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