Ross Douthat is the youngest op-ed columnist for The New York Times in the paper’s history and also a practicing Catholic who writes on the intersection of politics, culture and faith.
A self-described "political conservative," he is the author, most recently, of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012; see book pick on page 11).
During the Republican convention, he provided commentary for CNN, the Times and his blog at GoodReads.com. He spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond from the convention in Tampa.
In your new book, you argue that "New Age" movements, among other cultural currents, helped to weaken the role of doctrine in contemporary religious experience in America. If that’s true, how do you explain the nomination of two religiously conservative men — a Mormon and a Catholic — to top the GOP ticket this November?
Romney in particular is a vindication of my premise. Mormonism is the defining American heresy. I think of it as a heresy of Christianity — partly to avoid the debate that evangelicals have about whether Mormons are Christian or not. Instead, you can say: Yes, they are Christian, but it’s a heretical form of Christianity that dissents from the scripturally based consensus of the early Church.
Romney and Obama are two candidates that come from religious traditions outside the mainstream of American Christianity of the past.
Black liberation theology, in Obama’s case, is associated with his church in Chicago and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But since breaking with Wright’s church, he has become a nondenominational Christian.
I wouldn’t want to say that Obama’s [religious faith] was heretical. But, at the least, he is a Christian who doesn’t have a church, and that’s emblematic of this moment when denominations are weaker than before and Americans are more likely to identify themselves with their individual beliefs, not through their affiliation with a church.
Republican activists have predicted that the Obama campaign would "play the Mormon card."
We’re talking just a couple of days before Romney’s convention speech. One question is: How much will Mormonism feature in his speech?
What I have seen is that they have made the choice to highlight his faith more than they had to date. That is a signal that the campaign doesn’t see his Mormon faith as a big weakness. When it comes to humanizing Romney, you can’t do that without talking about his role as a Mormon bishop and all his charitable works.
Polls suggest that evangelicals, rather than Catholics, are more concerned with Romney’s Mormonism. Maybe the Democrats aren’t playing the Mormon card because Catholic "swing" voters aren’t concerned about it.
There is more suspicion of Mormonism among evangelicals than Catholics. Recently, there has been more cooperation between Mormons and Catholics on issues like Proposition 8.
While the Catholic Church in this country has focused more on serving immigrant communities, evangelicals and Mormons have similar domestic mission goals and are more focused on winning converts, and there you have direct competition with groups.
In general, the Mormon leadership has been wary of getting involved in politics, compared to Catholics and evangelicals, because of a history of persecution.
Though Mormons are officially against abortion, there has been no controversy against pro-choice Mormon politicians — like Romney once was. They are wary of being perceived of telling Mormon politicians how to vote.
Catholics also don’t like to be told how to vote. Commentators are debating whether the HHS mandate controversy will lead Catholic "swing" voters to shift to the GOP ticket.
The "Catholic" vote in the U.S. at this point is the American vote. Catholics are thought of as a "swing" constituency, but that’s because they reproduce the outlines of the population as a whole. Faced with this controversy, you will have both those who won’t respond well to the bishops criticizing the president and those who are comfortable with it.
The "swing" constituency is often Catholics who attend Mass a couple of times a month. They are not rigorously practicing Catholics. To the extent that the HHS debate has political impact, you would see a modest shift by engaged Catholics against the White House. It’s hard to distinguish their response on this single issue from other broad trends.
Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal has generated controversy about his integrity as a Catholic, with bishops and laypeople either criticizing or defending his application of Catholic social principles.
Ryan manifests the growing comfort of Catholic Republicans [with challenging the traditional application of Catholic social principles]. They shifted to the GOP, initially, over abortion. But, over time, they have also embraced an alternative view of Catholic social teaching. They took the basic structure of Catholic thought, but placed emphasis on subsidiarity and local communities rather than solidarity or looking [to policies directed by] a national bureaucracy.
When Ryan talks about his budget plan in Catholic terms, he is using the language of Catholic neo-conservatives like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus from a previous generation.
Ryan is also a shrewd and effective politician.
He has done an impressive job of framing his political philosophy in Catholic terms. He is absolutely right to argue that in the debate over whether the federal government should consume 18% or 24% of GDP, there is nothing in Catholic social teaching that says the government must inevitably expand and pay no attention to deficits. It is a mistake for his critics to say he is dissenting from Catholic social teaching.
