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When Religion Goes Wrong

Former poet laureate Robert Haass once began a poem by observing, “All the new thinking is about loss/ In this it resembles all the old thinking.” Indeed, it seems as if we have been talking about American decline for many years, and perhaps nowhere is the lamentation more clamorous than in writing about religion.

“Too much” religion, say the seculars; “not enough,” retort the believers, each perceiving the other to be the aggressor. The former insist that Christianity is corrosive—“anti-science”, bigoted, misogynist, and just plain embarrassing. They imagine that powerful religious impulses could be expunged, and that such a purified America would thrive. Yet as Ross Douthat writes in Bad Religion, for all their excesses, atheists have done less damage to American culture than have the wayward faithful.

Perhaps that seems like a surprising concession for a conservative Catholic like Douthat to make, but in his view the squabbles between the godless and the god-fearing aren’t so important: most Americans read neither Richard Dawkins nor the latest papal encyclical. Deploying two unpopular anachronisms, Bad Religion argues that the main force behind the country’s cultural decline has been proliferating heresies that have displaced Christian orthodoxy.

Throughout the book, Douthat calls foul on rigid “either/or” binaries, reminding us that orthodoxy, with all its doctrinal complexity and contradictions, often says “neither” or “both” in theological disputes. Theodor Adorno wrote that modern art “wants to shake off its illusoriness like an animal trying to shake off its antlers”; so too, in Douthat’s telling, do various “pseudo Christianities” respond to modern challenges by shaking off mysteries and paradoxes, from the incarnation to the resurrection. He seeks to enthrall the reader to the ineffable, the sublime and numinous in Christianity—which is all too often debased by the identity politics that subsume both liberal and conservative churches today.

At the same time Douthat repudiates the pervasive belief of the “spiritual but not religious set” that brick-and-mortar institutions are an elegy to, not the embodiment of, the faith they stand for. Without those edifices, self-styled “seeking” can too easily become yet another form of egotism, leading to a therapeutic “I feel” rather than a hard-won “I believe.” When those edifices crumble, the radical humility and discipline asked of the orthodox believer seem to become an untenable, esoteric pursuit. Each heresy, in Douthat’s definition, is an attempt to paper over Christianity’s harder truths, its emphasis on sin, sacrifice, and suffering; and each deserves the simple rebuke that “there’s no Christ without a cross.”

Yet Douthat’s understanding of heresy is more nuanced than condemning: he gets why so many well-intentioned reformers think some more palatable version of Christianity would rescue the faith from irrelevance in the modern era. Such efforts, unfortunately, result not just in a denuded “spirituality of niceness” but in encouragement of vice, particularly greed and narcissism. The prosperity gospel hucksters promise God will reward worship with wealth. Prayer can get you what you want, rather than help you conform to His will. Such a deity is merely a genie granting wishes or a “college buddy with really good stock tips.” The many gurus of what Douthat calls “God Within” theology, like Deepak Chopra and Eat Pray Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert, attempt to resolve God’s otherness by depersonalizing him into a cosmic force. This nebulous, beatific divine power is all around us, in the natural world and in the inner reaches of the soul. But unlike earlier Christian mystics, whose incendiary experiences of God brought them to their knees in humility and devotion, the New Agers use “spirituality as a convenient gloss for [the ego’s] own desires and impulses.” Across the spectrum, heresies make the believer the primary actor, not God.

Douthat’s taxonomy of Christian heresies can seem overbroad, from Oprah’s consumerist self-actualization to Glenn Beck’s brand of nationalist civic religion. Many of his heretics would reject the label because they consider themselves either authentic Christians or rebellious free spirits with no connection to Christian heritage. But schematic weaknesses aside, Bad Religion is a persuasive account of how these spiritual practices unleash a solipsism and impatience with hardship into the wider culture, with socially toxic effects.

Yes, Douthat acknowledges, America has always been a nation of heretics, and Christianity has been shaped by its response to innumerable heresies from its earliest centuries. When met with a robust orthodox response, heresy can provoke religious institutions toward necessary course-correction. Today, however, in the absence of a pushback from a self-confident core, heresy too easily masquerades as truth. And as more Americans shed religious affiliation to stroll through a bazaar of spiritual practices, they can forget the contributions a strong Christian center made in the country’s middle 20th-century heyday: the sprawling networks of schools, hospitals, and charities, the ecumenical cooperation behind the Civil Rights movement. Douthat weaves together biographies of figures like Fulton J. Sheen, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Billy Graham, among others, to illustrate the moment of Christian convergence.

(Douthat takes pains to reiterate that his account of the rise and subsequent disintegration of Christian orthodoxy is “an interpretation of an era, not a comprehensive history.” Although many a pugilistic reviewer has skewered him for some breach of scholarly protocol, he is quite explicit about crafting a work of ideas and trends, and his journalist’s knack for storytelling is a strength of the book.)

Of course, this period of towering cultural authority was brief, and the churches were toppled by a messy combination of social upheaval and internal weakness. Douthat identifies five main factors, each of which inspired the heresies that would rush into the vacuum later on. The churches’ political activism, fed by hubris, became partisan and polarizing to the detriment of its spiritual witness. Today’s social-justice left and social-conservative right can each focus on political gains in this world so much that they hollow out the supernatural core of the faith.

The sexual revolution dealt a knock-out punch to the churches’ age-old teachings of chastity and marital fidelity. Douthat likens contraception’s massive impact on Christian credibility to the publication of The Origin of Species. Not merely because it made sexual sin much more convenient, but because Christian ethics no longer neatly aligned with secular prudence about pregnancy and children. And like a mirror opposite of Nietzsche’s revolution of morality, the Christian exhortation to modesty and restraint became not only archaic but psychologically harmful repression.

