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Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

Ross Douthat,
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,
Free Press, 2012.

Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is a very encouraging read. It gives the reader a detailed narrative of the fall of mainline Christianity in America, as well as the various reactions to this fall, along with a pointer forward. In Mr. Douthat’s view, the mainline churches, as well as moderate Roman Catholicism, were the moral and spiritual heart of America, and they helped to balance the various secularizing influences, making for a happy marriage. With their collapse, America has lost a coherent religious voice, and indeed, it has become “a nation of heretics.”

Mr. Douthat begins his story with the early 1960s. In what might surprise some readers, this turns out to be America’s most religious period. A whopping 69% of Americans “were formally affiliated with a church or denomination” in 1960 (22). This was the highpoint of a steady rise, a 13% increase over the past twenty years. Public intellectuals had no problem identifying themselves as relatively conservative Christians, and they routinely enjoyed a national and international audience. Mr. Douthat identifies Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther King Jr. as the mainstays of “a kind of Christian convergence [which] was the defining feature of this era” (25). None of these men were free from criticism, and Mr. Douthat acknowledges that each of them could have a sort of “neo” prefixed to the their respective traditions and movements. “True golden ages do not exist,” he admits (51). Still, these men did speak a sort of orthodox dialect, and they were unafraid to invoke Biblical images and mandates. They had “a deep and abiding confidence” (53). “Both institutionally and intellectually,” writes Mr. Douthat, “American Christianity at midcentury offered believers a relatively secure position from which to engage with society as a whole – a foundation that had been rebuilt … rather than simply inherited, and that seemed the stronger for it” (53).

That last caveat is important. This high water mark for American Christianity was not “simply inherited” from a mythical founding. For Mr. Douthat, the middle of the 20th century was the most religious time in the past century or more, if not in all of American history.  These sorts of things are impossible to prove with much certainty (there was no 19th-century Barna), but Mr. Douthat’s point is valuable; it can be demonstrated that the middle of the century was very different from what had immediately preceded it. And then it all fell to pieces.

“The Protestant Mainline’s membership [abruptly] stopped growing … in the mid-1960s and then just as swiftly plunged” (59). The United Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, and Presbyterians lost millions of members in the next two decades. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) accounted for 1.5 million losses all by itself. No amount of conservative or grassroots “revival” would ever come close to making up for this loss. Most of the responses, in fact, were in the direction of a further departure from traditional orthodoxy.

Whether by way of “accommodation” to the revolution of modernity (83) or by “resistance” (113), Mr. Douthat sees each of the major religious responses to the mainline collapse as heretical. He uses this term to include both rejections of classical creedal statements about the godhead and the person of Christ, but also in a more broad way, “the impulse to emphasize one particular element of traditional Christianity – one insight, one doctrine, one teaching or tradition – at the expense of all the others” (8). Thus, Mr. Douthat can identify “the historical Jesus” search, with its non-divine Jesus and antisupernaturalism, alongside health and wealth prosperity gospels, New Age self-worship, Young Earth fundamentalism, and the neo-Evangelical Christian Right, all as heresy. Opposed to each of these movements, “orthodoxy” is broad.  Somewhat lamely, Mr. Douthat asserts that center of orthodoxy is “a commitment to mystery and paradox” (10). These words can often be weasel-words, but Mr. Douthat can be forgiven for this since he’s writing as more of a journalist than a theologian. Throughout this section of the book, The reader is treated to a brief history of each of these movements, all in all giving a pretty accurate portrayal of the current American religious landscape.[1]

One of the more helpful aspects of Mr. Douthat’s presentation is that he notes the failings of America without having to wholly reject America. He has a refreshingly nuanced interaction with “Americanism,” not being afraid to admit where it has been a corruption of orthodoxy in favor of American civil religion, but also not being afraid to balance the narrative with key historical moments of realism (250). Mr. Douthat points out that Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” was not a boast but a call to “preeminent responsibility,” to live up to “high ideals” (251). Even an American idol like Abraham Lincoln turns out to be more self-aware and introspective when examined with appropriate historical contexualization and care. President Lincoln “invokes providentialism to explain a chastisement rather than to boast of America’s particular virtue or celebrate its particular mission in the world” (253), and as Mr. Douthat highlights, President Lincoln did not identify America with a fully sacred and elect nation, but rather said that we “can hope only to be an ‘almost-chosen people’” (254). This sense of balance allows Mr. Douthat to avoid mythologizing the American situation, leaving us neither with a recovery of a lost golden age, nor an escape to a utopian future. His program is wholly within the American establishment.

