On March 6, a high holiday on the Republican primary calendar, the young pundit dips his fingers in the holy water, crosses himself, and looks across the nave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at a beautifully sung 1 p.m. Mass. Hanging back with the tourists, Ross Douthat stage-whispers a tutorial. “There’s the Eucharist—brisk for a daily Mass,” he says. Was that Latin? No, he snickers: The modern Mass is in English, and varies more than it used to from priest to priest—“as long as he hits his marks.”
Fresh off the Acela, the Times’ youngest and most right-leaning columnist, 32 (and not that right-wing), looks taller than you’d expect from the talking head that appears on web chats, calling in from 1955—or so the chunky black phone he uses in William Safire’s old library makes it seem in these segments. Today he wears the regulation gray-flannel blazer and looks more Greatest Generation than Alex P. Keaton, but his wavy hair won’t quite cooperate; to the right of his part, a rogue Saarinen-style wing ruins the symmetry.
Douthat’s got a full day ahead: spending a rare night apart from his wife and 1-year-old in D.C. to put a column to bed, commune with his editors, and shoot a primary-night web spot. “It’s probably busier than the average Tuesday,” he says, mentioning that he’ll also meet the publicist for his forthcoming book, Bad Religion, whose subtitle, How We Became a Nation of Heretics, manages to be ostensibly neutral, self-mocking, and retrograde Christian all at once.
Heresies, in his telling, include Eat Pray Love, Jimmy Swaggart, and, say, the notion that Jesus would have signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge. “I don’t think of ‘heretic’ as a pejorative term—necessarily,” he says, pointing out that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama would fit his definition. He goes on, delivering the kind of gentle sermon at which conservative Times columnists excel. “The argument I’m making is that you want to have plenty of religions, but you want to have a good kind.” That means, he writes, less me-first spirituality and more genuine communitarianism and respect for tradition.
Douthat was baptized a liberal New Haven Episcopalian, but when medicine failed his mother’s baffling allergies, the family tried macrobiotics, vegetarianism, and tongues-speaking Pentecostalism (“A very primal experience”), before finding their calling as devout Catholics. But over a vegetarian lunch at a Middle Eastern joint (he’s given up meat for Lent), Douthat explains why he left his own story out of Bad Religion. Partly, he thinks too much of his life was in his first book, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class. (One awkward make-out scene led to a Wonkette story headlined MISOGYNIST NECK-BEARD ROSS DOUTHAT SHARES HIS SEXY STORIES.) “Some of these arguments,” he says with the slightest roll of the eyes, “benefit from being depersonalized a little.”
Douthat prefers Romney to Santorum despite his religious sympathies—though “ ‘like’ is such a strong word,” he says, about the candidate he long ago declared inevitable. He’s eager to call a TKO tonight, especially if it means he doesn’t have to rewrite his column. He’s already promised to reconvene for a postmortem drink. “If you want to meet me earlier,” he says, “you should root for Santorum to lose Ohio.” Santorum does, though barely, and only after a slog of returns and lead-tweaking is Douthat ready for a nightcap.
The Sky Room, a rooftop bar across from the Port Authority, begs you to squint and imagine the Gansevoort Hotel: It’s an ersatz vision of an inauthentic approximation of eighties pseudo-cool. “I had New York sushi today,” a suited man yells into his cell phone, as imitation Sade oozes from the speakers. “We live in an era where the sexual—” Douthat begins, before a slinky waitress interrupts: “Are you guys okay?” “Yes,” Douthat shoots back, then pivots. “Where the sexual revolution happened, where liberals have won across a variety of fronts, and it’s important to see places where some form of corrective would be useful. The attitudes that you get in New York Magazine’s ‘Sex Diaries’ are only going to work for people with large amounts of social capital.”
But as Douthat knows well, the defenders of cultural conservatism have to speak across that divide. “There’s an unhealthy elitism, but there’s also a healthy elitism: If you can’t defend your ideas on The Daily Show, then you’re not ready. The apostle Paul was able to go to Athens and preach to the sophisticated Greeks.”
After draining the last drop of red wine from his plastic goblet, Douthat interrupts himself to check his iPhone. It’s one in the morning, and the Times has a last-minute edit. This would never have happened, he says, if he’d followed his childhood dream and become a fantasy novelist.