All Americans know when we become a senior citizen (Social Security designates age 65), one needs to perfect memory devices to get along in the world. Well, having just turned 65, the way I remember my birthdate now – 1955 – is with three such tricks: 1) my birthday is in the exact middle of the Baby Boom Era with ten years on either side, 2) it’s the date of the release of James Dean and Natalie Wood’s Rebel Without a Cause , and 3) it’s the date of William F. Buckley’s founding of the National Review.
By the way, if you think things were all buttoned up, kosher, and conformist in the 1950’s just because white men tended to cut their hair and shave their beards, you are dead wrong. The 1950’s had plenty of subversion and kink. Plenty of crazies. That “nothing ever really changes so there’s no reason to panic” is one of the themes of this post, which is comforting as America seems to have gone off its rocker. The nation has done this many times in the past with a lot more calamitous results, though we shouldn’t continue to test our luck.
Divine Providence will only take us so far.
Which brings me to Ross Douthat’s December 17, 2020 article, “The Decline of Christian Consensus,” published in the National Review’s 65th anniversary edition (a classic issue well worth reviewing), the article linked at top. Without question, America is fractured today.
I have not met Mr. Douthat but know several people who have. All indications are he is a brilliant, reasonable, and middle-of-the-road person with a big heart. I’ve enjoyed his movie reviews in the NR for years and often read his column in The New York Times. He never seems to get rattled, perhaps a challenge given where he works, and he has a broad command of many subjects. Though he allows himself to be labeled a conservative and is a proud Catholic, it would be hard to find a person who would be more broadly accepted by America across its “elite” ranks.
This post comments briefly on Douthat’s “The Decline of Christian Consensus”article, again, linked at top, and his two recent books, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012) and The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (2020).
On November 24 of last year Praxis Circle published a post entitled “What Should Christians Do? Road Trip” where we noted that the West has become so, for lack of a better word, immoral that Western Christians everywhere are wondering what to do about it. We included there the picture below of a stack of books written over the last approximately 10 years that address the issue. I promised to begin taking up the issue this year, and this post is the first effort to do so.
With this in mind, the first order of business is to try to assess where we are in America with Christianity, the West, and the world before thinking more about what to do.
Of course, we cannot do all of this in one post! But we can begin to help by pointing in a few directions, if you’re interested. A review of all of the videos presented and materials shown and linked in the post would help accomplish that. But for those of you short on time – which would be all above ground – or bottom-line oriented, the fastest way to assess America’s Christianity given the content here is to watch the Rodney Stark playlist at top and read or skim the most recent National Review article (June 14, 2021) by Lyman Stone at the American Enterprise Institute, “America Loses Religion, Somewhat: Religiosity Waxes and Wanes, and Decline is Not Irreversible,” also linked at top. In particular, please note the graph of American religiosity going back 400 years.
So, why emphasize Mr. Douthat here? Because he feels the panic most of us feel from the last decade and perhaps has the least Right/Left bias out there, probably due to living in a severely blue state (Connecticut) and operating inside The New York Times most days.
As we know, all human beings have worldviews and influence each other given contact, particularly our Brothers and Sisters with near opposite worldviews, usually perceived to be Other or even enemies.
We can do better than that.
To start, you will see Mr. Douthat’s excellent book, Bad Religion, at the bottom of the pile in the above picture. In the featured video at top, Mr. Douthat addresses the Heritage Foundation in 2019 and summarizes much of Bad Religion’s content. He answers the question posed in his lecture’s title, “Does Christianity Have a Future?” with an emphatic Yes, but he clarifies that it’s a softer yes than he delivered in his book of 2012.
Well, anyone with eyes open since 2012 would have to agree.
Bad Religion begins on the humorous premise that America was founded in the 1700’s as a nation of heretics and remains in the same place today. He explains how Mainline Protestant churched religion recently peaked in the 1950’s coming off the nation’s positive attitudes after World War II and the resulting Baby Boom, only to begin a decline yet to abate.
He develops several themes to explain why many churches began moving away from orthodoxy as early as the 1950’s (not good in the sense that many today agree orthodoxy produces stronger institutional churches): 1) the “Sexual Revolution” moving out into the open in the 1960’s, 2) the resulting breakdown of the family enabled by the vast growth of the Welfare State, 3) the politicization of religion, gradually forcing it much out of the public square, as well as the politicization of every aspect of life, 4) increasing affluence highlighting class differences and making any reliance on spiritual matters less necessary, 5) an increasing trend toward individualism (not highlighted as much as the other factors but very important), and 6) an increase in globalized and universalized thinking, which hurts all local and national institutions.
