Book Review – Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

I’m not in the habit of offering book reviews here on this blog, this being the first, and I’m not likely to be doing this very often.  However, I am going to make an exception in this case.

Bad ReligionAs Beth and I were preparing for young Samuel’s arrival, I determined that there might be some downtime at the hospital (less than I anticipated, as it turns out).  I had heard a bit of a buzz surrounding New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and decided it was worth the download.

It certainly was.

In Bad Religion, Douthat examines two predominant arguments concerning what he perceives to be American decline.  The first blames a move away from traditional religious mores and beliefs for cultural rot.  A second argument takes exactly the opposite approach, blaming the America’s corporate religiosity as an anchor that is preventing the nation from progressing.

Douthat offers an alternative view.  “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it,” he says.  “It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities in its place.”


NOTE: What follows is a long, drawn-out parsing of the many themes apparent in Douthat’s book.  If you would prefer to just jump to the end to see what this reviewer thinks of said book, click here.


From this jumping-off point, Douthat takes an historical look back at how the United States arrived at its current state.  Beginning with the close of World War II, he describes a period of unprecedented growth across four very different Christian traditions, and how those four traditions, while remaining distinct (and even somewhat distrustful of each other), helped to establish a “Christian center” that was able to engage in modern thought, culture, and politics. Douthat highlights a particular public figure (Reinhold Niebuhr for mainline Protestantism, Bishop Fulton Sheen for Roman Catholicism, Billy Graham for evangelicals, and Martin Luther King, Jr. for black Protestants) that represents the zeitgeist for each of these traditions.

These halcyon days came to a conclusion in the mid-1960s.  The deaths of President Kennedy and Pope John XXIII in 1964, followed a few years later by King’s assassination and the growing political and social upheavals of the period tempered enthusiasm for religion.  Despite the population growth spurred by the “baby boom,” established churches began to see attendance decline.  Even those who continued to attend services and affiliate with their churches found denominations that seemed less powerful and influential than a generation before.

But even as traditional church bodies began to decline, the United States remained a religious nation.  However, as churches struggled to stay relevant to the culture, the door was opened for new ways to explore these ideas, free from the teachings and dogmas of more-structured religion.  The complicated and confusing paradoxes of orthodox (small “o”) Christianity were jettisoned for more self-affirming, inwardly-focused ways to interact with the divine.  A new era had begun, and the Church has yet to fully recover its position in American society.

Accommodation and Resistance
Douthat suggests that the established Church had two options to respond to its waning influence: to accommodate to the age, or to resist.

The accommodationists had the first crack at redefining Christianity.  Led by figures like Harvard professor Harvey Cox and Episcopal Bishop James Pike, the proponents of accommodation argued a social gospel where God worked through politics, and mankind responded in kind.  All human codes were subject to revision, lest they get in the way of God’s desire to unite all people.  The Church’s job, according to Cox, was “to discern where God’s reconciliation is breaking in and identify . . . with this action.”  Orthodoxy, Douthat says, “wasn’t officially abandoned; it was merely downgraded, declared optional, and generally ignored.”

The problem with such an accomodationist faith is, of course, that it is unnecessary.  One accommodation led to another, and then another.  The reality was that the accommodationists were making themselves irrelevant.  Denominations merged, yet continued their swift decline into oblivion.  Douthat summarizes:

[Accommodationist] pastors and theologians had recognized, correctly, that the old foundations of Christianity were being undercut by the social revolutions of their era.  Yet they had failed to identify any new foundation that could inspire real piety, real allegiance, real belief.

In response to accommodationism, a resistance movement began among social and theological conservatives across denominational lines.  Catholics and evangelicals, who had spent generations consigning each other to hell, joined together to forge “a common political and cultural agenda, which would seek ‘the legal protection of the unborn’ and defend the connection between ‘marriage, parenthood, and family’ while resisting euthanasia, eugenics, pornography, and other perceived threats to the American moral fabric.”

Despite the burgeoning partnership, there were cracks in the façade, and hints at what was to come.  Religious culture was responding to art and culture in society, rather than being the driving force it had been a generation before.  Even as church leaders trumpeted the importance of marriage and the family, parishioners were more closely reflecting their secular counterparts, with divorce rates quite similar to the culture at large.  Parachurch groups, while allowing Christians to mobilize for social, political, or evangelical purposes, also allowed them to disengage from the higher-level commitment to church bodies and teachings.  And, Douthat argues, the aligning of these groups unswervingly with a particular political ideology compromised the ability of this new alliance to enact the sweeping cultural change it had once envisioned.

The Age of Heresy
The decline of the institutional Church, Douthat argues, has created fertile ground for a number of different heresies that threaten to displace it from its once-unique role in American society.  While differing in their teachings and beliefs, each of these, he says, can be traced either to the accommodationist or resistance movements of the late 20th Century.

First, he examines the “historical Jesus” movement, represented by the likes of professors Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, the infamous “Jesus Seminar,” and popular author Dan Brown.  Drawing from the accommodationist movement, this group seeks to de-mystify Jesus, casting him as a non-divine social reformer, whose work and mission was greatly distorted by the Church over time, turning him into the “pious myth” taught by churches today.

Douthat exposes the selective  approach to scholarship taken by these and other accommodationists—the shoddy historicity, gigantic leaps of faith, and a general suppression of those biblical narratives that do match up with their social agenda.  Pagels in particular is taken to task for misreading and projecting her own objectives on the subjects of her studies, while Brown is chastised for his creative doctoring of historical timelines in the name of “artistic license.”