Globalization introduced Americans to a world of radically different religious practices that called into question Christianity’s unique purchase on truth: exposure to foreign cultures through television and air travel ignited public appetite for the exotic. Suddenly the humdrum suburban Christianity of Sunday School, church picnics, and plodding hymns was “just one option among many—and an option tainted by its long association with white Chauvinism and Western imperialism.” Here the rebellion against Christian authority gradually fed into a broader indulgence in “self-flagellation and self-doubt” about American hegemony. The result was a sort of salad bar of religious tenets, where “seekers,” as they came to call themselves, could fashion spiritual hybrids that borrowed from pagan fertility cults, Buddhist meditation, Native American nature worship, karma, and reincarnation. (It’s worth noting that the great enrichment that accompanied this open window to the world did not necessarily have to result in the rampant relativism that crippled the Church.)

American affluence, too, undermined Christianity’s emphasis on suffering as not only inescapable but meaningful, a bridge to God—a God who doesn’t eradicate pain but suffers with us. As postwar memories of deprivation and loss faded, Americans became accustomed to, and then felt entitled to, material comfort. Soon that ready ease recast Christian asceticism as perverse and masochistic. The tantalizing proximity of wealth raised the opportunity costs of religious vocations: priests and nuns who took vows of poverty a mere decade earlier were not living such different lives then, before consumerism ran amok. But whether chosen or circumstantial, poverty in an age of abundance and a mass middle class seemed an indignity—and that sentiment, however moved by righteous indignation, is far from that of the Beatitudes. By now the consecrated life seems to entail a positively neurotic level of renunciation, rather than being a choice widely celebrated in culture.

Taken together, these challenges had the traditional churches stumbling, no longer striding confidently into the public square to adjudicate social conflicts and shape the culture, but forced into postures of accommodation or resistance. Liberal churches that attempted the former soon found that when a faith that asks too little of its adherents, even lukewarm devotions strike them as oppressive or without much purpose. Reactionaries, on the other hand, find themselves too embattled to shape the world outside their own churches.

Douthat describes a wide array of failed attempts to restore vitality to Christianity in a pluralistic age, from Unitarian Universalists to megachurch Evangelicals. He has a particular ire for the academics who swanned into the fray with newly revisionist and relativistic forms of historical Jesus scholarship. Elaine Pagels’s work is perhaps the most prominent example of their project to design modernity-friendly, non-paradoxical Jesuses that could better compete in the religious marketplace. Whether they thought they were correcting and revitalizing Christianity or merely toppling orthodoxy, they reclaimed “heretic” as a badge of honor, convinced that the religious institutions of their time had emerged from an early swamp of competitors by way of power struggle and patronage, not divine guidance. Douthat paints this “choose your own Jesus” movement as a kind of trahison des clercs: “The idea that a religious tradition could be saved from crisis because a group of intellectuals radically reinterpreted its sacred texts is the kind of conceit that only, well, an intellectual could possibly believe.”

Pointing out how far the new thinkers have come from the likes of John Courtney Murray or Reinhold Niebuhr, Douthat notes that the old guard used their deep foundation in traditional theology to address the contemporary spiritual concerns of everyday people. I’d wager that Douthat aspires to emulate their example. He understands that his midcentury forebears’ greatness lies in their motivation to defend Christianity “in an often hostile world, rather than perpetually currying favor with its cultured despisers.” Perhaps Douthat’s position as the self-described “resident conservative scold” at the New York Times has tested his mettle, made him a more deft apologist, a stealth evangelist of sorts. Like the Christian Paul counseled to be “in the world, but not of it,” Douthat has been shaped by academic and intellectual conventions but resists their more negative impulses toward intellectual vanity. In charting orthodoxy’s fall from cultural powerhouse to dusty museum piece, Douthat sees the abdication of the educated elites as decisive. Though the church had been no stranger to conflict, these revisionists denied the validity or continued existence of the Christian center around which controversies used to turn.

Douthat’s critics have accused him of trafficking in nostalgia for an anomalous moment of Christian ascendancy. But he makes the case for the theological truth and social goods of orthodoxy in reverse, carefully cataloguing the flaws of the many alternatives on offer in a way that can instill in believers and skeptics alike an appreciation for a tradition too often taken for granted or dismissed. As the spiritual fads are debunked left and right, orthodoxy’s mysteries, its challenges, stand in stark relief—as in Chesterton’s phrase, which could serve as the epigraph for this book, “the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” That truth is as wild, and as countercultural, as it ever has been. Indeed, throughout this book Douthat’s writing evinces more passion and pronounced wit than in his previous work; his arguments are often more bold and ambitious than his characteristically decorous writing style suggests.

Perhaps in capitulation to the publisher’s demand for an upbeat ending—and the convention that an America in Decline book must end with a set of prescriptions—Douthat names possible sources for the renewal of traditional Christianity that he thinks would so benefit the country: the same postmodernism that uprooted the churches could produce enough malaise to revive interest in the Gospel; the religious landscape might shrink to encompass smaller but more devout churches; contemporary artists might tire of reigning nihilistic and subversive trends and offer film and fiction more interested in the ennobling effects of the good, the true, and the beautiful. But his “ways forward” conclusion is dark enough to liken current times to those of the early church under the Roman Empire. Having traversed Douthat’s catalogue of wildly popular and spiritually shallow pseudo-Christianities, the reader can’t help but share his pessimism. In some senses, Christian evangelism was easier among an earlier era’s population of the unchurched than among a public today that insists its sins are virtues, its innumerable heterodoxies the truer incarnation of Christian heritage. For all its eloquence, the book’s apologetics may fall on deaf ears; Douthat’s heretics are wilier foes than yesterday’s heathens.

Noelle Daly is associate editor of The American Interest.

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