Online Conversation | Division, Decadence, and Renewal
with Ross Douthat
On January 22, 2021 in partnership with The Institute for Human Ecology, the Harvard Christian Alumni Society, and the Catholic Information Center, we were delighted to welcome author and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. In Douthat’s book, The Decadent Society, he provides an enlightening diagnosis of our modern condition which, he says, has been characterized by decadence. Douthat argues that many of today’s discontents and derangements reflect a sense of futility and disappointment—a feeling that the future is not what was promised.
Almost a year after its original publication, Ross reflected on what the events of the past year have revealed about our condition and how we might serve as agents of renewal in a divisive and decadent time.
The song is “Tabula Rasa” by Greg LaFollette
This painting is Ville-d’Avray by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1865.
Transcript of “Division, Decadence, and Renewal” with Ross Douthat
Rosemary Eldrigde: Hi, everyone. My name is Rosemary Eldridge, and I’m the director of programs and communications at the Catholic Information Center. If you’re not familiar with the CIC, we are a Catholic nonprofit located right here in D.C. and we provide a variety of intellectual, spiritual, and professional programing for the men and women living and working in our nation’s capital in order to provide them the tools to live an integrated Catholic life. To learn more about our missions or to see our other upcoming events, I encourage you to visit our website at CICDC.org. We hope you enjoy this conversation with Ross, and I hope to see you soon at the CIC. God bless.
Andrew Grinstead: Welcome, everyone. My name is Andrew Grinstead, and I am president of the Harvard Christian Alumni Society, or HCAS for short. We are so pleased to be cosponsoring today’s conversation with Ross Douthat, himself Harvard College class of 2002 and former Quincy House president. HCAS is an officially-sanctioned, shared-interest group of the Harvard Alumni Association. We are open to all Harvard University alumni, whether from the college or the graduate schools, and current or former faculty and staff. If you’d like to learn more about us, please look us up on the Web, on Facebook, or on Twitter. Our mission is to connect God’s people to do God’s work. And that’s how we came to sponsor this event today. Cherie Harder, the Trinity Forum president, is also a Harvard alumna. And while others may view such connections as mere chance, we rather are thankful for God’s providence in providing these connections. Human connections remind us that we are not alone in our walk and that we are co-laborers in the Lord. So on behalf of the Harvard Christian Alumni Society and its members, I thank you for watching today and I hope you find today’s conversation edifying and that it may spur you on to do God’s good work in your own sphere of influence.
Joseph Capizzi: Good afternoon. I am Joseph Capizzi, executive director for the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. At the IHE, we seek to uncover and advance the conditions of human flourishing in the light of Catholic social doctrine. Every year we partner with like-minded individuals and organizations to train young women and men to pursue the full implications of human dignity in our society. We are therefore deeply pleased to be partnering with some old and new friends today in sponsoring this Online Conversation with Ross Douthat, whom we like to think of as best-known as an IHE fellow who has a side gig writing for a regional New York area newspaper. In our judgment, Ross is the leading opinion writer in the country, and we are grateful he’s been with us from our beginning and that he’s joining us today. Enjoy the conversation.
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Joe, Andrew, and Rosemary, and on behalf of all of us of the Trinity Forum, I want to welcome you to the first Online Conversation of 2021 with our guest, Ross Douthat, to discuss division, decadence, and renewal. I’d like to thank our partners in the effort that you just heard from: the Institute for Human Ecology and the Harvard Christian Alumni Society, who are sponsors of today’s Online Conversation and have helped make it possible, as well as our co-host, the Catholic Information Center. It’s just been a joy to collaborate with all of you on today’s Online Conversation. I’m particularly excited to introduce our guest today, an amazingly prolific writer, a provocative and unpredictable thinker, and an affable contrarian whose latest book has caused quite a bit of stir and makes what might be a counterintuitive claim that among all the seeming tumult of the last few years, things are actually changing less than we think, and that the world’s richest nations have lost a sense of purpose and have become, as the title of his book suggests, a decadent society. Such decadence he defines as a particular sort, not of the debauchery that might evoke images of Nero or orgies or second helpings of chocolate cake, but, in his words, “an economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technical technological development,” which reveals itself in such unusual means as uninspiring movies, a declining birth rate, and calcified political divisions and culture wars. He argues that this rather dismal state of affairs may actually have remarkable staying power as our vices are of a sort that offer their own protections, even anesthesia, as porn, drugs, doom scrolling, and other addictions and distractions keep us subdued and indoors, not outside causing mayhem. We are, he argues, aging, comfortable, and stuck.
So what can we do to shake off this decadence or reinvigorate the character-forming relationships and institutions that both ground us and grow us and that renew a sense of solidarity and purpose? Our guest today offers a variety of possibilities, but he ultimately argues that decadence ends with people looking heavenward towards God, the stars, or both. It’s a provocative, counterintuitive, but certainly elegantly expressed argument, all a hallmark of our guest today, Ross Douthat.
