Friday, April 20, 2012

The Modernity of American Christianity

This conversation between Ross Douthat, reasonable and orthodox Catholic, and William Saletan, reasonable and agnostic liberal, is well worth your time. In setting up the exchange, Douthat tries to clarify what he's defending and, more to the point, what he's not:
If orthodoxy is ancient, it’s useful to think of fundamentalism as a characteristically modern school of thought: It has the weird mix of closed-mindedness, pseudo-analytic rigor (once you’re inside the system, at least), and certain faith that History is about to vindicate its ideas that we associate with certain strains of Marxism.
Historically speaking, the modernness of religious fundamentalism is glaringly obvious, but there's this lagging sense in the culture at large (and in slow-to-alter textbooks) that religious fundamentalism represents some sort of archaic, reactionary hold on the past. For example, American history textbooks still tend to represent the "Roaring 20s" as a battle between modern, progressive elements (flappers, jazz, women's suffrage) and conservative, reactionary impulses (the Red Scare, the Scopes Trial, Prohibition).

It's not hard to expose this dichotomy as patently absurd. William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor in the Scopes Trial, was the American populist, a champion of "the people" against the moneyed interests of Republicans and in some ways a progressive hero. Even more telling, women's suffrage and Prohibition were overlapping, complementary movements. Not only were the causes aligned--to a significant degree (though not, of course, universally speaking), the supporters were the exact same people. To support the progressive/reactionary antithesis, then, you have to suppose a kind of schizophrenia among suffragettes and Prohibitionists: they were progressives when talking about women's rights, reactionaries when talking about alcohol. It doesn't work.

Throughout the conversation, Douthat pleads with American Christians to dissolve the artificial, unnatural, and destructive bond they've forged between Christianity and the fundamentalism of modern American Protestantism. This may sound like some kind of creeping liberal compromise, but it's not. The point is less a defensive posture against Saletan and other liberals critical of Christian "backwardness" than it is an aggressive indictment of Christian conservatism. If the cause of Christ is synonymous with that of modern Christian fundamentalism (or, for that matter, political neo-conservatism), then it will surely fade into oblivion alongside the evaporating modern age.