Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion, suggests that there are five reasons for the decline of religion’s influence in America. I believe he is correct. There could well be more reasons but these five are right on target so far as I am concerned.
1. Political polarization (both on the left and the right) has brought churches into the storms of deeply partisan division. This will be seen with as much evidence as ever in the remainder of 2012.
2. The sexual revolution has powerfully undermined the classical claims of Christianity about morality. Furthermore, the practice of Christians has directly impacted an entire generation. (There is little evidence that anything we are doing inside the church is altering this even though there are some glimmers of hope that Christians are more aware of the problem!)
3. Globalization has made the truth claims of Christianity seem oppressive to many who see the doctrinal claims of the faith as repulsive.
4. Materialism and consumerism have undermined vibrant, sacrificial and community-oriented faith leaving many Christian churches with nothing more than a message about how to improve one’s self life.
5. A broadly based and widespread alienation of culture makers from anything that resembles orthodoxy. This has led culture-shaping institutions to distance themselves from the influence of historic Christianity.
Douthat’s incredibly important book is descriptive. It is also very critical. It is even disheartening for most of the book until you get near the end. While similar Christian critics have asked what can be done about these types of problems Douthat spends 270 pages describing just how bad things really are. This is why his subtitle is so important: “How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” He truly believes the church has ceased to be the church. He admits that he wrote this book “in a spirit of pessimism.” When he spoke at the April 17 Trinity Forum, which is available on C-Span, he admitted this quite candidly. Yet there is something here that is much greater than vague pessimism. There is profound honesty. I believe this honesty can lead to real hope, not to the false idealism that is so often built on the promises of revivalism. The problem with this kind of revivalism is that it is rooted in the multiple heresies that powerfully impacted our churches in the first place. The cure is not in more of the same. Christians must realize this and Douthat could be used, as an honest author, to awaken us to this reality.
I am reading the book again, something I rarely do within days of reading a book for the first time. That’s how important I think Douthat’s critique really is for all of us who profess to follow Jesus Christ in this culture.