Ross is a best-selling author and columnist for The New York Times, a role he’s held for well over a decade and assumed as the then-youngest columnists in The New York Times‘ history. He also co-hosts The New York Times‘ podcast, The Argument, with fellow columnists of very different ideological persuasions, is a film critic for the National Review, and has previously served as the senior editor of The Atlantic. He’s the author of several significant works, including To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, and his newest work just released in paperback entitled The Decadent Society: America Before and After the Pandemic, which we’ve invited him here to discuss today. Ross, welcome. Great to have you.
Ross Douthat: Great to be here or in whatever virtual space we are occupying together, Cherie. It’s good to see you.
Cherie Harder: Well, we’ll just dive right into it. I mean, there are many theories about the root causes of our national difficulties, but, for many people, it’s not terribly intuitive the idea of decadence would be chief among them, at least as decadence is typically understood. So if we could just start with what it is you mean by decadence and why you’ve come to believe that we are, in fact, a decadent society.
Ross Douthat: Sure. So, I mean, I think in your very kind, probably too flattering introduction, you gave an excellent distillation of the argument of the book, which is basically that decadence means stagnation, drift, repetition, and a little bit of decay for societies that have already become rich, proficient, technologically developed and so on. And I think this is a very reasonable description, not just of the United States, but of the entire Western and arguably the entire developed world since the 1970s. And I think you can see this in the interaction between several different trends, right. So the book starts with the moon landing. And, you know, you mentioned that it ends talking about people looking at the stars. And basically it argues that the failure of the space age, the fact that we spent 20 or 25 years telling ourselves that we were about to enter into a new era of Star Trek–style exploration, where the human species was going to expand beyond the planet Earth and colonize the solar system, if not the galaxy. And then that didn’t actually happen. It turned out our technology wasn’t ready or the spaces were too big or nobody actually wanted to go and live on the moon or on Mars. You know, whatever reason you prefer to emphasize. We basically had a version of the closing of the frontier that happened in the United States at the end of the 19th century, where a kind of organizing principle of modern society, this idea of sort of expansion, growth, development, and exploration hit what is for now a ceiling, a pretty clear natural limit.
And so we were sort of thrown back on ourselves in a way, thrown back into our own societies. And I don’t think it’s sort of a simple causal arrow where people got depressed because we couldn’t go to Mars and stopped having kids and stopped inventing as many things. But I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that you had this sort of burst of exploration that ended up not leading to the future that people imagined 50 years ago. And since then, you’ve had basically four or five different trends all working together. And I’ll just quickly, quickly sketch them. The first is an economic deceleration, right? Economic growth has not stopped in wealthy societies, but its pace and the spread of its benefits have both diminished since the late 1960s and early 1970s. You’ve gone from five or six percent growth in good economic times to two to three percent growth. You’ve gone from sort of long expansions to sort of repeated financial shocks that then take a long time to recover from. You’ve gone from broadly-shared wage-gains for the middle and working class to economic benefits that tend to be concentrated in the upper middle class or the upper middle class. And all that has held true not just in the US, but in Western Europe as well.
So that’s part one is deceleration. Joined to that is the disappointment in technological progress outside the Internet. And obviously the Internet is a big exception. The mere fact that we’re having this conversation testifies to its significance for society. But if you look at what people expected from technological progress a few generations ago, there was an expectation of change in energy, transportation, medicine, a whole range of areas that had changed dramatically across the Industrial Revolution and into the middle of the 20th century. And there’s been a lot more stagnation and disappointment. And you can see this in productivity statistics, which is the best measurement we have of technology’s impact on the economy, where productivity growth surges until the 1970s thens falls off, surges very briefly when the Internet emerges in the late 1990s and then falls off again and has remained low down to the present era. So whatever technological progress we’re enjoying, and clearly we’re enjoying some, isn’t having the impact on the economy and everyday life that the big changes of the 19th and early 20th century had.
So economic deceleration, technological stagnation. Political gridlock. I think this is the easiest to see in different forms in Washington, D.C. and in the European Union. But in both cases, you have various dynamics making it harder and harder for political parties or political coalitions to actually govern, pursue ambitious programs and so on. And this has sort of reached at least a temporary climax with the Obama years, the last six Obama years, and the four Trump years in the United States, both being defined by incredible legislative inactivity and a lot of attempts of governance and sort of around existing norms through executive orders and court decisions and the like.
So gridlock is a feature of decadence, and then so, too, is demographic decline, which is pretty obviously measurable. And it’s where just about every rich country in the world since the 60s and 70s has seen its birthrate fall below, sometimes well below, replacement level, which in turn leads to a rapid aging of society, which then feeds back into the other forms of decadence, because an aging society is more risk averse, more likely to be politically stalemated, because people have so much investment in existing programs and existing systems, less likely to adopt new technologies, less likely to adopt new ideas.
