Chesterton famously wrote, “There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”
With the furor arising from some corners upon the release of his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat might be inclined to add to the big man’s dictum, “or anything so willfully misunderstood and resisted.”
Douthat's book is a neatly laid-out dissertation on the people of faith and their place in American society. It is a deft chronicle of where faith communities went right—spanning a heyday of religious commentary and social activism, from John Courtney Murray to Martin Luther King—where they gravely misstepped (through over-accommodation, self-defeating scriptural scholarship, and the inevitable discovery of “the God Within”) and where, through the embrasure of so-called “prosperity gospels” catering to the worst instincts of a post-binge capitalist society, they have simply gone mad.
Douthat also lays a humbly offered groundwork for how and where the churches may yet recover their sense of both social place and mission. Not surprisingly, it will involve a confrontation with the self that will be as painful as any bacchanal’s bleary-eyed gaze into a well-lit morning mirror; groaning pleas for mercy will make a slow, careful nod toward justice.
Nowhere in Douthat’s book, or in his recent feature piece in the New York Times, which was minimally adapted from the book, is there served up a feed so spicy that it should cause a case of dyspeptic outrage, but some reactions might give that impression. “This is hellfire and brimstone delivered in New York Times-speak”, writes blogger Marie Burns, who accuses Douthat of longing “[for the days] when American newspapers routinely published the sermons of popular preachers.”
Having occasion to speak with Douthat, I asked whether he was, in fact, a modern hybrid of Billy Sunday and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, looking to fill the secular media with religion. “Fire and brimstone only in the sense that I am a Christian and believe in heaven and hell,” he laughed, “but in fact, I’m not sure it would be the worst thing in the world for papers to run a few sermons; I don’t think it’s a threat to anyone’s faith, or lack of faith, to hear religious voices in the public square—that’s part of what religious liberty is all about.”
The notion that a faith perspective is as worthy to inhabit a public barking stall as any other is hardly a novel idea—until very recently, freedom of religion was understood to mean not only the freedom to worship but to practice and profess one’s religion openly, and to admit the role religion has played in the formation of one’s ideas. Douthat makes a credible argument that such is still the case; he notes that few secularists take issue with the publicly shared “spiritual but not religious” doctrines of Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhard Tolle and argues that, “Elizabeth Gilbert, for instance, is offering up a serious theology and should be engaged with, seriously and publicly.” Dueling podiums could be a very healthy and enlightening thing for a society in the throes of material failure, but those taking traditional, orthodox views, be they Christian or otherwise, are being discouraged from speech, rather than invited in.
Douthat does an excellent job in tracking how faith communities have contributed to this unwelcome through the self-immolation of their own moral credibility:
Therapeutic theology is hardly uniquely responsible for these trends. Our appetites have increased in proportion to our unprecedented wealth, and our immediate-gratification culture has been made possible by material abundance and technological progress . . . the Tolles and Winfreys and Chopras [are] telling an affluent, appetitive society exactly what it wants to hear: that all of his deepest desires are really God’s desires, and that he wouldn’t dream of judging.
Against a message like that, some would say an orthodox reply would not stand a chance, but Douthat disagrees, particularly as regards Christianity, which is still the dominant religious force in America:
Like W.H. Auden wandering amid the shuttered churches of 1930’s Spain, perhaps Americans will survey the wreckage all around them and turn once again to a more rigorous and humble form of Christian faith. Perhaps the experience of a financial meltdown will help vindicate orthodox Christianity’s critique of avarice and greed. Perhaps the lived reality of family breakdown and social isolation will make Christianity’s emphasis on chastity, monogamy, and fidelity more compelling. Perhaps the spectacle of polarization and gridlock will inspire greater realism about the ability of politics to serve God’s purposes, and put an end to the persistent conflation of partisan and religious loyalties.
Perhaps. Then again, as Douthat himself notes, “Sometimes cultural crises lead to reassessments and renewals. But sometimes they just make people double down on their original mistakes.”
True enough. And if the public square becomes off-limits to the opinions and ideas of those formed in faith, many may not even know there is another option.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
Ross Douthat's Feature
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