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Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

Ross Douthat
Published by Free Press in 2013

Reviewed by Edward C. Polson, Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice, Messiah College.

In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat examines some of the most significant changes that have occurred in U.S. religious life since the 1950s. He explores the impact that the declining significance of both institutional and orthodox Christianity has had on religious, social, and political life. With an eye for detail and the skill of an experienced reporter, Douthat weaves together historical, social scientific, and journalistic data to tell a compelling story about how the American church wandered away from a golden age at mid-century, an era during which Christianity enjoyed significant cultural and political influence, and has found itself, in recent decades, besieged by popular heresies. Rather than simply writing another book documenting the decline of institutional religion, however, Douthat’s primary concern here is diagnosing the conditions that have contributed to the current state of affairs. He also suggests a way forward for those that might like to see orthodox Christianity regain influence in American culture and society.

Despite what commentators and popular critics claim, Douthat argues that the problem with contemporary American religion is not growing secularism or unrelenting religious fanaticism. Rather, the most significant challenge facing religion in the United States is unchecked heresy among ordinary religious citizens (3). Over the past sixty years, religious denominations and leaders have increasingly adopted heretical approaches to belief and practice in well-meaning efforts to reconcile faith with modern perspectives on a number of issues including science, sexuality, and politics (65-81). Such shifts, Douthat argues, seek to make faith more palatable to the public by deemphasizing important tensions that exist in Scripture, doctrine, and tradition and by encouraging overly simplistic methods for dealing with dilemmas posed by social and cultural change (81). He suggests that such shifts may ultimately rob Christianity of its power to influence society.

Bad Religion is an extremely well-written book. I found Douthat’s style of writing to be highly readable and his method of integrating historical and social scientific data with anecdotal stories from contemporary religious life to be an effective way of supporting his overall thesis. Part I of Bad Religion details the changes that have occurred in American reli-gion in recent decades. In chapter 1, Douthat contends that the United States experienced a significant religious revival in the years immediately following the Second World War and that this period led to the emergence of a robust Christian orthodoxy (25). He illustrates the cultural influence that orthodoxy enjoyed during this period by highlighting the lives of four prominent Protestant and Catholic leaders with significant political and cultural clout. Chapter 2 charts orthodoxy’s steep decline in the latter half of the twentieth century. A number of social and cultural shifts originating in the late 1960s and early ’70s became catalysts for this decline (65). Because these shifts challenged traditional Christian perspec-tives on various aspects of social life, they were often perceived as threats to religion itself. Religious institutions and leaders sought ways of addressing these challenges.

Two of the most common paths taken by institutions (cultural accommodation and cultural resistance) are articulated in chapters 3 and 4. Douthat contends that both approaches have actually done more harm than good. In their attempts to help the church maintain a position of influence, religious leaders and institutions have wandered away from orthodoxy and opened the doors to various heresies. One of orthodoxy’s most important assets is its ability to balance the various tensions that exist within Christian Scripture and tradition in a way that sustains Christianity’s relevance for society (for example, that Jesus is both God and man, the Kingdom of God is here now and still yet to come, Christ brings forgiveness as well as judgment, and so on) (7). Absent a strong commitment to orthodoxy, however, Douthat suggests that contemporary religious movements tend to emphasize one or two aspects of Christian tradition or Scripture over others, leading to a one-sided faith that is more easily co-opted by various political, social, and economic movements outside of Christianity.

