On Political Books

May/June 2012 Losing Our Religion

Ross Douthat rightly asserts that religious faith is essential to America’s understanding of itself. But his own understanding of religion is suspiciously selective.

By Paul Baumann

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.

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.


  • SteveT on May 19, 2012 8:42 AM:

    Douthat is like most of the rest of today's conservatives. He longs for a halcyon time in America that never actually existed.

    Conservatives want to roll back the clock, to a time before the Sixties changed everything. They wish we still were living in the America depicted in television shows like "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Andy Griffith Show". What they don't seem to understand is the deep ugliness that was hidden behind the facade of neighborly politeness.

    The Cleavers houses, first of Mapleton Drive and later on Pine Street were almost certainly in restricted neighborhoods. The country club where Ward Cleaver played golf on Saturdays would have been for whites only. And the happy little town of Mayberry, NC was probably a "sundown town".

    Instead of declaring that Americans need to be more traditionally Christian, Douthat could be arguing that Americans need to be more white Anglo-saxon. But, fortunately, that argument wouldn't fly in America today.

    Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, would have understood Douthat's longing for a more orthodox Christianity. But the spiritual aspects of the church didn't seem to be an important part of his live since he didn't allow himself to be baptized until he was on his deathbed 25 years after his conversion. What apparently appealed to Constantine was the Christian church's emphasis on submission to authority, especially since emperor Constantine was the biggest authority.

    Personally, I don't think the United States would benefit from a return to "traditional" Christianity's Inquisitions and forced conversion of the heathens. And despite what Douthat would have us believe, we are not separated from those "traditions" by centuries of enlightenment and an ocean. Survivors of "Indian Schools" here in the U.S. can attest to that.

  • Neildsmith on May 19, 2012 9:01 AM:

    I won't dispute Douthat's thesis. It may very well be correct. Unfortunately, in order to reclaim our lost innocence, Douthat will require us to believe that God himself is present in a piece of bread because... well, just because he says so.

    There is a reason millions of rejected this bit of silliness... because it is silly for an person with a high school understanding of chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy to believe anything of the sort.

    By all means - bemoan the lack of community and pine for the days when churches provided the glue that bound us together. Fine... lets attempt to reconstruct that sense of community in a way that doesn't require us to lie to ourselves.

  • jd--Central Florida on May 19, 2012 10:29 AM:

    As a 1950s Catholic graduate from a Catholic college in a big Northeastern city, I knew that there were some big local companies that did not hire Catholics as a matter of policy. And Catholic colleges were looked on as third-rate.

    I think it was in the early 1960s that B'nai Brith caught Penn in an admissions scheme that cut down sharply on the number of Jews and Catholics admitted.

    Douthat's idea of a halcyon yesteryear is one that he himself never experienced. If he graduated from Harvard in 2002, that makes him likely 31 or 32. In the 1950s I wonder how many Catholic students were admitted to Harvard, what was the proportion of those from traditional private WASP schools?

    And most Catholics in the 1950s were likely blue-collar in background/social level/income. Then, not good Republicans. During the Civil Rights era, the Ivy League schools suddenly reached down to the South for bright black students. I don't recall a similar outreach previously for blue-collar white boys (women came later into the fray, as Douthat appears to acknowledge).

  • HMDK on May 19, 2012 12:21 PM:

    "Christianity has in fact played a vital role both in sustaining democracy and curbing its excesses".

    And been the cause of many of the excesses and in its ignorant rightwing form an actual threat to democracy.
    Evil is as evil does, religion or no religion.
    Problem is, there's plenty of evil built-in in most religious texts.

  • grandpa john on May 19, 2012 6:29 PM:

    same old bullcrap from the same old idiotic, hypocritical moron. Mr douthat once again illustrates his ign orance of the bible as contrasted to the churches heretical intrepretation by the pope and cardinals of what the bible actually says. I am curious as to his hang up on sexual morality. When I read Matthew or John or Acts or Any of Pauls letters to the churches, you know what the major moral factor is? You are your brothers keeper, you are to love your brother as yourself, you are to care for the poor and needy, feed the hungry, Those are the principles that are emphasized time and again. Since mr. Douthats party of choice are the major politicians who seem to be against these things in favor rather of tax cuts for the rich, I will assume that Douthat is simply another lying repub trying to enhance his bottom line at the expense of
    the 99%, those that God said we are to love and care for

  • Painless on May 20, 2012 7:28 AM:

    Douthat's argument is essentially authoritarian.

    In the wake of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, it amazes me that anyone could argue on behalf of the moral authority of that religious institution.

    And he apparently hasn't read enough history to know that when the secular humanists have been vanquished, the Catholics and Protestants will once again turn on each other.

