- - Friday, May 18, 2012

By Ross Douthat
Free Press, $26 352 pages

If you put a piece of duct tape over Ross Douthat’s name on the dust jacket, the content of “Bad Religion,” subtitled “How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” would surprise you as a far more cerebral and introspective work than could be expected from the “America-has-turned-its-back-on-God” genre. It is a theme done often, and generally not well, usually reserved for more bombastic and less nuanced observers of culture.

On the other hand, in today’s intellectual climate of “nonjudgmentalism,” the word “heresy” has increasingly represented a cruelly sectarian defiance of moral relativism’s own sacred dogma, tolerance. Would “Bad Religion” actually take some stances that might not play so well among the readership of Mr. Douthat’s full-time employer, the New York Times?

As it turns out, “Bad Religion” is a superb documentation of America’s crisis of faith, and a persuasive apology for the restoration of Christian orthodoxy in America. Mr. Douthat theorizes that the cause of America’s economic, political and moral slump has been a societal departure from our Christian roots, but the cause hasn’t been the fashionable atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

The real corrosive forces are unbiblical and self-serving influences within Christianity itself: “prosperity Gospel” preachers (a la Joel Osteen); Christological revisionists in the professoriate and the media; anodyne “spiritualists” like Oprah and Deepak Chopra; and ideologues who have wrongly appropriated Christianity for political ends (on both the left and the right).

The result is an America that is not looking for spiritual transcendence in orthodox forms of Christianity the way it historically has tended to do, producing a nation more self-abased in governance and cultural life than the American experiment can handle.

Engaging an impressive amount of scholarship, the first two chapters are an erudite study of a century of American Protestant and Catholic history, with Mr. Douthat persuasively explaining how the carnage of World War II drove Americans to Christianity during the postwar years, only to have many Protestant and Catholic congregations succumb to the political and social liberalism of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Faithful churches became ones that rejected the divinity of Christ, ordained homosexuals and sermonized on redistributive economics. But paradoxically, says Mr. Douthat, “the more the accommodationists emptied Christianity of anything that might offend the sensibilities of a changing country, the more they lost the sense that what they were engaged in really mattered, or was really, truly, true.” (Emphasis Mr. Douthat’s).

In lock step with the accommodationists are the Dan (“The DaVinci Code”) Browns and Bart (“Misquoting Jesus”) Ehrmans of the world, who prioritize a “hermeneutic of suspicion” in their deconstructionist scholarship of Jesus and Christianity.

Yet where theologically liberal mainline Protestant and Catholic churches withered, a general culture of individualistic spirituality has flowered: Eastern mysticism, the New Age movement, Timothy Leary and the “turn on, tune in, drop out” ethic of hallucinogenic drugs.

This individualism enjoys popularity today in the “God Within” theology of Oprah or Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”), whose general theology that “God dwells within you as yourself, exactly the way you are” can, according to Mr. Douthat, “provoke a somewhat blase attitude toward sin and wickedness, and a dismissive attitude toward ordinary moral duties.” To that effect, Mr. Douthat cites rising rates of self-help counseling, divorce and single parentage.

Mr. Douthat also lofts unsparing criticism at America’s prosperity preachers, exposing the Osteens of the country as charlatans who convince their flocks that God is above all else a source of material comfort in this life. The danger in this is that “Christianity risks becoming an appendage to Americanism - a useful metaphysical thread for a society’s social fabric.”

In one of the most trenchant observations of the book, Mr. Douthat notes that the places where “prosperity Gospel” churches are most popular are also the regions of the country with the highest number of foreclosed and underwater mortgages.

Yet Mr. Douthat is also critical of orthodoxy’s failures to combat the growth of heresies, in particular an inability to penetrate the cultural high ground that men like W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot and Fulton Sheen enjoyed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when their Christian witness was visible to all. Later, when evangelicalism did carve out its own space in the world of pop culture and the creative arts, Mr. Douthat claims it “still felt ingenuous and tacky … geared to an undemanding audience and easily dismissed by anyone outside the circle of devout … much of it was theologically embarrassing.”

Moreover, Mr. Douthat takes Christians to task for overidentifying faith with Republican politics, observing that the Bush years exposed “the limits of winning elections as a means to achieving religious and cultural change” and that in the ‘90s and 2000s, “the witness of evangelicals was undercut by the association of Christianity with ideological conservatism, and by the widespread sense that the evangelical communion was really just the Republican Party at prayer.”

From a Catholic or (as I have) evangelical perspective, it could be easy to discount the assertions of “Bad Religion” on the trajectory of American Christianity, not because they are inaccurate (they are spot-on), but because they never ascribe the change, rise or decline American orthodoxy to transcendent forces, such as the sovereignty of God in human affairs, or the regnant sinfulness that the Bible insists permeates every aspect of human life.

But Mr. Douthat’s approach proves useful in the worth of “Bad Religion” as Christian apology. Any book that postulates a biblical theology alone to explain the socio-historical decline of orthodoxy will probably have difficulty affecting the intellectual sensibilities of the major prospective audience of “Bad Religion”: the thinking classes of Manhattan and Washington.

The carefully reasoned and documented critiques in “Bad Religion” of America’s heretical Christian practices bespeak an honesty that deftly serves its goal: “to persuade even the most skeptical reader that traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would have it believe.”

• David Wilezol is a producer for “Morning in America,” a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

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