And then from ideas, and this is the part where I have no statistics, but only—well, I have a few statistics—but mostly just impressions. I think you can see a stagnation in culture as well, where ideological and intellectual arguments, including theological arguments, have been in many cases stuck in place since the 1970s. Within Christianity and my own Catholic tradition, you know, you’ll have these moments where it seems like something is shifting and then the arguments immediately return to “Well, what do we do about the sexual revolution? How do we react to it?” And you’re back in the same place as you were in 1975. But I think this extends beyond religious and theological debates. I think it encompasses partisan and ideological battles, which really resemble sort of where they were when Ronald Reagan came to power in more ways than we tend to admit. And then finally, pop culture itself, where it’s not— you’re not deceived if you feel like every movie today is a remake or a reboot of some property or franchise that was developed when the Baby Boomers were young. And there are lots of complex reasons for that. But there is a clear repetition in culture, a consolidation in culture around sort of specific media entities like the one I work for, all of which has sort of an enervating and creativity stifling effect.
So that’s hopefully a reasonably quick account of what I mean by decadence. And it doesn’t preclude, obviously, you know, it doesn’t preclude meaningful historical events happening. It doesn’t preclude change of various kinds. But in the broader scheme of things, I think I feel pretty comfortable saying that the last two generations in Western history have been more stagnant than dynamic and more decadent than innovative.
Cherie Harder: Well, so much to unpack there, Ross. But first, before we do that, I have to ask, we last hosted you on March 10. It was probably the last—well, it was certainly the last big event the Trinity Forum did of the year. We all actually went home the next day and closed the office. And, you know, at this point, you know, much has happened—
Ross Douthat: Just a bit. Yes.
Cherie Harder: —since March 10th. And there’s even a way—after so much economic dislocation, so much suffering, so much civic unrest, an insurrection at the Capitol—stasis almost seems aspirational. So I wanted to ask you, just how have you, if at all, rethought your thesis since your book first came out in hardcover in February?
Ross Douthat: So, yeah, I mean, the event had this sort of, you know, mask of the Red Death, like dancing on the edge of a volcano feel. It was the end of my book tour. And yeah, I think two days later, the NBA canceled its season and Tom Hanks got sick, the two sort of tipping points into the full Covid era. So I think you could see something like the pandemic as, you know, it’s obviously a sort of historical shock to every system that sort of— to the systems that I’m describing in the book. And it’s sort of a test. It’s a test on the one hand of how decadent are we? Like, how ineffective are our governments, how gridlocked are our politics really? Can they respond to a challenge like this? And then also a test of sort of how stable are we really? You know, if you strip away a lot of, not just people’s jobs, but a lot of the accouterments of a normal late-modern life, from going to the movies to going to a baseball game to going to a coffee shop, what does that do? What do you get? So that’s sort of what we’ve been living through, a sort of a stress test for a decadent society, you might say. And I think, you know, we’re still in it. Right. So you want to be hesitant about drawing too many conclusions. But I think provisionally, you could say a few things.
You could say, first, that political and institutional decadence looks worse today than it did before the pandemic hit. But also unevenly distributed, in the sense that— In my book, I draw a lot of analogies between Western Europe, the US, and East Asia—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, other developed countries in the Pacific Rim. And obviously, the countries of the Pacific Rim have in many respects handled the pandemic much better. Their institutions, their state capacity, their sort of societal response has just been much more effective, whereas the U.S. and Western Europe have both in many ways seen sort of repeated institutional and social failures when it comes to containing the disease. And, you know, in the American context, most of this, the debate about this, tends to revolve around Donald Trump and his particular failings and vices, and that’s understandable. But if you look at overall patterns in the U.S. and then countries like France and Spain and Italy and the U.K. that don’t have Donald Trump as president, you can see many, many commonalities or similarities or institutions failing in different ways, but always finding ways to fail. So I think that’s, you know, that’s in certain ways the most depressing part of this experience—independent, obviously, of the horrible human tragedy and death toll—is sort of seeing that, you know, you would hope that a sort of gridlocked and sclerotic institutional system could rise to the occasion when confronted with something like this. And I think it’s fair to say we haven’t.
Now, at the same time, we have a vaccine, right? And we have several vaccines. We have them in record time. So you would also have to say that hard science, sort of pure science, looks less decadent in this crisis and more capable of being transformative than it had been in many ways in the decades immediately before the arrival of COVID-19. And if you want to pull some real optimism out of this era, you would say this, one, shows us that, you know, real breakthroughs are possible. It may show the way to further breakthroughs. The MRNA vaccine approach may have applications to other diseases, multiple sclerosis and others. And, you know, there really are—and there’s a number of writers who’ve written about this—a bunch of potential technological innovations on the horizon right now in energy, transportation, self-driving cars, some others in vaccines and medicine and so on, that would be bigger than what was happening before. And it may be that the experience of getting the vaccine so quickly sort of teaches us a lesson about how to clear obstacles away and how to sort of do innovation even under conditions of decadence. So that would be sort of the more optimistic take.
