Theology Has Consequences

Damon Linker, in a much-commented-on post on our possibly post-Christian future:

What will provide the theological content of the nation's civil religion now that the "mere orthodoxy" of the evangelical-Catholic alliance has proven unsuitable for a pluralistic nation of 300 million people? To my mind, the most likely and salutary option is moralistic therapeutic deism. Here is the core of its (Rousseauian) catechism, in the words of sociologist Christian Smith:

1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."

2. "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."

3. "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."

4. "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."

5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

Theologically speaking, this watered-down, anemic, insipid form of Judeo-Christianity is pretty repulsive. But politically speaking, it's perfect: thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant. And that makes it perfectly suited to serve as the civil religion of the highly differentiated twenty-first century United States.

Whether you share this optimism about the "salutary" advance of moralistic therapeutic deism ultimately depends on whether you share Linker's sense that the biggest problem facing America in the Bush years was the "siege" of secular America by orthodox Christians. The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law.

But let's say you think that the biggest problems facing America in the Bush years were, I dunno, the botched handling of the Iraq occupation and a massive and an unsustainable housing and financial bubble. In that case, you don't have to look terribly hard to see a connection between the kind of self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian religion described above and the spirit of unwarranted optimism and metaphysical self-regard that animated some of Bush's worst hours as President (his second inaugural address could have been subtitled: "Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War") and some of his fellow Americans' worst hours as homeowners and investors. In the wake of two consecutive bubble economies, it takes an inordinate fear of culture war, I think, to immerse yourself in the literature of Oprahfied religion - from nominal Christians like Joel Osteen to New Age gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne - and come away convinced that this theological turn has been "salutary" for the country overall.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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