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.

Unfortunately, Douthat often uses unconvincing dichotomies to make his arguments. Isn’t the 1950s civil rights movement—which this book celebrates—an example of the liberal messianism that righted a great wrong? And is Obama any more messianic a cult figure among liberals than Reagan was to conservatives?

He can also be tendentious. For instance, he asserts that in voting for the Affordable Care Act, pro-life Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak “had to choose between his liberalism and his church.” Not so. What Stupak had to choose between was an interpretation of the bill’s language about abortion funding as offered by the bishops’ legal counsel and the interpretations of other legal experts. As a Catholic, he was free to make his choice. Similarly, Douthat writes that the Terri Schiavo case showed how “orthodox Christian views on matters of life and death have become a distinctly minority persuasion, easily dismissed as sectarian by the press and the wider public alike.” In fact, the traditional Christian view is that providing artificial hydration and nutrition to a person in Schiavo’s condition is voluntary, not mandatory. Douthat also fails to mention the two pastoral letters issued in the 1980s by Catholic bishops, one on war and peace and the other on the economy. Both were seen as quite critical of popular Reagan policies of massive defense spending and deep cuts in social welfare.

Regarding sexual morality, many will find Douthat’s charges that the churches have largely abandoned the field too simplistic. “The traditional Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge,” he writes. “It seems easy enough to snip a single thread out of the pattern, but often the whole thing swiftly unravels once you do.” This is not an unreasonable intuition; it certainly informs the Catholic Church’s refusal to budge on such issues as premarital sex, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. But is it true? Does the whole teaching hang together in the way Douthat suggests, and is it as fragile as he thinks? Let’s not forget that a number of threads have already been snipped out of those teachings. It was once taught that marriage was the “remedy for concupiscence.” And that the sole purpose of sex was procreation. And that a wife must be submissive to her husband’s sexual demands. And marriage itself was long considered inferior to the celibate priesthood as a spiritual vocation.

The “orthodox” teaching today is quite different, with marriage and the priesthood granted equal spiritual dignity, procreation no longer viewed as the sole purpose of sex, and wives freed from the sexual beck and call of their husbands. Snip, snip, snip. What does Douthat make of these significant changes in how Catholics think about sex and marriage? Many Catholics view them as a much-needed development—and welcome further changes, especially as the experience and theological reflection of women are taken into account. Conspicuously missing from Douthat’s discussion of sexual morality is any serious attention to the changing place and roles of women in society and religious institutions over the past fifty years. It is a telling lacuna.

And what of the threads that have been snipped from Christianity’s traditional teachings on economic justice over recent decades in America? The church, of course, has long been critical of capitalism, insisting that any economic system be judged not by the sum of wealth it produces but by how it treats the poor and those who work to support their families. Great concentrations of wealth are seen to be inimical to the health of society. But while Douthat exudes confidence in the truth of Christianity’s teaching about sexuality, he is less certain about its condemnations of capitalism. Bad Religion goes so far as to venture that economic inequality may be salutary. “Perhaps the uncertainties of the capitalist economy make us cling more tightly to the promises of God,” Douthat writes; “perhaps the absence of a cradle-to-grave welfare state encourages us to rely on the networks of family and community instead.” Indeed, “the understanding that capitalism is the economic system best-suited to man’s fallen nature” may indicate the need for “some kind of Christian compromise with Mammon.” One has to wonder, why is Douthat so doubtful on this subject?

Bad Religion is on firmer ground when it addresses the social nature and implications of belief systems. Every society, Douthat observes, embraces some belief about the ultimate nature of reality and what role human beings play in it—and these beliefs profoundly shape our expectations and behavior. Since that is the case, we can’t be indifferent to what our fellow citizens believe, and we must recognize that some beliefs are more conducive to human dignity than others. Hence the importance of Christianity for American democracy. “Secular as well as pious Americans will have a strong stake in the forms that American religion takes,” Douthat writes.

Both doubters and believers have benefited from the role that institutional Christianity has traditionally played in our national life—its communal role, as a driver of assimilation and a guarantor of social peace, and its prophetic role, as a curb against our national excesses and a constant reminder of our national ideals. Both doubters and believers stand to lose if religion in the age of heresy turns out to be complicit in our fragmented communities, our collapsing families, our political polarization, and our weakened social ties.

