In the ongoing Linker–Douthat dispute over Moral Therapeutic Deism and its relationship to the political scene of the last decade, I have to side with Ross (as usual), but Linker’s latest response draws attention to a more significant problem facing religious conservatives and conservatives in general in the wake of the disastrous Bush years, which is the extent to which they have failed to be orthodox and traditional in their theology and religion when faced with the requirements of supporting political allies who espouse radical and heretical ideas.
As I noted long ago, and as Ross has suggested again this week, it makes no sense to blame Christian orthodoxy or traditional Christianity for the religiously-tinged ideology of the Bush administration and the resulting failures of this ideology’s optimistic and hubristic approach to the world. It is no accident that the most strident and early critics of the Bush administration hailed from traditionalist Catholic and Orthodox circles that make Linker’s bete noire of First Things look like the relatively liberal, ecumenist forum that it is. Mr. Bush espoused a horrifyingly heterodox religious vision, one far more akin to the messianic Americanism that forms part of what Bacevich has called national security ideology than it is to anything that could fairly be called orthodoxy. To the extent that Linker’s favorite targets, the so-called “theocons,” were more or less entirely on board with what Mr. Bush was doing, even if they felt compelled to use their own teachings in distorted form to do it, they were not championing orthodoxy at all. One might go so far to say that as they became stronger supporters of Mr. Bush, the less orthodox they tended to become, because the arguments they had to employ to defend Mr. Bush’s outrageous actions and gnostic impulses necessarily ate away at orthodox teachings.
This has created a predicament for the majority of conservative Christians who tended to go along with, if not actively defend, Mr. Bush’s acts and rhetoric. Having identified strongly with him, these Christians–Linker’s “champions of orthodoxy”–ensured that his errors would be imputed to their beliefs, even though Bush had a very different set of assumptions. It seems more reasonable to conclude that the “champions of orthodoxy” were undermining orthodoxy to the extent that they aligned themselves with the gnostic Bush rather than judging the failure of the Bush political project to be a demonstration of the flaws in an alliance between orthodoxy and politics. It might be that somewhere in all of this there is a “cautionary tale about what happens to politics and faith” when they combine in certain ways, but what does religious orthodoxy have to do with any of this? There is a far better argument to be made that the lesson to be learned is that greater fidelity to orthodoxy would have avoided many of the errors of the Bush Era by grounding those Christians who identified with Bush politically in the stable and sobering truths of theologically conservative Christianity.
If Linker insists that Rod acknowledge that traditional Christians in previous eras defended moral injustices in the name of resisting political and social change, he cannot credibly maintain that the Christians who backed and defended a proponent of global democratic revolution can still be counted as orthodox or traditional for the purposes of making criticisms about the mixing of religion and politics today. Linker hopes that Ross will come away with the idea that more traditional and orthodox Christians should “keep their distance from political power,” but this makes sense only if you believe that it was proximity to power rather than the perverse and misguided ideas that were prevailing at the center of power that mattered. Perhaps if there had been more genuinely traditional and orthodox voices whispering to Mr. Bush that he was mortal, warning that pride is one of the most dangerous sins, or explaining to him that chiliasm and gnosticism were grave errors, he would not have been so ready to embark on path of mad revolutionary warfare and global transformation. Orthodoxy had no influence, but naturally Linker believes that it still had too much, which pretty well sums up his misreading of the religious and political landscape today.