Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times, where he is the youngest regular op-ed writer in the paper’s history. He was previously a senior editor at the Atlantic. He is also the film critic for National Review. He is the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class and is co-author (with Reihan Salam) of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics is his latest work.
Rev. Chuck Huckaby is the Minister of Congregational Life at First Protestant Church in New Braunfels, TX. http://www.FirstProtestant.com
When this reviewer was seeking a summer read, a friend suggested “Get Douthat’s 'Bad Religion', it’s the story of our lives!” He spoke as a man whose ministry had resisted the long downward spiral of the mainline denominations that Douthat chronicles in his book. Indeed,"Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics" is not only the story of that friend’s life, it is also the story of every American’s life in one way or another. Heresy is no respecter of persons. It may line one grinning preacher’s pockets more than someone else’s, but all are tainted by the lies being told.
Gresham’s law about currency states, “Bad money drives out good money”. Douthat’s corollary in the social realm is that “Bad religion drives out Good religion”. Our problem in America isn’t too much religion or too much Christianity. Rather, the problem is a Christianity that is no longer robustly orthodox. Instead of the historic Christian faith that provides a genuine hedge against both self-interest and tyranny, the most popular forms of “Christianity” are heretical at best. That is, of course, if what we’re dealing with today can be differentiated from “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MDT) at all.
Douthat notes on page 4 that:
The United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. These faiths speak from many pulpits—conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”—and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.
Obviously, Douthat, in the above paragraph, is poised to throw barbs at both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum – and he does! Douthat is a Roman Catholic convert from Pentecostalism and is recognized as definitely “center-right” to “right” on most politic topics. Nevertheless, his criticisms were consistently even handed and found their targets on all sides of America’s political divide. In a relatively short book, 352 pages, Douthat has offered a sweeping look at America’s religious history and offered some extremely valuable critiques.
Douthat does good work presenting the progress and symptoms of our disease… of Christianity in Crisis, and the major strains of our manifold heresies.
Douthat spins the tale of a bygone era where Neibuhr, Graham, Sheen, and King represented Christian statesmen whose voice transcended sectarian loyalties and who were known to offer a transcendent word to our culture. Following their brief ascendancy, however, came the demise of Christianity in America in general in the Cultural Revolution that was the 60’s. In response, the mainline, along with many liberal Catholics, sought to accommodate the changes, even if that meant giving up traditional Christianity in any way, shape, or form. Others resisted in one way or another but we have never recovered. The overarching tragedy is that America no longer has Christian statesmen. Instead, our religious spokespeople are easily discounted as being attached to one form of partisanship over another.
The major strains of our modern heresy are fourfold. They are our society’s plunge towards Gnosticism and quest to escape the claims of the Biblical Christ; the Osteenification of Christianity into a prosperity and plastic surgery cult; the transformation of prayer from prostration before the Almighty into the heeding of one’s “inner skank” and pronouncing the resulting adultery “divine”; and the danger of nationalism trumping Christology manifested when the Mormon Glenn Beck is so lauded for his patriotism by Christians despite the eschatological “acting out” that passes for Latter Day Saint theology.
Like his previous work co-authored with Reihan Salam titled "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream", this work is long on solid critique and comparatively light on substantial proposals for change. At best, Douthat hopes some way back from the heresy might be found, but he offers no silver bullets and sounds despairing. One option he notes might be for Christians to withdraw from the political process in a kind of monastic stance in order to “take the logs out of our own eyes” before daring to note the speck in the eyes of others. That might be good advice if, while Christians retrenched, the world actually weren’t self-destructing in its madness.
For the rare, even handed, bird’s eye view of where we are and how we got there, read Douthat’s book. For a vision of how we might go from here, that remains to be written. May God in His mercy show America a way forward!
The Worldview Church staff recommends “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” by Ross Douthat (Free Press, 2012; hardcover, 352 pages).
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