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Opinion | Abortion Is Dividing the ‘Religious’ From the ‘Right’

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ross douthat

This is just my favorite kind of episode.

michelle cottle

You’re doing the Lord’s work, my friend.

ross douthat

Aha. That’s what they tell you right before they string you up.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

michelle cottle

From “New York Times Opinion,” I’m Michelle Cottle.

ross douthat

I’m Ross Douthat.

carlos lozada

I’m Carlos Lozada.

lydia polgreen

And I’m Lydia Polgreen.

michelle cottle

And this is “Matter of Opinion.”

[MUSIC PLAYING]

All right, so this week, abortion landed in the spotlight again, reminding us just how much the issue of reproductive rights continues to rock American politics. So I’ve gathered you all here today for us to noodle over whether the latest developments in the fight over abortion access suggest religion is gaining or losing steam in the political arena. But first, someone’s going to have to walk us through the latest. Lydia, you want to tackle this for us?

lydia polgreen

I’m happy to. Well, it was an action-packed week. I mean, we always knew since the Supreme Court overturned Roe in 2022 that abortion was going to play a huge role in the 2024 presidential election. Obviously the Senate is up for grabs, the House. It’s going to be a big, big, big issue.

michelle cottle

It’s a lot.

lydia polgreen

It’s a lot. And so this week, Trump, the wily politician that he is, took a big swing at diffusing what has become, I think, a very difficult and toxic issue for his party. And he announced in a video that, while he’s proud to have helped dismantle Roe v. Wade, he believes that abortion should be left up to the states. He thought IVF needs to be protected.

And he didn’t explicitly say that he was against a national ban. And there were a lot of other details that he left out that give him lots and lots of wiggle room, his favorite thing to have. But it was a big moment that happened on Monday. And then on Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a draconian ban on abortion that dated back to 1864 —

michelle cottle

Pre-statehood.

lydia polgreen

Yeah, pre-statehood. Pretty amazing. Yeah. Women couldn’t vote back then, as you might recall. So —

ross douthat

Just to be clear, this ban was on the books in 1968 and 1969, which is the reason that the Supreme Court had it reversed. The Supreme Court ruled that because of Roe, the law that was on the books in Arizona in 1969 or 1970, when women had the right to vote —

michelle cottle

Dating back to —

ross douthat

Which had originally been passed in 1864 —

michelle cottle

Thank you, Ross.

ross douthat

— and had not been repealed in 1920, 1930, 1940 or 1950 was —

lydia polgreen

Got it. Point made.

ross douthat

— put into effect. I just think it’s useful to be clear. That’s all.

lydia polgreen

Thank you. I appreciate it.

ross douthat

Just here for clarity.

lydia polgreen

Very kind of you.

Arizona is, of course, a very important swing state. So this issue instantly became a hot potato. One of Trump’s acolytes, Kari Lake, who a couple of years ago said she loved this very old law, she’s currently running for Senate in Arizona and she’s tried to back away from it. She didn’t get any help from her fellow state Republicans because, on Wednesday, the Republican-dominated state legislature blocked a Democratic effort to repeal the 1864 law. So that’s about where things are.

carlos lozada

You know how when Trump and his supporters talk about the economy under his watch during his presidency, they always act as if 2020 didn’t count, right, as if they can just go back in time and erase that year from his record as president?

On abortion, I see a similar kind of time travel, depending on what audience he’s trying to sway. And you see that clearly in that video statement. Like Lydia said, he doesn’t express support for a national abortion ban. He also doesn’t criticize the proposed state-level bans, even if they’re far more restrictive than his own prior stated preference for a ban after 16 weeks.