And then there’s the uncertain one, right? Which is, you know, you mentioned the riot at the Capitol. I mean, overall, both in the summertime, riots and protests, the George Floyd protests and some of the urban unrest, and then again, in, you know, what you could call the Q-Anon riot on Capitol Hill, you’ve had cases where a politics that seemed really sort of online and performative and virtual broke through, for better or worse, into reality, into street protest, into, you know, demands for racial justice, into arson and looting, into, you know, a sort of very, very strange, unprecedented sort of quasi-interaction. And that is, you know, that— in certain ways that’s not decadent. Right. It’s dangerous. When you have that kind of breakthrough, it offers sort of opportunities for transformation and reform, even revolution, and also opportunities for, you know, catastrophe. Right. That’s the thing about decadence is leaving it behind is always really fraught and really dangerous, which is, again, as you say, there’s sort of an appeal to what I call in the book “sustainable decadence.”
But so those things are undecadent. But I think it’s too soon to tell just how undecadent they are. It’s too soon to tell, one, how much they’re sort of temporary creations of this really strange lockdown. Everybody’s on Zoom going crazy or stuck in their house with their small children, not that I know anyone who’s had that experience, right. You know, you’ve had this sort of unique pressure on people. And you could imagine a world where, once it’s relieved, you have sort of a return to a more performative and somewhat empty style of political radicalism that is both safer and less interesting and dramatic than what we’ve seen in the last year. And you also just, you know, we don’t know the long-term effects of any of these specific things, right? So some of the Black Lives Matter protests seemed ultimately to be quickly sort of rerouted into a sort of reform of corporate H.R. departments. Right? So you went from sort of appeals against police brutality to, you know, assigning employees to read White Fragility, which seems, you know, the latter seems like a return to decadence to me, right, that you have this sort of civil rights–oriented moment that turns into sort of a new blueprint for human resources and diversity management. That seems decadent.
I mean, the stuff on Capitol Hill, we just we don’t know. If it opens into like a period of sort of spasms of right-wing violence that will be terrible and also not decadent. If we look back in a year and we say there were these guys who got whipped up by the Internet and the president and got dressed up in absurd costumes, and then they all got arrested, and, you know, people in their movement were like, “let’s never do that again,” then that looks less terrifying, but also more decadent. But again, we’re sort of really still in the midst of that. And I think it’s important to be, you know, at least somewhat humble and modest about drawing too firm a conclusion from this very, very strange situation overall.
Cherie Harder: So I want to get to your thoughts on Bad Religion before we go to audience questions, but I have to ask just a couple of quick questions there, which is one of the interesting things is the examples you cite of some of our recent national achievements, the incredible fast-tracking and accelerated development of the vaccine. You know, the hard sciences tend to be less ideologically riven in their conduct of science than many other activities. And I wonder just what you see as the relationship between political polarization and what we’ve seen of the rise of affective polarization, fear and loathing of the other side that has gone with it. But the relationship between essentially division and decadence. And then, also, I wanted you just to comment on, there is certainly a case to be made for incremental progress that doesn’t necessarily speak to decadence and how you would distinguish between incrementalism that is positive, forward-looking, non-decadent, and, you know, the return to the norm that you sort of described with the devolution of Black Lives Matter protests to H.R. departments.
Ross Douthat: Yeah, those are both really good questions. How long do you have? So, on the first point, so polarization it’s clearly a feature of sort of the gridlocked ungovernability of the United States in the first part of the 21st century. And what’s tricky to figure out with all of these trends is what is causal, right, and where do the causes start? What is an effect and what is a cause? And so polarization is tangled up in sort of socioeconomic shifts where you have this sort of consolidated, highly-educated upper class that’s sort of geographically segregated from the rest of the country, which in turn has effects on political coalitions. It’s also connected to the way that media has developed, right. First in cable news and then in the Internet into this sort of, you know, this sort of media entertainment complex where politics is treated, you know, sort of as a kind of higher stakes version of sports where you have, you know, your team that you’re rooting for under all circumstances, except you really hate the other team instead of just sort of hating them the way I hated Yankee fans as a kid.
And then you have the weakening— politics is clearly filling voids left by the weakening of other forms of meaning. Right? And, you know, this sort of takes an extreme form in some of the extremes of wokeness on the left or, you know, some of part of the Q-Anon phenomenon on the right. But even when it doesn’t go that far, there still clearly is a way in which people’s identity as political partisans fills the role that used to be played by their identity as Catholics or Presbyterians or Lutherans, right. And again, it’s just hard to tell where, you know, where does all this start? What is the thing— everything there seems to be entangled. But I do think, you know, to me, what has been striking up until 2020—and, you know, it remains to be seen what, you know, how much difference this year will make—but is this combination of sort of vicious polarization, hatred of the other side, joined to a lack of sort of strong ideological possibility?
