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.
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“honesty” is like beauty, I believe, mostly in the eye of the beholder. I have changed by “beholding” of this whole thing of religion (even Christianity) in America since the early ’70s. Then I was still debating my Kansas City pastor about the interpretation of the parable of the “wheat & tares” and the Master’s instruction to his servants to not try to separate them. Like most pastors of large SBC churches, he was convinced that that applied to the visible churches, thus little or no “discipline” or attempt to keep to the original concept of “believers’church membership. I was sure that the correct interpretation was that the field in the parable was the world, not the Church.
But now as I see thru the eyes of a much older churchman who has seen his share of ugly battles within the “churches”, I am persuaded that I was wrong. The parables, after-all, are mostly about the “mystery” of the Church in this present age, the Community of the Kingdom of God in the midst of this evil generation (yes, I include America).
The heretics have always been here, they came on the same ships as the rest of our Forefathers. By 1776,the Deists, Masons, and many more were deeply rooted in places of leadership-in the field of the new nation & her churches.
I don’t think “Bad Religion” is the whole truth by any means nor do I believe the situation is any more critical than before nor the strategy for the Righteous any different! Same field, same Church (Ephesians 4), and same mission!
Douthat’s argument clearly agrees with you that heresies have been here in abundance from the beginning. The key difference is that we have increasingly lost the “source” of ancient mere Christianity to a wide scaled plethora of non-Christian teaching that passes for orthodoxy. If we lose the core we have little to turn to in the face of these heresies. This is not pessimistic but I believe our real history since the 1950s. I urge everyone to read him and see for yourself. He does offer a chastened hope!
I profoundly agree with you John Paul and I believe I have lived a similar journey. I also believe, as does Douthat, that these heresies came with the Founding Fathers to our shores. We will always have “heresies” as St. Paul rightly notes.
John, I am certain we are brothers from different mothers.Unfortunately I do not share your level of formal theological training but I have read very deeply and widely over the past 30 years from many great Christian thinkers, who have become my vicarious mentors and friends.I bought James Hunter’s book two summers ago, and I will definitely buy Bad Religion. We have heard, but maybe never listened, to many sincere believers who have written of the elements of our own decline. We don’t have to go this way.But crisis may force us to rethink much.As an informed layman, I hope to offer my small initiative to educate as you do. My focus will be to create a conversational bridge between the hostile and estranged faith and non-faith community, and the faithful within the Church. I will have to be painfully honest and transparent, as I think you are, to entertain anyone’s attention. Your writing will be increasingly helpful to me, and I always respect your recommendations. We all have clay feet and need each other greatly.May the present day Bad Religion be transformed into the loving communities Jesus so clearly envisioned.
Thank you so much Bryan. You have profoundly encouraged me. Your path is not taken by most but it is both humble and hopeful. This is not the time for pessimism but rather hopeful missional connection with confused and lost people who hunger spiritually. Build bridges of hope! Throwing bombs of inter-Christian making will no longer work, if it ever did. Douthat’s gets this right near the end of his book.
I am a little late to this blog but I feel this subject is very important. I am a hesitant to give too much credit for the almost universally recognized decline to outside influences. Although they do play a role, I am much more concerned about the internal, essential items that impact the nature of the church and the Christian life.
I hope this blog gets the attention it deserves. I will comment on the more recent posts as I get a chance to digest them.
Thanks for addressing this, John.
Why is Christianity in decline? How about because most of it is preposterous nonsense from the ignorant depths of late antiquity and the dark ages. Do you get your healthcare from Galen and Hippocrates? No! Yet Christians get their worldview from 1st century vagabonds as if nothing humans have learned in the last 19 centuries has any relevance to life. Humans now send space probes across the solar system and search the universe across billions of light years yet Christians still think evil spooks wander at large across the land and the first human began as a mud doll and his lovely wife began as a spare rib. Why is Christianity in decline? Because it’s trapped in the middle of the 1st century and can’t get out.
Jim I do not believe that you could be more wrong. The reason that Christianity is in decline has nothing to do with the fact that our worldview is taken from antiquity and everything to do with the fact that our worldview is to be removed from the lens of the present. You are correct that leeches and middle age medicine have little to offer me today, and I do recognize that mankind has made extraordinary advances in technology …. every time I surf the web on my phone. Yet that is precisely the point. At all times from the mud of creation, through the advances and declines of history, to the present day filled with technological wonders and the scope of human existence with its extremes of compassion and cruelty…. that was never what it was all about. For us there is a transcendent reality that is not nor ever was of our making. All men everywhere at any time have been powerless to affect it. Christianity has always declined on earth when we believe that the reality I speak of is captive to the audience of us and our experience. It is not nor shall it ever be controlled or affected in the least by our efforts and ideologies. Our reality, though you may scoff, is unable to be seen here on earth. What I see here is real but there is a greater reality that can only be seen by eyes of faith. It is that reality which demands that I say to you that I love you and welcome your discourse on the decline of Christianity. We have nothing to be ashamed of and harbor no contempt for your opinions, with which I would agree except for the fact that I have seen through eyes of faith the God who so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son in sacrifice so that I could be saved and see Him. This earth and all that is in it is His and He loves you and me equally. Please do not consider the claims of men who are blown with the winds of change, instead consider the claims of the One who has never nor shall ever change. It is Christ Jesus the Rock of our salvation who speaks today through His Word given to you so you might see Him. Call on Him, He is ready for any challenge you may have. Investigate Him he can withstand any scrutiny. He is not afraid of derision or scorn…. He will simply repay with kindness, truth and love. His Words are free for the taking taste them and see if they don’t ring true in a world filled with false hopes and empty promises. I can only leave you with this promise, His not mine, seek Him and you will find Him.
With peace and love