But even beyond those policy specifics, the rhetoric is very weirdly and artfully all over the map. He urges people to follow their heart and their faith, which sounds kind of like it’s a nod to Christian conservatives, but then he also says, do whatever is right for yourself, which sounds very —

— very kind of pro-choice-ish.

lydia polgreen

I missed that in the Bible where it says that.

ross douthat

Authentic — authentically Trump.

lydia polgreen

Yeah.

carlos lozada

But yeah — but what’s clear is, exactly, is that Trump probably does not have hard and fast views on abortion himself and he says whatever he thinks will help him politically. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s in a bind, right? He obviously sees that the efforts at abortion restrictions post-Dobbs have been very unpopular. But he also knows where his bread gets buttered on abortion. And the hard thing about trying to signal different things to different audiences is that everyone can hear you at the same time.

michelle cottle

That’s true, although they sometimes hear you through different filters, and that has worked to his advantage a lot. Although, in this case, there were some staunchly pro-life political players who were not pleased. I mean, Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham and the Susan B. Anthony folks were expressing their disappointment over this. But on some level, does this matter if they’re unhappy with this particular thing?

ross douthat

Well, that’s — I mean, let me just to, I guess, quasi defend the specificity of Trump’s views. So afterward he was asked whether he would sign a national abortion restriction that crossed his desk. And I believe he said no, he would not. So he didn’t say that in the video, but he did clarify it when asked afterward.

And he also criticized the abortion law, which reflects, again, a certain incoherence. He was saying states should do whatever they feel like they should do, but then when a state law is reinstated that he doesn’t like, he criticized it. And Trump has been on the record criticizing the heartbeat bills, the kind that Ron DeSantis supported. Again, not in this moment, but in different contexts in the last year or so.

So I think you can look at Trump and say, pretty clearly, that Trump is, in a way, a classic conflicted voter on abortion. Again, not that he has any kind of deeply felt views. But you could talk him into a 15-week ban or a 20-week ban, and you probably couldn’t talk him into a six or eight-week ban. And again, without that being his absolute position, he’s sent enough signals, I think, that we can say that’s where he actually is.

michelle cottle

But do you actually think you couldn’t talk him into pretty much anything? I mean, that’s the problem with him and the problem with paying too much attention to what’s in his heart really. When you’re talking about a pure opportunist, if the pressure from his congressional team or from his base was to go farther, why wouldn’t he?

ross douthat

I think if it suddenly became the case that heartbeat laws were very popular across America and 60 percent of the country supported them, Donald Trump would absolutely support them. But if you’re trying to pressure him from the pro-life side, I don’t think you have incredibly strong political leverage. I think it’s very clear, even before he came out with this statement, that most Republican senators in contested states were not themselves eager to pass a 16-week ban or even a 20-week ban.

So, yes, you could pressure him. But for the pressure I think to radically shift his perspective, the country as a whole would have to shift. Pro-lifers would have to show that they could win some referenda, for instance. So in this landscape, I think Trump’s positioning is likely to hold to some degree. That would be my guess.

lydia polgreen

The other thing that was notable to me was the two biggest political voices that came out were Lindsey Graham and Mike Pence. And Lindsey Graham is notable to me because of his incredibly poor track record of sticking to it when he criticizes Trump, right?

michelle cottle

Folds like a cheap suit.

lydia polgreen

Yeah, no, he really does. And Pence, who I think is someone who has a very, very deep conviction on this issue, is so deep in the wilderness. I mean, he is the guy that Trump put on the ticket to prove his fealty to the pro-life position. It’s just kind of remarkable how far exiled he is from the beating heart of the Republican Party today.

carlos lozada

Trump’s political needs are also very different now from the moment when he needed Pence or when he had — if you go back to 2016, he needed Evangelical voters not just to win the election, to even secure the nomination, right? And he needed Pence to win people over. He doesn’t need this voting base in quite the same way that he did back then. He can be — I don’t know if I’d call him a conflicted voter like Ross does. He can just be an opportunistic politician.

michelle cottle

So there’s been a lot of talk about whether or not Trump’s going squishy on this is going to cause a rift among his white Evangelical supporters. And I just find this almost incomprehensible. And I think, in part, it’s because of how he has changed in terms of what he represents to those white Evangelicals.

I mean, originally he was a tool, right? He was going to give them their justices on the Supreme Court and he was going to give them their death of Roe. It was very specific, very transactional almost. But over the past several years, he has become almost their Messiah — if not their Messiah, then at least their prophet.

