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Against the American Jesus

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.

Eve Tushnet is a contributor to TAC‘s State of the Union blog [1]. Her personal site is eve-tushnet.blogspot.com [2].

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Against the American Jesus"

#1 Comment By AnteBragd On May 14, 2012 @ 5:01 am

“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, ”

Isn´t the use of the word “nationalists” inaccurate here? Fighting to spread a certain universal political and economic order around the world (like the neocons do) is the opposite of fighting to preserve one´s particular culture and the sovereignty of the nation. I would call the former imperialism and the latter nationalism.

#2 Comment By Joshua Dill On May 14, 2012 @ 8:22 am

AnteBragd: You might identify those people as nationalists because they have an ideological or mythical belief in the nation’s power and abilities. It’s a kind of abstract view of the nation. The distinction you’re making between imperialists and nationalists is sometimes typified as nationalism vs patriotism– I think that John Lukacs uses these terms and I’m pretty sure I remember some people at this magazine following his usage.

#3 Comment By Geoff Guth On May 14, 2012 @ 10:07 am

The extremely big problem that we have here, that doesn’t seem to be addressed in all of this is the question of slavery. By modern standards, the New Testament unquestionably gets slavery absolutely wrong. Yet, as far as I am aware, no Christian argues in favor of allowing slavery in either its American or classical forms. Indeed, American abolitionism was based on a radical reinterpretation of the New Testament (as Southern slaveholders repeatedly pointed out).

This is why this particular vision of simple adherence to the New Testament is problematic. We’ve already decided that Christianity has moved beyond its roots in antiquity in some important ways. I’d point out that for many Christians, the same applies to other practices like capital punishment, pacifism, etc.

The challenge of the Gospels is much deeper than simple adherence to a formula. It requires the divination of first principles and consideration of how to apply them in a culture that is radically different from first century Judea.

#4 Comment By CalebCoy777 On May 14, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

“… among the cultural elite, that traditional Christianity was déclassé.”

Who was it, really, that worked so hard on that agenda and why would they be motivated to do so?

#5 Comment By JonF311 On May 14, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

The problem is using the New Testament as any sort of political manifesto. It isn’t. Yes, the Religious Right does that (and they bring in the Old Testament as well, selectively), but the key is to remember “My kingdom is not of this world.”

#6 Comment By JohnHarold On May 14, 2012 @ 11:14 pm

The New Testament is not consistent with chattel slavery.  This point is addressed succinctly in [3] (1837), and at greater and in greater detail in other books.

Of course Southern slaveholders would try to dismiss the anti-slavery reading as a “radical reinterpretation,” but their claim does not hold water.

#7 Comment By Rambler88 On May 14, 2012 @ 11:41 pm

“Douthat is good at fighting his enemies: . . . the nationalists who call down God’s blessing for America’s utopian wars.”
–And what is to keep his own evangelical call within our borders? Does he really think that he is not laying the groundwork for evangelists who call down God’s blessing for America’s religious wars? Already, since 1949 we’ve been paying them more attention than they deserve (not to mention privileging them from military service in the wars they preach, and granting unique tax privileges to their self-interested preachments), and look where it’s gotten us. And more generally, how is the America he desiderates to conduct its relations with the non-Christian majority of the world’s population?

“’Orthodoxy’ basically means here acceptance of the New Testament with no additions or corrections, . . .  a certain humility in the face of the unknown and the tradition handed down.”
–Is this the centuried tradition of selectively interpreting the New Testament that has been imposed by necessity upon Christianity ever since it came to seem likely that the world was not, in fact, going to end soon (as Jesus and his canonical chroniclers obviously assumed, though they were just smart enough not to set a date), and that Christianity, if it was to survive, was going to have to make some concessions to the notion that the present world was a going concern?
 

#8 Comment By Christopher Benson On May 14, 2012 @ 11:40 pm

Hi Eve,

This is a good review, although this criticism is soft-pedaled: “Bad Religion’s weak spots are its necessary oversimplifications of history…” According to some other reviewers, whose opinions I respect, Douthat’s history of mid-century religion in America is not only oversimplified but also distorted and incomplete.

See –

John Wilson’s review in Books & Culture: [4]

Collin Hansen’s review in The Gospel Coalition: [5]

Patrick J. Deneen’s review in the National Review: [6]

Randall Balmer’s review in the New York Times: [7]

Christopher

#9 Comment By Michael Anderson On May 15, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

>> By modern standards, the New Testament unquestionably gets slavery absolutely wrong.<<  — Mr. Guth

Mr. Guth, your opinion is admirably two-fisted and feisty,  but absolutely in error.   The slavery of Ol' Virginny, parts near, and indeed that of the ancient world as a whole, is at distinct odds with the practices touted by apostolic revelation put to writing.

St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, where the relationship of master and slave is systematized, emphasizes that  "owner" and "bondservant" are subject to a higher Master … indeed, each is to see the self as a slave to Christ's will and example;  and that He, the higher Master,  will show no partiality to either when it comes to judging their respective behaviors and position.

