What is remarkable is that with Ross Douthat being who he is and having the prominence that he does, there are a great many people who will take the time to take this in when they otherwise would not come near these ideas with a ten foot pole. Douthat is an accepted member of the American elite, and they will listen to him more so than they would from others hailing from ‘flyover country.’
That America has lost its way religiously and needs to journey home isn’t controversial among Christian conservatives. That this point would be taken up by an author whose words regularly appear in the pages of the New York Times is more surprising.
But that’s what you finds while reading Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. After chronicling the journey of American Christianity from its heights of cultural respectability in the mid-twentieth century down to its present lackluster state, Douthat argues that Christians and non-Christians alike have missed the real problem facing the Faith.
According to the author, orthodox belief is most threatened not by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens with their anti-religion but by the bad religion espoused by the Osteens and Oprahs of the world. We don’t suffer from a dearth of religious thought and feeling in America but, rather, from a dangerous excess of a Christianity-lite which accommodates itself to the sovereign self and every passing societal whim.
It would be far too much to say that Douthat looks back upon any age as golden, but there are gleaming echoes in his description of the post-World War II America. In the wake of that great conflagration, society turned to a more vibrant faith found in either the neo-orthodoxy of mainline churches or the neo-evangelicalism of former fundamentalists.
Even the author’s own Roman Catholics were emerging from the internal exile of their ethnic ghettos and wider society’s doubts of their Americanism. More and more steeples thrust up towards heaven even as the even as Hollywood discovered biblical epics and avuncular priests tending their flocks. While Christians are pushed to the fringes of culture in today’s world, Douthat is able to point to great Christian leaders of that day who were able to command the respect as well as change the course of American society.
However, when faced with the wider world flowing through their TV screens or by their own eyes with the advent of easy air travel, Americans began to have serious doubts as to Christianity’s exclusivity and relevance. Protestants and Roman Catholics alike were plagued by a crisis of confidence which drove them to adaptation which would guarantee a future presence for “the faith once delivered.” However confident they might have been about the appeal of their inclusive Christianity, this openness was letting parishioners leak out. “Liberal Protestants were selling exactly what the accommodationists claimed the public desperately wanted from religion, and nobody was buying it,” (106).
Into this breach flowed the conservative resurgence. Though the mainline Protestant denominations continued to hemorrhage, some evangelicals began to find that its most logical ally was its most traditional enemy: the Roman Catholic Church. Inspired by the teaching of men such as C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and even Francis Schaeffer, evangelicals began to make common cause with their newfound co-belligerents.
While they were a long ways from agreement on some very key theological issues, both groups found that they shared threats within their own communions from accommodationists and together forged a united approach to the pressing moral issues of the day. This confidence led to some clear successes in rolling back the tides of history and to the stunned realization among American elites that religion was not quite yet dead. Rather than heading the dustbin of history, conservative Christians were destined to White House meetings and Vatican palaces.
Yet this new ascendancy was not to come without a cost. Like some Shakespearean tragedy, just as they were reaching their zenith evangelicals were increasingly wed to political causes, and Catholics were embroiled in sexual abuse scandals which were managed about as poorly as could be. In its own quest to accommodate the culture, evangelicalism had co-opted itself to the American dream and become the image of its new god, Mammon. To Douthat’s mind these crises have wrecked what positive effect conservatives could have had in stemming the flow of bad religion.
This “bad religion” is the confluence of cultural and theological currents leading up to a religious mishmash in America which has no genuine truth-claims and makes no real demands upon the individual conscience. Despite surface differences between the scholarly pretensions of the Jesus Seminar, the Christian label of the prosperity gospel, and the cafeteria religion of books like Eat, Pray, Love, they all share the same presupposition that the goal of faith is one’s own self. “It’s the religious message with the most currency in American popular culture – the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves, the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons and Discovery Channel specials, and the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force, like [Eat, Pray, Love]’s God, ‘surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together,’” (215).