He has leaned all in into that, I am your representative. You are persecuted. I am your justice. He has tapped into the larger grievance of that community to a degree that it goes way beyond the specifics of what he can actually deliver for them to where it is a spiritual connection with a lot of these folks. And they are not going to abandon — he would have to do something truly egregious for them to abandon him.

carlos lozada

I think the most honest moment in Trump’s video statement was when he said, “You must follow your heart on this issue. But remember, you must also win elections,” right?

[laughs]

: And so he recognizes that even as he’s become that figure for the pro-life movement, he’s very pragmatic about what it means for his own prospects.

And the irony in this is that when it comes to the two candidates’ own views, it’s the pro-choice Democrat who may be the one — who is the one with the more religious and philosophical qualms about abortion than compared to the Republican nominee. But that doesn’t matter, right? Biden says that Roe basically had it right. And Trump beats his chest about being the one who got rid of Roe.

So Evangelicals may — Mike Pence and others may wonder how deeply they can trust Trump on abortion, but they know they can’t trust Biden. And so I don’t see how it’s going to have a significant any kind of erosion of support for him, especially since he’s become this kind of messianic figure.

lydia polgreen

They can’t trust Biden. They also can’t trust the voters, right? I mean, the reality is that Roe, it turns out, may well be the compromise position on abortion, right? I mean that may be where America actually has landed on abortion.

ross douthat

First of all, I mean, I think talking about American evangelicalism as essentially a messianic cult for Donald Trump is a ridiculous overgeneralization about an incredibly diverse community of tens of millions of people that honestly we would never make about any other group.

And in fact, there are tons and tons of Evangelicals who still have a totally transactional approach to their support for Donald Trump, along the lines that Carlos is suggesting where it’s like, look, no matter what happens, Joe Biden supports zero pro-life policies. He supports legislation that is well to the left of where Roe actually was. And so if you are pro-life, what are you actually going to do? You don’t have to love Trump to have that perspective.

There’s also the reality — and this is why Trump did this now as opposed to four months ago when he was still in a semi-contested primary or four months from now when he will actually need pro-lifers to vote — he did it now because elections are fought at the margins. He didn’t want to alienate pro-lifers during the primary. And he doesn’t want to be seen as betraying them close to the election when it would be high in their minds.

Trump, in a really tight election, yeah, he’s obviously going to get 80 percent-85 percent of the white Evangelical vote no matter what. But he could lose the election if 200,000 people in a few swing states are pissed off about his abortion stance. So there is some risk for him. And again, this is why he’s doing it now and not earlier or later.

michelle cottle

So here’s the question then, we can see why Trump needs the white Evangelical base clearly. But what about how is the era of Trump impacting religious conservatives and the conservative movement and their role in politics more generally, which, Ross, you had some very deep thoughts on, and I want you to unpack them after we take a quick break. So stick with us, everybody, and we’ll be right back.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

All right, we’re back. Ross, you wrote a column this week coming off of Trump’s statement on abortion. You want to walk us through your thoughts on how all of this connects to the challenges facing the pro-life movement and religious conservatives in this moment?

ross douthat

Sure. I’ll just take an hour and 47 minutes and —

— run you guys through it.

michelle cottle

We will be glued to you.

ross douthat

So trying to be very brief and glib, we were talking before about the extent to which the overturning of Roe and the return of the issue to the states has pushed American politics in a more pro-choice direction. I think that’s somewhat true and evident.

But it’s also true that if you look at polling on what people think about abortion and whether people think it should always be legal or sometimes be legal and so on, there’s a big shift that doesn’t start in 2022. It starts in the mid-2010s, around the time that Donald Trump becomes the leader of the Republican Party.

And I argued in the column that there is some connection here, that, essentially, having — if you are a idealistic and religiously-motivated movement that is trying to argue that you are defending the rights of unborn human life while also promising to protect women in a vulnerable state, having Donald Trump as opposed to someone else as your standard-bearer makes that argument seem less compelling to a lot of people who are on the fence about the issue. And I even suggested it might make it less compelling to people who vote for Trump.

