be, so thanks for your time. Really appreciate it. It’s wonderful to talk to you.

DOUTHAT: Absolutely. My pleasure.

(Photo/America Magazine)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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