A review of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat
The "fear of theocracy," Ross Douthat argued in a 2006 First Things essay, "has become a defining panic of the Bush era." He suggested that the panicked should take a deep breath: the Bush years were just the latest iteration of the ongoing story of religion in America, always "at once a secular republic and a religious nation, reflexively libertarian and fiercely pious."
Douthat, now a New York Times columnist, revisits and develops these themes in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. No volume covers the politics and sociology of American religion as well—as thoughtfully or as lyrically—as Douthat's. Yet he doesn't pull his punches. Bad Religion endorses biblically orthodox, socially conservative Christianity in a way that will be accessible, even appealing, to liberal skeptics.
Against alarmists decrying the Religious Right and the Religious Right decrying modern godlessness, Douthat contends that America doesn't suffer from excessive or insufficient religion, but from bad religion that exacerbates rather than heals our sociopolitical ills. The "slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place" has been disastrous for the nation. We're still a religious nation, but "a nation of heretics."
On Douthat's telling, American culture was long shaped by the "shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early Church." Those commitments included not only belief in the Trinity or Incarnation, but also the Ten Commandments, a "rejection of violence," a "deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power," and a "stress on chastity." Most importantly, Americans believed in the "idea of orthodoxy," that a truth unchosen by us binds our belief and behavior.
Heresy, however, is simpler and easier than orthodoxy, which holds truths together in tension: God is both one and three; we are both fallen and called to perfection. Orthodoxy insists on both/and formulations while heresy embraces an either/or approach. Orthodoxy lives with mystery and paradox, content that some truths lay beyond humanity's finite intellect. Heresy tries to "streamline Christianity, rationalize it, minimize the paradoxes and difficulties, make it more consistent and less mysterious." Easier, too, rarely placing greater moral demands on adherents.
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Douthat begins Bad Religion with a sketch of American religious history in the years following World War II, when the horrors of the Holocaust exposed the weaknesses of secular humanism. True humanism, the nation saw, "needed to be grounded in something higher than a purely material account of the universe, and in something more compelling than the hope of a secular utopia. Only religious premises could support basic liberal concepts like equality and human rights." As a result, there was at mid-century a revival of robust Christianity. Church attendance was up, clergy were held in high esteem, religious schools, hospitals and churches were constructed at record paces. Even popular culture was onboard, with movies like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments.
Douthat focuses on four key figures who embody this spirit—Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—"a Protestant intellectual, an Evangelical preacher, a Catholic bishop, and an African-American prophet." Each leader had both a distinct community and the nationally respected authority to promote models of Christian orthodoxy for the modern world. The result, Douthat argues, is that "both institutionally and intellectually, American Christianity at midcentury offered believers a relatively secure position from which to engage with society as a whole."
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All of that fell apart in the 1960s and '70s. Church membership peaked, and then rapidly declined. By the early 1990s, "there were more Muslims in America than Episcopalians." As for Catholicism, Mass attendance plummeted, vocations dried up, and the "thick culture that had defined and sustained the pre-Vatican II Church—the round of confessions and novenas, pilgrimages and Stations of the Cross—dissipated like a cloud of incense in a sudden breeze." Douthat identifies five causes for the institutional collapse: political polarization (first Vietnam, then abortion, now everything); the sexual revolution ("a large swath of America decided that two millennia of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality were simply out of date"); an increasingly global perspective (multiculturalism leading to relativism and then indifference); ever-growing wealth (a prosperous people rely less on God, and religious vocations become less appealing); and a new class divide (elites showering scorn on traditional religion).
The responses—accommodation and resistance—were both inadequate according to Douthat. The accommodators sought to make Christianity relevant by stripping it of its unfashionable ethics and otherworldly theology. Predictably, churches accommodating the world had less to offer it, and people stopped seeing the point of attending. For a time communities that retained traditional beliefs and practices remained vital—Douthat points to First Things, the ecumenical "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" project, and the papacy of John Paul II. Meanwhile, Evangelicalism reached its peak during the Clinton years. It has been declining ever since, however, which Douthat blames on the partisanship of the resisters, tying their fortunes too tightly to the Republican Party. And Catholicism hasn't fared any better: if all the ex-Catholics during recent times were to band together they would constitute the second largest American denomination. Indeed, "By the late 2000s, more than 25 percent of twentysomethings declined to affiliate themselves explicitly with any religious body."
