Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
by Ross Douthat.
The Free Press, 2012 (2013).
Paperback, 352 pages, $17.

A few years ago, Ross Douthat, who has assumed the mantle of the conservative columnist at The New York Times, published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, in which he offered an assessment of American civil religion. Douthat confronts the notion that modern America has become a different place than it was a century ago, and his ultimate judgment on the matter leaves little room for interpretation: “for all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.” The reason why the United States is a “heretic” nation is not what, or only what, a standard conservative commentator would claim; right-wing bookshelves are filled with tomes lamenting the long march of the Left through the nation’s cultural institutions. Rather, Douthat’s bold claim uses his word precisely: a heretic is not an unbeliever or an atheist, but one who has chosen (from the Greek, haeresis) to act and believe contrary to Christian orthodoxy. Many Americans, in Douthat’s formulation, are heretics, and it is against this backdrop that he examines this nation’s Christian roots and its slow transformation into a nominally Christian culture animated by a mutilated orthodoxy.

Douthat’s analysis helps makes sense of our contemporary scene. For example, although the book was written before the Obergefell decision, Justice Kennedy’s reasoning there, in which he invoked various kinds of “dignitarian” concerns, would fit in nicely with Douthat’s conception that half-understood Christian teaching often forms the basis for intellectual confusion. Similarly, the appeal of Donald Trump to many conservatives lies in his individualist self-creation, which fits with American orthodoxy but not Christian self-understanding.

In contrast to the horde of commentators rushing to blame liberal secularists for the relativist, feel-good theology dominating contemporary American culture (although they are a big part of the problem), Douthat provides an alternative proposition that the spiritual forces undermining traditional orthodoxy are rooted in half-truths that have steadily hijacked Christianity’s core beliefs. The contemporary distortion of Christian orthodoxy is not necessarily the product of the efforts of radical atheists or bitter agnostics; rather, the seduction of the Western soul has been accelerated by often well-meaning Christians struggling to find existential purpose in all the wrong places.

To Douthat, the crisis of faith in contemporary America is not caused by too much religion, or even its very presence; rather, the proliferation of bad religion—or heresy—he asserts, is the true cause of spiritual confusion, and ultimately, widespread cultural disorder. Animated by belief in the absolutes of democracy and the supremacy of individual opinion, modern Americans have adopted a spiritual outlook in which subjective ideas as to the “meaning” of Christianity are permitted to undermine age-old orthodoxies. As a result, various “feel-good” cults and materialist theologies have worked to distort traditional, mainstream Christianity. Worse yet, these heresies flourish under the rubric of authentic faith.

Douthat’s portrait of faith in contemporary America is both sober and nuanced, yet his careful approach does not prevent him from taking confident positions. In particular, Douthat recognizes that secularists make the mistake of insisting that all theology leads to radicalism, while acknowledging that many believers place too much emphasis on the mischief caused by secularists without even considering the damage inflicted by the pseudo-Christian heresies to which adherents of the right and left both freely indulge. The overly simplistic reduction of contemporary spirituality to competing camps of believers pitted against nonbelievers misses the point entirely, as it leaves no room to recognize what is perhaps the biggest culprit responsible for the undermining of traditional orthodoxy: the pernicious, yet subtle, heresies that slowly transform the soul by becoming auxiliaries to the core tenets of Christianity itself.

Taking the 1950s as his starting point, Douthat invokes a time when orthodoxy flourished. It was the age of John Courtney Murray, Billy Graham, and Fulton Sheen. And most visibly, a burgeoning civil rights movement placed God at its core. “We must keep God in the forefront,” the great Rev. Dr. King told boycotters in Montgomery, Alabama. Two years later, at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King implored civil rights activists to “accept Christian love in full knowledgeof its power to defy evil.” Reflecting on the importance of this invocation, Douthat writes that “their cause had the tone of a crusade or a revival, shot through with doses of miracle and prophecy, and their political strategy was nothing less than the imitation of Christ, in the form of absolutist moral rhetoric joined to physical self-surrender.” He continues, “in an age of general religious revival, the most powerful image of Christian love available to any mid-century believer was supplied by the black protesters who stood praying and singing while segregationist policemen loosed dogs and water cannons on them.”

