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Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
Ross Douthat
Free Press, 2012
352 pp., 26.00

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John Wilson

Bad Religion

A flawed diagnosis

Ross Douthat explains at the outset that he is going to tell us "the real story of religion in America." Which is what, exactly? "For all its piety and fervor, today's United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics." (Are those the only choices?) That's the real story. Really.

"But haven't we always been a nation of heretics?" So begins the next paragraph (on page 6). Actually, that wasn't the question that came to my mind as I mused on "a nation of heretics," but let's see where Douthat's rhetorical strategy leads us. He suggests that religion in the United States has always been marked by a tension between orthodoxy and "experimentation"; moreover, that the vitality of religion in America owes much to this dialectic.

But just recently, something has decisively changed: "for the last five decades, with the decline of institutional Christianity, the river of orthodoxy has gradually been drying up." What's responsible for this disastrous change—"this slow-motion collapse"—is not an unprecedented appearance of heresy (remember, the heretics have always been with us) but rather "the weakness of the orthodox response."

That's the scenario laid out in Douthat's prologue. The body of the book consists of two sections. The first, "Christianity in Crisis," begins with a chapter entitled "The Lost World," offering an idealized picture of American Christianity in the middle of the 20th century. (Late in the chapter, Douthat acknowledges that he has given us an oversimplified account, but then he proceeds with his thesis, altering nothing. He does the same thing at several other points in the narrative.) The next three chapters—"The Locust World," "Accommodation," and "Resistance"—take the story from midcentury to our own day.

While some Christians—and some atheists—in 2012 see militant secularism on the rise in the United States, Douthat argues that there is today "no materialist ideology capable of supplying the kind of holistic account of human life that the great 'isms' of the nineteenth and early twentieth century had attempted to provide." Instead, what is sweeping the field is "Christian heresy," the "bad religion" of Douthat's title and the subject of section 2, "The Age of Heresy."

This section consists of four case studies: "Lost in the Gospels" (ranging from the Gospel of Judas through the work of scholars such as Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan and concluding with The Da Vinci Code); "Pray and Grow Rich" (on the prosperity gospel, with special emphasis on Joel Osteen); "The God Within" ("religion as a path to constant self-affirmation, heresy as self-help"); and "The City on the Hill" (Glenn Beck, George W. Bush, partisan co-optation, and "the heresy of nationalism").

In his conclusion, "The Recovery of Christianity" (bookending Bad Religion along with the prologue and somewhat balancing the view presented there), Douthat takes a modest look ahead. "The story of Christianity," he observes, "has always featured unexpected resurrections." He quotes a couple of premature obituaries for orthodox Christianity in America, then adds: "Perhaps someday my own comments on the present age of heresy will look similarly presumptuous and premature." ("Nothing would give me greater pleasure," the next paragraph begins, and I'm sure that is true.)

Douthat then offers "four potential touchstones for a recovery of Christianity." These are the postmodern opportunity (italics his); the Benedict option (with a hat-tip to Rod Dreher); the Next Christendom (a nod to Philip Jenkins); and the age of diminished expectations. Having noted these potential signs of recovery, however, Douthat suggests that the trends he has tracked in the book now appear to be stronger than ever.

Finally, then, he turns to ways in which "the kind of faith" that might inspire a "Christian renaissance" can be lived out day-by-day. Here we get a string of platitudes: such a faith should be political without being partisan; it should be ecumenical but also confessional; it should be moralistic but also holistic; and oriented toward sanctity and beauty. "The future of American religion," Douthat concludes, "depends on believers who can demonstrate, in word and deed alike, that the possibilities of the Christian life are not exhausted by TV preachers and self-help gurus, utopians, and demagogues."

As you may have gathered from my summary of the book, I read Bad Religion with mounting exasperation. "From the Revolutionary War to the Eisenhower era," Douthat asserts, "the story of religion in America had involved steady, seemingly inexorable growth." Not true. "From the vantage point of the 1780s and 1790s," Mark Noll writes in America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, "the biggest question for the history of Christian theology in the new United States was not how it would develop but whether it would survive." Again and again in his narrative, Douthat skews the emphasis to fit his thesis rather than dealing with recalcitrant counter-evidence. In his account of the 1960s, he goes on and on about figures such as Bishop Pike while barely mentioning the Catholic charismatic movement and the growing influence of "Spirit-filled" faith in evangelicalism. While the charismatic/Pentecostal surge—like all correctives—came with excesses of its own, this reclaiming of the Holy Spirit redressed the functionally non-Trinitarian practice of many churches.

I could cite many similar instances, but one more will have to suffice. In his chapter "Lost in the Gospels," Douthat never mentions N. T. Wright and other first-rate scholars who have countered the effusions of the revisionists. In the process, these scholars have given countless lay Christians a better, more deeply grounded understanding of their faith (not least in their attention to Jesus' Jewishness: again, correcting against heresy). It's a lovely ironic twist.

"We" are not "a nation of heretics." We are a nation of sinners. We haven't become a nation of sinners; we've been that from the beginning. But "a nation of heretics": that's much sexier. Is it true that, over the last five decades, "the river of orthodoxy has gradually been drying up"? And has the "orthodox response" to the heresies Douthat highlights been feeble? On the contrary: all of the heresies he singles out have been explicitly rejected by a wide range of orthodox pastors, theologians, and popular writers. That these false teachings have nevertheless taken hold is not necessarily a sign that the orthodox witness has been inadequate. It may say more about the wickedness of the human heart.

But then I don't seem to live in the same world that Douthat inhabits. He inhabits a world where my fellow believers and I have to demonstrate to someone (to readers of the Times?) "that the possibilities of the Christian life are not exhausted by TV preachers and self-help gurus, utopians, and demagogues."

From the very beginning, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the church has made its way imperfectly. "True golden ages do not exist," as Douthat writes (a truth I wish he had taken to heart). Still, the continuity is unbroken, from the handful who first followed Jesus to the believers who call him Lord today, anticipating the time when all that is broken will be made whole.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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