In this light God, if ‘He’ can be spoken of as a person at all, is primarily interested in your happiness. Religion in America has essentially de-sanctified traditional doctrines while elevating hedonism to a virtue. “The gluttony of the Whole Foods-shopping gourmand is redefined as a higher form of asceticism: if you put enough thought (and money) into your locally grown artisanal grass-fed free-range organic farm-to-table diet, then a lavish meal can be portrayed one part philosophical statement, one part eucharistic feast,” (236).
Douthat’s final assault comes down upon the twin American heresies in the realm religion and politics. “Messianism” is looking for the next great leader who will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, whether that leader is a former Texas governor or a former Chicago community organizer. “Apocalyptism” bemoans the way fill-in-the-blank dark forces have stolen America’s golden future. In one sense he looks at Messianism in a positive light. It appeals to “the better angels of our nature” (263), while apocalyptism “remains the preserve of cranks and fanatics” (262). However, he also qualifies this significantly. “Witch hunts are dangerous and deadly, to be sure. But ‘wars for righteousness’ often have far more victims, and they do more lasting harm.” (263).
In the end his call to the American church is to take hope in the faith of its spiritual fathers. “The story of Christianity has always featured unexpected resurrections. Eras of corruption give way to eras of reform; sinners and cynics cede the floor to a rush of idealists and saints; political and intellectual challenges emerge and then are gradually surmounted. . . . [T]he faith has found ways to make itself at home in the Roman court and the medieval monastery, the Renaissance city and the American suburb alike,” (277).
By rejecting the therapeutic God of Oprah and the self-empowering God of Joyce Meyer, Christianity can recover both its faith and its proactive influence in the land. By accepting the reality that both the Bible and Christian history are more likely to speak of suffering saints than of those whose portion ever extends, Christians can provide a credible witness to their neighbors even as they are made strong in their weakness.
Along with what gold can be found in this book, there is certainly some dross. He has a few outright errors, some innocuous such as giving the wrong date for Francis Schaeffer’s move to Switzerland. Others, however, are more significant. He claims that neither Augustine nor Calvin held to the inerrancy of Scripture on the authority of a 1979 book critiquing Fundamentalism, (124). However, that book (The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: A Historical Approach) has been rightly challenged for ascribing to these theologians a view of Scripture inconsistent with their actual teaching.
What is likely the greatest failing of this book is its sheer scope. Simply put, Douthat may have bitten off more than he can chew. Whatever well deserved plaudits he might earn for his grasp of history, and his realization that those in the midst of an historical movement are often the last to know when it is time to exit the state, he evinces no awareness that his perception of the 2000s in 2012 might be less than precise. He has indeed done an admirable job of conveying a great many things; however, he has also tied them together in an simplistic way. It is no so much that he has said bad things, but rather his summary could lead others to think that America’s problems could be solved through more efficient organization.
Even with these and other faults, Bad Religion is definitely worth the read. Like any book this one needs to be read with open eyes yet also an open mind. Historians like myself will occasionally grimace at his reductionism, but reading this work as though it is a monograph on history is to confuse subject with genre. His challenge to the church is well put and well needed. He calls for cooperation between adherents of mere Christianity, but not to a melding of ideological distinctiveness.
“In an age of institutional weakness and doctrinal drift, American Christianity has much more to gain from a robust Catholicism and a robust Calvinism than it does from even the most fruitful Catholic-Calvinist theological dialogue,” (287).
He looks for a Christianity that neither withdraws from the world in hopes of a purer life nor one that so accommodates itself so well to the world that it fails to stand up when called to. He calls the church to be in the world, but not of it.
What is remarkable about this book is not its content, in and of itself. Any book written by an evangelical or Roman Catholic on this same topic would cover much of what he shares. What is remarkable is that with Ross Douthat being who he is and having the prominence that he does, there are a great many people who will take the time to take this in when they otherwise would not come near these ideas with a ten foot pole. Douthat is an accepted member of the American elite, and they will listen to him more so than they would from others hailing from ‘flyover country.’
“A lifelong PCA member (Dad is TE Marvin Padgett), Timothy Padgett received his MDiv from Covenant Seminary in 2007, an MA in church history from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2011, and is presently in doctoral studies in church history at Trinity. He and his wife and two children live in the suburbs north of Chicago where they attend Grace Presbyterian Church of the North Shore (PCA) in Winnetka.”
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