People might vote for Trump because he’s a tough guy and a hard ass and is going to secure the Southern border. But they still wouldn’t trust him to figure out what you do about abortion ban exceptions for women who have miscarried or to save the life of the mother and so on. Would you trust Donald Trump to write that kind of legislation? You probably wouldn’t. So I think that is both a real force affecting politics for the last five to seven years, but also one that continues to be an issue, right?

lydia polgreen

I mean, you write about the need to protect women in a vulnerable time. But I have to say that I’m pretty sure what women want — most women want — is not male protection, but the autonomy to make their own decisions. And I don’t know that a politics that’s based on we’ll protect you in a vulnerable time is the need of the hour in this moment.

So I actually think there are problems with both as we stare down the 2024 election. And I think neither of them is especially appealing to the people that he needs to convince to vote for him.

ross douthat

I mean, that’s the pro-choice argument, right? And it may be that that argument just —

lydia polgreen

Which, by the way, is winning, just FYI.

michelle cottle

All right, I want to take —

ross douthat

I mean, I’m just — wait, wait, wait, wait, just so — I’m obviously quite aware that the pro-choice argument is winning, and I never expected the overturning of Roe v. Wade to lead to abortion bans in more than a very few states. And it was always clear that the pro-life perspective was a minority perspective in American politics.

That said, I’m naturally quite interested, as someone who thinks that it’s wrong to kill unborn human beings in the womb, in arguments and politics that might persuade, if not you, my beloved fellow podcasters, then at least some people who are genuinely conflicted on the issue. And I do think an argument that says we’re here to help women and children has a more plausible chance of making that persuasion than the kind of arguments that Trump makes. That’s all I’m saying.

michelle cottle

Carlos.

carlos lozada

Ross, your column made the point that the pro-life movement has become deeply intertwined with Donald Trump and that he’s a lousy standard-bearer for a strident pro-life case. And I guess what I’m wondering is, why? In 2016, they had many options. They had many options who were more conventionally and plausibly pro-life candidates.

ross douthat

I mean, I think the argument that you can make is that once Trump was president, the pro-life movement should have, let’s say, thrown their weight behind one of the impeachment efforts and tried to get Mike Pence as president instead. You could make that kind of argument.

I mean, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were the two candidates of different flanks, different factions within the pro-life movement. The upper middle class, Whole Foods shopping pro-lifers liked Rubio. And Iowa Evangelicals liked Cruz. And if you go back and look at a lot of never — there were a lot of different kinds of never Trumpism, but a lot of never Trumpers were in different parts of the pro-life part of the party. Trump was very successful at rallying a different kind of voter.

And then once he was the nominee, you had a combination of the binary choice dynamic of American politics with, yeah, some of the dynamics that Michelle was talking about earlier, where you had parts of Evangelicalism developed this kind of religious narrative around Trump, especially in, I think, Pentecostalist parts of American Christianity. And we talk about white Evangelicals, but, in fact, if you look at like Hispanic Republicans, a lot of them are Pentecostalists.

So there’s a lot of different dynamics at play it’s partially being forced into it. It’s partially rationalizing something once you’re forced into it. It’s partially the kind of quasi religious bond that people form with their leaders. It’s a lot of different things at once. If the pro-life movement could wave a magic wand and make Ron DeSantis the Republican nominee, most of them would have. But that’s not what happened.

michelle cottle

So we’ve landed in this spot. And so I now have certain concerns about — and this will sound odd from where we’re coming from, but I have certain concerns about what this is doing to the appeal of religion in a country where you’re having a rise of secularism and a loss of faith in all kinds of institutions. And I find the loss of broad religious faith in this country to be very troubling. I mean, I don’t think that’s a good thing to be hoping for.

But what we’ve seen with Trump, and even going back farther than Trump with a certain kind of militant Evangelical Christianity, is that it turns off people. People talk about how they are very turned off by the punitive, restrictive, backward-looking approach to what Christianity should be and what Trump is pushing.

