Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat closes the lament over the decline of “orthodox” Christianity in America in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, with a plaintive warning about the soul of our nation in the dark decades to come. He is convinced that reversing America’s political and economic decline will require a moral renewal, a return to the practice of traditional virtues long taught by the Christian churches. He is not optimistic about that happening.

Douthat’s religious prophecy recalls the more flamboyant vision of a very different sort of American intellectual—Norman Mailer. “Whole crisis of Christianity in America that the military heroes were on one side, and the unnamed saints on the other!” proclaimed Mailer in The Armies of the Night, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the 1967 anti-Vietnam War march on the Pentagon.

Let the bugle blow. The death of America rides in on the smog. America—the land where a new kind of man was born from the idea that God was present in every man not only as compassion but as power, and so the country belonged to the people; for the will of the people—if the locks of their life could be given the art to turn—was then the will of God. Great and dangerous idea! If the locks did not turn, then the will of the people was the will of the Devil. Who by now would know where was what? Liars controlled the locks.

Bad Religion:
How We Became a
Nation of Heretics

by Ross Douthat
Free Press, 336 pp.

Mailer knew that the fate of American democracy cannot be disentangled from that of Christianity in all its peculiar as well as its traditional manifestations. (A Mormon president? A thrice-married Catholic convert?) Democracy is “essentially a spiritual idea,” observed G. K. Chesterton, one of Douthat’s heroes. Mailer would have agreed. Where, he asked, would the dangerous idea of democracy take a people who understood themselves to be both uniquely blessed in having given birth to a new kind of human freedom and uniquely burdened by that very blessing? Mailer’s fervid formulations about why America was careening out of control in the 1960s were idiosyncratic, but then it was a disorienting, even apocalyptic time. Assassinations, race riots, the tumultuous end to legal segregation, and the long struggle against communism all found a terrible culmination in sending a half-million Americans to fight an unwinnable war halfway around the world.

Douthat is also attempting to address the big questions at a time of national crisis. A self-described orthodox Catholic, he looks back longingly to the 1950s, when mainline Protestantism and a traditionalist Catholic Church both forged and reflected a broad cultural consensus regarding marriage, sexual morality, citizenship, fair dealing, patriotism, and a host of other Christian values. This consensus emerged in the aftermath of the Depression and World War II, events that shook our confidence in Enlightenment rationalism and the inevitability of progress. Institutional Christianity, in Douthat’s analysis, anchored American culture and politics to a firm sense of the fallibility of man and the dangers of utopian enthusiasms. By the 1960s and ’70s, however, the nation found itself bitterly split by Vietnam, and radicalized by the civil rights and women’s movements and especially by the sexual revolution. He argues that most mainline churches and a significant segment of the Catholic Church were co-opted by these trends, eventually adopting the liberal politics of the Democratic Party. Christian teachings about sexual morality were either ignored or discarded.

For Douthat, this collapse of institutional religious authority was nothing short of calamitous, leaving the country precariously adrift. “We’re freer than we used to be,” he writes, “but also more isolated, lonelier, and more depressed.” America has become a nation of narcissists, and “the rot is deep.” A strong dose of “Christian realism” is Douthat’s proposed remedy, but in his view, alas, the churches are not up to the task—since they themselves have succumbed to the “heresies” that suffuse American life. He characterizes most churches, including the Catholic Church, as “accommodationist”—a term he invokes again and again. Instead of standing apart from society and rendering judgment on its moral disorder and hubris, the churches too often treat their congregants like consumers who are there to be served rather than converted. Believers on the right have turned a blind eye to the gospel’s warnings about the worship of Mammon, and their celebration of American “exceptionalism” is little more than idolatry. (Douthat dubs it the “heresy of nationalism.”) Those on the left have embarked on a theologically incoherent effort to make Christianity more “relevant,” with special emphasis on rewriting the gospel’s strictures regarding “chastity, monogamy, and fidelity.” They have recast early Christianity in the doctrinally inclusive and morally nonjudgmental mode of today’s liberal Protestantism.

This is the backdrop, of course, to the culture wars of the past thirty years. Evangelicals, who had retreated from politics in the aftermath of the Scopes trial and the repeal of Prohibition, reemerged on the national stage in the 1980s and ’90s. An alliance between evangelicals and conservative Catholics—groups once fiercely suspicious of one another—was formed to resist the sexual revolution, overturn Roe v. Wade, and uphold the gender roles of the traditional family. At the same time, the more liberal churches embraced identity politics. Eventually, the political parties reformed on either side of this cultural divide, making the sort of deal making crucial to democratic politics ever more difficult.

Douthat, who grew up during this era (he graduated from Harvard in 2002), has been a partisan in that war, but in Bad Religion he suggests that the battle has gone on too long and with devastating effects, especially on the religious faith of those on all sides. Theological heresy is everywhere. Joel Osteen, the enormously popular Houston-based televangelist who preaches the “prosperity gospel,” is every bit as confused about God and religion as Oprah or Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, a memoir whose success Douthat attributes to a “post-feminist, haute-bourgeoisie” search for “the direct, unmediated, and overwhelming experience of God.” While Osteen preaches that God’s plan is to make every American rich, Gilbert and Oprah extol the American religion of the “God within,” an ersatz faith in a transcendent, spiritualized self that can be traced back to Emerson. Traditional Christianity, of course, is deeply suspicious of unmediated spiritual experience. God is to be found first and foremost in the church, through scripture and the sacraments.