While the Eisenhower era may represent a high-watermark for orthodoxy in the twentieth century, Douthat refuses to accept it as a golden age. The very heresies that threaten to undermine authentic belief in contemporary America were undeniably present at mid-century: “Contemporary preachers of self-help and self-love such as Oprah Winfrey owe an enormous debt to Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking,” while “the prosperity gospel, mainstreamed in our own era by smooth televangelists like Joel Osteen, has its roots in the ministry of proto-Osteens (Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, and others) who already loomed large among American Evangelicals in the 1940s and 1950s.” Further, the “‘spiritual but not religious’ mentality, embodied today by figures as diverse as Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert, was animated [by] Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gifts from the Sea,” and “the perfervid blend of religion, paranoia, and American nationalism that made Glenn Beck a phenomenon in the last few years owes an immense debt to the midcentury conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen, whose tract The Naked Communist debuted in 1958.”

While orthodoxy in the fifties seemed poised for a dramatic re-emergence, “figures like Niebuhr and Graham and Sheen and even King often tended to succeed only insofar as they met the American Way of Life halfway, making the Christian message seem nonsectarian, forward-looking, and obviously relevant to the questions of the age.” Nevertheless, there was a growing confidence, a “faith in the Christian faith,” that orthodox belief might be “on the winning side of history.” This confidence provided a general consensus with regard to standards of behavior, right and wrong, and what Jody Bottum called a “system of truth by which other things could be judged.”

And then came the sixties. The decade began with the election of a Roman Catholic president, the convening of the Second Vatican Council, and the revered John Courtney Murray appearing on the cover of Time. By all appearances, the religious revival of the previous decade seemed poised to keep growing in strength. It would not. Vatican II, Lyndon Johnson, and an increasingly secular civil rights movement became vehicles for social disruption that brought tumult to the front door of every household. The consensus required to maintain a mainstream orthodox Christianity gradually disintegrated under the pressure of politics, democratic despotism, and a clergy all-too-willing to relax moral teachings in an effort to accommodate the growing chorus of relativist churchgoers.

A steady decline in church attendance was just one part of the problem. As Douthat writes, “the thick culture that had defined and sustained the pre-Vatican II Church—the round of confessions and novenas, pilgrimages and Stations of the Cross—dissipated like a cloud of incense in a sudden breeze.” The change was not just quantitative, but qualitative in that the fundamental character of American Catholicism was undertaking a radical new course. Mainstream Protestantism was similarly affected.

And, while the faith had always been political, Christianity was becoming increasingly partisan by the mid-1960s. The achievements of the civil rights movement were seen as a religious and moral enterprise rooted in faith, not politics, but as Douthat suggests, with the success of that movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, “came Christian hubris.” Believers now searched for “the next great cause, the next place where an essentially theological vision could transform the secular realm.” This search became increasingly partisan. The Vietnam war, the separation of sex from procreation through the introduction of the “pill” (together with the rise of the myth of “safe” promiscuity), and changing attitudes concerning the “right to privacy” no longer militated in favor of a politically transcendent Christian consensus. The politics of modernity began to demand that orthodox Christianity conform to a relativist, non-judgmental laxity. This was particularly so among America’s upper class.

American patricians, and particularly those situated in the Northeast, did not reject orthodoxy, they “dismissed” it “as something unworthy of an educated person’s intellect and interest.” While religion and spirituality were acceptable, “All Serious People understood that the only reason to pay attention to traditional Christianity was to subject it to a withering critique.” Orthodoxy gradually slipped into irrelevance. As Douthat observes, “among the tastemakers and power brokers and intellectual agenda setters of late-twentieth-century America, orthodox Christianity was completely déclassée.”

