Op-ed writer Ross Douthat discusses latest book at Union Forum

by Beth Byrd

Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times, speaks at the Union Forum Sept. 20 in the Carl Grant Events Center.

Ross Douthat, the youngest New York Times op-ed columnist in the newspaper’s history, shared the secret to his success at the 14th annual Union Forum Sept. 21.

Pushups and milkshakes, the Harvard University graduate said, laughing.

More than 300 people gathered to hear Douthat speak on campus at the Carl Grant Events Center.

Also an author, Douthat discussed his latest book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” and reflected on his journey as a writer.

A Connecticut native, Douthat said the problem with American religion over the past few decades is not disinterest.

“What actually happened in America since the 1960s is something more complicated, more interesting in certain ways and more troubling in others,” Douthat said. “(It) is the decline of institutional Christianity but not the decline in religious belief.”

Douthat said his book details several factors that contributed to the situation, including partisan polarization.

In the past, people who had certain beliefs were not necessarily associated with a certain political party, Douthat said, adding that modern political parties, however, have re-sorted themselves into two ideological camps.

“In a sense, it makes it easier for voters to choose,” Douthat said. “If you’re voting for a Democrat, you know you’re going to get a liberal; and if you’re voting for a Republican, you know you’re going to get a conservative.

“But it poses a real challenge for Christians in the public square, because Christianity as a faith is not supposed to be identical with ideology. It’s not supposed to be identical with partisan causes. It’s supposed to transcend and challenge partisan loyalties.”

Douthat did not focus solely on religious topics. He used his sense of humor to keep the luncheon relaxed and his audience smiling.

“I’d like to begin by stating for the record that lobster is delicious,” Douthat said, referring to his family’s lobster fishing occupation. He later said that if anyone asked who he thought would win the presidential election, he would quickly duck behind the podium.

Douthat replaced Bill Kristol as The New York Times’ conservative columnist in April 2009, a job he described as walking on a high wire without a net.

He said his success as a writer lies in his hope to keep surprising readers, as he tries to strike a balance between challenging his readers’ assumptions and being willing to question his own beliefs.

This semester’s forum was one of Union’s largest yet, said Landon Preston, director of donor relations.

The forum gives the Jackson community a chance to hear nationally known speakers address significant topics in society, said Tim Ellsworth, assistant vice president for university communications and director of media relations.

“The forum provides us an opportunity to bring in individuals on campus who will cause us to think more deeply about the important issues of our day in pursuit of the truth,” Preston said. “Douthat is someone who has some important insights for people, regardless of whether you are a Democrat or Republican, and especially to members of institutional churches.”

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