These heresies aren’t merely individual spiritual errors, Douthat warns; they warp our politics. In their ambitious attempts at social engineering, liberals are seduced by the temptation of “messianism” into thinking they can solve many of life’s intractable problems—and into embracing “cult” leaders such as Obama and JFK. “Apocalyptism,” on the other hand, is the refuge of reactionaries like Glenn Beck, who see conspiracies everywhere and catastrophe around every corner. In foreign policy, Douthat criticizes the wars in Vietnam and Iraq as examples of a messianism that afflicts liberals and conservatives alike.

Unfortunately, Douthat often uses unconvincing dichotomies to make his arguments. Isn’t the 1950s civil rights movement—which this book celebrates—an example of the liberal messianism that righted a great wrong? And is Obama any more messianic a cult figure among liberals than Reagan was to conservatives?

He can also be tendentious. For instance, he asserts that in voting for the Affordable Care Act, pro-life Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak “had to choose between his liberalism and his church.” Not so. What Stupak had to choose between was an interpretation of the bill’s language about abortion funding as offered by the bishops’ legal counsel and the interpretations of other legal experts. As a Catholic, he was free to make his choice. Similarly, Douthat writes that the Terri Schiavo case showed how “orthodox Christian views on matters of life and death have become a distinctly minority persuasion, easily dismissed as sectarian by the press and the wider public alike.” In fact, the traditional Christian view is that providing artificial hydration and nutrition to a person in Schiavo’s condition is voluntary, not mandatory. Douthat also fails to mention the two pastoral letters issued in the 1980s by Catholic bishops, one on war and peace and the other on the economy. Both were seen as quite critical of popular Reagan policies of massive defense spending and deep cuts in social welfare.

Regarding sexual morality, many will find Douthat’s charges that the churches have largely abandoned the field too simplistic. “The traditional Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge,” he writes. “It seems easy enough to snip a single thread out of the pattern, but often the whole thing swiftly unravels once you do.” This is not an unreasonable intuition; it certainly informs the Catholic Church’s refusal to budge on such issues as premarital sex, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. But is it true? Does the whole teaching hang together in the way Douthat suggests, and is it as fragile as he thinks? Let’s not forget that a number of threads have already been snipped out of those teachings. It was once taught that marriage was the “remedy for concupiscence.” And that the sole purpose of sex was procreation. And that a wife must be submissive to her husband’s sexual demands. And marriage itself was long considered inferior to the celibate priesthood as a spiritual vocation.

The “orthodox” teaching today is quite different, with marriage and the priesthood granted equal spiritual dignity, procreation no longer viewed as the sole purpose of sex, and wives freed from the sexual beck and call of their husbands. Snip, snip, snip. What does Douthat make of these significant changes in how Catholics think about sex and marriage? Many Catholics view them as a much-needed development—and welcome further changes, especially as the experience and theological reflection of women are taken into account. Conspicuously missing from Douthat’s discussion of sexual morality is any serious attention to the changing place and roles of women in society and religious institutions over the past fifty years. It is a telling lacuna.

And what of the threads that have been snipped from Christianity’s traditional teachings on economic justice over recent decades in America? The church, of course, has long been critical of capitalism, insisting that any economic system be judged not by the sum of wealth it produces but by how it treats the poor and those who work to support their families. Great concentrations of wealth are seen to be inimical to the health of society. But while Douthat exudes confidence in the truth of Christianity’s teaching about sexuality, he is less certain about its condemnations of capitalism. Bad Religion goes so far as to venture that economic inequality may be salutary. “Perhaps the uncertainties of the capitalist economy make us cling more tightly to the promises of God,” Douthat writes; “perhaps the absence of a cradle-to-grave welfare state encourages us to rely on the networks of family and community instead.” Indeed, “the understanding that capitalism is the economic system best-suited to man’s fallen nature” may indicate the need for “some kind of Christian compromise with Mammon.” One has to wonder, why is Douthat so doubtful on this subject?

Bad Religion is on firmer ground when it addresses the social nature and implications of belief systems. Every society, Douthat observes, embraces some belief about the ultimate nature of reality and what role human beings play in it—and these beliefs profoundly shape our expectations and behavior. Since that is the case, we can’t be indifferent to what our fellow citizens believe, and we must recognize that some beliefs are more conducive to human dignity than others. Hence the importance of Christianity for American democracy. “Secular as well as pious Americans will have a strong stake in the forms that American religion takes,” Douthat writes.

Both doubters and believers have benefited from the role that institutional Christianity has traditionally played in our national life—its communal role, as a driver of assimilation and a guarantor of social peace, and its prophetic role, as a curb against our national excesses and a constant reminder of our national ideals. Both doubters and believers stand to lose if religion in the age of heresy turns out to be complicit in our fragmented communities, our collapsing families, our political polarization, and our weakened social ties.