Of course, particularly in the last 20 years, orthodox Christianity has faced attack from almost every direction – militant atheists, Marxists, postmodernists, critical theorists, academics of all kinds, the media, the Far Left, and “progressive” internal factions.
According to Mr. Douthat, while America has always bred rebels and heretics, such as Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Joseph Smith, John Brown, and Mary Baker Eddy, there had been general agreement most of the time that America has solid and good foundations as a Protestant nation. Even as late as the 1950’s Jews and Christians could find broad agreement through popular figures like Fulton Sheen, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Billy Graham. But today Christianity has become so watered down via factors mentioned above and via such mega-influencers as different as Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen that its foundations have been radically and perhaps permanently shaken, he argues.
To quote in different places Mr. Douthat’s NR article linked at top, “The Decline of the Christian Consensus: How the Right Lost the Culture War”: “American faith, even after so many waves of secularization, still retains large numbers and a zealous core. But as a project of expansion and reconquest, it conspicuously failed; Conservatives can’t hope to win the culture war until large numbers of elites begin to make [the movement back to orthodoxy].” Mr. Douthat says that the old consensus of perhaps the 1950’s and earlier was “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” and is now “Catholic-Evangelical-Jew.”
While we at Praxis Circle are far less pessimistic (yes, Southern ignorance is bliss) probably because we do not live in the Northeast or West Coast or in one of the nation’s very largest cities, we would call the American cultural tent Classical Judeo-Christianity or CJC, to highlight that it’s been growing worldwide for 3-4,000 years and is currently only accelerating at this “mature” stage. Mainlines are still rapidly shrinking; more traditional, orthodox, disciplined, and evangelical churches are growing.
It’s metro-America and Europe where the issues lie, not with the rest of the world.
Only outside the West is it still impossible to lose a grip on reality.
Which brings us to Mr. Douthat’s most recent book, The Decadent Society. He discusses the book with Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution in the Zoom conversation video presented below. We have featured Mr. Robinson’s excellent show before in a post entitled Can Darwin Survive?, where, as an aside, he hosted a discussion including Dr. Stephen Meyer, whose 2021 book presented how science is increasingly proving that the universe and life on earth has a Designer (another word for God).
Peter Robinson and Ross:
In any case, The Decadent Society does what many books don’t do and that’s define and develop its key terms and themes. Mr. Douthat explains decadence early on and then describes how the Four Horsemen of Decadence developed in America under the influence of Stagnation, Sterility, Sclerosis, and Repetition. He then explains why it could last for a good while in a section entitled “Sustainable Decadence,” before turning to the three ways he sees it might end: Catastrophe, Renaissance, or Providence. The scary thing is he is probably right across the board.
However, in my opinion, this book is not as successful as Bad Religion because of two issues: (1) economic analysis that centers on the term “stagnation” and (2) over-attention to a very shiny object that’s arguably not so relevant to the topic (to many): former President Donald J. Trump. I do not believe stagnation accurately characterizes the U.S. or even Western economy over the last fifty years or even the last ten years, especially since the book was published at a time when the economy was booming like never before this century.
Isn’t it hard to become decadent in a poor, stagnated economy? This creates a problem for The Decadent Society early on.
The American middle class suffered many inequities in hindsight from outsourcing and other global free market policies primarily since the 1980’s, and DJT was elected in part to begin changing things. In many ways, America’s more Left-leaning elites since 2000 caused and benefited from any stagnation that has occurred by becoming fabulously wealthy. (And many of us non-elites would say that’s the understatement of the century, so far.)
Furthermore, on the whole, one shouldn’t try to place decadence guilt trips on blue-collar Americans or the last president who took up their cause – love him or hate him.
Now, straight up immorality? That’s a different kettle of fish we all dip our spoon into, as desired.
In 2020 DJT did increase his votes dramatically over 2016 in almost every way, and who knows what those many millions who liked his policies but not his personality will do when his policies remain and even improve, while he is gone – or after he seeks redemption with whatever contrition he can muster. (Most certainly it will not be much.)
But we can all agree that Americans at nearly every level live decadent lives compared to the Greatest Generation. Times, wealth in amount and quality, and freedom are radically different today, which does not mean better. The very idea of progress today is totally up for grabs. Having always been the driving force, Middle America needs to grab it now.
One last comment on point #2 above (the shiny object): The elite on the Left has been telling the same American blue-collar workers and the rest of us for many years that what we learned from Bill Clinton’s presidency was that a politician’s private life should have no bearing on our assessment of his or her performance. Similarly, the same elite on the Right are now telling us that what we learned from Donald Trump’s presidency is that personality or character, given the right policies and accomplishments, should have no bearing either.
