Why Does American Religion Increasingly Look So Weird? A Review of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

In this 2012 book New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat seeks to explain how the religious scene in America has become so strange, or as he aptly puts it, “how we became a nation of heretics.”   I have read the book twice now—the first time quickly when it came out and again more recently when I used it as a textbook in a course I teach on “Religion and Contemporary American Culture”—and will share some thoughts on it here.

At this point I probably should mention that I’ve met Ross and have a real appreciation for his thoughtful work at the Times.  We’ve had dinner together and we participated in a panel discussion of this book.  While I do have some quibbles, the volume is an important interpretive piece that deserves to be widely read by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Douthat begins with the nation’s distressing current situation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  America, he says, is “spendthrift, decadent, and corrupt,” and competing narratives have been proposed to explain this national decline—the Left views this decline as the result of  “too much religion” while the Right sees it as flowing from the loss of religious faith.   But the real problem, Douthat contends, is not too much or too little religion, but rather the advent of “bad religion” that enables rather than limits human selfishness, lust, individualism, and arrogance.  The first half of the book analyzes the crisis in which traditional Christianity in America now finds itself, while the second part is a detailed description of various forms of “bad religion” that have emerged.

For Douthat, the hallmark of “Christian orthodoxy” is its “commitment to mystery and paradox.”   It sees God as both transcendent and immanent, just and loving, sovereign and all-powerful while allowing creatures their freedom and responsibility, omnipotent and good while permitting evil.  It is precisely this “both/and” approach that allows Christianity to do better justice to the complexities of life, but heresies “almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.”

According to Douthat, the 1950s were a halcyon period when Christian orthodoxy was still central to the culture.  Reinhold Niebuhr’s neo-orthodox Christian Realism represented a sober rejection of earlier optimistic utopianism and a recovery of interest in the creedal tradition of the church.  Evangelist Billy Graham led evangelical Protestants out of the weeds of sectarian, separatist fundamentalism and into the cultural mainstream while preserving a commitment to historic doctrine.  Roman Catholic bishop Fulton Sheen presented a Catholicism that was both traditional in doctrine and comfortable with American democracy, while Martin Luther King, Jr. combined academic mainline Protestantism with “the prophetic spirituality of the black church.”  For Douthat, a key characteristic of this period was the sense of confidence exuded by these leaders “that orthodoxy Christianity might actually be on the winning side of history.”

All this quickly fell apart in the 1960s as the mainline denominations entered a steep decline in both numbers and levels of commitment.  Douthat identifies five major factors that contributed to this.  The mainline churches became increasingly involved in the divisive political issues of the day and were increasingly perceived as partisan appendages of political coalitions.  With the sexual revolution traditional Christian morality was increasingly seen as repressive and old-fashioned.  With globalization a host of new religious options were now on the table and this awareness, in turn, heightened traditional Christianity’s scandal of particularity.  In a variety of ways, economic prosperity made the older patterns of religious life more difficult to maintain.  Finally, the emerging information-based class has tended to be militantly secular and to view traditional religion as “déclassé.”

Douthat argues that two strategies were open to the mainline churches—“accommodation” and “resistance.”   Many in both mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic circles sought to accommodate themselves and their churches to the new spirit of the age with naturalistic, political, this-worldly forms of Christianity.  But this effort at accommodation largely failed in that there was no longer a foundation of distinctively Christian belief to undergird the ministries of these churches, and, furthermore, such churches found it increasingly difficult to justify themselves as institutions.  After all, if the primary task of the church is to work for gender equality or environmental responsibility, why not just join the National Organization of Women or the Sierra Club and skip church?

More conservative Christians followed the strategy of resistance.  Here Douthat focuses especially on the rapprochement of Evangelicals and culturally conservative Roman Catholics exemplified in the 1994 document Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  Energized by their common opposition to Roe v. Wade, Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics discovered that there was considerable ground for cooperation on moral and cultural issues.  But this resistance strategy turned out to be a rear-guard action that failed to stem the tide of cultural decline.

