Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. –H.L. Mencken

Ross Douthat’s Penumbra

Ross Douthat wrote a column in the NY Times. Then Oscar Price wrote an article relating to Douthat’s article and posted it on Mockingbird.  Price is great on explaining the truth of a horrible situation and calls us to avoid the easy ‘See, real Christians don’t get divorced like those pretenders!’ response.  However, I think there is a bit more to discuss in Douthat’s article – on both religious and political grounds.

Of course, Douthat presses all the buttons in his few lines:

HERE is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.

Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

First of all, the paradox is not an American one – it is a Christian one, not defined by regions or borders. Second, i think there is some confusion about the words ‘social good’.  Civic participation is not a social good. Civic participation is largely an exercise in futility, not a social good. Upward mobility – also not a social good. My seven year old can tell you that poor and wise is preferable to rich and foolish – upward mobility must be tempered by motive – which is also another point against civic participation.  Social trust is also problematic. Having faith in people to behave in a desirable way is something most people do grudgingly, not out of preference. In fact, I hope other Christians out there continue to believe that we are born with a predilection to sin.

Douthat goes on to write quite a bit about divorce rates, exploring the differing numbers between ‘Christian’ and national divorce averages and also including some additional discussion of the differing numbers between practicing conservative Protestants versus ‘lukewarm’ churchgoers.

The obvious repercussions are discouraging at best.  The church has much work ahead of her in trying to help those hurt by divorce – particularly those divorcees who were and/or are a part of the visible church. This is not to mention the other ills Douthat discusses. Douthat mentions the cop-out course of action (which, as I mentioned above, Price destroys beautifully), but gives another alternative:

But it’s better to regard these problems as a partial indictment of America’s churches: Not only because their failure to reach the working class and the younger generation is making the penumbra steadily bigger, but because a truly healthy religious community should be capable of influencing even the loosely attached somewhat for the better.

This is where Douthat and I agree completely. We are struggling to help those on the fringes – and those left out in the cold completely. Of course, a few paragraphs later, I stop agreeing with Douthat.

These arguments turn on constitutional issues, competing visions of freedom, the scope of pluralism versus the rights of gays and women. But they’re also partially about what kind of institutions are best equipped to address social problems in an individualistic age, and whether we should want the Christian penumbra to be reclaimed for religion or become more thoroughly secularized instead.Among religious conservatives, not surprisingly, the hope is that traditional forms of faith — if left to build, or re-build, without being constantly disfavored, pressured and policed — can make a kind of comeback, and fill part of the void their own decline has left.

On the secular side, though, there’s a sense that there’s a better way — that a more expansive state can offer many of the benefits associated with a religious community, but in a more enlightened, tolerant, individual-respecting form. And if delivering these benefits requires co-opting or constraining religious actors — be they charities and schools or business owners — well, that’s either a straightforward win-win, or a relatively modest price to pay.

In this sense, the Christian penumbra isn’t just a zone of social disorder. It’s a field of ideological battle.

Can we please drop this idea of an ideological battle? The spiritual well-being of our neighbors will not be gained by a victory in some government process in some government building. Having the freedom to not have to pay for contraceptives for your employees will not help you to convince your friend to come to church with you on Sunday – or clothe the family in your neighborhood whose house burned down in a fire.

Government – run by Republicans or Democrats – is ineffectual when it comes to social ills. Poverty, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births all continue to exist in places where the government is an everyday presence in the people’s lives. For the church, however, even government failure is an indictment.  We have grown lax and selfish. We let the government take over much that should be our responsibility.

We are called to help the poor, the widows, and the orphans and to treat our neighbors in the same way we wish to be treated. Instead, we sit back and let the government fail at doing our job.

Give Us Some Curmudgeonly Wisdom...

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