In response to a hardline Catholic’s response to another hardline Catholic, an evangelical agrees that there is ‘no better time’ to join up. Of course, it’s not like anyone could choose any other time in which to exist than the present. But it got me thinking. In terms of sheer coping, the entire concept of there being no better time to join Christianity ranks right up there!
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Ross Douthat, hardline Catholic, declares that there’s no better time to become Catholic
A great many hardline Catholics were not to the manner born, but rather converted in from some evangelical group or other. Ross Douthat is no exception to that rule. He converted to Catholicism at a time when it seemed like hardline doctrinal stances ruled the roost. Now a writer for New York Times, he has consistently lamented Pope Francis’ less draconian papacy. In his Christmas post, he tells us that Francis gives him a great sadness (archive):
I imagined myself making Catholic tradition and thinking attractive to secular and liberal readers. Instead, I’m often obliged to explain why, in seeming to move the church closer to the median secular liberal, Francis is actually driving Catholicism toward crisis.
What an arrogant ass. He does the polar opposite of making Catholicism look appealing, and I say that as a person who grew up intensely Catholic. His Catholicism looks like hardline evangelicalism, just with a lot more smells and bells. Anyone who thinks Francis is a “provocateur,” as Douthat puts it in his post, has utterly lost the religion plot. And I say that as someone who really doesn’t like Francis either.
Douthat enumerates a number of other quibbles he has with Francis, since he’s also declared that his “appointed role is to be the conservative killjoy” of Catholicism. And then, surprisingly, he declares that there has been ‘no better time’ to become a Catholic.
A reaction to a reaction to a reaction
This entire drama began with Catholic Herald, a long-running site for that end of Christianity. In a mid-December post there (archive), Gavin Ashenden, asks “who would choose to be a Catholic at a time like this?” His accusations against Francis are absolutely hysteric:
The phoney [sic] war is over. Civil war has been launched within the Church by Pope Francis and his recent appointee Cardinal Victor Fernandez. [. . .] The old and well-worn jokey reply “Is the pope a Catholic?” has developed a dark shadow to it.
At the end of his post, Ashenden wrings his hands about recruitment:
Catholics are being placed in an impossible and profoundly uncomfortable position by the Vatican; that of remaining good Catholics and knowing that they fuel the death of the Faith; or risking being bad Catholics in order to be faithful to Jesus and, by their sacrifice and witness, keeping the Church alive.
Who would choose to be a Catholic at a time like this?
By the way, I must say this:
It’s beyond hilarious that hardline Catholics can be so incredibly disobedient to the Pope—and yet still be completely convinced that they’re the bestest, most wonderful Catholics who ever Catholicked. They think they understand things better than the Pope himself! So they want Catholicism, yes, but they also want the very Protestant ability to refuse to follow their leaders’ direction if they please. Most Catholics have a better handle on papal obedience than these Johnny-come-lately, over-the-top, fanatical new converts (archive 1; archive 2).
But King Ross Douthat over here doesn’t disagree only with the Pope himself. No, he also disagrees with Ashenden:
In one of the anguished reactions to the latest papal provocation, the British Catholic convert, Gavin Ashenden — a former Anglican priest, indeed a former chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II — enumerates all the ways that Francis seems to be undermining church teachings, describing the impossible dilemmas facing conservative Catholics, and ends with a cri de coeur: “Who would choose to be a Catholic at a time like this?”
To which I would submit, in perfect seriousness, that there is no better time to be a Catholic than this one.
No better time, he says, because today’s Catholic hardliners totally have the opportunity to fix the ailing, liberalizing Catholicism that Francis is mangling with such ungodly devotion:
And the means of that vindication will probably be less any kind of public argument, as important as those may be, and more a personal willingness to practice and transmit the faith through adversity, to model fidelity and charity, to play an ordinary part in working out the destiny of Christianity’s most important church.
Sure, Jan. As if regular normie Catholics do anything to work out Catholicism’s “destiny” besides warm church pews and donate tithes.
Russell Moore also thinks there’s no better time to be evangelical
Ross Douthat is not alone in his overall sentiment. Recently, Christianity Today published a response to Douthat’s response to Ashenden (archive). This time around, Russell Moore wrote the sales pitch. After leaving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the leadership of its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), he quickly became the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. He also leads the site’s “Public Theology Project.”
In his January 11 opinion post for that project, Moore agrees with the overall idea of there being ‘no better time.’ This time, of course, there’s no better time to be evangelical. He writes:
There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be an Evangelical Christian:
Evangelicalism’s historical emphases on personal renewal and church revival shine precisely in dark days like these.
[. . .] For an evangelical—especially an American evangelical—to show any sort of triumphalism in light of some other group’s identity crisis would be, at best, an inability to read the room, and, at worst, the kind of blindness that Jesus told us can only come for those who insist they can see (John 9:41). When it comes to the crises of evangelical Protestantism, though, I am in a very similar place to Douthat. I truly believe there is no better time to be born again.
And why does he think that, one idly wonders? Well, wonder no more! He tells us:
. . . Personal renewal and church revival—what we might say evangelicalism at its best has aspired to conserve—nearly always start with despair and perplexity. [. . .]