  • SqueakyRat on May 20, 2012 2:06 PM:

    A spirit or intellect that can find nourishment in wrestling with the trinity or the virgin birth is a pitiful thing indeed.

  • LaFollette Progressive on May 21, 2012 9:23 AM:

    I'm generally sympathetic to Douthat's analysis of where and why organized religion in this country went astray -- around the time conservative churches began gleefully accommodating unrestrained avarice and militarism in order to wage war against the hippies, and liberal Christianity began sliding into irrelevance as most stopped believing in the factual nature of the scriptures and either left the church entirely or aimlessly went through the motions, seeking to bend the faith to their own modern views.

    I think the liberals who left the church entirely were in the right, but I'm willing to accept that something valuable was lost in the process.

    But at least judging by all the online discussion (I haven't read the book), I think Douthat's key error lies in his extreme naivete about how political and cultural power are actually distributed in our society.

    The worldly power of faith does not lie in the act of individuals grappling with the mysteries of the trinity. Not directly, anyhow. It lies in the institutional power of churches and religiously-motivated organizations to promote and advance an ideological narrative, particularly to children. People don't sit around pondering arcane mysteries unless a trusted source puts the ideas in their head, to put it bluntly.

    Given the all-consuming power of the market to sell lifestyles and personal images, the institutionalized power of political lobbying organizations (which are typically motivated by generating contrived outrage to raise funds), and the massive religion-industrial complex selling merchandise to and extracting donations from loyal footsoldiers, the idea that devotion to "Mammon" is some sort of equal or lesser heresy to "identity politics" is laughable. There is no god but Mammon.

    We live in the dictatorship of the marketplace. Anyone who wants a spiritual or political awakening of any sort has to seek power within the marketplace to do so.

  • Ted Frier on May 21, 2012 2:49 PM:

    As a recovering conservative myself, I immediately recognized my own intellectual weakness and my reason for eventually walking away from conservativism for its "aridity" and for its impracticability as a guide for real living, in this statement of Baumann's: "Ideas are Douthat’s strong suit, and no recognizably living and breathing person makes an appearance in these pages; the people he does invoke serve as mere placeholders for this or that argument. Bad Religion would have benefited greatly from a more sympathetic interest in how individual people actually struggle to make sense of their lives in terms of their religious or spiritual beliefs."

    Amen. Conservatism is lifeless. It is full of fine ideas and "principles" that have their value, but only when leavened with humility -- and humanity. But among true-believing conservatives who want their orthodoxy undiluted, like Douthat, how can that be possible when right wing conservatives are so busy waging campaigns to make "empathy" a four-letter dirty word.

  • Ted Frier on May 21, 2012 2:59 PM:

    I've been trying to find this quote about Ross Douthat from someone whose name I forget to the effect that it was a pity to see such a fine mind wasted struggling against itself in the rigid and brittle effort of putting the square peg of orthodoxy into the round hole of real life. Maybe that's what Baumann means when he says Douthat's book is a hodgepodge of ideas from Douthat's library back at home all trying to cohere into a practical philosophy we might be able to use since Douthat's subject is religious orthodoxy and how it might apply to real life, not real life and how it might be enriched by religious orthodoxy.

  • smartalek on May 21, 2012 7:57 PM:

    Douthat, and people like him, are powerful evidence in favor of the quantum-mechanical view of the universe, except operating at the macro level, instead of the usual subatomic realm.
    You know, the theories that posit that light and other electromagnetic radiation can be, simultaneously, a wave and a particle? That Schroedinger's famous thought-experiment cat could be simultaneously alive and dead, til we opened the box?
    What else could account for hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance of such breadth, depth, magnitude as to simultaneously profess to believe in the God of the Bible, and the inerrancy of scripture, while simultaneously rejecting and violating so many of His most important and central commands, and urging an entire nation to do so?

  • brian t. raven on June 09, 2012 8:11 PM:

    "...Still, if many of this book�s charges of heresy leave one with a furrowed brow, its framing argument remains persuasive. Christianity has in fact played a vital role both in sustaining democracy and curbing its excesses, and a more robust contemporary Christian witness is something to be welcomed, not feared..."

    Well, it's persuasive to Paul Baumann - who should speak for himself. There are plenty of US citizens who don't want Christianity to play a more vital role in our democracy - and they're Constitutionally in the right. We also don't want litmus tests for political candidates. We DO want Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. to feel they have just as much right to get elected to office as any Christian. So let's be careful about feeding more raw meat to the "We are a Christian Nation" band of Constitution wreckers - those who are only too happy to trash what our Founding Father's wanted to build.