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Last night, IRD staff Nathaniel Torrey, Kristin Rudolph, and I ambled up to Georgetown University to hear New York Times columnist Ross Douthat discuss his latest well-received book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Jesuit priest and government professor Matthew Carnes joined the conversation to offer his opinions and constructive criticisms of the book. The entire event was hosted by the Tocqueville Forum and sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization that remains dear to my heart.
I won’t report on the entire discussion of the event; a full article should be forthcoming. In his book, Douthat narrates the decline of institutional religion over the 20th century, catalyzed by the liberalization of mainline Protestantism and the fallout of Vatican II. Commitments to creeds and confessions have disappeared while religious devotion continues in the United States. In fact, the number of Americans who claim to have had a personal experience with God has increased. Although the 2004 election led to liberal panic regarding a theocracy and the rise of the New Atheism, Americans remain quite spiritual on the whole—they simply refuse to hold to orthodox teachings and ecclesiastical authority. “It’s an exaggeration to say that America is a post-Christian nation,” Douthat asserted. He also warned that “we are now witnessing the rise of the most unchurched generation America has ever seen in its history.”
Fr. Carnes offered his rejoinder. He confessed that he thoroughly enjoyed Bad Religion. He worried that Douthat may have praised the 1950s too much. The author later contested that speaking appreciatively of any era carries the risk of romantic portrayals of bygone days. Douthat observed, “There are no golden ages in history.” He pointed to several examples of obvious decline in churchly religion. Time magazine featured Reinhold Niebuhr on its cover while Fulton Sheen hosted a popular television program. One helpful contrast was the cultural force that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billy Graham wielded through their pastoral offices. Their succeeding heirs were Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson, both of whom sought powerful political office and engaged in petty party squabbles.
The progressive bent of the Georgetown government professor became increasingly evident during his commentary. “I like to think we’re in a radically different world,” he said. He thought the theological accomplishments of the 1950s were limited since only 25% of the American population had a college education and television was barely starting to emerge. He praised the benefits of “mass education and mass communication” that have since developed. Douthat demurred: “I’m not sure if our ‘more highly educated society’ and its discourse is as elevated as it was back then.” Carnes also bemoaned the recent “polarization of women’s religious orders.” Douthat, himself a Catholic, noted that the radically liberal women religious nevertheless have significant doctrinal issues as evidenced by their invitation of New Age speaker Barbara Marx Hubbard to their annual conference. Carnes regretted the traditional Catholic conception orthodoxy, “too often a lock-step rigidity with the Magesterium.” The IRD staffers all exchanged knowing smirks with each other; such statements generally belie a sympathy for revisionist theology. Despite these disagreements, the conversation between Carnes and Douthat remained incredibly cordial, testifying to the graceful character of both speakers.
Georgetown herself struggles with her institutional Roman Catholic identity. For instance, the university seems set on demonizing Catholic VP candidate Paul Ryan for his economic policies while inviting Kathleen Sebelius of HHS mandate fame to speak at a commencement ceremony. Tocqueville Forum founder and government professor Patrick Deneen resigned from the faculty in desperation. The truly Roman Catholic ethos of the school seems ever tenuous by the day.
On a humorous note, as the IRD triumvirate left for dinner at The Tombs, we listened a revealing quotation. Two older students were teaching underclassmen how to guide tours for prospective students and their parents. We overheard, “It’s not okay to say ‘Georgetown isn’t really that Catholic.’” Perhaps this is the perfect snapshot of where the university stands today. Though the student body observes a minuscule influence of Catholic doctrine,Georgetown still doesn’t want to neglect the patrimony of traditional Catholics. No doubt this venerable institution faces the same obstacles that Douthat notes in his latest book.