My mother, an op-ed columnist, used to say (with a twinkle in her eye), “Never let the facts get in the way of a perfectly good opinion.” But at least she, a fierce liberal, accepted the ultimate authority of reality over ideology. Russ Douthat’s analysis of liberal Episcopalians, found in the July 14 NY Times, sails beyond the realm of facts altogether, and comes to illustrate the brave new world of conservative commentary, where rhetoric creates the impression of truthiness long enough to reproduce itself into the 24-hour news cycle, facts be damned.
Yes, that’s right, I said it: Russ Douthat is a fruit fly.
Diana Butler Bass has written a devastatingly factual reply to Mr. Douthat, which will enjoy only a fraction of the coverage Mr. Douthat has received. Thus, once again, the conservative argument has won the struggle for ideological survival in the artificial habitat that is our national consciousness. Well played, sir.
But the more troubling element of Mr. Douthat’s column is his bizarre premise: that Christians should base their theology on what is popular, rather than on what is true. His preoccupation with liberal vs. conservative popularity (the facts of which he misrepresents) implies that if only Episcopalians were more conservative, they would be more popular, and therefore we have erred. He even defends the Vatican’s investigation of the nuns as motivated primarily out of a concern for institutional self-preservation: “Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.” Wow. This is his breathtakingly cynical reasoning: If those nuns would only preach a conservative gospel (contrary to their consciences) - a gospel in which women are properly subordinate to men - then their convents would blossom with devout and properly respectful sisters, and the hospitals would be saved.
Funny: all this time I thought the argument was over a question of truth – whether or not women are, in fact, equal to men. But no, it seems to be an argument from the most base form of pragmatism.
Thus the conservatives seek to change the subject. And this laughable argument is made with high-minded seriousness in the most prestigious news outlet in the world. Huh. If only it had integrity.
This is what happens when conservatives can no longer defend the substance of their ideology. The Vatican can no longer plausibly argue that women are not equal to men; very few American Catholics care what the bishops think about birth control; the number of Catholics who use condoms and get abortions are about the same as the national average. The Catholic Church is beginning to look ever more like the great and terrible Oz, desperately twirling valves and pulling levers behind the curtain, hoping against hope to forestall the inevitable day when its people will see past the curtain.
Rather than do the hard work of changing the institution in order to conform to the truth of things, conservatives are creating truthy arguments of smoke and mirrors, in this case appealing to the myth that conservative theology is more attractive to the American people than liberal theology. Fact one: it is not (see Butler Bass). Fact two: since when do Christians proclaim a Gospel based on institutional self-interest? (Answer, only when they are desperate and have lost their way.)
So congratulations, Mr. Douthat: you won the 24-hour news cycle battle. The bad news for you is that you have exposed the hollow and desperate rhetoric of 21st Century American conservatism for what it is: a mad attempt to change the subject. Speaking on behalf of millions of happy and spiritually alive Episcopalians, I say to you, and the Vatican, the following: if we have to choose between a theology that we think is true, and a theology that your church cynically (and wrongly) believes might be popular, we’ll take the former, any day. And this is what we think is true: women are equal to men. Period. Gays are equal to straights. Period.
Ahead of every other denomination in Christendom, the Episcopal Church has demonstrated its willingness to proclaim this truth and accept the consequences. And the consequences are on our side: it just so happens that God favors truth. When my congregation proclaimed our truth, loud and clear, we gained at least four new members for every member we lost. But this is not why we proclaim that truth. We proclaim it because it happens to be true. And nothing on God’s green earth will get us to turn our backs on what we know is true. Period.
Maybe that makes us dinosaurs. But I’d rather be a dinosaur than a fruit fly, any day of the week.
The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence
Rector, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation
Santa Rosa, California