by Bruce Thornton
The role of religion in American social and political life is an ever-present element in our civic conversation. The recent controversy over the contraception mandate ignited a smoldering conflict over just this issue.
On the one side, people of faith decry the government’s violation of their First Amendment rights to practice freely their religion and express publicly their beliefs. On the other, secularists protest against the intrusion of faith-based belief into public policy, which they interpret as a violation of the “separation of church and state,” presumably warranted by the same First Amendment. Whether the issue is the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings or legislating restrictions on abortion, this clash of beliefs illustrates just how fundamental religion remains in our political dialogue.
Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics offers a fresh argument that cuts through the clichés and received wisdom usually characterizing this debate. Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times and a film critic for National Review, argues that our problem isn’t the disappearance of religion, as religious conservatives argue, or an excess of religious fervor threatening our freedom, as the secularists and religious liberals counter. Rather, 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.”
Challenging both sides of the debate, Douthat’s well-researched, fiercely argued, and elegantly written book provides a genuinely new and illuminating perspective on this contentious political argument.
Those who believe that, whether for better or for worse, contemporary America is a “religious” country may be surprised by Douthat’s description of the post-war United States of the 1950s, “the lost world of American Christianity,” as Douthat calls it. Measured by high levels of church attendance, the building of new churches, the public celebrity of Christian spokesmen like Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham, and the public presence of Christian belief and doctrine everywhere from Hollywood blockbusters to the speeches of politicians, the great heyday of Christian influence in modern America occurred in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The success of the Civil Rights movement — led by the black churches and church leaders like the Reverend Martin Luther King, and actively supported by most Christian denominations — testified to this influence, as did the absence of any secularist complaints about creeping theocracy or excessive religious interference in politics.
“In this best of all possible worlds,” Douthat writes, “politicians could learn from preachers, theologians could take instruction from the secular world, and there need be no contradiction between Christianity and progress, between dogma and democracy, between the vox populi and the voice of God.”
Religious Decline & the Sixties
In the late 1960s, however, this influence began a decline unprecedented in American history, which had seen religious adherence steadily expand for nearly two centuries. The data on church membership testify to this reversal of Christianity’s historical trajectory. Eight out of eleven Protestant churches with more than a million members declined in numbers between 1965 and 1973. The Presbyterian Church lost 1.5 million members by the late 1980s, and by the early 1990s, 60 percent of Methodists were over 50 years old, and Muslims outnumbered Episcopalians.
Beyond its numbers, Protestant Christianity’s “complex web of communities and institutions simply disintegrated” in the 1960s. “Church school enrollment plunged. Seminary enrollment declined. Donations dried up, budgets were cut, and churches ran enormous deficits.” Missionary work, church-building, and denominational periodicals likewise declined. So, too, with Catholicism, which suffered similar declines in church attendance, new church construction, and parochial school and seminary enrollments, which fell by two-thirds by 1980.
Only the evangelical denominations escaped this trend. But despite their success, Douthat writes, “the era witnessed an extraordinary weakening of organized Christianity in the United States and fundamental shift in America’s spiritual ecology” towards “a more do-it-yourself and consumer-oriented spirituality.”
Douthat offers five reasons for this decline. Increasing political polarization made finding consensus on contentious issues like the war in Vietnam increasingly difficult for people of faith. The sexual revolution, which midwifed the birth control pill, easier divorce, and the legalization of abortion, collided with traditional Christian teaching about sexuality and chastity.
A new global perspective wrought by novel information and travel technologies fostered cultural and spiritual relativism, along with a cultural self-loathing and doubt, which made Christianity seem the minion of imperialist aggression; by comparison, exotic non-Western religious beliefs offered a more attractive and authentic spiritual option. The phenomenal growth and wider distribution of wealth in America left Christianity’s “critique of greed and acquisition” and its “emphasis on renunciation and asceticism” less resonant “for a generation that came of age amid the cornucopian abundance of postwar American life.”
And finally, the new economic and social elites rejected Christianity as a retrograde superstition unsuitable for the enlightened: “All Serious People,” Douthat writes, “understood that the only reason to pay attention to traditional Christianity was to subject it to a withering critique,” and eventually contemptuous neglect.
The Christian denominations themselves responded to this catastrophe by trying either to resist it, by returning to Christianity’s fundamentals, or to accommodate it, by adapting theology and ritual to the new cultural trends. Though Douthat is equally hard on both sides and their excesses, it is the accommodationists that worsened the catastrophe, if only because they had more cultural clout, and were already inclined to interpretative license and relativism.