The second heresy Douthat examines is the “prosperity gospel” movement, represented by Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, and Benny Hinn.  While superficially very different than that of the “historical Jesus” approach, Douthat points out a critique common to both:

Like most heresies, [prosperity gospel] resolves one of orthodoxy’s tensions by emphasizing one part of Christian doctrine—in this case, the idea that the things of this life are gifts from the Creator, rather than simply snares to be avoided, and that Christians are expected to participate in the world rather than withdraw from it.  Then it effaces the harder teachings that traditionally balance it out.

While Osteen and his lot are an easy target for criticism, Douthat broadens his scope, including the likes of Christian financial advisor Larry Burkett, megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren, and others who encourage entrepreneurialism for the sake of “expanding the ministry.”  While allowing that these individuals generally oppose the prosperity teachings of the Osteens of the world, and that they are often quite generous with their earnings, Douthat warns that their expansionism could be dangerous in the wrong hands, and that such an approach “carries a whiff of late medieval Catholicism’s blithe and foolhardy assumption that even the most worldly ways of living and thinking can be turned to Christian ends. … [which] doesn’t always leave much space for more radical religious gestures and more ascetic ways of faith.”

Next, Douthat examines the “God Within” movement, characterized by Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, and author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love).  Those who ascribe to this movement see religion as a smorgasbord of options, to take and choose those elements that appeal, while rejecting those teachings that don’t. A certain panentheism is evident in such a theology, with the idea that God exists in and around everything, but is best realized through introspection and meditation.

Douthat likens God Within theology with the Deism popular among 18th Century intellectuals, with a distinction.  While both serve to depersonalize God, the Deist approach made God distant and unknowable.  To the God Within followers, this God is as close as our own thoughts and feelings.  Dogmas and doctrines are subservient to experience, and subject to change.

Nowhere is the creed of the God Within more accepted than among American teenagers.  Teenage morality is boiled down to an obligation to “feel good about oneself,” with one central ethical commandment: “Just don’t be an **shole.”  The result is increased narcissism, with a corresponding reduction in empathy.  “The triumph of the therapeutic,” Douthat says, “has steadily undercut American religion’s abillity to serve as a corrective or a critique [of materialistic society].”

The final heresy examined is that of American exceptionalism—the idea of the “shining city on the hill,” imbued by God with a divine calling.  Douthat identifies former Fox News commentator Glenn Beck as a chief proponent of this approach, but also notes that such an exceptionalism has been embraced by both the political right and the political left for their own purposes.

Douthat acknowledges that exceptionalism, if not taken to an extreme, can be wholly compatible with orthodox Christian teaching.  Such a teaching, though, ought to be sure that its claims serve to call the nation to live up to its high ideals—a “provisional exceptionalism . . . open to correction and surprise”—and not simply to assert a special favor from the Almighty

Douthat warns against two different forms of nationalism: a messianism that views liberal democracy as a sort of religion, capable of redemptive work usually reserved for the Church; and apocalyptism that sees the waning of the American ideal as eschatological.  Typically, he says, the party in power tends toward a messianic approach, while those in the minority tend toward an apocalyptic interpretation of events.

Although Douthat admits to writing the book “in a spirit of pessimism,” he manages to propose a number potential ways for classical Christianity to recover its footing in American society.  Perhaps a postmodernist revival in the church will help to stir a new fervor and present the Gospel in a way that is more accessible to a growing, unchurched populace.  Maybe a dormant period where the church attends to its own failings and strengthens its doctrines will lead to a new renaissance in the future.  Or perhaps revival comes from outside the United States, as the Church in this country gains vitality as it partners with growing church bodies in Asia, Africa, and South America.  Douthat stops short of saying that he believes any of these approaches will in actuality renew the Church in America, but instead encourages Christians to live a Christian life, “not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself,” and urges non-Christians to take the time to examine the Source of faith.

Bad Religion is not a flawless book. Douthat at times oversimplifies large groups of religious adherents to allow them to cleanly fit into his established framework. He misses an opportunity to examine the “emergent church” in any significant depth, referencing it only in passing in the concluding chapter, and he fails to acknowledge the significant role the Institute on Religion and Democracy (my former employer) played in responding to the accommodationist movement beginning in the early 1980s (although central IRD figures like Thomas Oden, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak are cited fairly extensively).

Despite these shortcomings, Douthat has written a book that is a must-read primer for anyone who wants to understand how Christianity and American culture affect one another, both for good and for ill.  It is a worthy successor to Neuhaus’ seminal work, The Naked Public Square, and certain to be the starting point for many future discussions on Church renewal.

In his conclusion, Douthat suggests four marks that would identify a vibrant, modern Church.  He says a healthy, engaged Christianity should be political without being partisan, ecumenical but also confessional, moralistic but also holistic, and oriented toward sanctity and beauty.  Exactly how these balances are meant to be struck is left to the reader.  The author does not imply such identification will be easily obtained.  Indeed, it precisely this kind of struggle with the paradoxes and apparent contradictions in Scripture that gave the ancient Church its vitality.  A new wrestling with the core doctrines of the Faith and their applications to modern culture could be exactly the key to a renewed cultural relevance.

There are no easy answers to the challenges facing the Church today.  More precisely, there are no good easy answers to these challenges.  Indeed, it is the “easy” answers that produced the various heresies that now plague orthodox Christianity.  It is the tough answers—and the continued guidance and protection God offers His Church through the Holy Spirit—that will lead to its renewal.


Author: Steve Rempe

Christian. Husband. Dad. Bengal fan. (Pretty much in that order.)

One thought on “Book Review – Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”

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