So if you, you know, people will compare our our situation to like Weimar Germany. Right. If you actually go back to Weimar Germany, what’s striking about that era is that everything politically is on the table. You have a country that had a Kaiser, right; it was a monarchy until eight or 10 years before. It has people who want to turn it into a communist state; it has people who want to turn it into a fascist state; it has people who want it to be a military dictatorship. It has all kinds of different forms of small-D Democrats and small-R Republicans. It’s an environment where the battles really matter. The ideological conflicts really matter, because there really is this sense of like Germany could become anything. And obviously what it actually became was horrifying. But it was a period where the stakes were obvious.
And what I struggle with in analyzing politics today is figuring out how high the stakes are. Right. So, you know, a lot of my liberal friends became convinced that Donald Trump was, you know, effectively a fascist and therefore an existential threat to American democracy. And so we were in a kind of 1930s moment. And even encompassing the riot on Capitol Hill the Trump administration just never felt that way to me. It felt incompetent. Trump felt like he was, you know, someone who had an authoritarian personality, certainly. But there didn’t— It all seemed to be this sort of weird, you know, slightly farcical revival of forces and arguments that were actually meaningful 40 years ago or 80 years ago, but seemed less so today. So that’s been my reading on polarization and that, you know, we’re sort of remixing and refighting the great battles of the Western world with lower stakes and sort of an Internet frenzy. But I don’t know if that will still be how things look in five years. Maybe we really are passing back into history in some way. Sorry. You were—
Cherie Harder: Oh, I was going to move us on to— I really want to talk with you a little bit about some of your views on the role that Christianity plays in all of this, too, before we go to our audience questions. And really back over 10 years ago you were quite prescient in your book Bad Religion, and there seems to be a bit of a through-line between that book and your newer book, in that back then you claim that essentially Christian orthodoxy was in decline. There was a decadence to it. But the religious impulse wasn’t going away so much as expressing itself through a number of heresies. And one that you you mentioned at the time, which then might have seen a little bit overblown but the events of the last few years have shown otherwise has been that of Christian nationalism. And so I would love to get your thoughts on just the role between Christian heresy and decadence and whether you see revival as a necessary for renewal.
Ross Douthat: Yeah, well, I mean, you’re very kind. I think the book was prescient in certain ways, although it definitely didn’t see everything coming. But it was, in a sense, a book— If this book is about the decadence of all of Western civilization, that book was about the decadence of American Christianity. And in that case, I meant the weakening and internal division of the sort of institutional forms of Christian faith in the United States, both Protestant and Catholic, since the 1960s. And so the book told the story of how that weakening happened. And then it talked about sort of the forces that emerge or gain more influence when institutional Christianity is weakened. And I think two of them are particularly relevant to the Trump era.
One, as you say, is the sort of Christian nationalism that, you know, really I think became, I think, more and more influential in how evangelicals especially, but also some Catholics, related to the Trump presidency by the end, where there was this sort of conflation of the church’s destiny with America’s destiny, which is a very old conflation, then was also conflated with, you know, Donald Trump’s ability to stay in office, which, you know, certainly would not have seen the particulars of that coming 10 years ago. Like if you had said, “How will Christian nationalism manifest itself?” you would have said, “Well, it’ll probably end up rallying around, you know, some sort of overtly, you know, intensely religious figure.” And Trump was, you know, not really that. But somehow the force of the idea was powerful enough to encompass even this somewhat heathen figure. And, you know, at the start, at the start of the Trump presidency, there was this clear sense that sort of the religious conservative relationship to Trump was transactional, right? That he was like Cyrus, that he was this sort of heathen or pagan king who was protecting the church the way that Cyrus protected the people of Israel or something. But by the end, especially in sort of things like the Jericho March and these protests on Trump’s behalf after the election, that sort of distinction seemed to go away. And it was just like, no, Trump was actually an avatar for God’s purposes in America.
But then the other element there, I think that actually goes back to Trump’s own family’s past as a family that attended Norman Vincent Peale’s church in Manhattan, is prosperity theology, which I spent a lot of time writing about in the book, the sort of not just a very specific “God wants you to get rich,” but a sort of general like, you know, “God is on the side of the successful American” kind of worldview. And so I think that— you know, some of Trump’s most important spiritual advisers, like Paula White, came out of that world. And I think there was definitely elements of both sort of prosperity theology and Christian nationalism in the most intense parts of Trump’s support.