American religion is very much complicit, says Douthat, and we have already lost a lot. He admits to writing his book “in a spirit of pessimism,” and the gloom is indeed thick at times. These pages offer only speculation on how Christians might revitalize their faith and wield it to help avert a larger catastrophe. Tentatively, Douthat suggests a number of options, ranging from various forms of Christian separatism to the possibility that America will be reconverted by missionaries from the Third World. He offers up bromides, urging Christians to put “allegiance to principle over party” and bring “their faith to bear on debates about justice and the common good.” Politically conservative Christians are cautioned that “Rush Limbaugh’s take on tax policy and Donald Rumsfeld’s views on water boarding are not inscribed in the New Testament.” Liberal believers are reminded to “speak out loudly against the ways that liberalism can provide a warrant for libertinism.”

In the end, Douthat asserts, “only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.” But sanctity, as he acknowledges, is rare in any age. For better and for worse, the Christian communities and institutions that provided so much care and guidance to Americans in the last century were built not by Mother Teresas but by far less single-minded believers. The element of romance in Douthat’s concluding peroration is more a retreat from the messy business of “Christian realism” than a brief for it.

Ross Douthat has written a pious and evangelical book—no small feat for a New York Times columnist. It is also a dense book, crammed with what seems like a lifetime of reading, most of it drawn from conservative historians and polemicists. And while many readers will remain skeptical that “heresy” explains as much about contemporary American life as Douthat claims it does, few will doubt Douthat’s own fervent belief in this theological interpretation of history. Nevertheless, in certain key respects, Bad Religion is unsatisfying. Its pell-mell manner keeps it from spending enough time elucidating the causal relationship between ideas and events, or vice versa. It also suffers from a certain pervasive aridity. 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.

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. Douthat is also right that the nation’s deep divisions can best be understood in religious terms. Given his pessimistic mood, he might even agree with Norman Mailer that “the country had been living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled schizophrenia which had deepened with the years.” One suspects that Mailer would welcome Douthat’s stern moralizing and frequently incisive sociological observations. After all, Mailer liked to call himself a “left conservative,” and in Armies of the Night he complained that the younger generation had been “utterly lobotomized away from the sense of sin.” Sounding very much like Douthat, he declared himself “ready to cast much of the blame for such success into the undernourished lap, the over-psychologized loins, of the liberal academic intelligentsia.”

But Mailer was willing to cast a much harder look at how economic power is leveraged in America. Unlike Douthat, he saw that the real source of the nation’s derangement was the unprecedented, but rarely acknowledged, power of the modern corporation, a power that shapes nearly all aspects of people’s lives. If American food is tasteless, its architecture nondescript, and the lives and deaths of its citizens overmedicalized, Mailer insisted that the blame be laid at the door of the modern corporation’s relentless search for profit and control. “Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation, had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul,” Mailer the fitful theologian wrote. “For the center of Christianity was a mystery, a son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ.”

Amen to that.

It’s unlikely that Douthat would ever commit a political and cultural analysis as eschatologically freighted as Mailer’s. Still, like Mailer, he traffics heavily in such unfashionable concepts as soul, grace, saint -hood, sin, and damnation, and warns that the nation cannot survive without a “commitment to mystery and paradox.” To that end, he places a compelling case for the intelligibility of his ardent Catholic faith at the center of this book, insisting that what many see as the irrationality of Christian beliefs (Is God one or three? How can God be pure spirit and incarnated flesh? How can a virgin give birth?) are in fact theological puzzles that inexhaustibly nourish the intellect and spirit. Mailer took very seriously Christianity’s strange story about a “God-man” who once walked the earth and rose from the dead; he even wrote a novel, The Gospel According to the Son, that attempted to illuminate that mysterious and paradoxical story. Perhaps Douthat will someday come to appreciate the threat corporate power poses to everything he cherishes in that story. Is there any doubt that the country is more firmly in the grip of the moneyed classes than it was forty years ago? Liars still control the locks! At some point compromise does become capitulation, and there can be little doubt that accommodating ourselves to this New Age of Mammon is very Bad Religion indeed.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

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.