Religion, Reviews.

My favorite inquisitor

Book Briefly Noted, Title Bad Religion, Author Douthat Ross Gregory, Rating 3.0, My favorite inquisitor

Ross Douthat, the American conservative apologist, a Catholic and a right-wing Republican, wrote a book a few years back entitled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. In it Ross argues that America can only be steered away from its benighted direction if it embraces religious orthodoxy, and not just any orthodoxy, but that of Christianity, by which he means his sect, Catholicism, which he describes as a highly paradoxical religion whose orthodox views provide a necessary and hard won narrative: The one true synthesis of those paradoxical elements.

The argument is not a very compelling one to me, particularly as it opens with the usual demagogic description of American society as corrupted, in decline both institutionally and morally, etc., only to be corrected by embracing his religion. (Yawn . . . Why is it that this theme has been sounded since, I don’t know, the dawn of history?) But the book is nonetheless valuable for its summary of those Christian paradoxes, as well as a survey of various Christian trends like Evangelical fundamentalism, prosperity gospel, liberation theology, revival of Gnosticism, etc., all of which he labels as heresies, and finally an 80 year history of the intersection of politics and Christianity in America.  

Within a religious scheme, or any ideology for that matter, all other than orthodox is heretical by definition, and so for Ross it is thereby ‘Bad Religion.’ No liberation theologian he, his book defends the orthodox positions of the Vatican, whose suppression of heresy was institutionalized in medieval Christendom via the establishment of the Inquisition, which has manifested itself in various ways up to today’s time, as the Papal Inquisition remains constituted in a less tortuous form as the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ross is my favorite inquisitor, a really smart, Harvard summa-cum-laude kind of guy. If you would want anyone to root out heresy, Ross is your man. His defense of Catholicism is hard bound to today’s highly conservative Republican party, which from a theological point of view seems absurd, but is no surprise in today’s United States. His columns written for the New York Times are of occasional interest, sometimes because he makes an effort to look at a political issue more honestly than his fellow travelers, but too often because they are sturdy examples of sophistical and intellectually dishonest attempts to justify what are often un-Christian political policies. Ross provides a reader the means to gain some familiarity with the bewildering harshness of conservative Christian thinking in contemporary U.S. society.

Ross, who converted to Catholicism in his adolescence, is not unlike many religious converts, particularly those who like Ross changed religious sects to do so. He can come across as fervent, unforgiving, rigid and one-sided, despite the patina of scholarship with which he decorates his opinions. True believers like Ross seldom seem bothered by their deliberate obfuscation of relevant counter-arguments, or the routinely harsh underlying justifications that maintain their sect and political party in power, at the expense of those at the margins of society, those whom Jesus embraced.

Yet orthodoxy and true compassion are not mutually exclusive:  Pope Francis, no favorite of Ross’s, also defends orthodoxy, one of his jobs as the head of the Catholic Church, yet manages at the same time to place greater emphasis on compassion towards the poor, the disadvantaged, and even those who seem to be in violation of said orthodoxy. It is sad that an intellect as Ross’s seems unable to absorb the profound idea that love trumps often self-serving “morality.” One can hope that Pope Francis may yet influence him in that direction.

A gift from my Jon and Melinda Miles.

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