Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
by Ross Douthat
Free Press, April 2012
352 pp., $26.00

The biggest threat facing America is not a faltering economy or a spate of books by famed atheists. Rather, the country meets new challenges due to the decline of traditional Christianity, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press). Douthat has taken his own personal tour of American Christianity: he was baptized Episcopalian, attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches as a child, and converted to Catholicism at age 17. He argues that prosperity preachers, self-esteem gurus, and politics operating as religion contribute to the contemporary decline of America. CT spoke with Douthat about America's decline from a vigorous faith, modern heretics, and why we need a revival of traditional Christianity.

What do you mean when you say we're facing the threat of heresy?

I try to use an ecumenical definition, starting with what I see as the theological common ground shared by my own Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations. Then I look at forms of American religion that are influenced by Christianity, but depart in some significant way from this consensus. It's a C. S. Lewisian, Mere Christianity definition of orthodoxy or heresy. I'm trying to look at the ways the American religion today departs from theological and moral premises that traditional Protestants and Catholics have in common.

How did America become a nation of heretics?

We've always been a nation of heretics. Heresy used to be constrained and balanced by institutional Christianity to a far greater extent than it is today. What's unique about our religious moment is not the movements and currents such as the "lost gospel" industry, the world of prosperity preaching, the kind of therapeutic religion that you get from someone like Oprah Winfrey, or various highly politicized forms of faith. What's new is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response. There were prosperity preachers and therapeutic religion in the 1940s and '50s—think of bestsellers like Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking—but there was also a much more robust Christian center.

The Protestant and Catholic churches that made a real effort to root their doctrine and practice in historic Christianity were vastly stronger than they are today. Even someone who was dabbling in what I call heresy was also more likely to have something in his religious life—some institutional or confessional pressure—tugging him back toward a more traditional faith. The influence of heretics has been magnified by the decline of orthodox Christianity.

Have evangelicals created a fertile ground for heresy?

People have asked, "Don't all the trends that you describe go back to the Protestant Reformation?" Since I am a Roman Catholic, I do have sympathy for that argument [laughs]. But it's important not to leap to a historical determinism about theological and cultural trends. Some of the trends might represent the working out of ideas inherent in Protestantism or grow out of religious individualism that is more Protestant than Catholic. But I don't think it was necessarily inevitable that we reached this point. It's a long way from Martin Luther's On the Freedom of a Christian to Eat, Pray, Love, and a vigorous Protestantism should be able to prevent the former from degenerating into the latter.

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You suggest that Christian leaders from earlier decades contributed to the decline of traditional Christianity by trying to accommodate cultural norms. Would you consider Oprah, Glenn Beck, and others to be today's accommodationists?

We're in a slightly different era today. There were tremendous cultural challenges to Christianity in the 1960s and '70s that both liberals and conservatives struggled to respond to, starting with the sexual revolution. "Accommodationists"—what we think of as liberal Christians, Protestant and Catholic—weren't out to destroy Christianity. They saw their mission as a noble one, preserving institutional Christianity in a new era. Their choices ultimately emptied Christianity theologically, but they intended to save the faith, or at the very least their own denomination.

The danger for evangelicalism is becoming too parachurch without enough church.

The heretics I write about aren't detached completely from Christianity. Some of them identify as Christians and like the idea of identifying with Jesus. But they aren't interested in sustaining any historic Christian tradition or church apart from their own ministry.

Instead of trying to reform and strengthen institutional Christianity, they're picking through the Christian past, looking for things they like and can use, and discarding the rest.

Why do you claim that one of evangelicalism's contemporary struggles is an alignment with former President George W. Bush?

The Bush administration represented both the best and worst of a broader evangelical reengagement in politics and culture. It was the fulfillment of this post-1970s era when evangelicals reengaged with the broader culture, returned to the halls of power, and left the fundamentalist past behind. That you had an evangelical President and his speechwriter drawing on Catholic social teaching to shape domestic policy was a remarkable achievement, a sign of what you might call "the opening of the evangelical mind." And some of the Bush administration's initiatives, such as its aids in Africa efforts, made a real attempt to achieve a more holistic Christian engagement in politics.