But I think it is a real issue if by tying themselves to this really flawed, really toxic figure, that Christianity, especially white Protestantism, has linked itself in the minds of younger generations, in particular, with something that’s really negative. And for a church that is fighting to hold on to its voters, I mean, this is a broad problem, whether you’re talking about white —

ross douthat

You mean hold on to its parishioners —

michelle cottle

Yes, hold on to its —

ross douthat

— not its voters.

michelle cottle

— parishioners. Sorry, Freudian slip there.

carlos lozada

Hold on to the faithful.

michelle cottle

So this is something that it used to be that you were just looking at this as a problem in mainstream Protestantism, but it has made its way into more conservative groups as well. And so I do kind of worry what it’s going to mean for that side of this equation. They have definitely damaged the brand.

ross douthat

I mean, the good news, though, Michelle, is that liberals can prop up religion themselves just by going back to liberal Protestant churches and reviving them, right? So be the change —

michelle cottle

But if you’ve damaged the whole idea —

ross douthat

— be the change you wish to see. Well, I mean —

michelle cottle

But if you’ve damaged the whole idea of religion and increasingly religion is viewed as a Republican political arm, that’s a problem.

ross douthat

I’m sorry, I was being mildly facetious.

michelle cottle

I know.

ross douthat

So, yes, I think — I mean, this is an argument that I have with my more pro-Trump religious conservative friends who basically say, look, you may hate Trump, but given how secular and socially liberal and hostile to religious liberty the Democratic coalition has become, you have no choice but to support him.

And I say, well, that works to a point, but you are also creating a version of the cultural effect that I think you’re describing correctly where there is — I mean, the thing about all these things is they’re very hard to measure. The trend towards disaffiliation predates Trump. Trump did not cause this. Everything in cultural and political life happens on the margins.

And it is important to stress that a big part of religious disaffiliation is not young, college-educated ex-Evangelicals turning against their parents religion. Those people exist. But a bigger part is working class Americans dropping out of religious life because they’re dropping out of other forms of life altogether. And a lot of those people are still voting for Trump.

lydia polgreen

Well, they still consider themselves religious.

ross douthat

So it’s a complicated — well, they identify — they still believe in God.

lydia polgreen

They just don’t go to church.

ross douthat

They still believe in God. Some of them. I mean, a lot of the so-called nones, people with no religious affiliation, are disaffected working class Americans who, yes, still say they believe in God, but aren’t congregationalists or Methodists or Catholics anymore, right? So that’s part of the story, too.

And Trump picks up disaffected voters who have left religion for one set of reasons and pushes some college-educated, younger Evangelicals maybe away from their parents churches too. But I agree — I agree it’s a big problem. I don’t think secular liberalism is doing that great either at the moment. But yes, it’s a real issue that the Trump era has exacerbated for religious conservatives.

lydia polgreen

Yeah, but I mean, look at the presidents of the 21st century, setting Trump aside. I think each of them give us a model of what it is to be a believer and to model a compassionate Christian faith, right? I mean, George W. Bush, the creator of PEPFAR, one of the most important humanitarian efforts that the United States has done in recent history to bring treatment for HIV and AIDS to Africa — his faith, I think, prompted him to want to end the civil war in Sudan, which his administration successfully did.

You had Barack Obama, who very much was a product of the Black church and culturally embodied those values of a certain kind of Christianity. You have Joe Biden who’s, I think, a very bog standard type of centrist Catholic. And it’s just it’s interesting to me that you look at that genealogy in the 21st century, you’ve actually had leaders who’ve modeled, to me, what feels like a very normal kind of Christianity, and I would say admirable kind of Christianity with different political inflections. And so Trump really is the very, very big outlier in all of that.

ross douthat

But that would seem to cut a little bit against Michelle’s argument, right? I mean, the most liberal forms of Protestantism are the mainline churches did not recover because Barack Obama modeled liberal Christianity and they haven’t recovered because Joe Biden has modeled liberal Catholicism. So that should make us a little more doubtful, I think, about the strength of this political effect, even as, again, I do think it’s real.

michelle cottle

Carlos, your mouth is open.

carlos lozada

Yeah, I know.

Yes, my mouth is open. Maybe I’m just hungry, Michelle.

ross douthat

Hungry — hungry for the truth.

michelle cottle

The word.

carlos lozada

Hungry for the word of God. We’re talking about a secularization of American life and a departure from churchgoing. And I wonder — I’m trying to understand the connection to politics with this because it’s also that politics has, in some ways, become a new religion.

