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Ross Douthat makes a empirical case for doctrinal orthodoxy in Catholicism, offering the familiar argument that pace liberal Catholics, liberalizing the church would make it weaker, not stronger, in terms of mass attendance, vocations, etc. which you can allegedly see from the fact that conservative Protestatism is doing better than liberal Protestantism. I don't think the argument really works. An awful lot of reforms proposed by liberal Catholics -- married priests, decentralization, bigger role for the laity, birth control for married couples -- are things that Evangelical Protestantism already permits. The decline of mainline Protestantism does, I think, rebut the view that being nicer to gay people or taking a softer line on abortion or premarital sex would likely be counterproductive, but it doesn't rebut the view that a more liberal view on these other issues would strengthen the Church.

When considering the impact of restrictive views on a religion's health, I think it's important to make distinctions. Gay-bashing is a really, really smart way for a religion to position itself. For the overwhelming majority of people, not being gay is really easy. I do it every day of the week without any help from fear of Hell. But as a secular person, I don't get to feel self-righteous about my heterosexuality. A religion that told me it was really, really awesome of me to be straight has an obvious appeal. Yes, you alienate gays and lesbians, but those are pretty small minorities of the population. Telling married couples they can't use birth control, by contrast, is asking people to undergo some pretty major inconveniences -- tends to drive people away. Pre-marital sex is an interesting middle ground. Swearing off sex before marriage turns out to be very popular among young kids. It's also something that married people -- especially parents -- like a great deal. Older teens and twentysomething single people don't like it so much. As all the studies show, lots of people sign virginity pledges, but few keep to them. Fortunately, young singles are unlikely to attend church anyway compared to other demographic groups because we tend to be rootless and mobile. For a church's core audience of parents and children, "no premarital sex" is, like "no gay sex," a good way to make people feel good about themselves for refraining from conduct they wouldn't be engaging in anyway.

That's the doctrinal sweet spot. If the rabbis changed the kosher rules to permit cheeseburgers, bacon, and lobster but forbid vegemite, millet, and goat I bet you'd find that all of a sudden most American Jews were keeping kosher and pretty damn psyched about it.

April 22, 2005 | Permalink


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I think the decline of mainline Protestantism is closely intertwined with the decline of urbanism.

Posted by: praktike | Apr 22, 2005 3:02:03 PM

What's wrong with goat?

Posted by: Matt Taylor | Apr 22, 2005 3:10:23 PM

Yeah, goat's good.

Posted by: ben wolfson | Apr 22, 2005 3:14:53 PM

Nothing's wrong with goat. I like goat. But as it is very few Americans eat goat, so a religion that asks people to give up goat isn't really asking them to give anything up. Instead, it's congratulating people for doing stuff they already don't do.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 22, 2005 3:14:57 PM

"If the rabbis changed the kosher rules to permit cheeseburgers, bacon, and lobster but forbid vegemite, millet, and goat I bet you'd find that all of a sudden most American Jews were keeping kosher"

Stop picking on the Australian Jews. Having Mel Gibson as a compatriot is enough of a cross to bear.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 22, 2005 3:19:58 PM

Nothing wrong with goat. The point is, most Americans, and particularly most American Jews, could "give up eating goat" without changing their lives much at all, because they don't eat it anyway. (Their loss. Mmmmmmmmmmm. Goat.)

Hey. Ya know what I could go for right now?

Some goat.

Posted by: blegh | Apr 22, 2005 3:20:29 PM

You need a proofreader, Matt.

Christianity and Judaism are examples of religious faiths that seek communion with awesome God of holiness and love. Versions of either faith that seem to suggest that what you do with your body is irrelevant to that sought after communion are counterintuitive. Somehow it is makes sense that that the body is the temple of God, as rabbi Paul has it.

"Liberal" versions of Christianity and Judaism seem to be more about trying to please all the people all the time. That works best for those who have little or no "geistliche Hunger," i.e., spiritual desire.