The argument of the book appears when Mr. Douthat offers up five causes for the fall of America’s “Mere Christian” religious establishment and then four prescriptions for recovery. First the causes of the fall:

  1. political polarization (65);
  2. the sexual revolution (70);
  3. globalization (73) and its attendant “Christian guilt” (77);
  4. the religious consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth (78); and
  5. “the element of class,” with the upper class dismissing orthodoxy as beneath them (81).

Each of these factors helped to bring down the religious mainline in America.  They weakened not only Christianity’s intellectual persuasiveness, but also its social acceptability.

To combat this downfall, Mr. Douthat prescribes neither accommodation nor strict resistance, but rather, seemingly influenced by James Davison Hunter’s “faithful presence,” he offers up his own four points for recovery. He begins by suggesting that “faith should be political without being partisan” (284). For Mr. Douthat, Christianity certainly does have political implications. He just happens to believe that some of Christianity’s positions could be espoused by the Right and some by the Left. This can help Christians avoid looking like simply a mouthpiece for an otherwise non-Christian political party, and thus it can avoid turning people off from the faith. “Christian activists … should wear their outsider status as a badge of honor” (285).

Mr. Douthat’s second suggestion is that “a renewed Christianity should be ecumenical but also confessional” (286). This sort of Christianity is not a please-everyone Christianity, but rather something like C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” (287), one that holds firmly to the basic core tenets of the faith while also allowing for lots of freedom on secondary and tertiary issues. We agree that this suggestion is the order of the day, but our challenge to Mr. Douthat is that this is often easier said than done. Lots of people will superficially agree to such a suggestion, but when the actual “confessions” are examined they are often contradictory on important issues. Who decides which doctrines are primary? This challenge is not meant as a complete rebuttal, but it is meant to say that this sort of confessional ecumenism will itself still need to be founded on coherent principles. And it should be pointed out, that the great Prof. Lewis was himself quoting the Puritan Richard Baxter. In other words, this great American “mainline” was a product of Protestantism, and while we are happy for Mr. Douthat and his coreligionists to join in the project, they will bear the burden of explaining its coherence within their own, quite different and possibly irreconcilable, ecclesiastical framework. We can only hope for their future success in this endeavor.

The third and fourth prescriptions for recovery are closely related, and they are that “a renewed Christianity should be moralistic but also holistic” (288) and that it “should be oriented toward sanctity and beauty” (291). Combining John Paul II with Francis Schaeffer, Mr. Douthat wants a faith “for all of life” that is also truly, noticeably, holy. This will persuade the world that Christianity’s message is sincere and desirable.

As we said, Bad Religion is an encouraging read. Mr. Douthat gives a readable but well-informed account of the 20th-century American church; and his observations and suggestions, while perhaps suffering from a lack of attention to detail, are still generally helpful and, more importantly, seem to be correct. Although popular in tone, Mr. Douthat responsibly engages the work of current academic Christian writers like Christian Smith, James Davison Hunter, David Wells, and Philip Jenkins. Mr. Douthat also shows that he knows the Protestant pastoral world, mentioning Tim Keller and Douglas Wilson.

The weakest part of the book is theological. Mr. Douthat does not ask whether there was an underlying cause which allowed for the seemingly rapid collapse of orthodox institutions. The 1960s can now be seen to be the twilight of orthodoxy as well as the climax. Mr. Douthat gave plenty of external causes, but no internal ones. What accounted for the churches’ ability to be so easily attacked and subverted? Orthodox Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians are likely to have a few ready answers (right or not), but Mr. Douthat ventures none. Along with this weakness, Mr. Douthat also places a great amount of faith in the “big tent” version of Christianity. While we like this suggestion too, it will require some serious intellectual  and sociological defense; it requires as much reason as it does faith. And of course, the stiffest opposition is likely to come from the churches, both mainline and conservative. Convincing them of “Mere Christianity” in the first place would have to be the first giant step in the plan.

Still, Bad Religion is a worthy read, and we hope that it is successful in calling many Americans back to a public Christianity which is both orthodox and mainstream, traditional but not sectarian, comprehensive but not compromised. We are very thankful that Mr. Douthat has the journalistic platform that he does, as his is a much needed voice in the American media, and we will be praying for this “Mere Christianity” to turn into a “Mere Christendom.”


[1] A very similar narrative, though starting from very different assumptions and offering very different conclusions, can be found in D. G. Hart’s From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservativism (Eerdmans, 2011).

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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