Is There a Comprehensive Theory of America's Decline ?

Ross Douthat, in his engaging book, Bad Religion, addresses the perennial “ongoing search for more comprehensive theories” about the decline of America. Both the left and right offer a prevailing, and widely accepted, narrative. But most of these theories involve religion, at least in some way.

Professor Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College calls Bad Religion “an indispensable book.” I completely concur with this praise. Rarely have I read a more engaging treatment of our current religious and political scene which explains not only how we got here but why the future, without a recovery of deeply Christian orthodoxy, will be more bleak than we can know at the present time.

On the right we are continually told that America has lost its way because we’ve fallen away from the faith of our founding fathers. Or, in another version of this message, we hear that we’ve been attacked by secular elites who wish to do our faith end. Douthat believes that the most “simplistic version” of this view, which is only sometimes clearly named, argues that America was founded on explicitly Christian principles. If this is true then (in some way) we are a “Christian nation.” Thus, like Israel of old we’ve lost God’s favor and strayed from his covenant. We must repent and return or we will surely perish. You hear this view over and over in sermons and jeremiads from the right.

In the last decade or so a very different narrative has arisen. This one began with a wide-scale challenge to the policies and practices of the Bush-era. You will find this narrative in publications like Sojourners or in the writing of a former-conservative like Kevin Phillips. Phillips sees many religious conservatives as “Christian fascists” or “Christian nationalists.” He is not alone in this view. According to this perspective a once great, or at least far better, nation was brought down by false piety and religious zeal wrongly placed in failed views of government and policy.

It is instinctive to see these two different visions as contradictory. Douthat believes otherwise. He argues that religion is still a powerful narrative that shapes much of American life. The problem is not in the reality of American religion but rather in the various kinds of religion that we embrace so easily, thus his argument about prevailing heresy being our real problem. While America remains a deeply religious nation, and a place where most of us still draw water from a Christian well, a growing number of us are “inventing [our] own versions of what Christianity means.” The sharper edges and nuances of traditional, confessional Christianity are being lost to pop-messages and churches that stroke the ego and celebrate our worst impulses. What many churches and ministers, both left and right, do not seem to realize is that they are actually offering “distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.”

Here is but one example of Douthat’s thesis at work. The ancient Christian teaching is that the Scriptures are (simultaneously) divinely inspired and open to multiple interpretations. This view has been lost to a choice that is rigidly limited to an either/or conclusion. “You’re either a rigid fundamentalist who believes that dinosaurs just missed a ride on Noah’s ark, or a self-consciously progressive believer for whom the Bible is a kind of refrigerator magnet poetry, awaiting arrangement by more enlightened minds.” Because of this either/or choice we have replaced the “paradoxical mix of qualities and commandments” that challenge our reigning ideologies with our own version of the faith that unwittingly avoids paradox. We have created, again on both the left and the right, a “choose your own Jesus” theology that allows us to fit our own preconceptions about what a savior should be with what we already think and believe.

Early in his narrative Douthat says that the “real story of religion in America” is that the U.S. “needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.” That is his point throughout.

To be completely fair Douthat recognizes that we have always been a nation that fosters heresies. This is the nature of the freedom that we give to religion in a truly free land where the state remains neutral to a particular faith. But what has happened in the last fifty years is this––we’ve lost contact with the “original stream” from where all orthodoxy truly begins. This is not a Lutheran, Baptist or Roman Catholic stream but rather the “shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early Church.” This is, to quote C. S. Lewis, what we call “mere Christianity.” It is this faith that is being lost to these various modern heresies. If this is true, and I believe that it is, then we are in far worse condition than most Christians believe. This is precisely what Bad Religion argues throughout its 280-plus pages.

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