The Book Club

Bad Religion by Ross Douthat reviewed: Christianity and Republicanism in conflict.

How far are you willing to carry the message of Jesus against the Republican Party?

Do Rick Santorum’s economic views align with Christian orthodoxy?

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images.

Ross! I can’t believe you used the S-word. You’re trying to seduce me?

OK, I’m game. So let’s start with the part of Christianity that’s most tempting to us liberal heathen: its critique of greed. As you just explained, Christian orthodoxy—unlike the prosperity preaching of Pat Robertson and other televangelists—teaches suspicion of worldly wealth. One of the best things about your book, from a lefty’s point of view, is that you challenge the Cult of Mammon as well as the Cult of Dionysus. You haven’t forgotten (even if the self-styled party of values has) that avarice is a deadly sin.

Politically, this raises possibilities. Liberals assume that privacy and sexual freedom are the issues on which they should seek common ground, and toward that end, it’s OK to align with libertarians who worship the market. What about the reverse? Why not align with social conservatives who are willing to constrain markets to serve families and communities? My friends on the left were united in horror at Rick Santorum’s views on contraception. What about his views on progressive taxation? On that issue, he stood to Mitt Romney’s left, but nobody seemed to notice.

So let me press you on this. In the book, you mock evangelicals who think the Holy Spirit has “a strong position on the proper rate of marginal taxation.” You fault President Reagan for supposing that capitalism “reflected God’s ultimate will.” You quote approvingly a critique of Reagan’s assumption that “only the state knows how to sin.” You praise evangelicals for promoting Third World debt relief. These comments make it pretty clear that you don’t belong to the church of capitalism.

But you go further. You criticize “the evils of unfettered capitalism” and “the dark pull that money can exert over the human heart.” You recall with nostalgia Pope Pius XI’s “third way between laissez-faire capitalism and socialism,” manifested in the 1950s by “labor-industry cooperation and a pro-family welfare state.” You lament the demise of the “solidarity-oriented and Catholic-friendly Democratic politics of the New Deal era.” You admire the Catholic bishops for managing to “tilt leftward on issues like immigration and health care” even as they maintain their conservative stands on abortion and gay marriage.

Bad Religion
by Ross Douthat
Simon and Schuster

How far are you willing to go with this stuff? How far are you willing to carry the message of Jesus against the message of the Republican Party?

You seem to be wrestling with the conflict between your faith and your conservative politics. In one section of the book, you outline Michael Novak’s arguments for the compatibility of Christianity with capitalism. And then you ask: “But is faith that’s made its peace with the free market, that prefers laissez-faire to government redistribution and finds theological justifications for the pursuit of worldly gain, really recognizably Christian?”

In the book, your answer to that question feels fuzzy. So, with apologies for the metaphor, let me try to nail you down. How should a Christian’s distrust of the free market manifest itself? In what ways should Christian Republicans prefer government redistribution to laissez-faire?