dedc’s fine post the other day eviscerated Ross Douthat’s customarily dishonest and data-free meanderings on the importance of religion in the US. I’d wanted to go into a bit more detail about one of Douthat’s false claims:
The old Christian establishment — which by the 1950s encompassed Kennedy’s Roman Catholic Church as well as the major Protestant denominations — could be exclusivist, snobbish and intolerant.
As is conservatives’ custom, Douthat understates the intolerance.
We’ve noted before that Catholics were not exactly greeted with open arms by the Protestant establishment in the 1960s:
When JFK ran for president in 1960, he faced vehement prejudice from respectable Protestantism. No less an avatar of bland Middle Americanism than Norman Vincent Peale fretted that if the US elected a Catholic as president, ”Our American culture is at stake. I don’t say it won’t survive, but it won’t be what it was.”
(This is how conservative logic works, of course– new developments, like child labor restrictions, women’s suffrage, Medicare, and citizenship for the Chinaman are catastrophic evils certain to destroy culture, families, industry, freedom, and goodness).
Billy Graham’s father-in-law, Christianity Today editor L. Nelson Bell, was less circumspect:
“Pseudo tolerance is not tolerance at all but simply ignorance.” If Jack Kennedy were to become President, he said, then Montana’s Mike Mansfield would become Senate majority leader and Massachusetts’ John W. Mc-Cormack would continue as House Democratic floor leader. “Both are fine men, but both belong to a church with headquarters in Rome.” And to Bell, Rome was little better than Moscow: “The antagonism of the Roman church to Communism is in part because of similar methods.”
Douthat’s whitewashing of the past is essential to today’s US conservatism.
Most obviously, he has to pretend that things were never really that bad in the past. This is linked to the conservative mythology that the government can’t ever ameliorate problems– hey, problems weren’t that bad anyway! Douthat obligingly lies about the history of Protestant intolerance of his own Catholic Church, because his “conservative Catholicism” is more about being Republican than being Catholic.
More deeply, though, Douthat has to pretend that religion is somehow a fundamentally constant force. This isn’t true, of course.
In just the past century, being Catholic has meant refraining from reading On the Origin of Species and supporting the Franco dictatorship, and the opposite of those stances. Being a white American Protestant has meant supporting laws imprisoning people who wanted to marry someone outside their race, and opposing such laws. Because religion is a sociological phenomenon, it changes, with society, over time.
(That observed change over time is the same reason that judicial originalism breaks down so quickly under even rational-basis scrutiny).
Conservatism in the US, now shorn of policy views, is to some extent about an imagined past, where the enlightened rulers of the past were giants on the earth, men of renown. It ought not be too controversial to note that Thomas Jefferson and Dwight Eisenhower were great men, but flawed and imperfect ones. There never was an age in the past where America was led by blameless, godly Men. But that’s the myth that folks like Douthat and Michelle Bachmann work to promote.
Post title is a highbrow literary reference:
(Douthat is pronounced “dow-thut”, btw).