Spiritual desire, by the way, is just about the most powerful force in human society.

That's no Shia, we might say. We mourn with them this day as they grieve their loved ones who were suicide-bombed out of existence by Al Zarqawi's murderers at prayers in Baghdad. There is nothing that irks a Salafist more than a pious Shia.

Europe's religious wars lasted, for one stretch, 100 years. How long before the intrareligious wars last in the Middle East? We won't be there to see the end of it. It's been hundreds of years since the Shias in Iraq had what they have now. They may never have had the chance they have now. An unintended consequence, I suppose, of the US-led invasion. A dramatically beautiful one nevertheless.

Posted by: JohnFH | Apr 22, 2005 3:24:53 PM

Again with the goat?

Posted by: Phoebe | Apr 22, 2005 3:38:04 PM

The decline of mainline Protestantism does, I think,

I'm unconvinced about the "decline" of mainstream churches (which includes Catholics as well as mainline Protestants).

The mainstream churches filled a certain role back which religion was mandatory. Intuitive rationalists had to make some show of faith to fit normative cultural expectations. The would do this by going into a church weekly (or at the very least for weddings and funerals), but they certainly weren't talking about faith, or a "personal relationship" with Jesus, or engaging in "prayerful reflection" before an important decision.

Basically, their behavior would indicate that they expected the universe to operate according to observable, explainable principles of cause and effect ("The Lord helps those who help themselves", etc.) Faith came out either in instances that did not matter much to their well-being, or over which they had no practical control (e.g. serious illness and grieving).

Despite all the yammering about faith in America, I do believe that our society is increasingly secular. The result has been that intuitive rationalists now have far greater freedom from having to make any show of faith (outside of, say, politics and other arenas where it may still be mandatory).

The mainstream churches themselves are declining in the sense that they've lost this important customer base. But I don't think that there is really a decline in the ideology that kept the churches going; it has just been stripped, thankfully, of its hypocritical religious trappings. But there are just as many people that aren't "into" religion.

Hence, I do not believe that churches will increase the number of devoted, religious people by returning to orthodoxy. The most they will do is poach members from other religions.

(And, yes, no problem with goat. I had it once in a curry and it tasted a lot like lamb, just a little stringier; for all I know it really was lamb or mutton.)

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Apr 22, 2005 3:43:01 PM

Yes, I'm obsessed with goat.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 22, 2005 3:43:19 PM

I'm guessing you haven't had goat? It's really good.

Posted by: Dan Ryan | Apr 22, 2005 3:46:58 PM

Hmm... Now I'm sitting at my desk getting ready to go for lunch, and I'm wondering where in downtown Seattle I can score me some goat!

Posted by: Dan Ryan | Apr 22, 2005 3:48:58 PM

No, I have had goat. Goat is great. More people should eat goat. But, sadly, not many Americans do. I happen to live near a couple of goat-serving restaurants, but I assume most people don't have a lot of goat-vendors in the immediate vicinity. But this was supposed to be a post about religion, not goat.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Apr 22, 2005 4:03:27 PM

Well I haven't had goat, so let's hear some tips on where in New York I should go to try it.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Apr 22, 2005 4:08:10 PM

Matt-on-goat!! (Take that, Santorum.)

Another doctrinal unsweet spot that Catholics and evangelical Protestants both dodge in their different ways is Christ's words about divorce and remarriage.

The Catholics weasel around this with 'annulment', where a couple can be married for a couple of decades, and be found to have not ever been really, truly married, even after having raised children together, had sex a couple thousand times, and yada yada yada.

(So it's OK for the couple to have just been fornicating for all this time, I guess. Or in the process of annulment, do they confess their sin of years of fornication, and repent of it? I dunno; I'm not Catholic.)

And evangelical Protestants just look the other way. They know what they believe, but if a couple in the church divorces, the pastor will say, "what a shame it didn't work out for them," and life goes on. No confession of spiritual error, no repentance, no forgiveness required, no condemnation, no nothing. Cheap grace; cafeteria fundamentalism. What a deal!

