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by Jay D. Green
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
Free Press, 2012
$26.00. 352 pages.
Among the many keen observations found in his new book, Ross Douthat notes the virtual absence of Christians in the leading class of American public intellectuals. After reading Bad Religion, I would suggest that Douthat himself is an exception that proves this rule.
The thirty-two-year-old wunderkind conservative New York Times columnist here treats readers to a breezy, yet nuanced survey of post-war American life, read through the prism of its religious character—its evolving ideas, beliefs, practices, and institutional life. And the story Douthat tells is a grim one. He argues that a core of sturdy institutions, rooted in and nourished by Christian orthodoxy, functioned as the “invisible mortar” that stabilized the nation through most of its history. “Not the orthodoxy of any specific Christian church, whether Lutheran or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic,” he insists, “but the shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early Church.” But since roughly mid-century, Douthat contends, this vital “religious center” has given way. And the consequences have been devastating, both to the faith and to the social order.
Douthat maintains that today’s American ethos is overwhelmingly marked by various forms of heresy—using theologian Alister McGrath’s definition, “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian belief.” Douthat acknowledges that heresy within the American context is hardly new, and even concedes that, throughout American history, heretics have supplied many valuable benefits and insights to our national life, pressing “their Christian countrymen forward toward new ideas, new horizons, new visions of justice, and new experiences.” But Douthat holds that whatever productive energies such heresies might have once contributed to our national culture, today’s heresies have turned destructive as they ceased to function as gadflies—poking at the margins of a durable core of deeply held, normative commitments—and became instead the authoritative playbook for how to be American.
The result has not been a long-predicted descent into secularism, nor even a marginally less religious republic. By many measures, Americans on the whole remain quite religious, and even specifically Christian. (It should be noted: Bad Religion is hardly a misty-eyed lament for the loss of “Christian America.”) The decline of traditional Christianity’s public credibility during the “locust years” of the 1960s and ’70s—an impulse that turned old ideals like chastity, reticence, and deference into signposts for intolerance, sexism, and homophobia—marshaled American Christians in two opposing directions. Each direction helped to weave peculiar strains of heresy into the fabric of American culture.
On the one hand, accomodationists of the post-Vietnam era held that the only hope for maintaining the faith’s cultural relevance was to expunge its outmoded and increasingly embarrassing features, and to cultivate a “secularized faith” that might woo its enlightened critics. Certain doctrines simply had to go: those that sharply delimited personal behavior; those that posited exclusivist or normative metaphysical claims; and others that seemed bound to an untenable prescientific worldview. Pursuing an ever more hip and modern Jesus—like the one imagined by Harvey Cox and Robert Funk—would keep Christianity vital and socially conversant. Or so the argument went. The irony, of course, is that “Liberal Protestants were selling exactly what the accomodationists claimed the public desperately wanted, and nobody was buying it.”
The alternate response to the crisis of Christianity was a grand attempt at a determined resistance. Evangelicals and conservative Catholics could no longer afford to remain divided over historic teachings at a time when so many shared commitments were under threat. So figures like Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus in the 1990s sought to build a “co-belligerent” alliance in the culture wars. While Douthat believes that many such efforts to uphold traditional values by members of this coalition achieved some positive results, he contends that they did little to restore institutional Christianity’s public standing. Between the moral bankruptcy exposed by priest sexabuse scandals throughout the Roman Catholic Church, and the anti-institutional (and often anti-intellectual) spirit endemic to evangelical parachurch activism, neither “party” in this resistance had the cultural heft to do much more than to survive “as two interchangeable vehicles for the identity politics of Red America.”
The resulting heresies that have come to define our present cultural moment contradict each other, and each seems insuperable. Together they illuminate the utter marginalization of Christian orthodoxy’s traditional institutional witness, and Douthat’s careful exposition of each is, by itself, worth the price of the book. The nearly universally entrenched, heretical assumptions he identifies? (1) The “real Jesus” vanished from view hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago and is nowhere reflected in the traditions of historic orthodoxy (reference the Dan Brown phenomenon). (2) Christian faith exists to satiate our “name-it-and-claim-it” material and financial appetites (reference the Joel Osteen phenomenon). (3) Christian faith represents one therapeutic pathway (among many) to finally making peace with the entirely selfreferential “God within” (reference the Oprah Winfrey phenomenon). (4) Christian faith is at best a handmaiden of a sometimes messianic, sometimes apocalyptic religion of American nationalism, a religion that reduces Christian faith to rank partisan political ideology (reference the Sarah Palin phenomenon).
I do have quibbles with certain facets of Douthat’s analysis. Perhaps he paints too rosy a picture of the status of Christian orthodoxy’s pre-war status within the United States. He probably draws too great a causal connection between credible Christian institutions and the health of our social order. And he insists on ending the book with a comparatively upbeat and all-too-predictable game plan for “the recovery of Christianity.”
Nevertheless, I believe Bad Religion is a profoundly important book, brimming with deep, critically incisive, and trustworthy assessments of Christianity’s status in American culture. Living as we do within the thick and bewildering soup of heresies enumerated by Douthat, traditional Christian believers should be grateful that someone of his skill and evident personal commitments has been granted such a prominent public platform to help us understand and live faithfully within this present age.