Ross Douthat’s latest column in The New York Times comes back somewhat to an exchange we had a little over five years ago. He concludes his column:
Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
A little over five years ago I wrote, A prayer for the Emperor. I concluded:
Because of their diversity, ultimately I suspect the religious orders and groups have to be either subordinate or oppositional to the state. This was the trend in ancient Rome or China. In contrast, Westerners have had a model where one a powerful exclusive religious institution strikes hard bargains with states as if they were equals (the Roman Catholic Church). Or, in nations like Norway, the national church has been absorbed by the state so the two are coterminus. The diffusion of religious power to innumerable bodies will inevitably result in the pulling back of the strong reverential stance that American politicians right now seem to take to all religions, so long as they aren’t so deviant as to practice animal sacrifice. At least that’s what I’d bet on.
I agree with some of this, but I’m skeptical about the last part. The dogma-free, “operational ecumenicism” that he describes hasn’t made politicians less reverential toward religion so far - if anything, the decline of the old dogmatic boundaries separating Protestant churches from one another, and Protestants from Catholics, has had the opposite effect. The less that believers care about their doctrinal differences, the more they can band together for more general political purposes – stopping gay marriage, for instance – and the more it makes sense for politicians to address their concerns. Whereas once a politician couldn’t make specific appeals to Catholics without offending Baptists, and vice versa, today he doesn’t have to worry about those kind of differences, and can just focus on the political issues that unite megachurch worshipers with Catholic home-schoolers, Orthodox Jews, and so on.
I think Douthat’s critique of my prediction has been born out, insofar as Barack H. Obama did utilize a watered down form of god-talk in 2008, despite his likely personal skepticism of the supernatural claims of religion. What I think both Douthat and I missed at the time was what he alludes to in his current column: the swelling tide of secularism which arose as a reflex to conservative religious activism. That being said, I think in many ways the analogy to ancient Rome does hold, even if my specific inferences were incorrect. A minimal threshold of public piety, no matter personal belief, is demanded of politicians today. No sect commands dominance in the public arena, and a syncretic ecumenical ceremonial deism reigns supreme, though both the New Atheists and religious traditionalists object to its ascendancy.