Bad Religion

How America became a nation of heretics - along with nearly everywhere else.
Peter Smith | 23 January 2013
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Ross Douthat is a brave man. As the most prominent socially conservative columnist writing for The New York Times, Douthat is surrounded by liberal pens forever looking to skewer the people (Republicans, Christians, pro-lifers ) and ideas (traditional marriage) he defends: I can only imagine that he writes a lot from home and emails op-eds to his editor, to avoid awkward water-cooler moments with soi disant co-religionist Maureen Dowd.

Espousing conservative views is a tricky business in the West at the best of times, doubly so when surrounded by opinionated liberals -- and triply so when you hold to account fellow Christians and their dodgy theologies.

In Bad Religion, Douthat runs the risk of friendly fire from many in his own constituency. The message of his book is that an orthodox consensus was formed across Evangelicals, Catholics and “Mainline” Protestants across the first 60 years of the twentieth century: “In the post-war revival, the divided house of American Christendom didn’t just grow, they grew closer together, re-engaged with one another after decades of fragmentation and self-segregation.” This convergence was typified by the lives and works of four men: Protestant intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, Evangelical preacher Billy Graham, Catholic Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther-King, whom Douthat describes as “an African-American prophet”.

How was this orthodoxy to cope with the melting of social institutions and taboos in the swinging sixties and seventies? The general approach taken by many faiths was accommodation to the emerging norms of sexual permissiveness, cohabitation, Roe v Wade, materialist consumerism, easy credit, and mystic, anti-religious pseudo-spirituality. Douthat charts numerous trends in the decline of institutional Christianity and the breakdown of the orthodox consensus which were patently evident and well under way by the time of the high water-mark of 1960, when JFK’s election marked a paradigmatic transformation in American society.

Modern America, he says, suffers the consequences of “anything goes” Christianity in four principle ways.

First is the warping of the Bible by pseudo-academic theology, archaeology and history, like the slandering of the Holy See and Opus Dei by Dan Brown, the “rediscovery” of the “Lost Gospel of Judas” by the National Geographic Society, and quests to find “the real Jesus” As Douthat notes, the muddy waters of this cheap and shallow discourse has “set the tone not only for the religious intelligentsia but for the broader religious culture as well -- highbrow and lowbrow and every brow in between”. This creates the impression that “no account of Christian origins is more authoritative than any other, ‘cafeteria’ Christianity is more intellectually serious than the orthodox attempt to grapple with the entire New Testament buffet, and the only Jesus who really matters is the one you invent for yourself.”

Then there is the advent of “prosperity preaching”, where God and Jesus are invoked by “smooth televangelists” like Joel Osteen to create wealth, as though such wealth (and good health) was the deserved and just reward for faith. Osteen’s Lakewood mega-church is based in Texas but broadcasts his sermons to over 200 million people in more than 100 countries each week. The author of bestseller Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, Osteen boasted in a 2011 television interview that he had never attended a seminary. Faith in prosperity preachers has not declined even in the face of the credit crunch, financial crisis and recession: “In March 2009, with the unemployment rate at 8.5 percent and rising, Osteen sold out the Yankee Stadium,” notes Douthat.

Allied to prosperity preaching is a further American heresy exposed in Bad Religion: the usurpation of theological tools by gurus and writers. Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, spent almost four years on the New York Times’ bestseller list and has been made into a movie. Another populariser of therapeutic spirituality is the sentimental mush of Oprah Winfrey’s show. (As I write this review, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong is preparing to go on her programme, which will be syndicated worldwide, to admit his alleged doping, repent of his sins and beg forgiveness. My money’s on that goodwill being forthcoming; Lance will be able to return to doing triathlons and making vast sums of cash for charity and himself.)

Douthat’s jeremiad concludes with the application of faith to American exceptionalism and the creation of a religiously-inspired nationalism that conflates the fate of the 50 states with its citizens’ obedience to God. Unlike the other heresies, this one is peculiarly American: “[T]he language of our politics casts the American story in explicitly religious terms: we’re a ‘promised land’ and our government a ‘new order for the ages’, with a ‘manifest destiny’ defined by ‘American exceptionalism’” that can become twisted “into something more powerful and comprehensive – a faith in ‘Americanism’, in our mission and destiny and God influence therein.”

So where now? As with so many investigations of modernity, the patient’s real interest is not in the methodical diagnosis of the pathology but in the prognosis and treatment. Douthat hopes for a revival in orthodoxy and thinks believer and non-believer alike should share in that hope.

He offers four sparks of this cultural and theological turn, a “Fifth Great Awakening”, if you like. It is possible, he writes, that the “very trends that have seemingly undone institutional Christianity could ultimately renew it.”

“Rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread scepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man a God unto himself” have both weakened traditional Christianity and bear promise as the foil for a new orthodoxy. Douthat is not alone in hoping for a “radical orthodoxy” to crystallise in the Christian churches that is both intellectual and popular: George Weigel has recently been writing about an “Evangelical Catholicism” which will, in Douthat’s words, “answer the deracination of contemporary life with a faith that meets seekers where they are”. Rather than accommodation, however, this de novo orthodoxy will look to authority, doctrine and rigidity to guide and shape otherwise formless lives.

An alternative to renewal is “withdrawal, consolidation and purification”, dubbed the “Benedict Option” by Rod Dreher in the American Conservative, whereby Christians withdraw into enclaves and protect their values and culture against the barbarians at the gate. This may seem tempting to those who want to protect something pure (it drives many home-schooling parents, for instance) but it is deeply problematic for the millions of ordinary Christians “left behind” in mundane lives exposed to secular culture.

Alternatively, after centuries of passing the faith to Africa, Asia and Latin America, the future of orthodoxy may lie overseas, beyond the shores of North America or indeed Europe. African and Latin American Christians provide religious vocations and an energetic popularity that creates the impression of a sound cultural religiosity. Douthat neatly identifies the weaknesses of this approach: the fads of prosperity preaching and facile spiritualism run deep in developing nations, and without considerable financial support and organisation there is little chance of waves of African missionaries running parishes in Italy or Latinos being appointed chairs of theology in American Protestant seminaries.

This leaves Douthat’s most interesting idea on the social processes that might put Christian thought and practice on a different course. He calls it the “age of diminished expectations” and describes an America that wakes up to the wreckage of the financial crisis -- the over-leveraging of the family credit-card as well as the huge national debt -- and the cataclysm of family breakdown, absentee fathers, social isolation and sexual licentiousness. Of course, we are in that period now -- and have been for at least four full years -- without any sign of such a cultural shift. As Douthat notes, “Sometimes cultural crises lead to reassessments and renewals. But sometimes they just make people double down on their original mistakes.” 

It is important to remember that, for all the internal consistency and power of Douthat’s thesis, Christianity is not an isolated, self-referential social phenomenon: it is rooted in culture, and American culture is a vast field of endeavour, activity and creation. Christian theology and practice comes in discrete blocks and a thousand shades of grey. The activities of Oprah or Osteen or Fulton Sheen should not be overestimated: great figures are the product of a movement as well as leaders who drag a following behind them. Most of Douthat’s thesis is true of Britain, Europe and the developed world in general, in more diluted as well as more concentrated forms.

But underscoring all his thinking is the idea that shapelessness -- of minds, of bodies, of behaviours and of societies -- does us all down, and that “traditional Christian faith might have more to offer” both the sceptic and the believer.

Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London.

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