Posted by: RT | Apr 22, 2005 4:09:13 PM

Actually, a better example than goat might be horse meat. A referendum banning sale of horse meat in California passed easily in 1998. It always struck me as pure sentimentality considering that other meats are allowed, but in practice I guess there are just not enough people who want to eat horse meat.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Apr 22, 2005 4:09:29 PM

"But this was supposed to be a post about religion, not goat."

Ah, the beauty of the comments section.

I thought it was a post about vegemite.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 22, 2005 4:10:20 PM

...where in downtown Seattle I can score me some goat!

...reminds me of the Boston classic:

A guy in a Boston taxi who'd heard a lot about all the great seafood available in the area, asks the cabbie, "Say, where can I get scrod around here?"

The cabbie laughs and says: "I've been asked that question a thousand times, but never in the pluperfect subjunctive."

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 22, 2005 4:10:55 PM

"Fortunately, young singles are unlikely to attend church anyway compared to other demographic groups because we tend to be rootless and mobile."

Actually, that would be a good reason for young singles to attend church on at least a sporadic basis because being part of a church is a way to establish a social support network wherever one tends to be more easily that on one's own.

But, a lot of churches seem to be extremely focused on marriage, families, traditional gender roles, and a narrow view of sexual morality it a way that makes them inhospitable to a lot of young single people.

Posted by: flip | Apr 22, 2005 4:12:32 PM

Anyone interested in goat should get in touch with my old high school friend, Jim Duffy, who, with his wife Joan, raises meat goats at Spiderhill Farm in Baldwinsville, NY.


Posted by: Donny | Apr 22, 2005 4:14:47 PM

(So it's OK for the couple to have just been fornicating for all this time, I guess. Or in the process of annulment, do they confess their sin of years of fornication, and repent of it? I dunno; I'm not Catholic.)

I believe that if, in good faith, the couple believed they were married, they have not committed the sin of fornication, and, furthermore, that any children of the non-marriage remain legitimate.

Posted by: John | Apr 22, 2005 4:20:29 PM

I'd like to disabuse you of a myth (maybe others above already did) that "conservative Protestatism is doing better than liberal Protestantism."

First of all, "conservative Christians", for all the hoopla, still make up a very definite minority in American society, and haven't made big inroads in recent years.


The fastest growing segment of society, religion-wise is non-Christians.

It seems that Christians' sects are merely cannibalizing each other, religion-wise, but that "no religion," "Buddhist," etc., are actually growing.

So the net flow is out of Christianity.

Posted by: mumon | Apr 22, 2005 4:32:31 PM

Daniel Drezner had a thing on goatmeat last year:
According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, which the Department of Agriculture publishes every five years, goats are among the fastest growing sectors of the livestock industry. The number of goats raised annually for meat increased from 1.2 million to 1.9 million--a jump of 58 percent--from 1997 to 2002. The number of farms that raise meat goats grew to 74,980 from 63,422.

Posted by: Polybius | Apr 22, 2005 4:34:27 PM

Wait, you're not suggesting that religious doctrine has anything to do with control, are you?

Next thing you know, they'll be instituting taxes.

Oh wait ...

Posted by: bleh | Apr 22, 2005 4:49:31 PM

1. There was a Caribbean restaurant in the West Village where I used to enjoy goat back in the day. The name escapes me.

2. Where is it written that the popularity of a Christian church correlates at all with its closeness to God? Seriously, where? Jesus couldn't keep his own disciples from leaving the group when the chips were down. The example of Athanasius fighting the Arian mega-churches also comes to mind. Christianity is a paradoxical religion, and the few worshipers gathered at St. Twee's Episcopal might be closer to what was intended (if anything was) than the masses at Bryant-Denny Stadium cheering the Promise Keepers.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Apr 22, 2005 4:55:56 PM

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