Book Review: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

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


In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat seeks to show that the problem of religious collapse in the United States is not the result of a decline in religion as the Conservative Right argues nor the result of excessive religion as the Liberal Left argues but rather the emergence of “destructive pseudo-Christianities” or “bad religion” that is usurping traditional Christianity (Douthat, 3).

In support of this thesis/purpose, Douthat maintains that:

The setting that explains the current cultural moment is helpfully understood through seeing the change in culture from the post-war period to the early 1980s. In chapter one, Douthat points to the post-war period up to the early 1960s where there was widespread optimism among orthodox, American Christians that they were “winning” the culture after “decades of marginalization and division” (53). To support this point, he cites Wystan Auden’s return to faith, Reinhold Neibuhr’s intellectual leadership (29), Billy Graham’s ecumenical reshaping of evangelicalism (33), Fulton Sheen’s overcoming of anti-Catholic sentiment (44), and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s societal influence (47). In chapter two, Douthat tracks the massive changes in the “American spiritual ecology away from institutional religion and toward a more do-it-yourself and consumer-oriented spirituality” (62) occurring from 1960 through the 1970s that is quantified by diminishing seminary enrollment, donations, mission work, church building, and denominational publications. Douthat identifies the following five catalysts to these changes: political polarization (65), the sexual revolution (70), globalization (73), increasing wealth (78), and changing attitudes of the cultural elite (81).   

In response to these changes, Christian churches responded by either accommodation or resistance but neither approach arrested the changes (83). Instead, the appeals of Graham and Shaeffer for cross-denominational unity around moral issues and a “stripped-down gospel” left even Evangelicals vulnerable to counterfeit faiths (139-140). In chapter three, Douthat illustrates accommodation in the work of Harvey Cox (Protestant) and Teilhard de Chardin (Catholic) and points out that the more a church pursued accommodation the more members it lost (103). In chapter four, Douthat illustrates resistance in the work of Pope John Paul VI (Catholic) and Francis Shaeffer (Protestant) who both misdiagnosed the problem as “growing unbelief” rather than “rival religious beliefs” in varied heresies (131).

Filling the religious vacuum left by Christian orthodoxy’s decline, heresies emerged that removed “the tensions of the gospel narratives” in favor of “a more consistent, streamlined, and non-contradictory Jesus” (153). In chapter five, Douthat shows the tension of a supernatural Jesus removed by a post-modern, “choose-your-Jesus mentality” which “encourages spiritual seekers to…focus only on whichever Christ they find most congenial” (178).  In chapter six, Douthat identifies the acceptance of capitalism by both Protestants and Catholics and Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel as a union unrecognizable to orthodox Christianity (203). In chapter seven, Douthat defines the “God Within” theology (214) of Elizabeth Gilbert and Oprah Winfrey as removing the tension of a God who is both immanent and transcendent (219) with the unexpected cultural cost of increasing unhappiness (240). In chapter eight, the heresy of American nationalism is identified as the culprit behind Messianic apocalypticism in both the political right and left.

Recovery of orthodox Christianity is possible in the opportunity that the collapse of postmodernism creates, the Benedict option advocated by Rod Dreher, the New Christendom of the Global South, and the diminished expectations of Americans amidst the collapse all around them. Douthat asserts that Christians should be “political without being partisan” (284), “ecumenical but also confessional” (286), moralistic but also wholistic” (288), and oriented toward sanctity and beauty (291).

In my view:

Douthat’s thesis and characterization of the history of American religion in the last seventy years is compelling and instructive. Ultimately, Douthat’s solution strikes me as one more version of the resistance that he rightly demonstrates to have failed in the Graham/Shaeffer era. Ecumenicalism is replaced with non-partisanship. The moral issue of abortion is replaced with the moral issue of capitalistic decadence. The orientation towards conversion is replaced with an orientation towards beauty. If a previous generation’s resistance failed, one wonders if a new generation can really hope to succeed by merely changing the points of resistance? Missing from Douthat’s recovery is an actual articulation and embrace of orthodox Christianity in either it’s Catholic or Protestant forms.

An alternative historical narrative is provided by another Roman Catholic, Brad Gregory, who argues in Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2015) that the divorce of Christian theology from ecclesiastical authority during the Protestant Reformation of the 1600s is to blame for the rise of pluralism and polarization. The fact that both authors offer compelling, yet contradictory, narratives raises the question as to whether any single narrative can adequately capture the complex currents of human civilization.

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