06/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I'm Not a Theologian but I Play One at the Times

It's a good thing Ross Douthat is back to empty calories. His column last week invoking the recent Pew poll on support for abortion actually required some research and analysis, at least to see what the Pew poll really meant. Most analysts dismissed the usually reliable Pew as putting a scary headline on a poll that was just a little different from the decades of polling showing stable support for abortion in just about the circumstances that apply now. When the Gallup Poll came out later, reflecting an actual decline in support for abortion below 50%, it took a bunch of numbers crunchers to figure out what was wrong. Here is the estimable John Sides, a political science professor, on the numbers and on the other smart people looking at the numbers. Take away message: little change. Except in the overheated imagination of the avidly anti-choice Ross Douthat.

But today Douthat uses his roughly 1000 word space at the Times website to review the collected works of Dan Brown, author of such political books as The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, educate the public on the fictional nature of these works of, er, fiction, and inform his readers of the eternal truth of the "jealous, demanding apocalyptic" Jesus of "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." To be charitable, let us assume that Douthat, who did not, even as an undergraduate, study theology, is actually making a political point. He might be arguing that the popularity of Brown's books reflects an American preference for a kind of civil religion, which does not immediately drive people to pile up the wood around the stake, the better to slake the appetite of their jealous and demanding god.

Many commentators on the American political scene including, for example, the locus classicus of American observers, Alexis de Tocqueville, noticed the same thing. The only difference is that they thought it was a good thing that American democracy was buttressed by a spiritual element which did not immediately involve hooded minions, whereas Douthat regrets. One does not have to be Christopher Hitchens to be grateful that, so far, Douthat and his co-religionists, wherever they may be found (I extend Roman Catholicism the respect of not thinking that Douthat's one liner sums up their understanding of the Gospels or the relationship between the Cities of God and Man), have not yet enticed a majority of American voters to their grand new party. Indeed, being a descendant of (if not a believer in) the people of the prior jealous and demanding god, all Douthat's column caused me to do was . . . check my passport.