Douthat: Half-Right

There is a quality to Ross Douthat's writings that is remarkably consistent: He is almost always half-right. His most recent essay at the New York Times details the decline of the Episcopal Church and asks if liberal Christianity is dying. He also points out that many of the more robust forms of conservative Christianity "have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth and not the full New Testament message."

This is better than the usual conservative Christian commentariat has to offer but even here, you can discern the mistake in Douthat's worldview. The gospel does not proclaim a message but a person. The left and the right may argue about the means and methods for engaging the world, but Christianity is not, foremost, about engaging the world. Douthat may be more nuanced than certain neo-con Christians, but he misses the ways that he, too, participates in the reduction of religion to ethics and utility. In this essay, for example, he writes:

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

Christ's death and resurrection is not concerned with being "an immensely positive force in our national life" is it? The Christian Gospels are either embraced as a truth claim about the triumphant love of God, or they are not really embraced at all. And, so embraced, we cling to Christ no matter what the consequences for our national life. Besides, in my experience, most of the "liberal Christians" I know do embrace their commitment to the social Gospel in obedience to the Lord, even if they fail to articulate it, and if contemporary theology has failed to give them the language to articulate it. The starting point matters.

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