Book Review: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat
Throughout Bad Religion, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s third book, the wit, precision, and rhetorical power of the author’s weekly columns are on full display. But here Douthat, a devout Roman Catholic, puts his skill as a cultural critic to work to explain the shape of American Christianity and its fading role in American society since the middle of the 20th century.
BAD RELIGION: A STORY OF SLOW MOTION COLLAPSE
According to Douthat, the widely bemoaned decline in America’s national life is due not to too much religion or too little religion but to bad religion: “the slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (3). It’s an argument that deserves careful attention. Used well, this book could be very helpful to pastors. Used poorly, I fear this book could reinforce some of the very trends it seeks to redirect. In this review I want to offer a hearty recommendation tempered by a gentle warning.
The Story of the Past Sixty Years of American Christianity
The book’s first part tells the story of American Christianity in the latter half of the twentieth century. In Douthat’s telling, it is not a pretty story. If you’re unfamiliar with this phase of American religious history, this section of the book deserves special attention. His account is admittedly selective, and religious insiders and professional historians have found legitimate reasons to quibble with details here and there. But overall, the narrative bears all the marks of keen journalism: its analysis is deeply insightful, sharply focused, and eminently readable.
Douthat’s story begins in the post-war era, what he calls “The Lost World,” a time when orthodox Christianity enjoyed a revival of sorts along with a new place of prominence and respect in American society. In our cultural moment, the 1950s have come to represent anything but a golden age. They’re seen as an era defined more by Mad Men and McCarthyism, by Stepford families and segregation, than by a robust and effective Christian witness. But in a way, Douthat’s onto something.
The 1950s did see a notable rise in church attendance, probably spurred by the trauma of the WWII years, the specter of a godless communism, and the possibility of nuclear holocaust. But more than church attendance, Douthat points to the prominence of orthodox Christians in positions of cultural power. He points to Reinhold Niebuhr, whose realism about sinful human nature even won the respect of atheists like Arthur Schlesinger. He points to a string of Christian thinkers who landed on the cover of Time. He points to Oxford’s C.S. Lewis in the mainstream of the transatlantic literary and intellectual culture. He points to the faith-based activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. He even points to the widespread popularity of the Protestant Billy Graham and the Catholic Fulton Sheen. These figures were obviously different from each other in critical ways, but what they shared—and what ultimately matters most for Douthat—was a sturdy confidence in the truth and relevance of Christian orthodoxy in the modern world.
In the 1960s this golden age began to crumble. Douthat suggests several contributing factors, from the polarizing partisanship of Christian leaders to the forces of sexual liberation and the distancing of American common sense from Christian morality. But what matters more for this story is the response of American Christians to the new climate, a response that drove a deep wedge between left and right.
According to Douthat, the response of the left was defined by accommodation, an attempt to hold on to cultural prominence by updating Christian conviction to suit modern tastes. This decision—evident in elements of both Protestantism and Catholicism—backfired as mainline churches saw numbers plummet through the 1960s and 70s. Having traded Christian convictions for partisan causes, little remained to make Christian institutions necessary. Douthat’s conclusion is typically witty and on-point: “Political activism wasn’t enough: Why would you need to wash down your left-wing convictions with a draft of Communion wine, when you could take the activism straight and do something else with your weekends?” (109).
The response of the right, he argues, was different in substance but similar in result. Social shifts of the 1960s, especially the sexual revolution and its legal enshrinement in Roe v. Wade, galvanized conservative Christianity and rejuvenated an evangelical base that was still laboring to move beyond the cultural retreat of the fundamentalist decades. Douthat celebrates the political partnership of evangelicals and Catholics and the ECT concord. He celebrates Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and their tribe, who reengaged evangelicals with secular culture.
But in the end this conservative reaction fared no better than liberal accommodation in one crucial respect: “the growth and momentum and confidence of post-World War II Christianity was still a distant memory…The awakening that some believers claimed was happening around them was often more evident in their particular subcultures than in the culture as a whole” (131). At the turn of the century, he argues, there is plenty of vibrant religiosity, but it is powerless and largely irrelevant. The culprit, Douthat believes, is a widespread embrace of heresy.
Analysis and Indictment of Heresies
Part two represents the central contribution of the book. Its chapters offer analysis and indictment of the several heresies Douthat blames for Christianity’s loss of relevance in American life. In turn, he considers:
- the revisioning of Jesus and the witness of the Gospels by popular authors like Bart Ehrman and Dan Brown,
- the “pray and grow rich” gospel of Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and, in his own way, Larry Burkett,
- the amorphous, un-tethered, self-affirming spirituality of Oprah Winfrey and Eat, Pray, Love,
- and, finally, the corrosive idolatry of Christian nationalism.