The Rise of Bad Religion
Douthat’s history and critique of both approaches are fascinating. But more relevant for our predicament today is the analysis of the alternatives to traditional Christian churches, what Douthat calls “bad religion,” which comprises the bulk of his book. These are the various “heresies” that attracted Americans whose religious needs hadn’t faded away into the secularism, humanism, or atheism that religious conservatives feared and liberals celebrated as the consequence of Christianity’s decline.
These heresies arose across the cultural spectrum, from academic research to the “prosperity gospel” that reaches millions through television, bestselling books, and the Internet. For example, the hype in 2006 over the discovery of the ancient Gnostic Gospel of Judas made extravagant claims about its influence in the development of Christianity and the light it shed on “how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was,” as one scholar claimed.
Yet more careful study revealed that dubious dating, tendentious interpretations of the text, and a bad translation of the document had shaped it to create a more modern Jesus, one more attractive to a sensibility eager for a non-judgmental spiritualism defined by therapeutic self-actualization. The same occurred with other “real Jesus” scholars and popularizers like best-selling novelist Dan Brown. Their anti-orthodox Redeemer looks suspiciously like a blue-state Unitarian Democrat.
Another popular and lucrative heresy is the “prosperity gospel.” The credo of the “pray and grow rich,” Douthat writes, is “God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than the next.” In the doctrine of preachers like Joel Osteen, Jesus “seems less like a savior than like a college buddy with good stock tips, which are more or less guaranteed to pay off for any Christian bold enough to act on them.”
Then there are the vaguely spiritual self-help guides, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, a combination of travel guide, spiritual quest, and soft-porn adventure, one of many “God Within” tracts that preach a deity who is essentially an avatar of the writer’s own self and her desires and feelings. These faiths veer toward solipsism and narcissism, offering little guidance about how people can live morally, strive for the larger good, and fulfill their obligations to other people.
As Douthat observes, the reduction of religion to the God Within “just provides an excuse for making religious faith more comfortable, more dilettantish, more self-absorbed — for doing what you feel like doing anyway, and calling it obedience to a Higher Power.”
The Heresy of American Nationalism
Douthat’s survey of his various heresies includes a withering critique of what he calls his “heresy of American nationalism,” a species of idolatry that theologizes American identity and politics. Two strains of such excessive exceptionalism have, in Douthat’s view, tarnished American history. The liberal messianic strain from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama — and evident in the foreign policy of George W. Bush — assumes that human perfectibility is possible and that “American democracy can actually fulfill God’s purposes on earth — whether by building a New Jerusalem at home, or by spreading the blessings of liberty to every race and people overseas,” in the words of Douthat. Democracy becomes a religion “capable of carrying out the kind of redemptive work that orthodoxy reserves for Christ and his Church.”
In contrast, the conservative apocalyptic strain — most successfully embodied in the career of radio talk-show host Glenn Beck — sees America as the new chosen people: “The Founding is our Eden and our Sinai; everything else is a tragic falling away, a descent into idolatry that God will justly punish.”
In Douthat’s analysis, American politics has historically been shaped by these two nationalist heresies, one warping politics with “unwarranted optimism” and utopian delusions, the other with “unwarranted paranoia” and dark conspiracies. And both have corrupted not just politics, but orthodox Christianity itself. Though, as Douthat argues, the messianic strain has had more impact, for good or ill, on our domestic politics and foreign policy because of its greater influence among the educational, political, and economic elite.
Perhaps even more important, both major political parties today harbor, at times, both heresies. Many progressives indulge “apocalyptic scenarios” about overpopulation and environmental degradation, and obsess about paranoid conspiracies hatched by the military-industrial complex. To them, fascism is “lurking behind every right-wing policy proposal.”
As for the right, messianic utopianism is epitomized in the career and policies of Ronald Reagan. In Douthat’s view, Reagan legitimized a utopianism usually viewed with suspicion by traditional conservatives, who look askance at a corrupt human nature that precludes human perfection in a fallen world.
Douthat counsels Christians to accept that there is “no single Christian politics” or “perfect marriage of religious faith and political action.” They must instead “strive in political affairs, as they strive in all things, to do what God would have them to do.” Such advice is salutary in a world that is increasingly secular, materialist, and more and more impatient of admitting any supernatural limits and responsibilities.
Bad Religion argues powerfully for turning from our modern heresies and recovering a Christianity that respects both those responsibilities and limits — a Christianity that restores to our most cherished political ideals and freedoms the only foundation that can keep them strong and sure, what John Adams called a “moral and religious people.”
©2012 Bruce S. Thornton