Ross Douthat rightly asserts that religious faith is essential to America’s understanding of itself. But his own understanding of religion is suspiciously selective.
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
by Ross Douthat
Free Press, 336 pp.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat closes the lament over the decline of “orthodox” Christianity in America in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, with a plaintive warning about the soul of our nation in the dark decades to come. He is convinced that reversing America’s political and economic decline will require a moral renewal, a return to the practice of traditional virtues long taught by the Christian churches. He is not optimistic about that happening.
Douthat’s religious prophecy recalls the more flamboyant vision of a very different sort of American intellectual—Norman Mailer. “Whole crisis of Christianity in America that the military heroes were on one side, and the unnamed saints on the other!” proclaimed Mailer in The Armies of the Night, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the 1967 anti-Vietnam War march on the Pentagon.
Let the bugle blow. The death of America rides in on the smog. America—the land where a new kind of man was born from the idea that God was present in every man not only as compassion but as power, and so the country belonged to the people; for the will of the people—if the locks of their life could be given the art to turn—was then the will of God. Great and dangerous idea! If the locks did not turn, then the will of the people was the will of the Devil. Who by now would know where was what? Liars controlled the locks.
Mailer knew that the fate of American democracy cannot be disentangled from that of Christianity in all its peculiar as well as its traditional manifestations. (A Mormon president? A thrice-married Catholic convert?) Democracy is “essentially a spiritual idea,” observed G. K. Chesterton, one of Douthat’s heroes. Mailer would have agreed. Where, he asked, would the dangerous idea of democracy take a people who understood themselves to be both uniquely blessed in having given birth to a new kind of human freedom and uniquely burdened by that very blessing? Mailer’s fervid formulations about why America was careening out of control in the 1960s were idiosyncratic, but then it was a disorienting, even apocalyptic time. Assassinations, race riots, the tumultuous end to legal segregation, and the long struggle against communism all found a terrible culmination in sending a half-million Americans to fight an unwinnable war halfway around the world.
Douthat is also attempting to address the big questions at a time of national crisis. A self-described orthodox Catholic, he looks back longingly to the 1950s, when mainline Protestantism and a traditionalist Catholic Church both forged and reflected a broad cultural consensus regarding marriage, sexual morality, citizenship, fair dealing, patriotism, and a host of other Christian values. This consensus emerged in the aftermath of the Depression and World War II, events that shook our confidence in Enlightenment rationalism and the inevitability of progress. Institutional Christianity, in Douthat’s analysis, anchored American culture and politics to a firm sense of the fallibility of man and the dangers of utopian enthusiasms. By the 1960s and ’70s, however, the nation found itself bitterly split by Vietnam, and radicalized by the civil rights and women’s movements and especially by the sexual revolution. He argues that most mainline churches and a significant segment of the Catholic Church were co-opted by these trends, eventually adopting the liberal politics of the Democratic Party. Christian teachings about sexual morality were either ignored or discarded.
For Douthat, this collapse of institutional religious authority was nothing short of calamitous, leaving the country precariously adrift. “We’re freer than we used to be,” he writes, “but also more isolated, lonelier, and more depressed.” America has become a nation of narcissists, and “the rot is deep.” A strong dose of “Christian realism” is Douthat’s proposed remedy, but in his view, alas, the churches are not up to the task—since they themselves have succumbed to the “heresies” that suffuse American life. He characterizes most churches, including the Catholic Church, as “accommodationist”—a term he invokes again and again. Instead of standing apart from society and rendering judgment on its moral disorder and hubris, the churches too often treat their congregants like consumers who are there to be served rather than converted. Believers on the right have turned a blind eye to the gospel’s warnings about the worship of Mammon, and their celebration of American “exceptionalism” is little more than idolatry. (Douthat dubs it the “heresy of nationalism.”) Those on the left have embarked on a theologically incoherent effort to make Christianity more “relevant,” with special emphasis on rewriting the gospel’s strictures regarding “chastity, monogamy, and fidelity.” They have recast early Christianity in the doctrinally inclusive and morally nonjudgmental mode of today’s liberal Protestantism.
This is the backdrop, of course, to the culture wars of the past thirty years. Evangelicals, who had retreated from politics in the aftermath of the Scopes trial and the repeal of Prohibition, reemerged on the national stage in the 1980s and ’90s. An alliance between evangelicals and conservative Catholics—groups once fiercely suspicious of one another—was formed to resist the sexual revolution, overturn Roe v. Wade, and uphold the gender roles of the traditional family. At the same time, the more liberal churches embraced identity politics. Eventually, the political parties reformed on either side of this cultural divide, making the sort of deal making crucial to democratic politics ever more difficult.
Douthat, who grew up during this era (he graduated from Harvard in 2002), has been a partisan in that war, but in Bad Religion he suggests that the battle has gone on too long and with devastating effects, especially on the religious faith of those on all sides. Theological heresy is everywhere. Joel Osteen, the enormously popular Houston-based televangelist who preaches the “prosperity gospel,” is every bit as confused about God and religion as Oprah or Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, a memoir whose success Douthat attributes to a “post-feminist, haute-bourgeoisie” search for “the direct, unmediated, and overwhelming experience of God.” While Osteen preaches that God’s plan is to make every American rich, Gilbert and Oprah extol the American religion of the “God within,” an ersatz faith in a transcendent, spiritualized self that can be traced back to Emerson. Traditional Christianity, of course, is deeply suspicious of unmediated spiritual experience. God is to be found first and foremost in the church, through scripture and the sacraments.
These heresies aren’t merely individual spiritual errors, Douthat warns; they warp our politics. In their ambitious attempts at social engineering, liberals are seduced by the temptation of “messianism” into thinking they can solve many of life’s intractable problems—and into embracing “cult” leaders such as Obama and JFK. “Apocalyptism,” on the other hand, is the refuge of reactionaries like Glenn Beck, who see conspiracies everywhere and catastrophe around every corner. In foreign policy, Douthat criticizes the wars in Vietnam and Iraq as examples of a messianism that afflicts liberals and conservatives alike.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.