Reasons for this failure are complex.  Roman Catholicism was increasingly discredited on moral issues by the unfolding clergy sexual abuse scandal, and Evangelicals became increasingly discredited and disillusioned with politics as a result of their close association with Republican administrations.  Particularly interesting is Douthat’s analysis of the Evangelical “culture deficit,” and the resulting failure to build lasting institutions.    With their preference for “mere Christianity” doctrinal minimalism and parachurch organization, Evangelicals have lacked both the intellectual depth and robust institutions needed for “sustaining commitment over a life span or across generations.”  Douthat also asks the penetrating question of whether, as they continue to work together, Evangelicals and Catholics can continue to thrive as confessional communities with their own doctrinal integrity.

But the decline of Christianity has led, Douthat argues, not to the demise of religious belief but to the rise of alternative beliefs, and in the second part of the book he analyzes four forms that “bad religion” takes.  He first takes on radical academic criticism of the Gospels that seeks both to deconstruct the church’s traditional view of Jesus and to reconstruct a Jesus for today, with particular focus on efforts to retrieve a modern Jesus from “alternative Christianities” such as Gnosticism.  Douthat notes the sloppiness of such scholarship as it trades in arguments from silence and picks and chooses what it wants from various texts, and he rightly observes that such ideologically driven quests for the historical Jesus have been unable to provide a compelling positive alternative to the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy.

Next Douthat takes on the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and others such as Kenneth Copeland, Paul Crouch, and Benny Hinn, noting its close connection to the Pentecostal movement and arguing that it represents “the refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance.”  He correctly discerns that this teaching, which holds that God wants everybody to be rich and that poverty indicates a lack of faith, ignores a great deal of what Scripture and the Christian tradition have taught about the dangers of greed and money, and he observes that while the prosperity gospel did not cause the housing bubble of 2008, it contributed to it and it made American Christianity less able to serve as a restraint on such excess.

Douthat also explains how related accommodations to American prosperity have taken place in African-American Christianity (with Reverend Ike and Father Divine), among Evangelicals (with Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez and Larry Burkett), and in Roman Catholicism (with Michael Novak’s 1982 The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism).  But he seems to agree with Novak that capitalism is probably the system best suited to the weaknesses and selfishness of fallen human nature, and he suggests that the modern welfare state “undermines the demographic foundation of civilization” and religion by making it too easy to live childless.

A third form of “bad religion” is the preoccupation with “the god within” evident in the pop spirituality of Elizabeth (Eat, Pray, Love) Gilbert, Oprah Winfree, and their ilk.  This “spiritual, not religious” impulse is diverse but it proponents agree that spiritual insight comes through experience rather than through the dogmatic teachings of organized religion, that deity pervades all of reality, and on the basically therapeutic assumptions that the goal of our lives is happiness and that happiness can be achieved in this life.   Thus, what emerges is a sort of roll-your-own religion of therapeutic pantheism.  Such “spirituality” issues in a solipsism without moral substance, an individualistic quest for meaning and fulfillment that undercuts community and enables rather than restrains sexual license.  As Douthat sadly observes, its devotees tend to abandon their spouses!

The final form of “bad religion” that Douthat examines is the “heresy of American nationalism.”  Not surprisingly, he begins with Glenn Beck, but this chapter is not a diatribe against the Religious Right; the argument is more nuanced than that.   He notes that “universal faiths are a relative novelty in human history” and that tribal gods retain their seductive appeal even in modernity—thus the persistent tendency to identify America too closely with God’s purposes.

While a mild version of American exceptionalism is compatible with Christian orthodoxy as long as it “is tempered by a realism about the mysteries of providence and the limits of human perfectability,” there are two persistent temptations—“messianism” and “apocalypticism.”  The first is totalizing and utopian, and is the historic weakness of the statist Left.  The second is more rhetorically extreme, with its sense that the nation is going to hell in a hand basket and its Manichaean diatribes against opponents, and has been particularly enticing to the Right.  But both political coalitions, Douthat argues, have now embraced “messianic delusions” and “apocalyptic fears,” and the predominant tone depends on who happens to be in the White House!  Thus religion is less able to play a positive role in public life.

