Good Religion: In Defense of Ross Douthat

 
 

By showing the triumph of the therapeutic over the orthodox in American Christianity, Ross Douthat’s latest book gives Americans on both sides of the political divide much to consider.

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Ross Douthat’s study of contemporary American Christianity is the sort of book that is guaranteed to arouse the ire of a certain type of academic reviewer. It is a work of historical and theological analysis written by a journalist. It collapses a sweeping analysis of five decades of change in academia, religion, and politics into a mere 300 pages. As if the cardinal sins of journalistic encroachment on scholarly territory and theological oversimplification were not enough to raise the hackles of academics who were already suspicious of Douthat’s views, the title—Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics—suggests that readers who pick up this book can expect a cultural screed. It was thus no surprise that two of the earliest reviews of this work—a negative assessment published in the New York Times and an even more hostile critique in the New Republic—dismissed the book as a sloppily researched “jeremiad” that was little better than a Rick Santorum stump speech.

In their haste to dismiss this work as the uninformed diatribe of an angry conservative Catholic, Douthat’s early critics missed the important insights that the book offers. Bad Religion is hardly the simplistic work that its critics have suggested. Although it is unquestionably conservative, its conservatism differs markedly from any of the conventional manifestations of right-wing ideology that Douthat’s critics have accused him of championing. Bad Religion is unusually critical of American acquisitiveness, President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, and evangelical conservative politics. Whatever else it is, Douthat’s book is not a credo for the American Enterprise Institute, the Weekly Standard, the Christian Right, or the Republican Party.

It is instead a call for a return to Christian orthodoxy, a term that Douthat defines as a “mere Christianity” roughly equivalent to the moral and theological teachings of the Catholic Church and, to a certain extent, conservative Protestantism. Eastern Orthodoxy presumably fits the bill as well, though it is never mentioned. Some might object to Douthat’s decision to leave Jews, Muslims, and other adherents of non-Christian religions out of his analysis, but Douthat’s work is an intrafaith critique. Though some of his critics may have missed this point, Douthat’s book is not so much an attack on secular liberals or any other non-Christians as it is a lament over the current state of American Christianity.

Douthat argues that over the past four decades American Christians have simultaneously become more religious and more heretical. Although Americans are flocking to theologically conservative churches, the religion that they’re practicing is too often a self-created therapeutic spirituality that rejects orthodox Christianity’s inconvenient teachings on sexual behavior, wealth, and surrender of the self to God. Liberal Christians have reduced Jesus’ teachings to a socially oriented political program, while evangelicals have gravitated toward marketers of the “prosperity gospel.” Those who have left traditional churches to become “spiritual but not religious” have embraced a religion that seeks the “God within.” Scholars of early Christianity also have reshaped the historical Jesus to fit their own image and have celebrated ancient heresies as liberations from traditional religious strictures.

Douthat readily acknowledges that there have been Christian “heretics” in every age and that some of his critiques are not new. What differentiates our own era from past generations is not the presence of the non-orthodox; it is rather the fact that orthodox teachings no longer command the respect of the majority.

How did this happen? Douthat argues that churches began to lose public influence in the late 1960s when they became politically polarized along left-right lines after church leaders split over the Vietnam War. By the 1980s, these divisions had hardened into partisan commitments. White evangelical pastors supported conservative Republicans, while white mainline Protestant and African American church leaders supported liberal Democrats. Catholics were almost evenly divided along left-right lines, with prominent bishops taking positions on both sides of the divide. With the church politically divided and with religious leaders taking opposing sides on almost every controversial question of moral import, what reason did anyone have to treat the moral views of the nation’s clergy as authoritative?

Freed from the demands of church teaching, Americans hearkened to the siren song of the sexual revolution and cultural pluralism, and derided the exclusivity and sexual ethics of traditional Christianity as antiquated and harmful.

Liberal churches exacerbated this moral decline by accommodating themselves to the culture. In their quest to be relevant, liberal church leaders accepted the prevailing secular understanding of sexuality and moral relativism. Their primary goal became social justice and the “inclusion” of minorities, especially women (in ministerial roles), African Americans, and gays. Liberal Catholics pursued this “accommodationist” agenda nearly as ardently as mainline Protestants did. Both groups experienced a rapid decline in church attendance.

Many Americans have designed their own religious program, pursuing a spirituality of self-actualization. Whether they imbibe it from Oprah or contemporary religious scholarship, large numbers of Americans view the “spiritual” mainly as a means to self-empowerment. Such notions go back more than a century, Douthat acknowledges, but never before have they held so much currency in the popular culture. At the same time, professors of religion such as Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and various members of the Jesus Seminar have abandoned the normal strictures of scholarly caution, and have created an image of Jesus that conforms to the imaginations of modern heretics. The novelist Dan Brown has gone much further by popularizing a completely fabricated notion of Jesus that has nevertheless influenced the thinking of millions of Americans who want to believe that the “real” Jesus was a culturally liberal, sexually liberated feminist.