It’s overlapping so forcefully with religious inclination. In the past, it was hard to identify someone’s political affiliation based on whether they went to church, right? Now it’s the overlap is enormous. It’s conservative Republicans.

And it seems that there are times in which religious observance and religious principle is defined by a series of positions on policy questions on abortion rights or on same-sex marriage. And I was thinking about this, Ross, in the context of a prior column that you wrote. I read you very carefully.

michelle cottle

We all do.

ross douthat

More carefully than I read myself.

carlos lozada

And you wrote, for instance, that the left has a hard time being happy, in part because they’ve given up on God, right? I’m sort of simplifying that —

ross douthat

Yes, that was the simplified version.

carlos lozada

Yeah. But when I read that, I immediately thought, I wonder if there’s an extent to which the right has held on — some portion of the right has held on to faith not by giving up on God, like you say the left has, but by somehow turning that faith into a political almost culture war tool.

lydia polgreen

Well, I also think that the, quote unquote, “being religious” gets a bit of a bad rap in being so closely associated with one idea of what it means to be religious. I mean, one of the cases that I’ve been following in this whole abortion saga is one in Indiana where Jewish women brought a suit saying that the very, very strict abortion ban there actually conflicts with their religious beliefs. And we’ve just been through Ramadan.

There are many, many different kinds of religious faith, both liberal, conservative, and everything in between. And I think that the overidentification with one specific kind of faith with politics is in itself kind of a problem.

ross douthat

One thing that could change that kind of identification is if more liberal people were religious. There certainly is a religious left. I grew up around parts of it. I went at times to churches that were connected to it. My own Catholic Church includes, obviously, lots of political liberals.

But the story of the last 40 years, nonetheless, is that the churches that are most associated with liberal politics have had the most trouble — conservative churches have had trouble, too. But it’s liberal churches have had the most trouble sustaining themselves and getting people to go to church.

So to the extent that you want — and I think you should want — religion in America to mean something more than just Southern white Evangelicalism or traditionalism in its various forms, you would need people who are liberal to be more religious. And, again, to generalize, in the aggregate, you’d need people to go to church or synagogue or their mosque.

michelle cottle

There have been people raising the alarm and begging Democrats not to cede the field on religion. I mean, Hillary Clinton had somebody on her campaign whose entire raison d’etre was to reach out to liberal religious voters. I mean, this is kind of a perennial issue for them for years and years and years. But —

lydia polgreen

Again, I just want to point out that the past many, like, basically every Democratic president in my lifetime has been a professed believer. I mean, and now we have a presidential candidate who — does he believe in God, Donald Trump? I don’t know.

michelle cottle

Yeah, but it’s not about — it’s not about the messenger. It’s about the outreach to the voters.

ross douthat

No, but this is — but it’s not about either. It’s about whether liberals go to church. Liberalism can be OK politically in a country that’s secularizing, but the fundamental issue driving the identification of conservative politics with religion is the fact that liberals, especially the well-educated liberals who set the tone for the culture, have decided to be in denial about the existence of God, to retreat into a vague agnosticism, and to not get up on Sunday or Saturday and go to church. That’s what’s driving the identification.

michelle cottle

All right, but right now —

ross douthat

If you want the identification to stop, dear listener, go to church.

michelle cottle

Ross is going to have a nosebleed soon.

lydia polgreen

No, I’m sorry, but we’ve just talked about the fact that there are all these Trump supporters who don’t go to church, right? I mean —

— I know you think they should go to church, too.

ross douthat

Fewer of them listen to this podcast. But dear Trump supporters who don’t go to church —

michelle cottle

Get back there. You get in those pews.

ross douthat

— you should also go to church.

lydia polgreen

And while you’re at it, read the New Testament, people. It’s great.

michelle cottle

Oh.

lydia polgreen

I love it. I love it.

carlos lozada

You know, it’s interesting, Ross’s challenge to the religious churchgoing left just because I know so many Catholic liberals, Dan Berrigan, Dorothy Day-type Catholic liberals who I went to college with at Notre Dame, who feel politically homeless and for whom this incessant overlap and identity formation between religion and politics is destructive. And I know that there are many reasons why they have a harder time getting up on Sunday, as Ross wants them to.