But then I should also say very quickly that the thing I don’t think I saw coming, apart from not seeing Trump himself coming as an avatar for these forces, was on the left. Where in Bad Religion, you know, I spent a certain amount of time talking about liberal Christianity. I talk about the Jesus Seminar and sort of, you know, various reinterpretations of the gospel. But at that point, in 2011, 2012, it seemed like religious zeal on the left was a relatively weak force or something that had been like, you know, it sort of tended to be centered around like Barack Obama’s 2008 cult of personality or something. And I think that what you have seen since in sort of the rise of what gets called “wokeness” and sort of, you know, this kind of zealous progressivism is this kind of return of liberal Protestantism as its own kind of heresy of Christianity that is sort of Christian zeal without Christian metaphysics or in some cases Christian mercy. And that’s become incredibly potent, I think, on the left—and is not only a religious phenomenon, it has all kinds of forces converging—but it partakes of religious energy in a really powerful way.
Cherie Harder: So before we turn to questions, I have to ask, you’ve made such a fascinating diagnosis. If you were to offer a prescription, what would it be and what signs of hope do you see?
Ross Douthat: Well, I think the prescription just has to depend on your place in the world, right, and your own vocation. You know, this goes to the question you offered that I didn’t really answer about incrementalism. But, you know, there is no one person, one man, one woman, solution to decadence, right. To some extent, even if we may feel that incrementalism just ends up sort of being subsumed into stagnation, for most people, it’s still the only thing that you can do, right. And you can be undecadent in your own personal life or your own professional sphere, even if you don’t succeed in sort of creating a more general dynamism on any kind of time horizon that you yourself can see, right. But so everything from like, you know, if you are an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, the kind of things you choose to work on can be more or less decadent. So, you know, Elon Musk may be a huckster at some level, a very strange figure. But he wants to go into space and, you know, dig tunnels to speed transportation across the United States and have the first driverless car. All of those things are less decadent than the people who are just trying to come up with the next food delivery app. Right. So that’s, you know, there are more and less decadent things that you can be entrepreneurial about. In this, you know, in your personal life, like, just the act of having children is an undecadent act in a society with a declining birth rate and an aging population. Every child is a victory over decadence in some way. But so, too, is, you know, joining a monastery, pursuing a religious vocation, all of those kinds of things.
And then in politics, which is what I write about the most, it’s sort of the hardest, because you’re embedded in this sort of interlocking and complex system where, you know, you’re sort of in a party structure that limits your power in all kinds of ways. And, you know, certainly there—as someone who writes about the political right—there is a lot of times when I sort of despair of the possibilities for an undecadent conservatism. But still, what you do is you wake up in the morning and you say, “How can I help American conservatism”—or liberalism if you’re a liberal—”break out of this pattern of gridlock and futility?” How can I build a 55 percent majority in American politics, which we haven’t had arguably since the Reagan era, instead of fighting at 50 to 49 or 51 to 48, as we’ve been doing. So anyway, I could go on. But those are all sort of personal, political, entrepreneurial case studies. And I think how to think about, like, in your particular area, being decadent versus not decadent. And also like, you know, don’t spend as much time as I do on Twitter is always good undecadent advice.
Cherie Harder: Always good advice. So we now turn to the most dynamic part of our Online Conversation, which is questions from our viewers. And if you are one of the many first-time viewers to our Online Conversation, just a few little instructions. You can not only ask a question via the Q&A box, which is located at the bottom of your screen, but you can also “like” a question, and that gives us a little bit more sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So, Ross, one of the first questions comes from an anonymous attendee who asks whether a Christian anthropology stipulates the necessity of danger for real human flourishing?
Ross Douthat: That’s a really good question. Yes, probably. I mean, you want to be careful, right, about this, because you don’t, you know— I mean, in Catholicism, if you’re in the confessional and you’re making an act of contrition, you’re going to say, you don’t just promise not to sin anymore, you promise to avoid the occasions of sin. Right? And I think, you know, what’s true in the personal is also true at the societal level there. You know, you don’t just sort of want to wander into danger. You don’t want to say, “Oh, man, you know, Weimar Germany had such possibility, right. Let’s get back to that landscape.” And so there’s you know— anyway, I’m just saying you need to be careful about sort of going too far with that logic. But yes, I mean, fundamentally, what I think— Christian anthropology contrasts very sharply with the implicit anthropology of sort of a wealthy, decadent society, which is the anthropology embraced by, let’s say, the World State in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where avoiding danger, avoiding trouble, avoiding sort of the most overt forms of unhappiness, is the most important thing, and the best way to do that is to give everybody drugs and, you know, give them sort of virtual reality substitutes for the feeling you used to get from a fight or sex or anything else like that.
And you know, that I think— Huxley was not himself a Christian, but the arguments that are made at the end of the book and sort of the arguments between the character from outside this dystopian society versus the person in charge of it are arguments that Christians would generally agree with, right. That, you know, you have to have the risk of danger in order to have the possibility of true human flourishing. You have to have, you know, to put it in the most cosmic terms for Christians, you have to have the risk of hell, right, in order to really have the hope of heaven. So in that sense, yes, there is— a society that strips, that tries to avoid danger in every way, shape, or form is moving away from certain Christian assumptions about the purpose and meaning of life.