One might have expected theologically conservative Protestant churches, which grew rapidly in the 1970s, to be defenders of orthodoxy and opponents of cultural liberalism, but they have lacked the institutions and perhaps even the theology to do so. Most evangelical music, art, novels, and movies are distinctly second-rate, and therefore fail to reach secular audiences. Evangelical politics tend to be partisan, shrill, and strident. Too often, evangelicals have confused faith in God with faith in the nation. They uncritically embraced George W. Bush as one of their own, and acquiesced in a defense of torture, an offense that Douthat finds especially egregious. Many evangelicals have ignored Jesus’ teachings on wealth in order to embrace a heretical “prosperity gospel.” Evangelicals have been far too individualistic to develop the intellectual capital and cultural institutions necessary to become the dominant moral voice in society that mainline Protestants once were.

These critiques are by no means new, of course. Evangelical intellectuals have been issuing similar complaints about their religious subculture for at least the past twenty years. But Douthat places these critiques in a larger context: because evangelicals failed to arrest the heretical slide of the larger culture, the heretical therapeutic religion of the self became the norm in America, and orthodoxy lost its cultural cachet.

Douthat extends this pessimistic analysis to the recent conservative revival in the American Catholic Church. Although Douthat lauds the conservative Catholic intellectuals who helped the Church regain its moorings during the 1980s and 1990s, whatever hope he might have had for the Catholic Church to become a dominant moral voice in America was dashed by the sex-abuse crisis. Douthat does not blame the Church’s conservatives for the crisis, but he notes that they have failed to come up with a response that has any credibility with the Church’s critics. In spite of his dire assessment, Douthat sees a faint glimmer of hope in the recent close cooperation between conservative Catholics and thoughtful evangelicals.

Douthat concludes by arguing for a return to Christian orthodoxy, a return that will be nearly as uncomfortable for some cultural conservatives as it will be for those on the left. Instead of merely opposing same-sex marriage, cultural conservatives need to solve the problem of divorce and heterosexual premarital sex in their own churches. They need to continue to engage in the political sphere, but they need to give up their faith in partisan alliances. They need to cooperate with adherents of other faiths, while remaining thoroughly grounded in their own orthodox Christian tradition. In other words, Douthat believes that the solution to the problem of national heresy begins with personal repentance for the sins of partisanship and self-designed religion that have too often prevented believers from following the call of Jesus. He concludes by lauding New York City Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller as an exemplar of the type of social engagement he favors.

Is Douthat’s analysis an accurate assessment? I think that his general critique is probably correct, but I would also concede that his critics are right to complain about the over-simplification of his analysis in some sections.

His depiction of a halcyon age of Christian orthodoxy in the early postwar era is exaggerated, because he confuses the strength of Christian institutions with the strength of Christian orthodoxy. There is no question that Christian institutions reached their apex in the 1950s. Nearly all denominations experienced a rapid increase in both their number of members and the size of their bank accounts, and mainline church leaders enjoyed ready access to political power and social influence. Yet this institutional strength was not matched by a similar theological literacy or even popular piety. The therapeutic religion that Douthat decries was already in full swing in the 1950s: one of the top-selling religious books of the decade was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. It is true that Catherine Marshall’s popular work of religious biography, A Man Called Peter, sold more than one million copies after its publication in 1951, a figure often cited as evidence of Americans’ respect for religion and the clergy in the 1950s. But if sales figures are used as a guide, secular libertine influences may have been even stronger; in 1959 Playboy magazine sold more than one million copies every month.

Douthat’s critics are right to complain about his propensity to issue simplistic assessments of complex scholarly controversies in which he is not well-versed. His chapter on contemporary Jesus scholarship, for instance, is based mainly on news articles, not academic reviews or a personal familiarity with the issues at stake. Finally, while the remedies that Douthat proposes in his concluding chapter are laudable, some of them are so vague as to be almost meaningless, and most of them are hardly new ideas.

Yet in spite of these critiques, I believe that Douthat has succeeded admirably in shedding new light on a pervasive phenomenon—the triumph of the therapeutic over orthodoxy in American Christianity. The United States really has become a nation in which orthodox truth claims are viewed with suspicion and in which even many conservative Christians are very selective in their adherence to official church teachings or biblical mandates. Douthat’s book explains why. Despite my quibbles with some of the details, the general narrative that Douthat presents is insightful and accurate. I am particularly impressed with the perceptive connections that Douthat has drawn between seemingly disparate phenomena. His synthesis is original and thought-provoking.

As a work of history or social science, Bad Religion may fall short, but as an insightful commentary, it is first-rate. Douthat has accurately identified a problem in America, and he has written a book that should give Americans on both sides of the political divide much to consider.

Christian orthodoxy is no doubt a more demanding proposition than mere conservatism or any other political or religious program. But as Douthat’s book demonstrates, it ultimately offers a much stronger moral foundation than the narcissistic spiritual pabulum that has pervaded the culture. If Douthat earns mixed reviews as a historian, he nevertheless succeeds as a prophet. I, for one, think there’s something worth heeding in his jeremiad.

Daniel K. Williams is an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia, and he is the author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right. Professor Williams is a visiting fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University during the 2011–2012 academic year.

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