A Cultural Conservative at the New York Times?

Meet its newest columnist, Ross Douthat.

Earlier this year, Ross Douthat left the Atlantic and became, at the age of 29, the newest columnist for the New York Times op-ed page. He is also the film critic for National Review, author of one book, Privilege—which the New Yorker characterized as a “memoircum- polemic about Harvard”—and coauthor of the controversial book Grand New Party, which addresses the future of conservatism and populism. A convert to Catholicism at the age of 17, Douthat talked with CWR in June.

CWR: You were Episcopalian before you were Catholic, right?

Ross Douthat: Yes.

CWR: What happened?

Douthat: My family went on a tour of American Christianity. I was baptized Episcopalian, then we fell into more charismatic styles of worship and spent a lot time in evangelical and Pentecostal circles when I was eight to 14 or 15. Then my mother, in particular, found her way into the Catholic Church. She converted when I was 16, and my whole family converted shortly thereafter. I was 17, so I’m somewhere between being a cradle Catholic and an adult convert.

CWR: What was the thing that your family found so convincing about Catholicism?

Douthat: The short answer is that we thought it was true. We thought its claims to be the most legitimate expression of the Church of Jesus Christ through time, and so on, were in fact legitimate. The longer answer is that we were attracted to it…my mother is more of a mystical personality than I am, so she was attracted to the sort of mystical side of Catholicism, but you find in it the kind of rich historical and intellectual resources that I think are often absent in charismatic Protestantism in the United States. At the same time, you find in it the kind of commitment to moral seriousness and moral truth that seems absent, broadly speaking, in mainline Protestantism. So, as Catholic conversion stories go, it’s fairly conventional. I was reading C.S. Lewis, then I was reading G.K. Chesterton, and then I was becoming a Catholic.

CWR: What do you think of possible fractures in the Anglican communion, including the possibility that a lot of Anglicans might become Catholic?

Douthat: I think it’s overstated. Not the possibility of fracture, but my sense is that people overestimate how many conservative Anglicans are plausible Catholics, because so many conservative Anglicans are low-church Anglicans, especially in the United States— evangelical Anglicans, essentially— and their ecclesiology just doesn’t mesh with Catholic ecclesiology. A lot of the high-church Anglicans, whose ecclesiology meshes with Catholicism, are often, not the most liberal, but…the number of high-church Anglicans who are also political and theological conservatives is lower than people think. So you can imagine mass conversions, but I think the conversions would be in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands or millions, if it came to that.

CWR: The inaugural op-ed for your New York Times column was titled “Cheney for President.” Was the headline your idea?

Douthat: If I remember right, it was suggested by a copy editor and approved by me. Generally, titles are suggested by the copy desk and then run by me. A few times, the headline I’ve suggested has ended up being the headline, but it’s a negotiation. I thought that was the conceit of the column: I wasn’t actually advocating that Cheney be president, but the beginning of the column was going for that counterintuitive jolt, so I didn’t see any reason not to have the title go for the jolt as well.

CWR: Are the editing constraints much different for regular columnists than for occasional op-ed contributors?

Douthat: My impression is that it’s similar, that the standards are pretty much the same. There are style guide issues. For instance, the Times, in the abortion debate, prefers to say “abortion opponents” and “supporters of abortion rights” than “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” but columnists have a little more latitude. There’s a negotiation there, too, with the copy desk.

CWR: Have you been surprised by the volume of the responses to your column?

Douthat: No, because I was expecting a high volume. I wrote a blog for the Atlantic and had thousands of readers a day, so I was used to that email traffic and I was expecting that the Times, where the website reaches, all told, a few million people every day…I was expecting the reach. There’s an “email the author” option and there’s a comment option, so there are a lot of comments and a lot of email per day. I will say the emails have been less hostile than I expected, even when I was writing about controversial subjects, but that may be that, if people want to be really hostile, they’re more likely to leave a comment. I’m not sure.