In response to this substantial challenge to orthodoxy’s supremacy, mainstream Christianity from the mid-1960s forward had two choices: resistance or accommodation. In the Catholic Church, despite its adoption of American-style democratization in Vatican II, the bishops and Vatican curia stood relatively firm against the radicalism of the secular world. At the intermediate level—the religious orders and the universities, in particular—accommodationism, or at least powerful strains of it, had more influence. In an effort to keep Catholicism relevant in a rapidly transforming world, accommodationists sought to subordinate the tenets of the Church’s moral teachings to democratic values and to eradicate any deference to the Vatican’s authority. They were building a “church within a church.”

In mainstream Protestantism, the widespread embrace of accommodationism had an even more devastating impact. Protestant congregations across America hemorrhaged members as traditional belief was married to secular culture. “He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower,” said Dean Inge of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London—and mainstream Protestantism learned that lesson hard. Despite the widespread belief that accommodation would lure members back to their former congregations and parishes, both Catholics and Protestants soon found that accommodation transforms faith into “just another interest group, with nothing particularly transcendent to offer anyone.” And as Douthat points out, transcendence is exactly what people want. By the 1990s, traditionalist congregations were thriving and substantially more likely to have larger memberships than those tethered to accommodationism.

The ever-growing war on orthodox Christianity is visible throughout contemporary American culture. From the attack on the authoritative nature of the Gospels driven by accommodationist scholars such as Elaine Pagels and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza to the “pray and grow rich” quackery of Joel Osteen, orthodox Christianity faces unprecedented challenges to remain relevant in a world dominated by “feel good” theologies and rampant materialism. These beliefs, like most heresies, “resolve one of orthodoxy’s tensions by emphasizing one part of Christian doctrine,” while discounting the larger picture. The liberal Catholicism animating much of the social justice movement is perhaps the most glaring example.

Similarly destructive is our culture’s spiritual turn inward as the path to salvation. “The God within,” as Douthat calls it, is essentially “do it yourself religion.” Citing Elizabeth Gilbert’s abysmal book Eat, Pray, Love, in which the author tries to find inner harmony by abandoning her family and running off with a new man in the name of the “divinity within,” Douthat shows that much of contemporary “spirituality” is an apology for the proposition that “all religious traditions offer equally valid paths to the divine; all religious teachings are just ‘transporting metaphors’ designed to bridge the gulf between the finite and the infinite; [and that] most religious institutions claim a monopoly on divinity that they don’t really enjoy.” For Americans “awash in spiritual choices,” the cherry-picking, make-yourself-feel-good spirituality of the inner self contains substantial sway. However, in the search for existential meaning, turning inward is counterproductive.

From Gilbert to Oprah, the feel-good theology of “inner fulfillment” rests on the assumption that “the beatitude is constantly available,” that is, “Heaven is on earth, ‘God is right here, right now.’” It is the language of theology applied to pop psychology. It is a pick-and-choose faith based in nothing but individual preferences, whims, and desires. This crunchy-granola, feel-good faith may appear refreshing, welcoming, and tolerant, but in reality is narcissistic, condescending, and fake. It is telling “an affluent, appetitive society exactly what it wants to hear: that all of its deepest desires are really God’s desires, and that He wouldn’t dream of judging.” It is little more than self-rationalization parading as faith. The result: “a nation where gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends, and where professional caregivers minister, like seraphim around the throne, to the needs of people taught from infancy to look inside themselves for God.” In the search for contentment, this “therapeutic religion” delivers the very isolationism it seeks to abandon.

Ultimately, Bad Religion constitutes a refreshing, well-argued contribution to the literature of religious history and social criticism. It takes on the spiritualist phonies, the unabashed ideologues of American exceptionalism, and the pedantic peddlers of liberalism with equal vigor. It deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the redemption of the American idea, and more broadly, a reinvigoration of the Western cause.  

Glen Austin Sproviero is a lawyer in New York.