So, which is it?
Well, all of us in and around middle-class Main Street in rural, suburban, or red territory, anyway, knew then and know now, many as Moms and Das, that such attempts to get Americans to disregard the Wizard behind the curtain always end in disaster.
So, it might have been better for Mr. Douthat to have left direct attacks on particular politicians aside when we’re talking about very high-level issues like decadence. Yes, all presidents are a sign of the times, but we can’t agree on the signs here. I would argue populism today is nothing like William Jennings Bryan’s version. All persons like WJB and DJT are too hard to classify in a binary way. Most Americans intend to do the right thing.
With such a DJT emphasis, Mr. Douthat lost too much of the audience he probably wanted to influence. Such might make the author feel good, but it ends up being primarily a distraction. If he’d left DJT more out of it, he would have had more room to discuss decadence. As it is, much went unsaid.
So as not to lose sight of what’s most important, please take note: Mr. Douthat’s main point is that our own decadence is harming us deeply, and that life is pointless without duty, responsibility, honor, selflessness, challenge, competition, and even pain & suffering (which those first-listed values almost always entail eventually).
To that we can only say: Amen.
Also, there are those deeply-held Jewish and Christian ideas relating to human nature and to the words sin and evil that resonate, which Mr. Douthat says he deliberately emphasized more in Bad Religion than in The Decadent Society in order to avoid lecturing his audience.
I and all his readers, no doubt, very much appreciated that.
My only comment there is that for our own good, the best pastors and friends don’t hesitate when warranted to lecture, so why should he?
(On second thought, I wish they would quiet down for now, as well.)
Before ending this post, and in defense of Mr. Douthat’s gutsy book about decadence, I would like to quote the last sentences of The Decadent Society that he himself reads for Mr. Robinson at the end of the video above. Here you go:
I’m just saying that if this were the age in which some major divine intervention happened, whether long prophesied or completely unforeseen, there would be, in hindsight, a case that we should have seen it coming. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone if decadence ends with people looking heavenward: toward God, toward the stars, or both.
So down on your knees – and start working with that warp drive.
To end on a positive note, if you only have 8:48 of video time, again, I recommend the second video at top presenting four videos of Dr. Rodney Stark, one of our favorite Praxis Circle Contributors. He’s a delightful riot and a fine scholar.
Dr. Stark is one of America’s leading sociologists who spent a career studying trends in religion at arms-length. The video clips address whether religion is losing out globally to atheism, whether people are religious by nature, and religious trends in America, Europe, and across the world. If you want more, read Dr. Stark’s book The Triumph of Faith (2015).
Things just don’t change that quickly in the game of religion. It’s much the same today as when barbarians surrounded St. Augustine in real time and when Vikings surrounded St. Patrick in future time.
For those of you who favor religion and think it’s generally good for people – the secularization thesis is dead; long live good religion.
For those of you in Europe or America who don’t like going to church, who answer as “spiritual but not religious,” or who take the Fifth as None’s, don’t sweat it at all. If you ever need to pray (and most people do at some point), Dr. Stark says Westerners, we shall call ourselves, have always been terrible about a) going to church and b) behaving if we do get there.
And for those of you who are in the business of churching and want to attract more, please listen to Mr. Douthat and Dr. Stark and read Dr. Stark’s Why God? (2017). There he explains what people want from organized religion and how to attract souls. It’s not complicated, though it’s all too rare today.
Finally, as Dr. Stark notes, follow the numbers. In the long run CJC Westerners leave others in the dust because they love life and see its meaning, and, as a result, love bringing more human beings into the world. Babies are life’s greatest gift. This is what our Creator wants his creatures to do – though on a basis (see the Bible).
And please see Mr. Douthat himself and his family: At age 41, he and his spouse Abigail have already brought four children into the world.
As said before in bits and pieces: Look around; leave your high-rise; stop talking to the big government politician or economist next door who guarantees life-for-free; who tries to scare you into awarding absolute power to Leftist elites who will save us from the weather; move to a less decadent area; get married and do your best to stay that way and have children; support yourself and create surplus for others, starting with your family; attend or start some churches that are growing and thriving – there are many; the demand is high for them; remember the other side is well-intended though wrong about Truth; join and give to charitable organizations.
Finally, read the Newsweek article linked at top. The article estimates that those in America who shout the loudest, get the most angry, and try to dominate (the Far Left) represent only 8% of the population. That means the rest of us, being their hated Other, stack up to somewhere around 92%.
Hello? This shouldn’t be a close contest.
Yes, America, there are green shoots everywhere.