lydia polgreen

Yeah, and I guess I do think that there is a deep American tradition of separating religion from politics. And at least if they can’t be clinically separated, at least having some space and distance between them. And I think that we’re living in a moment of upheaval about the interpretation of the Constitution’s separation between religion and government. And I think that undoubtedly plays a role in all of this as well. It feels unsettling.

carlos lozada

I think church and state is the division. Religion and politics will never be divided.

michelle cottle

And on that spiritual note, we will close this discussion. And when we come back, we’re going to get hot and cold.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And we are back. And finally, huzzah, it is time for hot cold, where each week one of us shares something we’re into, over, or somewhere in between. So who’s got us this week?

ross douthat

I can do it.

michelle cottle

Excellent.

ross douthat

I am at least warm towards Netflix’s big hit science fiction drama, “The Three-Body Problem,” which is adapted from a Chinese science fiction bestseller. It is — I actually don’t — I’m writing my newsletter about this, so there will be spoilers in the newsletter. But the way the show is structured, I don’t even want to say the most basic thing about what the story is.

michelle cottle

Wait, you’re hot on it, but you’re not going to tell us anything about it.

ross douthat

All right, fine. It’s about aliens. Fine. It’s about aliens.

michelle cottle

Oh, OK.

Of course, you like it.

ross douthat

Of course. No. But, yeah, it’s about interstellar conflict, but with a very interesting conceit for how — the shape this takes where basically there is an alien fleet that is on the way to Earth to conquer us, but it’s going to take them hundreds of years to get here. And in the interim, they have sent ahead forces, probes, technologies that are supposed to —

michelle cottle

Probes?

ross douthat

Not that kind, Michelle.

Go to church, Michelle. That are supposed to divide us, prevent scientific progress, all these kind of things, to basically keep us stuck in decadence. So the show is, in fact, a merger of two of my interests.

michelle cottle

This is your sweet spot.

ross douthat

Decadence and stagnation and aliens. Now, unfortunately, I don’t think — the guys who did “Game of Thrones” are doing it. They’re very talented. They couldn’t land “Game of Thrones.” Looking ahead to the future books in this series, I don’t think they’re going to be able to land this one either.

lydia polgreen

Well, at least they have books to land on. That’s the —

ross douthat

They do. No, that’s true. But the books get —

michelle cottle

Oh, they get weird?

lydia polgreen

The books get weird, yeah.

michelle cottle

We just need a specialty on who can land series like this. There should be somebody out there who specializes in not having a lost ending.

ross douthat

The makers of “Succession” should be hired, brought in for series landings.

michelle cottle

“Justified” is my bid for an ending.

ross douthat

Actually, every series should end with Tom Wambsgans taking power.

How does “Dune” end? Emperor Tom Wambsgans. Who wins the alien Earth war? Tom Wambsgans. That’s what I’m here for.

michelle cottle

OK, well, there we go. I think that is what the takeaway from this week’s episode should be. Tom Wambsgans forever. Anybody disagree?

lydia polgreen

Yeah, he’ll decide our abortion policy too.

ross douthat

God is — God and —

lydia polgreen

God and Tom Wambsgans.

michelle cottle

All right, then. Well, guys, thank you so much. This has been illuminating, inspirational even.

lydia polgreen

Thanks, guys.

ross douthat

Till next week.

lydia polgreen

See you then.

carlos lozada

See you, guys. [MUSIC PLAYING]

michelle cottle

Thanks for joining our conversation. If you liked it, be sure to follow “Matter of Opinion” on your favorite podcast app and let us know what big question we should think about next by emailing us at matterofopinion@nytimes.com.

“Matter of Opinion” is produced by Sophia Alvarez Boyd, Phoebe Lett and Derek Arthur. It’s edited by Jordana Hochman. Our fact-check team is Kate Sinclair, Mary Marge Locker, and Michelle Harris. Original music by Isaac Jones, Efim Shapiro, Carole Sabouraud, Sonia Herrero, and Pat McCusker. Mixing by Pat McCusker and Carole Sabouraud. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta and Kristina Samulewski. Our executive producer is Annie-Rose Strasser.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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