Cherie Harder: So I’m going to combine questions from Nick Bucknor and Michael Pepper, both who ask about the role of mediating institutions. And Michael asks, “Living as we do in a decadent yet God-haunted society, how might our many and disparate little platoons provide an antidote to the binary or winner-take-all spirit that pervades our public institutional lives?”
Ross Douthat: I mean, part of it is just being little and local and, you know, sort of being detached in various ways from the sort of performative and somewhat empty conflicts that play out on the Internet. Right? I mean, there’s definitely, certainly for people in my profession, there’s a certain relief that comes from closing your computer after somebody has been screaming at you or you’ve been screaming at somebody on the Internet about national politics and going out and walking down your street and seeing your neighbors and realizing that none of them actually care what just happened on social media. Right? And I think that should be the aspiration. And what I think what is frightening or what you fear is both, on the one hand, sort of the disappearance of those local human-scale institutions and relationships or—maybe even worse, I’m not sure—a world where the sort of rules of online debate spill over into those local societies. And that’s, you know, that’s sort of what, in my own life, that’s sort of what I kind of fear the most, the world where like my enfleshed, embodied existence comes to resemble the world of online combat. And thank God it hasn’t happened yet.
But, yeah, I mean, I think building communities that have an internal integrity that is both not controlled by sort of virtual and national debates and also is capable of like transcending them to some extent, that you can have, you know, local relationships that are organized around different things. Some of them are organized around, you know, your shared religious beliefs. Some of them are organized around where you live or a project you’re all working on together and you can all work together, even though one of you voted for Donald Trump and the other seven think, you know, Trump-voting is the worst, you know, the worst sin since Nero. So that’s, I think, that’s the challenge, right? It’s both sort of building communities of common purpose, but also building multiple communities so that you can do things with people who you might disagree with on some issues and still be in community with them.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Berna Cooley, who touches upon some of what you just said. She asks, “Do you think the demonstrations of civil unrest are a symptom of people trying to break free of decadence?”
Ross Douthat: Yes, to some extent. I mean, even before those protests, right, we had lived through an era of, you know, a certain disturbance in our politics, it’s fair to say. Right. That sort of, you know, the rise of Donald Trump, the rise of other populist movements in the Western world, the revival of socialism, you know, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom—all of that suggests a certain discontent with decadence even before you get into the year of the pandemic. So, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, people wouldn’t be voting for outsiders if they were perfectly happy with sustainable decadence under the rule of, you know, a sort of wealthy [inaudible] class. And even if, you know, some of the mood of the protests was conditioned by the weird pressure everyone was on because of the lockdowns, there’s still, you know, a sort of a thirst for justice that animated the best of the protests that is itself a revolt against the sense that, like, you know, the world is just what it is and we’re just going to keep going about our business and make our money and look at pornography and go to bed. Right. So, yes, in that sense, absolutely. There is the— Put it this way: I was just referencing Brave New World, but the people in our decadent society are not like the people in Brave New World. The people in Brave New World—except for the outsider—they have some discontents, but they can’t even articulate them. They’re so sort of fully conditioned to this safety-oriented, virtual-reality based, dehumanized society, and we’re happily nowhere close to that. People still thirst for community. They still thirst for transcendence, they still thirst for justice. They want something different than just a sort of stable, wealthy, unhappy order. It’s just—for all kinds of reasons, because decadence is created by the convergence of all of these forces—it’s challenging to take that desire and turn it into radical change as opposed to the theater of the Trump presidency or the human resources department cooptation of Black Lives Matter.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Benjamin Peterson, and he asks, “One of the interesting ironies of your argument is that things often thought to be progressive, such as the sexual revolution, can contribute to what you call decadence. Would you care to comment on how things thought progressive can actually cause stagnation and how things called traditional can be dynamic? Or to put it from a perspective of a skeptic, isn’t traditional religion stasis-inducing? How can it help us counteract decadence?”
Ross Douthat: So I don’t, yeah, I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s as an assumption that people have, because, I mean, traditional religion is, you know, it does obviously try to hold certain things unchanging. The nature of tradition, right? And in debates within Christian churches, the traditionalists are usually the one saying, “Here’s this thing we have that we shouldn’t change.” And the progressives are the ones saying, “No, we have to change and adapt.” So at that level, it’s true. But then if you actually look at the history of Christianity, you see a couple of things. One is that periods of religious vitality and periods of sort of social change and economic dynamism often go together. So if you live in a society where people are sort of conditioned to think that, you know, the universe was designed by God for human beings, its secrets can yield themselves to human action, human curiosity and creativity, and we’re all participating in a unfolding story that has a purpose and an intention and a meaning and isn’t just one damn thing after another, that society might be more religious than ours and more scientifically innovative than ours.