He then offers a brief analysis of the near-term prospects of orthodox Christianity in America, and here he identifies four possible paths.  Some have embraced postmodernism (Radical Orthodoxy, the Emergent Church), but the danger here is accommodation to the broader culture.  Others call for decisive separation from the broader culture, but this can lead to weirdness.  Still others look for renewal to come from the churches of the Global South, but those churches are themselves infected with American problems (such as the prosperity gospel).  Finally, some may begin to discern the connection between the deepening cultural crisis and the bad religion that enables it.  Douthat concludes with a call for a public Christianity that is “political without being partisan,” that is “ecumenical but also confessional,” that is “moralistic but also holistic,” and that is “oriented toward sanctity and beauty.”  So much for the argument of the book.

As the summary above suggests, this volume is really an exercise in cultural apologetic, and an effective one at that.  As Douthat himself puts it, much of the book is an

instrumental case for Christian orthodoxy—defending its exacting moralism as a curb against worldly excess and corruption, praising its paradoxes and mysteries for respecting the complexities of human affairs in ways that more streamlined theologies do not, celebrating the role of its institutions in assimilating immigrants, sustaining families, and forging strong communities.  My hope throughout has been to persuade even the most skeptical reader that traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe.

In fact, Bad Religion demonstrates that a well-educated and thoughtful person without specialized training in the study of religion can engage these issues and the relevant literature and figure this stuff out.  Speaking as a professional in the field, I have to admit that Douthat’s lack of specialized training was probably an asset—he has been able to ask new questions and see old problems from new angles.

To be sure, there are some points where I disagree, and I’ll mention two of them.  First, his romanticized presentation of the “Christian orthodoxy” of the 1950s in the first part of the book is overly sanguine.  As Os Guiness and others have discerned, the seeds of the 1960s rebellion were already present earlier, and the mainline synthesis of the Fifties was a house of cards.  In fact, Douthat himself seems to concede that the picture he presents is a construct and that a rather different narrative can be written about the period.  For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “reckless adulterer whose academic work was partially ghostwritten.”  Upon close examination, Reinhold Niebuhr looks rather modernist and liberal in that his theology left little room for the supernatural, and Fulton Sheen’s joining of American democracy and Catholic doctrine was something of a “shotgun wedding.”

Even more significantly, Douthat also seems to recognize that the whole program was built on cultural compromise tied to a particular time and place: “As apostles for a revived orthodoxy, figures like Niebuhr and Graham and Sheen and even King often tended to succeed only insofar as they met the American Way of Life halfway, making the Christian message seem nonsectarian, forward-looking, and obviously relevant to the questions of the age.”  In this case, it seems that the good old days weren’t so good (or sustainable) after all.

Second, the book is not entirely fair to the Pentecostals, whom Douthat sees as open to prosperity gospel themes from the beginning.  But this argument ignores the roots of Pentecostalism in the Holiness movement with its deep suspicion of “worldliness” and the trappings of wealth.  In fact, it was only in the context of the economic expansion of the post-World War 2 period that the prosperity gospel took deep root among Pentecostals, and even then suspicions remained.  This helps us understand, for example, the cartoonish hair and makeup of a Tammy Faye Bakker or a Jan Crouch—they were sending a contrived yet powerful signal to a conflicted community that one can be worldly and wealthy and still love Jesus.

That being said, the book is a remarkable interpretive achievement that provides rich food for thought to people across the political and cultural spectrum.  Also significant, I think, is that it comes from a Roman Catholic layman; this book is yet another example of how so much incisive thinking today on religion, culture, and politics is coming from Roman Catholic authors.  But Douthat’s vision is also broader than his communion.  For example, in response to the claims of radical New Testament critics that the four canonical Gospels were chosen by church leaders for political motives, Douthat presents the very Protestant argument of Bruce Metzger that these early Christian leaders simply “came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical on the church.”  I’ll drink to that!