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The Art Of Drawing Distinctions

Sociologist Daniel Bell once famously defined an intellectual as someone who knows how to make relevant distinctions. He might have added as a corollary: Disputation among intellectuals more often than not involves disagreement about which distinctions are relevant.

I give you Exhibit A:

In this post, I argued that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism would make a more suitable form of civil religion than the "mere orthodoxy" favored by traditionalist evangelicals and Catholics over the past two decades. Though I didn't go into the details in the post, I make the case in my book that the worst aspects of the Bush administration can be traced to the influence of these religious ideas on George W. Bush and several of his key advisors.

Ross Douthat disagrees, but not because he thinks Catholic-Christian orthodoxy had a positive influence on the 43rd president. No, according to Ross, the failures of the Bush years can be traced to . . . Moralistic Therapeutic Deism!

But wait a minute: Didn't many of the country's leading champions of orthodoxy loudly and enthusiastically support the president's "self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian" policies and pronouncements for the better part of eight years? And though I can't say I regularly watch the Oprah Winfrey Show, was that really where the absurdly overwrought American exceptionalism of Bush's second inaugural address was developed and championed? (I guess I spent too much time reading the Weekly Standard back in 2002-2003.)

To the extent that Ross wants to make an argument about the detrimental effects of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism on the broader culture (e.g., its contribution to the housing and financial bubbles), he might have a point worth pondering. But when it comes to politics, things get much trickier -- as I tried to argue in another recent post. Instead of seeing the Bush administration as a straightforward example of what happens when Moralistic Therapeutic Deism comes to power, I think it makes more sense to treat it as cautionary tale about what happens to politics and faith when religious orthodoxy seeks to serve political ends -- that is, political judgment gets distorted by otherworldly theological concepts and religion gets polluted by the all-too-human ways of the political world.

The problem with Ross's way of drawing these distinctions is that it's liable to convince orthodox believers that in the future they should work even harder to influence a sympathetic president. Instead, I hope thoughtful and serious believers like Ross will learn a very different lesson from the Bush years -- namely, that the purity of their faith no less than the health of American democracy depends on them keeping their distance from political power.

In closing, a final distinction. I can understand how my comments about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism serving as an adequate civil religion for the United States could lead readers to conclude that I'm in favor of civil religion as such. In fact, though, I agree with Ed Kilgore (and Michael Lind): liberal democratic nations in general have no need of civil religion, and liberal democratic America in particular would do just fine without it. But alas, from William Bradford to George W. Bush, political and cultural figures of nearly every persuasion have assumed that the United States both has and needs a civil religion. In the post on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, I was taking this peculiarly American reality as a given. For the past couple of decades, Ross's theoconservative friends have argued that our civil religion should consist of an idiosyncratic combination of fervent evangelical piety and orthodox Catholic social theory. Contra Ross, I think we tried that over the past eight years and that it was a crashing failure. It is in light of that failure that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism looks like a comparatively promising alternative. But only if we assume the United States can't get along without any civil religion at all.