But the administration exposed the limits of using politics to effect broader cultural change. The Bush era was the moment when religious conservatives finally had one of their own in the White House, but it wasn't a great era for evangelicalism or for institutional Christianity. But it's pretty clear that institutional religion in the United States has lost more ground than it's gained in the past 10 to 15 years. While evangelicalism is obviously quite robust, evangelical churches aren't growing as fast as they were during the 1970s and '80s. Instead of being a period of revival and renewal for evangelical Christianity, the Bush era looks like a period when evangelical Christianity hit a ceiling.

After 9/11, evangelicals were also particularly tempted toward what I call the heresy of nationalism: that promoting democracy overseas by force of arms would be God's will, which is at best a theologically perilous idea, and at worst, explicitly heretical.

How has Christianity historically tempered nationalism?

The idea that America has some distinctive role to play in the unfolding of God's plan is compatible with orthodox Christianity. But it should be tempered by recognizing that America is not the church. It's fine to see ourselves as an "almost-chosen people," as Abraham Lincoln put it, but if we decide we're literally chosen, then we've taken a detour away from a healthy patriotism towards an unhealthy nationalism.

Lincoln was not an orthodox Christian, but we can look at his second inaugural address as a model for how Christians should think about these issues. He was open to the idea that history unfolds in a providential way, that the American Civil War could have theological as well as political significance.

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But he tempered that by emphasizing that providence and God's purposes are mysterious. He emphasized that God simultaneously passed judgment on North and South alike, that the war is a chastisement rather than a pure apotheosis of the American idea. If you're too confident in assuming that America's and God's purposes are one, you tiptoe toward idolatry.

Why do you say that Mormons and evangelicals can bridge their divides through their love for the Constitution?

Mormons and evangelicals share the temptations that come with an admirable patriotism. There's a tendency for them to take patriotism one step too far and say not only that the Constitution is a wonderful document, but that it is divinely inspired. There's a reason so much of Mitt Romney's campaign rhetoric has focused on "believe in America," singing "America the Beautiful," and so on. These kinds of gestures and emphases offer a way to ease evangelical doubts about his theology. In effect, he is saying, "Whatever our different beliefs about the nature of the Trinity, we agree that America is uniquely favored by God."

Are there parallels between the desire to build an "evangelical empire" and the desire to build up America as a Christian nation?

You could connect the prosperity gospel—especially its idea that good Christians need never be poor—with Glenn Beck's view, that if America had stayed true to its founding, then God would not have given us the Great Recession

But the nature of heresy is not that it takes a Christian teaching and gets it completely wrong. Instead, it takes a Christian teaching and emphasizes it to the exclusion of anything that might counterbalance it. It isn't wrong to suggest that there are biblical passages that state that God blesses his servants in this life as well as the next. There are biblical passages that suggest a link between a nation's morality, a nation's religious beliefs, and its historical fate.

But Christian orthodoxy always counterbalances those emphases with other truths. Sometimes God uses a pagan nation to bring forth his justice. So you might succeed and prosper not because you are particularly virtuous, but because you're that pagan nation, Babylon or Assyria, not King David's Israel. You have to be aware of these possibilities. The same is true for wealthy people, and obviously all blessings come from God. But sometimes what you think of as "blessings" may be ill-gotten gains. Or the guy who is suffering financially isn't suffering because he didn't pray hard enough; he's Lazarus on your doorstep and you're the rich man who's ignoring him.

People write about Marilynne Robinson as a great novelist, but they also say, 'And she's a Calvinist.' You want to live in a world where that feels natural.

Why do you think evangelicals have been reticent to look to the government while maintaining a robust political impulse?

Evangelicals are less likely to look to a government program for help, but they are more likely to see the election of particular individuals as the key to fulfilling Christian purposes. Evangelicals have a healthy skepticism of the efficacy of government, but they are tempted by the delusion that if you just elect the right godly leader, deeper cultural trends will change overnight. Or they see adverse trends as a result of individual bad actors. Evangelicals were galvanized into politics in part by a series of Supreme Court decisions, which were the work of five or six people who you could point to and say, "He's the guy who took away prayer in schools." This has given rise to the popular idea that cultural changes stem from all these liberal, secular elites imposing themselves on a conservative Christian population. But I don't think this view considers the role that broader cultural and economic shifts have played in trends that conservative Christians don't like.