American religion is very much complicit, says Douthat, and we have already lost a lot. He admits to writing his book “in a spirit of pessimism,” and the gloom is indeed thick at times. These pages offer only speculation on how Christians might revitalize their faith and wield it to help avert a larger catastrophe. Tentatively, Douthat suggests a number of options, ranging from various forms of Christian separatism to the possibility that America will be reconverted by missionaries from the Third World. He offers up bromides, urging Christians to put “allegiance to principle over party” and bring “their faith to bear on debates about justice and the common good.” Politically conservative Christians are cautioned that “Rush Limbaugh’s take on tax policy and Donald Rumsfeld’s views on water boarding are not inscribed in the New Testament.” Liberal believers are reminded to “speak out loudly against the ways that liberalism can provide a warrant for libertinism.”

In the end, Douthat asserts, “only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.” But sanctity, as he acknowledges, is rare in any age. For better and for worse, the Christian communities and institutions that provided so much care and guidance to Americans in the last century were built not by Mother Teresas but by far less single-minded believers. The element of romance in Douthat’s concluding peroration is more a retreat from the messy business of “Christian realism” than a brief for it.

Ross Douthat has written a pious and evangelical book—no small feat for a New York Times columnist. It is also a dense book, crammed with what seems like a lifetime of reading, most of it drawn from conservative historians and polemicists. And while many readers will remain skeptical that “heresy” explains as much about contemporary American life as Douthat claims it does, few will doubt Douthat’s own fervent belief in this theological interpretation of history. Nevertheless, in certain key respects, Bad Religion is unsatisfying. Its pell-mell manner keeps it from spending enough time elucidating the causal relationship between ideas and events, or vice versa. It also suffers from a certain pervasive aridity. Ideas are Douthat’s strong suit, and no recognizably living and breathing person makes an appearance in these pages; the people he does invoke serve as mere placeholders for this or that argument. Bad Religion would have benefited greatly from a more sympathetic interest in how individual people actually struggle to make sense of their lives in terms of their religious or spiritual beliefs.

Still, if many of this book’s charges of heresy leave one with a furrowed brow, its framing argument remains persuasive. Christianity has in fact played a vital role both in sustaining democracy and curbing its excesses, and a more robust contemporary Christian witness is something to be welcomed, not feared. Douthat is also right that the nation’s deep divisions can best be understood in religious terms. Given his pessimistic mood, he might even agree with Norman Mailer that “the country had been living with a controlled, even fiercely controlled schizophrenia which had deepened with the years.” One suspects that Mailer would welcome Douthat’s stern moralizing and frequently incisive sociological observations. After all, Mailer liked to call himself a “left conservative,” and in Armies of the Night he complained that the younger generation had been “utterly lobotomized away from the sense of sin.” Sounding very much like Douthat, he declared himself “ready to cast much of the blame for such success into the undernourished lap, the over-psychologized loins, of the liberal academic intelligentsia.”

But Mailer was willing to cast a much harder look at how economic power is leveraged in America. Unlike Douthat, he saw that the real source of the nation’s derangement was the unprecedented, but rarely acknowledged, power of the modern corporation, a power that shapes nearly all aspects of people’s lives. If American food is tasteless, its architecture nondescript, and the lives and deaths of its citizens overmedicalized, Mailer insisted that the blame be laid at the door of the modern corporation’s relentless search for profit and control. “Any man or woman who was devoutly Christian and worked for the American Corporation, had been caught in an unseen vise whose pressure could split their mind from their soul,” Mailer the fitful theologian wrote. “For the center of Christianity was a mystery, a son of God, and the center of the corporation was a detestation of mystery, a worship of technology. Nothing was more intrinsically opposed to technology than the bleeding heart of Christ.”

Amen to that.

It’s unlikely that Douthat would ever commit a political and cultural analysis as eschatologically freighted as Mailer’s. Still, like Mailer, he traffics heavily in such unfashionable concepts as soul, grace, saint -hood, sin, and damnation, and warns that the nation cannot survive without a “commitment to mystery and paradox.” To that end, he places a compelling case for the intelligibility of his ardent Catholic faith at the center of this book, insisting that what many see as the irrationality of Christian beliefs (Is God one or three? How can God be pure spirit and incarnated flesh? How can a virgin give birth?) are in fact theological puzzles that inexhaustibly nourish the intellect and spirit. Mailer took very seriously Christianity’s strange story about a “God-man” who once walked the earth and rose from the dead; he even wrote a novel, The Gospel According to the Son, that attempted to illuminate that mysterious and paradoxical story. Perhaps Douthat will someday come to appreciate the threat corporate power poses to everything he cherishes in that story. Is there any doubt that the country is more firmly in the grip of the moneyed classes than it was forty years ago? Liars still control the locks! At some point compromise does become capitulation, and there can be little doubt that accommodating ourselves to this New Age of Mammon is very Bad Religion indeed.

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Paul Baumann

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.