The earthly masters are to treat their bondsmen as equals in the sight of God, precious in His sight, and are to forgo threats against such.

There is no endorsement of Simon Legree.    It may be a description of institutions wrought and sustained of fallen man's brain, for millennia; but even that fallenness  must be brought to heel.  I suspect that by ancient standards, the New Testament advisory was seen as absolutely bonkers:

Ephesians 6:5-9 (New King James Version)

5 Bondservants,
be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with
fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; 6 not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7 with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, 8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.  9 And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

#10 Comment By frjohnmorris On May 15, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

As an Orthodox Christian, I am glad that you mentioned us in your review. If there is any group that has been marginalized, it is the Eastern Orthodox. Although I find the exclusion of Orthodoxy a major flaw in most other areas, Douthat’s book is excellent.

Fr. John  W. Morris

#11 Comment By JonF311 On May 15, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

Sometimes I am glad we Orthodox have been ignored in this country. we are able to get on with the business of being The Church without becoming a honing stone for every culture warrior, left and right, with his own axe to grind.

#12 Comment By James Stagg On May 15, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

Douthat’s book reminds us of previous wisdom:

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.Gilbert K. Chesterton

#13 Comment By Reid Dalton On May 16, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

I would also point out to Geoff Guth that the master-slave relationship is not intrinsically evil, but, like the love of money, is an occasion for evil, as the temptation to use power over others for the enrichment of oneself and the impoverishment of others is always present.  American slavery was a special case because it was also grounded in racial superiority, a specifically anti-Christian doctrine.  But even though the formal institution of slavery has been delegitimated, analogous opportunities for the abuse of power still remain, between employer and employee, teacher and pupil, officer and soldier, and, as internet blogs make us increasingly aware, the power given the American soldier over the occupied national or the policeman over the American citizen.

#14 Comment By Clement_W On May 16, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

In American christianity (lowercase c, deliberate), the jesus we barely acknowledge has been reduced to an idol and made in our image, just as we have the ability to and do make our Representatives, Senators and Presidents (uppercase R,S, and P also deliberate) in our image.

James Stagg’s post is exactly correct. The reason G. K. Chesterton could write what he did was because he had the time to contemplate while we, have too many things to divert our minds even if we are ‘dirt poor’ because we are not in the ‘middle class’ heaven promised by the idols we have made of our Representatives, Senators and Presidents and add to that the ‘Experts’, ‘Scientists’, ‘Historians’ (writing history before history is even complete eg. Doris K. Goodwin’ history of LBJ) and ‘Opinion’ writers.

#15 Comment By Clement_W On May 16, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

You forgot ‘Government and the governed’.

#16 Comment By Melle Van de winkel On May 17, 2012 @ 5:08 am

What does “Christ” mean?  Is it someone’s name?  Last name? or?…

#17 Comment By David T On June 9, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

At the bottom of your essay, there’s a link to eve-tushnet.blogspot.com. When I go there, it says I Have Moved and points to
[8]

I think you need to update your TAC profile so it points to the right place

#18 Comment By johan On June 10, 2012 @ 8:57 am

But we now know that the historical Jesus (a pracicing Jew who solicited faith in and obedience to God) is not exactly identical to the Christ of the creeds. And the NT was written with noticeable differences between its early and late material as the expected parousia never materialized. These details are overlooked by conservative apologists, but educuated people are aware of this, and this must have at least something to do ‘the religious decline’, at least in the educated classes.

#19 Comment By Frederick On January 27, 2013 @ 12:54 am

Never mind that Jesus was never ever in any sense a Christian. He was essentially an outsider who appeared and taught on the margins of the tradition of Judaism as it was in his time and place. He was always and only a Jew.
Nor did Jesus create any of the religion about him, all of which was created by others, none of whom ever met Jesus up close and personal in a living-breathing-feeling human form.
Jesus certainly could not have created any of the “death and resurrection” dogma that became the center-pole of the Christian belief system.

#20 Comment By Ryan M. On April 13, 2013 @ 1:30 am

@ Frederick,

If we are adhering to the New Testament text, it does seem that Jesus created a Church (Matthew 16:18) and ( [9])

So, with this in mind, what is your view? Does this “Church” exist as it’s own entity, as part of Judiasm, etc?

#21 Comment By Hcat On April 26, 2014 @ 7:00 am

Douthat is a good man, though, since he doesn’t remember the 1950s, he puts too good a light on them. They were actually dominated by Moralistic Stoic Deism and the majority of the Silent Majority had two values(and still do) Affluence and Personal Peace.

#22 Comment By Robert On November 5, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

Thanks for writing the insightful article. I think I learned just as much in the comment section as I did in the article.

#23 Comment By Dustin Sanchez On December 16, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

This is why this particular vision of simple adherence to the New Testament is problematic. We’ve already decided that Christianity has moved beyond its roots in antiquity in some important ways. I’d point out that for many Christians, the same applies to other practices like capital punishment, pacifism, etc.