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How can we begin to address a nation of heretics?

There has been much healthy Catholic and Protestant dialogue and cooperation during the past 30 years. But ultimately the success of U.S. Christianity depends on individual churches and confessions, not on ecumenism for ecumenism's sake. Protestants and Catholics need to recognize everything we have in common and then say we're also going to focus on building separate effective churches.

Christianity's failure in the United States is an institutional failure, and the answer to institutional failure is stronger institutions. America has more to gain from a more potent Protestantism and Catholicism than it does from even the most fruitful Protestant-Catholic dialogue.

For evangelicals, it means thinking more seriously about ecclesiology and what it will take to sustain Christianity across generations. Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade for Christ, and other parachurch groups have been important to evangelicalism. But "parachurch" makes sense over the long term in the context of a church. The danger for evangelicalism is becoming too parachurch without enough church. Some megachurches seem to function like parachurches rather than churches, as though everything else that's going on is more important than the central life of the community of worship. It might be important for evangelicals to think of themselves as Presbyterians, Baptists, and so on, and recover the virtues of confessionalism, because it's confessions, not just superstar pastors, that sustain Christianity over the long haul.

How did you arrive at your final point: that Christians can work to become more political without being partisan, ecumenical while being confessional, moralistic while being holistic, and oriented toward beauty?

I tried to think about the attractive aspects of post-war American Christianity that we have lost. Being political without being partisan was crucial to the successes of the civil rights movement. Figures like Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen were ecumenical but remained confessional. And it was easier to be moralistic, but also holistic, in that context because the country was not polarized on what we now think of as a culture war.

There are reasons why Christianity has lost some influence in creative culture. You want to live in a world where the opening of a new cathedral in a major American city is not only a religious event but also a major architectural event. You want to live in a world where Christian artists aren't going to be merely interesting eccentrics. People write about Marilynne Robinson as a great novelist, but they also say, "And she's a Calvinist." You want to live in a world where that feels natural.

How do you adapt to cultural forces while maintaining tradition?

You have to address the issues and places where orthodoxy has lost people over the past few decades without just saying, "We're losing people here, so we just need to change this teaching or jettison this," which was the accommodationist answer. There's evidence to suggest that churches that self-consciously surrender big chunks of Christian teaching don't seem to thrive in the long run. Also, it has to be possible to be Christian on contentious cultural issues without making it seem like Christianity is just an appendage of the Republican Party.

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Finally, it's very important for contemporary Christians to be ecumenical and to see the best in one another's congregations, but not at the expense of having a robust, resilient internal culture within their own churches. Lewis compares his "Mere Christianity" to a hallway with doors opening into various rooms, which are the actual Christian churches. You can't spend all your time in the hallway. You can go out into the hallway to talk, but you have to go back in the rooms to worship.


Related Elsewhere:

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is available from Christianbook.com and other retailers.

Christianity Today previously interviewed Ross Douthat prior to the 2008 election about evangelicals' place in the Republican Party.

Previous CT articles about politics include:

Mass Appeal: Evangelicals Copy More of Catholic Playbook to Oppose Contraception Ruling | Mandate has evangelicals and Catholics finding common ground on ethics—and strategy. (April 1, 2012)
Timeline: Obama Administration Actions Affecting U.S. Religious Freedom | How we got to the current religious liberty debates over contraception and other issues. (March 23, 2012)
The Cure for Election Madness | How to be political without losing your soul. (January 6, 2012)

Other recent CT interviews include:

Jesus Through Jewish Eyes | Why Jewish New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine thinks Jews should know more about Jesus, and Christians more about first-century Judaism. (April 1, 2012)
Sailing into the Storm: Philip Ryken and D. Michael Lindsay on the Challenges in Christian Higher Education | College presidents discuss the relevance of Christian higher education, the theological issues facing Christian universities, and more. (March 7, 2012)
Commander and Chaplain: The Faith of Presidents | Gary Scott Smith explores how faith has influenced presidential policies. (January 4, 2012)

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