Ross Douthat. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. New York: Free Press, 2012. 352 pp. $26.00.
We have met the enemy, and he is us. Maturing Christians recognize they have no greater enemy than themselves, with hearts prone to wander in search of satisfaction that can only be found in God. But when it comes to Christians gathered together as the church, we’re slow to apply the same principle. We lament our lot and blame each other, the media, televangelists, government—anyone we believe deserves blame for the sorry state of Christianity in America. But what if the problem is us, whether liberal or conservative, evangelical or Catholic?
According to Ross Douthat, the youngest columnist in the history of The New York Times, we have become a nation of heretics. No matter your political or theological persuasion, you will come under withering scrutiny in Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion. Douthat goes into deep (and disputed) detail about the history and beliefs of evangelicals, mainline Protestants, the African American church, and his own Roman Catholic Church, not to mention the assorted heresies of Oprah, Glenn Beck, Dan Brown, and many others.
You won’t find many reasons for hope in Douthat’s dour tour through the last half-century of Christian decline in America. But you only need one, Jesus Christ, who deigns to save sinners such as us to build his church.
Douthat’s narrative begins with the economic crash of 2008, when “Americans awoke and saw their country the way anti-Americans have always seen it: spendthrift, decadent, and corrupt” (1). Indeed, that seminal event seems to be the occasion for this book, which explores the exasperation and fear that characterize our era. Douthat observes that some Americans identify our problem as too much religion, while others claim we have too little. Douthat, however, says our problem is “bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (3).
Douthat sides unapologetically with the orthodox Christian tradition and argues vigorously for its renewal. Orthodoxy for Douthat includes the doctrines of the incarnation, atonement, Trinity, and virgin birth; the hope of forgiveness and everlasting life; the divine inspiration and authority of Bible; the ethics of the Ten Commandments and New Testament; and the three early church creeds (Nicene, Apostolic, Athanasian). Orthodoxy—mysterious and paradoxical—is the church’s priceless inheritance, passed down from the apostles.
Heretics, by contrast, seek to “resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith” (12). What heretics intend for evil, however, God has often used for good by strengthening orthodoxy in the fire of theological debate. So there is hope for orthodoxy today, which has often thrived in America alongside many fast-spreading heresies.
Justifying the Call
Douthat divides his book into two parts. The first, “Christianity in Crisis,” describes the decline of American Christianity from the pinnacle of church attendance and influence following World War II. In the second chapter, “The Locust Years,” he describes the first time in American history when the rate of religious adherence declined. Evangelical growth in the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s could not compensate for the dramatic dropoff in the mainline and Catholic churches.
There are many reasons for this unexpected and rapid transformation, according to Douthat. Protests during the Vietnam War heralded an era of political polarization that compromised the mainline churches. The sexual revolution introduced no-fault divorce and legalized abortion, undermining Christian consensus on sexual ethics. Nothing was so instrumental as the birth-control pill, which reduced fears of social stigma and illegitimacy that had long reinforced biblical teaching. Soon Christians came under criticism for their regressive attitudes, interpreted by opponents as a sign of their own repressed psychological issues.
This is a familiar story for Christians still crouched in a defensive posture on sexual ethics. But Douthat identifies several other culprits, such as the end of colonialism, interpreted by many as the eclipse of Europe and Christianity. Other underrated factors cited by Douthat include the soaring personal wealth of the middle class, which fueled a commuter society that broke up religious communities, and the intellectual shift in the newly meritocratic upper class, which disproportionately rejected Christianity and used their money and influence in leading cultural institutions to marginalize orthodoxy.
In response to worrisome trends, too many seminaries and denominational headquarters adopted politics as the mission of the church. They counseled accommodation to the spirit of the age. “Orthodox theology wasn’t officially abandoned,” Douthat writes; “it was merely downgraded, declared optional, and generally ignored” (91). Where orthodoxy disappeared, so did church members, even though these spiritual leaders sought to give the public a more palatable religion tailored for the modern age. The plan backfired. Once unquestioned pillars of American society, several venerable denominations descended into a tailspin from which they have yet to recover.
Accommodationists “burned the candle on both ends, losing their more dogmatic parishioners to more fervent congregations and their doubters to the lure of sleeping in on Sundays,” Douthat writes. “Any institution that calls human beings to devotion and self-sacrifice needs to justify that call” (108).
So Much Confusion
Douthat’s chapter on the conservative response, at least as it regards evangelicals, will hearten even as it aggravates readers. He celebrates Francis Schaeffer’s anti-abortion advocacy but regrets his “grimly sectarian” theology. He appreciates intellectual renewal within evangelicalism while applauding Fuller Theological Seminary for abandoning their founders’ belief in the “fundamentalist view that the inspiration of the Bible made it as exact a guide to geology and biology as it was to the history of salvation” (124). One such founder, evangelical architect Carl F. H. Henry, would be surprised by the fundamentalist label and disappointed with this definition of inerrancy, even if Douthat reserves qualified praise for the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.