But even when we are taken by surprise, and even when so many churches and institutions stumble in the dark—in the absence of a lampstand they don’t even remember to miss—Jesus still says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.”
Unlike ickie Catholicism, Moore tells us, evangelicalism “bursts out so often in the history of the church” because it alone speaks to religious needs that no other religion or philosophy could ever possibly fulfill. 
Declaring that this is no better time to be whatever, when there’s not really a way to be born at any other time
Obviously, of course, we can’t be born at the wrong time. Back when I was in my teens in the SCA, many of us felt we’d been born centuries too late. We wanted to 24/7 live the medieval fantasy we enjoyed only on weekends and during events. I’ve heard Victorian re-enactors say much the same thing, and Civil War re-enactors as well. Even the barbarian roleplayers who called themselves the Tuchux (archive) sighed similar laments.
At other times, we might say someone was born years (or centuries) too early. Such wonder-children often have ideas that are far too advanced for anyone else to understand, much less to put into practice.
Both sentiments make the same mistake.
We’re like wizards, in a way. We are born neither too late nor too early, but rather precisely at the right time. If we’d been born at any other time, we wouldn’t be here to discuss anything at all, nor to belong to any religion. This one time, out of all the time that has ever flowed past already, and out of all the time that will ever come to pass, is our only time.
We can be nowhere else, and we never will be or even can be.
Even right-wing Christians, be they Catholic or evangelical, must know this truth. If their god has a plan, then their precise moments of birth and conversion must be intentional.
Something else is going on here, and it smells like military-grade copium.
All the coping in the world won’t make now into ‘no better time’ for Christianity
Christians in general find themselves in a truly breathtaking, staggering point in history. They face the decline of their unwarranted cultural power and privilege. That decline only began a few decades ago. But I doubt it’ll stop before Christianity becomes more or less irrelevant in all the ways that matter to Christians. We haven’t even seen the bottoming-out of that decline yet, and we won’t for a few more years—or so I reckon.
Christians now find their beliefs put on the same shelf as any other belief.
Catholics have lost much more relevance and power. For many centuries, Catholics could imprison deconverts, torture them, steal all their wealth and assets, and even execute them. The rise of Protestantism and the Enlightenment ended that bloody time.
Now, Protestants—particularly evangelicals—face the loss of the power they gained amid America’s colonization. People in almost all of the United States feel free to reject evangelicals’ sales pitches and control-grabs. Deconversion from evangelicalism no longer automatically results in the loss of deconverts’ entire social circle, all of their relationships, their standing in their community, and even their livelihood.
Right now, Christianity faces a cultural environment a lot closer to the 100s and 200s CE. In its earliest days, joining Christianity was more or less voluntary and optional. That environment ceased to exist around the 4th century.
Well, now it’s back again, and Christians suddenly have to deal with a religion that is voluntary and optional again. Without an artificial boost from temporal power, their religion simply doesn’t sell very well. We are seeing now exactly what happens in an environment of freedom of religion.
Keeping alive the illusion of the winning team
Authoritarians only feel safe when they hold power. Power, here, is defined as making someone do something they wouldn’t otherwise do, something they don’t want to do, something that they know will cause them a loss of some kind. If they don’t hold that power themselves, then they want their leaders to hold it. Without power, they fear victimization at the hands of their enemies.
So I refuse to believe that hardliners in either Catholicism or evangelicalism look upon the 2020s and think that there’s no better time to join up. There’s no way these deeply authoritarian fanatics think that for realsies. No authoritarian is thrilled to join a really authoritarian group just in time for that group’s power to be cut off at the knees.
And anybody joining either group these days is going to be either an authoritarian follower snowed into obedience, or else someone dreaming of the dysfunctional authoritarian leadership these groups can offer.
Authoritarian groups like Catholicism and evangelicalism offer a sense of power to their members. These groups offer certainty, a sense of superiority, and potential protection from harm.
If the leaders of these groups let on that they are on a downward slide to forever, then no authoritarian will ever want to join them. Those authoritarians will find some other group making similar promises.
No better time to make a desperate, last-ditch sales pitch
Hardline evangelical and Catholic leaders very obviously know these facts as well as I do. That’s why Ross Douthat and Russell Moore insist that this era of decline is actually the perfect time to join their respective groups.
They might be playing here with reversed expectations, a favorite word game with Christians. The last shall be first! A lowly servant is really the biggest leader of all! Wealth is poverty! Freedom is slavery!
So really, this time is not just perfect, but there’s never been a more perfect time! Sure, our groups may look like they’re on the down and out, but Jesus is a god of resurrections! Just you wait and see! You won’t want to miss what happens! Join up now so you can be part of that big turnaround!
This is the most desperate sales cry you can possibly imagine. In the absence of any rational reason to ever want to join their groups, these Christian leaders gamble on a sort of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in their marks.
In future days, I suspect both of these Christians will try to spin their respective groups’ cultural irrelevance as somehow representing their time of greatest relevance to Americans. It remains to be seen if this kind of rhetoric will fool the authoritarians who once viewed evangelicalism in particular as a route to easy power. They tend to be far more practical and pragmatic than that.
But we’ll see.
Watch where those authoritarians go. They’ll always head for the greatest perceived potential for power.
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