CWR: What are you trying to do with your Times column?

Douthat: Provide fascinating commentary on the news of the day! That’s a cliché but it’s true. I’m trying to write an interesting and effective political column, and I think that’s a challenging thing to do. It’ll take me a while to master it, and hopefully they’ll give me time to master it, but you have to learn
hat subjects work and which ones don’t, how to write some as big think pieces and some where you are reacting very quickly to the news of the day. There’s a balance to be struck. To the extent that I have an agenda with the column, obviously I have political interests, and I think I bring a reasonably distinctive perspective to the Times oped page, particularly being a cultural conservative. There isn’t a lot of engagement between cultural liberals and cultural conservatives, and I’m experimenting with that kind of engagement and seeing where it goes and how it’s received.

CWR: What hasn’t worked so far?

Douthat: The biggest challenge that I’ve seen so far is just that there’s a very strict length, right around 750 words, and that limits what you can do with it. I think some of my less successful columns have been places where it tried to do too much. There’s room in a column for expressing maybe two provocative ideas over the course of 750 words, so you start out in one place and then pivot to another place—that, I think, is a good way to think about it. Jonathan Rauch, who’s been writing columns for a long time, described it to me that way, and I think it’s a good way to think about it. There’s a limit to how many times you can pivot. My less successful columns have just pivoted too many times. You write a column that’s 750 words that, if you’d broken it up, could have been two or three good columns.

CWR: When the column was announced, the reports also said that you’d be developing a blog. How’s that coming?

Douthat: I expect to have blog maybe by the end of the summer.

CWR: Why the delay?

Douthat: Since I’d been doing a blog beforehand, I think they wanted me to focus on column-writing for a while and get used to that. The column is obviously the most important part of the job, and you don’t want the blog to become more important than the column. I think there’s an understanding that once I’m in a rhythm with the columns, it’ll make sense to go back to blogging.

CWR: In the Times, you wrote: “You can have Jesus or Dan Brown, but you can’t have both.” What do you have against Dan Brown?

Douthat: I’ve got a lot against Dan Brown! I think people need to take Dan Brown a little more seriously than they do. He’s a terrible writer and a competent constructor of thrillers, but the reason his thrillers sell hundreds of millions of copies rather than just millions is that he’s giving people a kind of religious message that they respond to, and that religious message is that you can keep Christianity as a sort of broad cultural edifice—we can keep our churches, and we can keep Jesus, and so on—as long as we understand that, actually, Jesus was this 21st-century kind of guy who had a wife and kids, and the medieval Church types covered it all up and so on. They’re very interesting books in that regard. They’re interesting in the way they go after traditional Christianity. They’re also not that kind to strident atheism; they like a little mystery. That’s a powerful religious message for a lot of Americans. I think it’s pretty selfevidently wrong, but Brown’s books are on the cutting edge as well as the popularizing edge of the idea that either we can’t know anything about Jesus or what we know suggests that he was totally different from what traditional Christianity says he was. So that’s what I have against Dan Brown.

CWR: Is American politics becoming more secular?

Douthat: I think Americans are becoming slightly more secular. I think it’s too soon to tell how secular or not American politics are becoming. In a way, Obama could make American politics a little less secular by making lukewarm religious liberals feel better about being religious, feel better about the connection between religion and politics. I read some survey that suggested [Obama] had cited the Bible more often in his speeches, so far, than Bush had in the same period. Clearly what happened in the Bush years was that you had a more self-consciouslysecular politics on the American left than you’d had for a long time in our history, because of the close association between Bush, religion, and religious conservatism. The hatred for Bush on the left created space for a kind of militant secularism that’s more European than American. I’m not sure, though, what having Obama as president will do to that. It could defang it before it gets off the ground, because why be a militant secularist if religion seems like a sort of benign prop for the welfare state, which is how it is in Obama’s rhetoric?

