Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat laments the cultural status of religious America:
America has a lowbrow culture that's still pretty religious, but whose religiosity tends to be, well, lowbrow - a lowest-common-denominator mix of self-help spirituality and New Age mush. And the highbrow culture, meanwhile, isn't religious at all: it's not anti-religion, exactly, but it definitely considers religious belief an oddity and an anachronism, and orthodox Christian belief dangerously close to fanaticism. Which is one of the reasons that most religiosity in America is so lowbrow - because the highly intelligent people who might elevate the level of religious discourse have their faith leeched out of them by their immersion in the highbrow, in its assumptions and its prejudices. And the people who complain about this - about how we don't have any more Reinhold Niebuhrs, and isn't it a tragedy? - tend to be exactly the people who in an earlier era would have been the Niebuhrs, but who now partake of what Richard John Neuhaus once called "the pleasures of regretful unbelief."
What we need, then - and by "we" I mean Christians, though I obviously think there would be benefits to non-Christians as well - is a more highbrow Christianity, and one that doesn't prostrate itself on the altar of political correctness, as token highbrow Catholics like Garry Wills are wont to do. Perhaps "culture war" is the wrong word to use in this context, since we don't necessarily need more Christians making the case against same-sex marriage, or pushing all their chips into the battle over courthouse displays in Alabama. We need more Christians writing good novels and essays and doctoral theses, and television shows and movies and music - all of which might inter alia make the case for a Christian understanding of, say, sexuality, but which would be primarily works of art and intellect and not polemics, creating a cultural space rather than just a political movement.
We can't expect any favors: The doors of highbrow American culture have been closed against that sort of thing for decades now, and you can't expect the New Yorker or the New York Times to just throw them open - why should they? They're content with the world they've made, in which Philip Pullman is a hero, C.S. Lewis is a sad "prisoner" of his religious belief, science is always under assault from fundamentalism and monotheism is an easy whipping boy for all of history's ills. Christians keep insisting that this world has it all wrong, of course, but it's not enough to say it - we need to show them.
Richard John Neuhaus responds:
Douthat is right, of course, but there is more to be said on this. (When isn’t there?) Lowbrow, anti-intellectual, and downright vulgar Christianity in the public square is an embarrassment. But, in defending the constitutional rights of religion in public, one has no choice but to defend what shows up to be defended. In coming to the aid of those suffering from anti-religious discrimination, I have often wished for a better quality of victim. You don’t always get to choose your battles, or your allies.
I confess to having little patience with Christians of fastidious taste who don’t want to be associated with “them.” So much do they want to distinguish themselves from “them” that they usually end up on the other side. The deeper cultural, historical, and theological reality is that “they” are us. Not all their causes are ours. But their cause (if not always their way) of witnessing to the lordship of Christ in the face of a sub-pagan highbrow culture is ours.