"Culture abhors a metaphysical vacuum," so as Christian orthodoxy waned, Christian heresy waxed. Exploring fads in the search for the historical Jesus indulged by scholars like Elaine Pagels and popularizers like Dan Brown, Douthat concludes that no newly discovered text can claim any close connection to Jesus or first-century Christianity—which is why they were "successfully screened out" of the canon. The Gnostic Gospels—and our appropriations of them—say more about us than about Jesus, about our desire to recreate him in our own image. The search for the historical Jesus, Douthat argues persuasively, devolved into giving up the challenging parts of Jesus' message.
Worse are those who claim to preach the Biblical Jesus but instead push a God who "gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next." The heresy of the Prosperity Gospel, Douthat argues, eases the consciences of believers about "their nation's seemingly unbiblical wealth and un-Christian consumer culture." Although the "commandment against avarice, if taken seriously, can be the faith's most difficult by far," you aren't likely to hear sermons today decrying this deadly sin. Too many have a friend in Jesus merely for what they get out of him, a sugar-daddy in the sky.
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Why even search for God in ancient texts when he is really inside each of us? Douthat quotes Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, and peddler of "God Within" theology: "God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are." As Douthat notes, remaking "ourselves in imitation of Christ" this is not. If the "prosperity Gospel makes the divine sound like your broker; the theology of the God Within makes him sound like your shrink." A "spiritual but not religious" lifestyle, he argues, is ultimately "parasitic" on the more institutionalized and dogmatic forms of faith, "which create and sustain the practices" that the seeker "picks and chooses from, reads symbolically, and reinterprets for a more enlightened age." But a "Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming." Ironically, this search for happiness from within ends up leaving us "more isolated, lonelier, and more depressed." Americans pay hundreds of thousands of therapists to listen to us whine about "everyday life problems."
The God Within certainly doesn't confine our behavior. The "promptings of one's inner self aren't necessarily identical to the promptings of the Holy Spirit," Douthat writes. "Sometimes the God Within isn't God at all, but just the ego or the libido, using spirituality as a convenient gloss for its own desires and impulses." Indeed, this pseudo-theology is the next generation's new orthodoxy, what sociologist Christian Smith calls "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," whose god is "a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist," and whose only commandment is that we not be jerks.
The end result:
A nation of narcissists turns out to be a nation of gamblers and speculators, gluttons and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough.
Our deepest desires are God's desires; He isn't judgmental, and we shouldn't be either; He's OK, I'm OK, you're OK.
Douthat's last heresy is the most political: American nationalism. There's a long history of seeing America as a "promised land," a "new order for the ages," with a "manifest destiny." But earlier generations, he insists, tempered American exceptionalism with "a realism about the mysteries of providence and the limits of human perfectibility." Lincoln's Second Inaugural, for example, "invokes providentialism to explain a chastisement." Or, as the late Richard John Neuhaus put it, America is a nation under God, because under God's judgment.
Woodrow Wilson's America, by contrast, pursued a messianic goal of "spreading the blessings of liberty to every race and people overseas," while the Nativists and Neo-Confederates fostered "unwarranted paranoia about foes abroad and enemies within." Today, this heresy yields "messianism from the party in power and apocalyptism from the party out of power, regardless of which party is which." Religion no longer tempers nationalism because our churches themselves are partisan.
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Bad Religion is judicious, insightful, and at times prophetic and inspiring. Still, Douthat could have argued for orthodoxy by telling us less about good religion's social utility and more about its truth. Bad Religion's hopeful conclusion points in that direction, observing that if orthodox Christianity were going to die at all, then surely the Roman Empire, the armies of Islam, the Renaissance's dissolution of the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment revolutions, or the age of Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud would have done it in. But as G.K. Chesterton noted, time after time "the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs," and every time "it was the dog that died." Douthat suggests four reasons for hope: the rootlessness of our postmodern age will finally motivate a return to Christian orthodoxy's satisfying account of human origins and destiny; our culture's corruption will accelerate the growth of communities of virtue; the flame of faith will fan out from the increasingly Christian global South; and the new millennium's various crises may well revive faith, as the ravages of war did before.
All this, Ross Douthat insists, will require a faith that is "political without being partisan," "ecumenical but also confessional," "moralistic but also holistic," and "oriented toward sanctity and beauty." As Douthat pleads, "only sanctity can justify Christianity's existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world."