CWR: How is it that Americans have been trending steadily more pro-life while the political class essentially refuses to budge?

Douthat: Part of it is that the pro-life trend is not enormous. If you look at the under-30s for the last 20 years, there’s been a definite change, but I think that change, to some extent, has been affecting our political class. You see it in, for instance, the speech Obama gave at Notre Dame. Obama goes to Notre Dame, he’s supposed to give this bold, let’s-look-at-both-sides speech in the heart of Catholic America, but he didn’t mount any defense of abortion rights! You don’t hear as many explicit defenses of abortion rights from liberal politicians today as you did 15 or 20 years ago. So I think, in that sense, in national politics, the liberal position is much more defensive. It’s much more like “let’s agree to disagree and hope it all goes away,” whereas 25 years ago it was certainly much more common to hear politicians, public figures, pundits, and so on defend abortion as a positive good.

Now, where that sort of movement ends is on the question of Roe v. Wade. There I think you’ve had very little to almost no movement. A big part of it is that there are a lot of lukewarm pro-choicers, a lot of people who are pro-choice but would support restrictions on abortion if you started from ground zero, if you were designing abortion law from scratch and there were no Roe v. Wade. A lot of people who call themselves pro-choice would probably say, “Okay, we’ll ban second- trimester abortions. That’s fine.” Or, “We’ll restrict multiple abortions.” Restrictions that can’t be passed under Roe. A lot of those people see Roe as a necessary firewall against the peril of an outright ban, and, if some of those people start to change their minds, you might see movement. But once Roe has been on the books for 50 years, can it be overturned? I’m not sure what the answer to that question is.

CWR: Probably the most talked-about essay you wrote while at the Atlantic was “Is Pornography Adultery?” Is it?

Douthat: No, but it’s closer than people think. That was the argument of the piece. I think people intuitively understand that there’s a sort of adulterous continuum that runs from lusting in your heart all the way up to actual straightforward adultery…. A lot people tend to look at pornography as a harmless vice more akin to leafing through the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue than to going to a prostitute. The point of the piece is that pornography is not the same thing as going to a prostitute, but if you’re going by degrees and there are 10 degrees, let’s say, separating leafing through the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and actually cheating on your wife, then hardcore pornography—and certainly masturbating to hardcore pornography— is maybe one degree removed from going to a prostitute. It’s very, very close. Essentially, the piece was arguing that we need to take pornography much more morally seriously than we do, and this goes both for people who look at pornography and for people who don’t but tolerate it as part of the cultural scene.

CWR: Let’s move to culture—what do you think of this year’s crop of movies?

Douthat: I just saw Public Enemies, the new Michael Mann film with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. I liked it. I thought it was a perfect movie for Michael Mann because, as a director, he’s obsessed with the cops-versus-robbers archetype and building quasi-philosophical, moody movies around these lawmen/lawbreakers dynamics. The fact that Dillinger is a real figure whose mythology is based on something real plays to Mann’s strengths. In a way, I liked Public Enemies better than I liked Heat, which is the movie of his that people love.

CWR: The one Val Kilmer almost ruined?

Douthat: Yes, Val Kilmer almost ruined it. But Public Enemies was one of the better movies I’ve seen this summer. I think this has been a lousy, lousy summer for blockbusters. Public Enemies was good, Up was good because almost all Pixar movies are good—it was somewhat uplifting, but also downbeat in a good way—but every summer is like this. This is a classic film critic’s lament, and it might not be true, but it seems that there are always more sequels, more remakes, more sequels of remakes, more remakes of sequels, and that the dominance of the superhero movie has accentuated that trend because there’s always a new superhero to make a movie about. This summer—another Dan Brown movie, another Transformers movie—it’s ugly. But there’s still the fall. We’ll see.

CWR: Do you have plans for a third book?

Douthat: Yes. I’m thinking about a book, not coincidentally, about American religion, but it’s still percolating so I don’t want to go into any deep, deep thoughts.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.