Ross Douthat, in the much-discussed and critically reviewed book Bad Religion, says in early America orthodoxy could never be taken for granted. Because Christian faith had to struggle with various heresies, heresies that naturally arose in a land where church and state were legally and politically separate, orthodoxy became, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, “a whirling adventure.”
But Douthat believes that in the middle of the twentieth century the American religious landscape began to change. “If the American religious landscape has long resembled the world of early Christianity, then the twenty-first century America looks increasingly as if it’s replaying that story with a very different ending–one in which orthodoxy slowly withers and only heresies endure.”
How this change came about is the primary concern of Douthat’s controversial analysis. He begins with a portrait of Christianity in the years following World War II. He refers to this as “an era of intellectual confidence, artistic vitality, pews full to bursting, and a widespread sense that traditional Christian faith and contemporary liberal democracy were natural partners.” This was a time in which a “rebuilt Christian center” was deeply rooted in the faith’s oldest traditions and thus able to engage, with profound confidence, modern thought and politics. (Consider the rise and success of the Civil Rights movement, rooted as it was in classical Christian appeals for justice and racial equality, as just one example!)
Then, according to Douthat’s dour and bracing thesis, “this world came apart [and] an era of theological convergence gave way to a Christian civil war.” Controversies raged over the Vietnam War and abortion. Mainline Protestants and progressive Catholics sought to accommodate Christian theology to cultural revolutions in the 1960s and 1970s. The result was numerical and vocational decline. Conservatives responded, beginning in the late 1970s, with a political strategy that seems to have permanently changed their role in the wider culture as well.
The second half of the book looks at American Christianity as it is today. Douthat refers to “the slow motion collapse” of American Christianity but what makes his analysis so provocative is his focus on the role heresy has played in this collapse. Here he reveals how such heresies can be associated with the careers of specific individuals; Oprah Winfrey, Joel Osteen, Dan Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Eckhart Tolle and Glenn Beck. These kinds of heresies so permeate our culture that “we take their premises for granted and don’t think of them as distinctive theologies at all.” While some offer themselves as specific alternatives to Christianity many seek to blend their nostrums and perspectives into Christianity. “But all of them exert a profound, and often profoundly negative, influence on our American society.” This impacts both intellectual and popular culture both. It has captured “both the Democratic left and the Republican right alike.” I profoundly agree with this criticism. While defending the role Christians and the church should have in public life I believe most of the models that we’ve had for the past thirty years or so are deeply flawed. It is nigh unto impossible to discuss issues of justice, poverty, war, responsible government spending and immigration without taking sides in this war of ideologies. And churches are generally captured by one side or the other in this raging debate. I thought I could escape the scourge of the Christian right inside a mainline Protestant church only to find that the politics of the Christian left are just as deeply influential.
Douthat concludes, about the present age, that “the future of American religion seems likely to be defined by Christian heresy even more completely than the present already is.” I hope he’s wrong but I fear he’s right.
As I noted elsewhere Douthat grew up in a liberal Episcopal home before encountering Pentecostalism in his teens. Near the end of high school, before entering Harvard, he converted to Catholicism. He thus writes: “Given my own Catholic commitments, it will not be surprising that I would prefer to see a different American future–one where heresy’s hold weakened and a more traditional Christianity as gradually renewed.”
While not a Catholic myself I have sympathy for Douthat’s wish regarding this last point. I desire that all Christians, especially younger Christians (the 20s and 30s), take a deeper look at the power of vibrant and carefully nuanced orthodoxy. Only then can they reflect anew on our contemporary life and the role that religion might play in a very different America from the one that I grew up in as a child of the 1950s.