Douthat’s history of evangelicalism disappoints in several other regards. Ignoring the conservative resurgence, he regards the Southern Baptist Convention as a stronghold of evangelical piety and belief throughout the 20th century. This mistake mars his description of Baylor University, whose administrators may be shocked to learn they lead the “flagship school of Southern Baptists.” And Douthat regrettably repeats the debunked statistic that evangelical marriages are more likely to end in divorce.
Not surprisingly, Douthat is more accurate and eloquent when recounting Roman Catholic travails. The story of orthodoxy’s eclipse in America would not be complete without the horror of the priest abuse scandal, which combined the evils of liberal permissiveness and conservative self-protection. He writes:
No atheist or anticlericalist, no Voltaire or Twain could have invented a story so perfectly calculated to discredit the message of the gospel as the depredations of Thomas Geoghan and the legalistic indifference of Bernard Cardinal Law. No external enemy of the faith, no Attila or Barbarossa or Hitler, could have sown so much confusion and dismay among the faithful as Catholicism’s own bishops managed to do (132).
Time will tell if the Roman Catholic Church in America can survive the problems Douthat attributes primarily to evangelicals. He correctly criticizes evangelicals for depending too much on parachurch ministries led by celebrities, many of whom today hawk their heresy all over the cable TV schedule. But even the last two staunchly orthodox Catholic popes have been unable to fulfill their supporters’ considerable expectations to reverse the spread of heresy and fill the pews. Still, as an evangelical I agree with Douthat that we need to prioritize efforts to strengthen confessional churches prepared to shepherd Christians all the way from cradle to grave.
Not Destruction But Reformation
In the book’s second part, “The Age of Heresy,” Douthat diagnoses four illnesses that plague American religion. He exposes the shoddy scholarship behind The Da Vinci Code and its scores of supporters who continue toiling in the academy today. Oprah shares blame with many others who tout “The God Within” and thereby hearten a nation filled with narcissists, “gamblers and speculators, gluttons and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough” (235).
The heresy derided in the chapter “Pray and Grow Rich” includes shameless Word-Faith peddlers but also indicts Catholic social welfare politics and even personal finance gurus such as Larry Burkett, whom he regards as naive about the spiritual risks inherent to accumulating wealth. In “The City on the Hill” Douthat dares criticize Ronald Reagan for his “utopianism of free men and free markets” (267) and shows no sympathy for George W. Bush’s “Messianic nationalism.”
These last two chapters hit closer to home for conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholics, who are more likely to read this book than the fans of Elaine Pagels and Rhonda Byrne. The intersection of conservative politics, culture, and religion is Douthat’s wheelhouse. He thrives when dissecting liberal foolishness, but he truly edifies when exposing the blind spots of contemporary political conservatism and its chaplain cheerleaders. He writes not as a pundit bent on destruction but on reformation for the good of the movement and the entire American public.
Bad Religion reads like what you’d expect from a skilled and tireless columnist: lots of interaction with books, essays, and studies to explain how great minds and dynamic leaders have changed culture from the top down. The book does not display the full wit of David Brooks, the theological expertise of David Wells, or the sociological sophistication of James Davison Hunter. Yet I don’t doubt Christian thought leaders will and should read this book cover to cover. The only question is whether they can do anything about the problems Douthat had identified. As he admits, the influence of institutional church leaders has diminished relative to the upstart prosperity preachers and pop psychology writers.
Thankfully, even in a book devoted to exposing heresy, Douthat directs readers toward several encouraging trends. Postmodernism could be an opportunity for renewed radicalism. Orthodox churches could emerge stronger following a period of withdrawal, consolidation, and purification. The growth of global Christianity can bolster Western churches through reverse missionary endeavors. And our age of diminished expectations may send Americans searching for meaning in something that transcends work, sex, and money.
Douthat even provides an plan to follow. Faithful Christians who can make a difference in America are political without being partisan, ecumenical but also confessional, moralistic but also holistic, and oriented toward sanctity and beauty. There aren’t many heroes in the book, but Douthat singles out Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church. And he contends, “The example of a single extraordinary woman, Mother Teresa, did more for Christian witness in the twentieth century than every theology department and political action committee put together” (291-292).
Whether Americans realize it or not, the country needs an orthodox, prophetic church. But the church today, bloated by a smorgasbord of heresy, is not fit to fulfill this calling. Heretical nationalism—whether vested in the markets, military, or government—has stifled our public testimony. For the sake of America, we must forsake the various heresies of Americanism.
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir.You can follow him on Twitter.