Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
by Ross Douthat
Free Press, 352 pages, $26
The best part of Bad Religion appears at the end, where Ross Douthat identifies problematic modern Christianities that, by conventional standards, stand as heretical alternatives to the gospel message of sacrifice, charity, asceticism, and worship of the transcendent. Of these contemporary heresies, civil religion, or what Douthat terms “political theology,” emerges as perhaps the most heretical betrayal of Christianity because it encourages Americans to believe that patriotism is, in its essence, a Christian enterprise. The “heresy of nationalism” expressed as a belief in American “exceptionalism” and America as the “New Israel” has also distorted traditional faith in deeply erosive ways.
Douthat is concerned that the state of Christianity in twenty-first century America is bleak. The once-stellar giants of theology in the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant “mainstream” have faded from the scene, only to be replaced by a new array of religious inventions bent on undermining the faith of the fathers in ever more heretical ways. Issues of sexuality, nation-worship, higher criticism of Scripture, prosperity gospels, and a host of other debased versions of orthodox Christianity and Judaism have displaced what has been called the “vital center” that orthodox faith once imposed on American culture.
The result, in Douthat’s words, is “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.” What makes these pseudo-Christianities so destructive is that they claim the title “Christian,” thus undermining the faith from within.
These ideas have merit. The problems appear in much that precedes them, reflecting a general ignorance of American religious history and the sociologist’s fallacy of regarding everything that happens now as something new and unprecedented.
The book opens with this arresting statement: “After the great crash of 2008, Americans awoke and saw their country the way anti-Americans have always seen it: spendthrift, decadent, and corrupt.” All true, as long as it is clear that America was ever so.
From Connecticut Yankee Puritans and Indian-land-grabbing pioneers, to Gilded Age greed and World War II’s segregated militaries, shame has always been a well-deserved element in the American saga, alongside true nobility. For Douthat, however, our present identity as a “nation of heretics” marks a departure from earlier periods, in particular the post–World War II era of America’s Greatest Generation, when Roman Catholic orthodoxy and the mainline Protestant denominations ruled the culture in ways that were truly Christian and faithful.
Yet for every “heresy” that Douthat locates in his present, there exist historical precedents for similar heresies (in his terms) going back to colonial America. Take civil religion. The author believes that contemporary expressions of civil religion in churches and politics mark a new departure into apostasy, corrupting the more legitimate subordination of politics to religion that typified earlier periods in American history.
As evidence, he points especially to Abraham Lincoln and his Second Inaugural Address. But Lincoln showed a providential fatalism that denied his—and other participants’—active agency in promulgating a war so disastrous that it exceeded in casualties all other American wars combined. He elided blame for himself and the Confederates, stating: “If God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” Surely reading God’s mind into current events counts as a “heresy” just as damning as any that Douthat locates in American Christianity today.
In turning from nondenominational civil religion to particular religious movements, the author describes contemporary “gospels” of wealth, relativism, cynicism, and partisan politics as new departures from an otherwise orthodox past. But a close study of America’s religious history yields precedents and equivalencies to virtually everything that exists today, from the demythologizing deism of Thomas Jefferson and the séances of spiritualists to the utopian settlements that practiced everything from celibacy (the Shakers) to free love (the Oneida Community). Orthodox Protestant attacks on Mormons, Transcendentalists, and even Roman Catholics defied all standards of Christian charity and were clearly intended to stifle the freedom of immigrant and non-orthodox “others” to create, in effect, an unofficial Protestant political establishment.
In making his case for the unprecedented debaucheries of the present generation, Douthat relies heavily on anecdotes and macro statistics. He offers up one inspiring story after another from the Greatest Generation and their pastoral and theological stars Niebuhr, Graham, Ryan, Sheen, Murray, and King. These theological titans he then balances against besetting stories of perversion and rank relativism in the lapsed generations that have followed. The problem with this, of course, is that equal numbers of anecdotes can be piled on from the opposing side of his argument.
The author’s rehearsing of the well-documented decline of the mainline repeatedly leaves unanswered the question, “What about the Evangelicals and Pentecostals?” Later on in the book, he discusses these groups at some length, but without seeing how these millions of fervent believers in our present undermine his central argument for declension. The shift in theology from mainline to Evangelical does not constitute a movement into heresy, even by Douthat’s standards of orthodoxy.
Douthat’s use of statistics is similarly problematic. Statistics can be shaped to fit preconceived arguments just as surely as anecdotal “evidence.” Worse, they change. Daily. To give just one example, the author frets over the seemingly unending decline in numbers within the Catholic priesthood, citing statistics from the 1960s to 1980. Yet the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted a “true renewal” in numbers of ordained priests. No doubt these statistics will change once again in another year, in who knows what direction.
The author is clearly troubled by the 1960s and 70s, which he identifies as the time when “the heretics carried the day completely.” He notes the acceptance of contraception, free love, abortion, Eastern religions, and Bible doubters, and suggests that ultra-liberals tell the real story of those decades. However, though radicals dominated the headlines, the real story of the 1960s appeared with the rise of the conservative right. A fascinating recent book by historian Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt To Sunbelt, shows how a vast migration of “plain-folk” religious migrants from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas flocked to Southern California during World War II, winning the region for Christ and the modern Republican right.
What makes this study most frustrating is Douthat’s constant attempt to cover the bases by pointing out anomalies that contradict his own assertions. Thus only after his panegyric to the 1950s does he concede that there were pedophiles, rabble-rousers, neo-fascists, and hucksters in the Greatest Generation. Only after driving home a point about prosperity preaching does he mention such earlier figures as Norman Vincent Peale and Andrew Carnegie—but without recognizing the larger point that prosperity preaching in America today is neither new nor newly degenerate.
One can’t have it both ways. Either there is a defensible linear decline from a mighty and moral generation to a perverse and agnostic one, or there is not.
Finally, while condemning homosexuality (but not homosexuals) and female ordination, the author shies away from the word “pedophile” (which appears in only two paragraphs), failing to discuss the germination of pedophilia among the priests of America’s Greatest Generation. After hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements with the Roman Catholic Church, it has become clear that some of the Greatest Generation’s priests, protected by other Greatest Generation priests, were responsible for problems—and heresies—graver than those of which he accuses the culture-war radicals.
Even as Puritans condemned their children and grandchildren as generations of “vipers and monsters,” so too in our twenty-first century we see new jeremiads excoriating the rising generations and praising a past golden age. The problem with jeremiads both ancient and modern is they succeed in producing little more than guilt at the cost of the death of real history that sees every generation for what it was and is: noble, fallen, inspiring, and degrading.
In the end, it is dead history, or at least bad history, that produces bad religion. For better and worse, “authentic” and “orthodox” religion is as vital—and problematic—today as ever. American religion today is neither better nor worse than religion has always been in the American experience, and it is less heretical than, well, business as usual.
Harry S. Stout is the Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Religious History at Yale University.