And, you know, you can sort of take particular examples. I take a couple in my book. The height of the space program actually did coincide with a period of sort of revival and sort of temporary sort of resilience in American Protestantism. The space race was, in a weird way, the last great project of American Protestantism at some peculiar level. And now you could say, “Well, that just means that you need, you know, innovation in religion to accompany innovation in science.” But even that isn’t fully true, because so much of innovation in religion, like innovation in other cultural areas, can mean a recovery or reaching back, an attempt to sort of learn something from a past we’ve left too far behind that we need to draw from. So, you know, in the Reformation era, both the Protestants, reformers on the Protestant side, and figures like Ignatius of Loyola, to say nothing of the artists of the Italian renaissance, they’re all doing things that are dynamic, but also reaching back sort of to a more interesting Christian and religious past than was presented by, you know, the sort of Great Schism era in the medieval church, right.
So there’s basically just a real complexity to how tradition and innovation interact that isn’t just as simple as tradition means stasis and, you know, innovation means leaving tradition behind. Traditions survive precisely by finding new syntheses, by figuring out, “Here’s the thing we’re carrying forward that we don’t want to change. Here’s the thing we might need to change. Here’s the space in between them.” That’s what, you know, every new period in Christian history has been, this mix of, you know, figuring out what we have to preserve to be true to the faith and figuring out what we have to do differently in a different era. And I think we haven’t come up with that synthesis in Western churches since the 60s. But the synthesis when it comes will involve some mixture of innovation and also traditionalism and not a simple binary choice between the two.
Cherie Harder: That actually kind of plays into our next question. I’m going to combine two of them from both Graham Joselyn and Robert LaBlanche. Graham asked, “To what extent is the church complicit in society’s decadence?” And Robert looks forward and says, “Is there any hope of a great awakening bringing us out of our current decadence?”
Ross Douthat: So the church is complicit in the sense that we’re all complicit, right. I think the right language to use is that the church is participating in decadence, that it’s one of these, you know, what has happened in religious institutions since the 60s especially is part of this sort of interlocking set of trends. And that means that then you can say individual choices and mistakes and blunders have contributed to a deepening of decadence. So, you know, in my own Catholic Church, Catholicism in the United States would be less decadent—in the sense of meaning less institutionally adrift and divided—absent the sex abuse crisis. So in that sense, every bishop who covered up sex abuse is complicit in the deepening of decadence. Absolutely. But it isn’t just sort of a question of individual choices. There is just also this sort of structural reality, which explains why you see these patterns repeating themselves across different religious institutions and denominations. But yes, I mean, if— religion is close to the center of any culture, and so anytime you have cultural decadence, you should expect it to be connected to religious decadence as well.
And then in terms of optimism, I mean, you know, I think we’re in a phase right now, to go back to something I was saying before, this phase of sort of real discontent, right, where people are sort of casting about for alternatives to decadence. But it’s not clear yet sort of what the most promising paths out are. And, you know, and I think when—to go back to the question about danger, too—so I think Christians especially have to regard this kind of discontent with a lot of uncertainty, right, because, you know, on the one hand, it’s better in a way to live in a society where lots of young human beings are interested in spiritual realities and aren’t just sort of satisfied with a kind of flat, materialist, meritocratic culture. Right? And there is a lot of that spiritual interest. I think there’s more spiritual interest among young people in the U.S. today than there was when I was in college. At the same time, you know, that spiritual interest can lead to, from a Christian perspective, can lead to some pretty dark places. Right? So you have more exorcisms, more requests for exorcists in the United States in 2020 than you did in 2000 or 2010. And that’s sort of the most extreme example. But I think, you know, in general, a sort of weakened Christianity that’s trying to figure out a path to revival has to steer between sort of— it has to steer this careful course where it wants to encourage sort of spiritual exploration against a pure materialism, while also being aware that spiritual exploration isn’t just a good unto itself. It has to be actually met and channeled, you know, towards the truth, ultimately, right. And that’s where, you know, I don’t have incredible near-term optimism that American Christianity is sort of poised to answer that spiritual hunger. I think we’re on a much longer multigenerational time-horizon for figuring out what the most effective Christian answers look like.
Cherie Harder: Finally, as promised, Ross, the last word is yours.
Ross Douthat: You know, the tendency of the Internet is to make problems seem unsolvable and your enemies seem unlovable. And any kind of serious response to decadence, I think, therefore has to involve figuring out how to live as much of your life as possible away from that particular dynamic. That particular danger is one not to be embraced but to be avoided. And I’m very hopeful—to end on a hopeful note—that the experience of the pandemic, the experience of being sort of locked more fully into that virtual world, will make people appreciate reality and, above all, the human reality of their friends and neighbors, including ones they disagree with, that much more when we all get to go back fully into that reality again, God-willing, very soon. So thank you again for having me. It was a pleasure.
Cherie Harder: Always great to talk with you. Thank you all for joining us. Have a great weekend.