Monday, December 27, 2010

Douthat on Christianity and Christmas

Ross Douthat of the New York Times takes on some of the more prickly cultural aspects of present-day American Christianity in his latest column. His prose begins with a certain whiff of cynicism before plateauing to a more insightful double book review of sorts on the state of the Christian faith, in a season when it is so consciously thought of (even if this mainly takes the form of shopping and social-event planning). Douthat begins:

"... This is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” 
Boom!, cracks the columnist's irony. But Douthat's real thesis emerges late and tucked in among other thoughts of the third paragraph.

These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes... But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.
He goes on to describe the arch of American Christianity's progress to the state we find it in today. Borrowing the metaphor of "a shock and two aftershocks," namely the cultural revolution of the 1960s, followed by the religious conservatism that arose through the 1980s-era "moral majority" and the culture wars of the 1990s. The second aftershock is taking place now, "a backlash to that backlash — a revolt against the association between Christian faith and conservative politics... in which millions of Americans (younger Americans, especially) may be abandoning organized Christianity altogether."

On the European side of things, the near-empty churches and chapels scattered over the European continent seem to have experienced this exodus of the young decades ago. Not since before World War II has Christian life on the Old Continent known any semblance of thriving culture that includes a sizable contingent of the young. Perhaps the U.S. (and Canada, too) is slowly edging toward a European likeness, where Christianity is marginalized as a practice and sometimes openly mocked by opinion leaders in a manner not tolerated States-side.

Douthat ends with a provocative final thought, which bears an uncanny relevance to Europe if one chooses to read it that way. I'll make my conclusion by borrowing his:

"... Believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation [or civilization]. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.
Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning."

UPDATE: In an event pregnant with symbolism given the above, the Obama family made a highly unusual church visit this past Sunday.


  1. Merry Christmas to you all from me.