In Part II, Douthat identifies and analyzes four heresies that he believes have captured the devotion of Americans. Chapter 5 examines the influence of popular scholarship and increased interest in so-called “hidden gospels” (for example, the Jesus seminar, the lost gospel of Thomas, and so on). He contends that interest in this type of work has given rise to a “cafeteria” style of Christianity encouraging individuals to pick and choose elements of the Christian story with which they agree while discarding parts more difficult to accept (181). Chapter 6 examines the influence of the health and wealth gospel. Chapter 7 presents perhaps the least explicitly Christian heresy. Douthat argues that a self-help/therapeutic culture has developed in the United States since the 1960s and has contributed to the rise of religious movements focused primarily on self-realization. Finally, chapter 8 highlights the heresy of religious nationalism, a temptation for Americans on both the political left and the political right. All of these heresies are equally dangerous to traditional Christianity, according to Douthat, because they encourage a rather one-sided or unbalanced version of the faith. Rather than deal with the tensions that are inherently part of historical Christianity, these heresies promote a streamlined and simplistic version of the faith that may be attrac-tive to modern audiences but lacks the depth and universality of orthodox Christianity.

In concluding Douthat suggests a way forward for orthodox Christianity. He suggests components of a faith that might sustain a Christian “renaissance” in the contemporary United States (284). Orthodox faith must strive to be “political without being partisan,” ecumenical and confessional, moralistic and holistic, and “oriented toward sanctity and beauty” (284-293). Douthat seems to believe that an emphasis on these central tensions within Christian faith and practice might counteract the influence of the various heresies currently plaguing the church in America.

Bad Religion is well researched and highly readable. It has much to offer educators and lay readers alike who are interested in the recent history of American religion – especially as it relates to the intersection of religion and public life. I would also recommend the book to anyone considering entering the ministry. It raises important questions about the direction in which America’s religious institutions are moving. Furthermore, it challenges the reader to think seriously about the direction in which religious institutions should be moving.

As a social scientist, I found Douthat’s work extremely helpful for contextualizing and informing current social scientific research on secularization and religiosity in the United States. Scholarly debates over the most effective ways of measuring religious participation and institutional vitality have often failed to recognize the more nuanced changes in orthodoxy which Douthat identifies here. In this regard, I believe that Bad Religion has the potential to add much to our understanding of trends in American religion since the mid-twentieth century. Americans may be as active in their churches and synagogues as ever. However, Douthat’s work suggests that even those who are active may be increas-ingly unorthodox in their belief and practice. This is an important caveat to which religious researchers should pay attention.

I found Douthat’s concluding chapter surprisingly optimistic and his suggestions for a revitalized Christian faith refreshing, even if short on detail. I would have liked for Douthat to expand further on ways that religious institutions might begin rebuild a robust orthodoxy. Perhaps, however, this task is intentionally left to be completed by other scholars and reli-gious leaders. The suggestions that Douthat does give are clearly developed as corrections for what he views as heretical tendencies widespread in the contemporary American Church.

Douthat seems to advocate the renewal of a Christianity that is comfortable with, and committed to maintaining, the types of creative tension that modern heresies have tried to minimize or eliminate (293). In essence, the prescribed way forward requires today’s religious institutions and leaders to take more seriously the complexities of religious belief and practice in a rapidly changing world. He seems to believe that moving forward also requires a reemphasis on religious particularity. Douthat contends that a vital and mean-ingful ecumenism is only truly possible when members of religious traditions understand what makes their tradition distinct from others (286). To be sure, in Bad Religion Douthat is not arguing for a simplistic return to a 1950s type of Christianity that is comfortable with discrimination, patriarchy, and parochialism. Rather, it seems to me that he is advocating a progressive Christianity open to diverse perspectives and willing to struggle with the pressing moral, social, and political issues of the day.

Whether the American church is capable of returning to the robust Christian ortho-doxy Douthat advocates in Bad Religion remains to be seen. He acknowledges this in the final chapter. However, his argument is compelling and his vision attractive. One walks away from the book hoping that the American church might just be able to pull off such a course change. Throughout the book, Douthat’s own Catholic faith is evident, but perhaps nowhere as evident as in the final chapter where he acknowledges Christians’ hope for the future does not ultimately rest in human agency but in their knowledge that the future is in “God’s hands” (278).

Edward C. Polson

Baylor University
Edward C. Polson serves as an Associate Professor at Baylor University. Prior to Baylor, Polson worked as an Assistant Professor at Messiah University.