Ross Douthat has the dubious distinction of being “the conservative on the New York Times op-ed page.” His previous books are an inside look at Harvard culture and a policy-wonk plan to revive the Republican Party. This is not the guy you expect to write a passionate and sensitive book on American Christianity, which opens with W.H. Auden’s journey back to the Anglican Church and ends with something close to an altar call.
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics tells a story of decline, in which a host of self-comforting and banal Christianities triumph over the strange, challenging, and paradoxical Jesus of the Gospels. At the start of Douthat’s book the mainline Protestant churches are strong, the Catholic Church has emerged as a surprising cultural heavyweight, and both white evangelicals and the black church are striding forward–sometimes together, as in Billy Graham’s integrated revivals–after periods of marginalized retreat. For a brief moment the churches seemed to know how to be political without being politicized, and every Hollywood priest was a friend to orphans. A “small-o orthodoxy” seemed like the natural home for poets like Auden, authors like Flannery O’Connor, prophetic moral and political leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and even television personalities like Fulton Sheen: “mass-market faith and highbrow religiosity seemed to complement each other.”
Many snowflakes made the avalanche which brought down this great edifice. Douthat points out that the crisis of Christianity took place during a time of increasing interest in religious questions; he argues throughout the book that we have neither too much religion nor too little, but the wrong kind. He lays especial weight on the impact of five factors: political polarization over questions like the Vietnam War, which divided the churches much more than the civil-rights movement had; the sexual revolution, in which effective contraception severed the old link between Christian moral law and common sense; increasing knowledge of other cultures; the rise of the affluent and mobile society; and the growing sense, among the cultural elite, that traditional Christianity was déclassé.
One of the great strengths of Bad Religion is its hints of Douthat’s fiscal policy-wonk credentials. He is painfully aware of the way our economic conditions shape our beliefs. In an affluent society, and especially one with the American ideology that everyone is in the middle class (if not now, then soon!), it’s harder to hear Jesus’ emphasis on the temptations of wealth. Both the sexual revolution and the growth of American prosperity challenged Christian orthodoxy because they seemed to promise a good life for those who would simply ignore the inconvenient parts of the Gospels.
Douthat is good at fighting his enemies: the prosperity preachers, the peddlers of Gnostic conspiracy, the nationalists who call down God’s blessing for America’s utopian wars, and the self-help solipsism of Oprah-style therapeutic theology.
But he also has the rarer talent of making attractive the cause he’s fighting for. This cause is, basically, Jesus uncensored. “Every argument about Christianity is at bottom an argument about the character of Christ himself,” Douthat writes, and he contends that our contemporary heresies are attempts to solve the problem of Jesus by erasing some part of his message. The do-it-yourself Jesus created by these efforts, unfortunately, is only as big as our own imaginations–and often even smaller than that. The paradoxes of Christianity—-a practical, mystical, ascetic, incarnational faith, whose God holds us to extraordinarily high standards and then offers infinite forgiveness–are paradoxes of Jesus himself. Unlike the heresies Douthat delineates, Jesus left no part of his disciples unscathed.
Bad Religion’s weak spots are its necessary oversimplifications of history (Douthat admits as much, noting that there are counter-narratives that he thinks are ultimately less relevant than the story he’s telling) and of what Douthat calls orthodoxy. “Orthodoxy” basically means here acceptance of the New Testament with no additions or corrections; acknowledgment that none of the seven deadly sins is really a virtue in disguise; and, overall, a certain humility in the face of the unknown and the tradition handed down, rather than a belief that the ordinary believer should be able to pick and choose which parts of Scripture and tradition really matter. Mainline Protestants fit, as do Catholics, various forms of evangelical, and (though they play virtually no role in this book) the Eastern churches. The commonalities between these separated brethren are important and often beautiful. I am just not convinced that it’s possible to finesse the Reformation as much as Douthat tries to—-especially when the charge of resolving the Christian paradoxes by denying some part of orthodox Christianity is precisely the claim many Catholics and Orthodox would lay against the Protestant churches.
Still, it would be churlish to complain about a book as heartfelt and thoughtful as this one. Douthat’s final call for Christian renewal starts out with suggestions of the promises and perils of postmodernism, the re-evangelization of America by the global church, and other big-picture trends. This final chapter is a cri de coeur from someone longing for the public face of Christianity to be more orthodox and therefore more beautiful. (Full disclosure: My writing on the renewal of spiritual friendship is favorably cited in this section.) And Douthat closes with a poignant personal appeal: “Anyone who seeks a more perfect union should begin by seeking the perfection of their own soul. Anyone who would save their country should first look to save themselves. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” As an antidote to the American instrumentalized and weaponized Jesus, that’s hard to beat.