This section of the book will prove very useful to pastors. As pastor of a church near a college campus, I plan to make the chapter on the Gospels my go-to resource for students feeling the pull of revisionist histories. Douthat’s critique of Ehrman and others is informed by all the right sources but is thoroughly accessible and, to this reader anyway, thoroughly compelling. The other chapters in this section are cut from the same cloth and are ready for use when you need them. I was especially pleased by the nationalism-as-heresy chapter, an unexpectedly trenchant and accurate critique of the causes and ecclesiological effects of worshipping at the altar of America.
Underlying each of these chapters is an important insight into the nature of heresy in all its varied forms. Heresy, Douthat suggests, is typically a dismantling of orthodoxy’s central paradoxes. Heresy makes of the God-Man either god or man. It makes of Jesus a one-dimensional figure, embracing the friend of sinners but neglecting his call to repent and commitment to transforming sinners. It celebrates the dignity and uniqueness of the human soul made in God’s image but discards the fact of original sin. It affirms material comforts as blessings of a loving God but turns these blessings to faith’s entitlements, leaving no room for the suffering of the faithful or a God who disciplines those he loves.
Heresies such as these, Douthat admits, have been features of American Christianity since colonial days. But what sets our time apart is their strength, their pervasiveness, and the relative weakness of any orthodox response.
REMEMBER, THE GOSPEL IS BOTH WISDOM AND FOOLISHNESS
This book is a call for a renewed, robust, public confidence in the power of Christian orthodoxy. All faithful pastors should resonate with this plea. But we would also do well to note the locale in which this book aims to see orthodoxy resurge.
Douthat acknowledges the flourishing of traditional Christianity in a variety of subcultures; the continued existence and even vibrancy of orthodoxy is not the problem. His problem is the public irrelevance of orthodoxy in the culture at large. Readers will likely perceive that at least part of the angst that drives Bad Religion is a nostalgia for a time when orthodox Christians were not merely confident in their convictions but respected for them, a time when orthodoxy was freely deployed in positions of cultural influence for its constructive wisdom and its prophetic power. This nostalgia wants the Time cover, the Oxford job, the ear of the president.
And insofar as this book evokes such a desire, whether Douthat himself intends this or not, it could tempt its readers to smooth out yet another of orthodoxy’s central tensions: our gospel is both wisdom and foolishness.
There’s a striking parallel here with the way Douthat speaks of the deceptive danger of the prosperity gospel. The Bible portrays wealth as a gift of God and the root of all kinds of evils, a tension the prosperity gospel insists on smoothing out. Douthat perceptively suggests that Christians who aim at wealth as a target, if not an entitlement, overlook its inevitable danger to the Christian soul. I think we should see cultural influence and respect in this same light. On one hand, we believe that the view of the world buttressed by Christian orthodoxy offers the best explanation for life’s biggest questions. We insist that Christianity makes better sense of the world than any other worldview. We believe that Christian orthodoxy undergirds a way of life that maximizes human flourishing on the individual and corporate levels. But Paul also promised our message would always be foolish (1 Cor. 1:21-25), imperceptible to natural man (1 Cor. 2:14), and we have the promise of our crucified master that his faithful followers will get what he got (Matt. 10:24-25). We aren’t entitled to acceptance by the wider culture, much less the respect of non-believers. Christian truth is at once relevant and foolish. This is a tension we can’t afford to smooth out. To round off the comparison, Douthat argues that the problem with the “union of God and Mammon” is that “it succumbs to a naivete about how riches are often accumulated and about the dark pull that money can exert over the human heart” (207). Substitute “cultural power” and “approval” for “riches” and “money” and the statement remains precisely true.
Of course we must claim opportunities to seek the improvement of our culture as an extension of our call to neighbor-love and as an expression of God’s love for justice. Praise God for Douthat’s models—Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and others like them—believers who’ve gained cultural prominence and used that influence to add salt and shed light. But plenty more through the centuries have been just as faithful and have been ridiculed or even killed by the powers that be. Where we fall on that continuum is in God’s hands, and to whatever extent we aim at the respect of the world we’re asking for trouble.
WHAT WE SEEK, WHAT GOD ADDS
In fairness, I believe this is a danger Douthat recognizes (see 292-93). After all, he concludes his book with Matthew 6:33: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” But here we need to be crystal clear on what belongs to the kingdom of God we’re responsible to seek and what belongs with all God may choose to add. In this time between the times the tangible, institutional shape of that kingdom is not the centers of power but local churches of visible saints. Especially for pastors, the health of local churches must be the focal point of our labor and the primary incentive for doctrinal faithfulness. Because ultimately this faithful presence and witness—neither accommodationist nor isolationist—is the best thing we can offer the world.