That said, when you look at his proposals, there isn’t always a "Catholic" difference: When you compare his proposals with those offered by a more conventional Republican politician, they tend to be in the same ballpark.
People have overstated the Ayn Rand connection, but there is a Randian wing of the Republican Party, oriented around liberty, while another wing is oriented around community and solidarity. Ryan straddles both, but it would be nice if he offered a more distinctively Catholic position.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is playing a prominent role in this campaign season. Over the past year, he led the bishops’ campaign against the federal contraception mandate, asserting that the Obama administration was "strangling" Catholic institutions. More recently, he provoked a furor when he invited the president to the Alfred E. Smith Dinner and another when he agreed to offer a benediction at the Republican convention. It was also announced that he would offer a blessing at the Democratic convention.
Navigating American life has always been a big challenge for Catholic leaders. It was challenging in the period when Catholics were persecuted in the U.S. and in the last century when Catholics became influential.
Now, we are in a "betwixt and between" period. Catholics do not face the level of public hostility they faced in the 19th century. But the Church is more divided than it was, and its public reputation is much worse because of the sex-abuse scandal.
The new anti-Catholicism is a more urbane pseudo-sophisticated version that regards the Church as a stumbling block to progress, and this presents Cardinal Dolan with a difficult challenge.
You don’t want to exaggerate the threat the Church faces and suggest that we’re all going to be locked up and sent to re-education camps. But there are real challenges, and you need to push back vigorously against them.
The choices he has made have been generally right. [The bishops] need to push back against the mandate; if you don’t, there will be more threats to Catholic liberty coming down the pike.
But he was also right to invite President Obama to dinner, because, whatever disagreements there have been between the Church and the White House, Obama is not Henry VIII. We are still a free society, and the Church should be in dialogue. The fact that people were taken aback by that shift [in his response] shows how tricky it is to navigate these waters.
In Bad Religion, you argue that for some American believers, especially progressive Christians, doctrinal certainties have been replaced with New Age and Eastern religious beliefs. You’ve blogged about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious inviting Barbara Marx Hubbard, a futurist, as the keynote speaker at its recent conference.
Hubbard’s appearance at the LCWR meeting reflects the big choice facing the liberal wing of Christianity.
There is a version of Christianity that is recognizably Christian and engaged in progressive social reform. For the United States, this form of liberal Christianity has led the abolitionists and the Rev. Martin Luther King, among others, to make the world a better place.
Some argue that modernity has rendered Christianity obsolete, and Hubbard represents the influence of New Age elements and Eastern religions. Within progressive Christianity, there is also a middle ground and an overlap between these two views.
I am a political conservative, but I want there to be a vital Christianity that is associated with liberal politicians. You can’t have Christianity as only the religion of the Republican Party.
The peril for groups like the LCWR is that they are so invested into pushing "beyond the beyond" they will leave Christianity entirely. I would much rather they had invited [Vice President Joe] Biden than Hubbard. It is dangerous for Christianity to be associated with post-Christian movements.
At the end of the book, I talk about the obligation of Christians and Catholics to be Christian without being partisan. Catholic politicians can identify with their party, but they should also demonstrate a Catholic difference.
That is difficult to do when the framework is so polarized. The Democratic Party is becoming more and more institutionally hostile to Christian faith — that is an absolute and an inescapable reality.
In my book, I cite Chuck Colson, who was deeply engaged in conservative activism and also in prison ministry — not a traditionally Republican cause. We need more of that. The bishops should prod politicians to go beyond partisanship.
American politics would be in better shape if we had more pro-life Democrats, but there is almost no sign of that. Rep. Bart Stupak’s fate during the health-care debate, when he was pulled back and forth in a polarized landscape, reflects the problem.
As a columnist for The New York Times, you are also subject to the powerful forces of partisanship.
What did St. Paul say: ‘I work out my career in fear and trembling?’ I don’t want to hold myself up as an example. To the extent that I aspire to anything in the marriage of faith and career, it is to be engaged in major political debates, while also remembering that my first loyalty is to my faith and not to partisanship. My columns and books that sketch out a vision for the Republican Party are at least somewhat informed by Catholic commitments, but I will admit that I am as tempted by partisanship as anybody else.