In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat proposes that the religious predicament America is facing today is not one of too much religion or too little religion; but rather, he provocatively argues, we are facing the problem of bad religion, of being a nation of heretics:
“America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place. Since the 1960’s, the institutions that sustained orthodox Christian belief – Catholic and Protestant alike – have entered a state of near-terminal decline.” (page 3)
In the Beginning, It Was Good. (Or, That’s What Douthat Argues.)
Douthat begins by assessing the religious foundation of our nation. His thesis is that in the middle of the twentieth century, American Christianity departed from orthodoxy, and has gradually embraced heresy, not even recognizing the shift.
I believe the book’s main weakness is found in this section. Lamentably, Douthat seems to oversimplify and accept a slightly, albeit merely mildly, romanticized view of the religious founders and the spiritual foundation of America. In one instance, he criticized the African American religious culture for remaining separate from denominations, purporting such isolated to be self-imposed. (Of course, there weren’t really alternatives since they weren’t allowed to in white churches, denominations, or seminaries.) I felt this (and other similar examples) to be a weak aspect of the book, but certainly not enough to hinder the overall message and powerful impact of the book. Douthat’s presuppositions of the hearty religious beliefs of our founding fathers often colors his idealizing some our national religious history; at the same time, he does make time to point out that he recognizes orthodoxy was not always in perfect even then.
The book dovetails nicely with Stephen J. Nichol’s critique of American Christianity in Jesus Made in America (my review here). However, Nichols pinpoints America’s spiritual decline as early as a couple of centuries prior to Douthat’s: to Nichols, the glory of America’s religious age was the Puritan Era; to Douthat, orthodoxy flowed freely until the middle half of the twentieth century.
The first portion of the book examines the spiritual climate and changes that have taken place over the last century. Such changes, Douthat argues, set the stage for the rise of heresy in American Christianity. The second half of the book looks at the four main heresies that Douthat believes now comprise America’s brand of Christianity.
The Four Heresies
Heresy is a flamboyant word, but in reality, it is its subtleness that allows it to develop in the first place.
As Douthat writes, “The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.”
Theologian John Stott proffered this bit of wisdom on the subject, “Every heresy is due to an overemphasis upon some truth, without allowing other truths to qualify and balance it.”
1. Gnosticsm: The Religion of Knowledge
Gnosticism readily seeks to untie Christianity’s many paradoxes, doing so under the guise of intellect. In our American Gnostic heresy, we’ve sought to take the supernatural out of Jesus and make him into our own “Jesus, made in America.” Although gnosticism made advances on the fringes through our theological seminaries and scholars since America’s beginning, Douthat theorizes that works such as Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code and others are what spread this form of heresy to the masses.
2. The God Within
This is America’s idol of self-discovery–finding in ourselves what we are meant to be spiritually, mystically, religiously; making God into what we conceive Him to be. This is the religion of Eat, Pray, Love, of The Oprah Winfrey Show, or Deepak Chopra.
3. The Heresy of the Prosperity Gospel
Joel Osteen, is, of course, the whipping boy for the prosperity Gospel. Many of us automatically say the words “prosperity Gospel” as if it is the continuation of Osteen’s name, yet without really giving deep thought to what the various outworkings of “prosperity Gospel” may mean practically.
The teachings of men like Osteen and Creflo Dollar are indeed a part of the prosperity Gospel, but as with all heresies, it often comes in more mild forms than the easily detected “love Jesus, make millions.” As Wendy Alsup points out, there is also “The Prosperity Gospel of Conservative Evangelicals.” In this brief article, Alsup asserts that “our downfall in evangelical circles is that we feel we have to attach an expectation of good earthly outcome to these instructions if we want anyone to obey them.”
4. The Heresy of Nationalism
Perhaps the most widespread and most pernicious heresy is the heresy of nationalism.
The heresy of nationalism is surprisingly bipartisan in its existence, although the outworkings are dramatically different for either side. For both hardcore political liberals and conservatives, when nationalism becomes the religion du jour, it has a messianic and apocalyptic slant, depending on who is in office, who is running for office, or whatever other political uprisings may be occurring.
As Branson Parlor wrote in a Think Christian article, “[T]he heresy of nationalism or civil religion is not a fringe position, but a standard creed of American Christians, whether Democrats or Republicans, mainline or evangelical. American civil religion is dangerous precisely because it perpetually invokes Biblical language to give legitimacy to non-Biblical actions or policies. Nationalism in this sense is not simply an individual’s misguided view of the nation, but a structural feature of American political life. Thus, even well-intentioned individuals can end up participating in this problematic worldview.”
Douthat frequently remonstrates the conservative flavor of nationalism promoted by talk-show hosts such as Glenn Beck, the right-wing Mormon who infamously urged listeners to leave churches that promoted or used the term “social justice.” Douthat points to the example of Beck’s misguided understanding of social justice, while also pointing out how misguided Beck’s understanding of church history and tradition is, ironically displayed in a discussion Beck gave about “teaching our children divine truth,” yet himself conveying inaccurate information about church history and The Dead Sea Scrolls.
While many conservatives would even consider Beck an extreme on the talk-radio circuit, Douthat hits closer to home for many conservative Evangelicals (including Independent Fundamentalists in this umbrella-term) by addressing David Barton’s brand of nationalism: “Skousen and Beck can sound a lot like David Barton, the prolific amateur historian whose books and pamphlets have persuaded many Evangelicals that the American Founders had the divine mandate of King David and the politics of a contemporary Tea Partier.”
Often, Americans have so deeply wed their politics and religion that they become confused as to which is which. Such unity may be great for a marriage, but not for theology or politics. Far worse, we pull out politics and presume it is our Gospel–herein is the ultimate heresy of nationalism.
This goes well with what Irish theologian Alistair McGrath wrote in Christian Theology: “It may seem to be little more than stating a self-evident fact to say that Christianity often unconsciously absorbs ideas and values from its cultural backdrop. Yet that observation is enormously important. It points to the fact that there is a provisional or conditional element to Christian theology, which is not necessitate by or implied in its foundational resources. In other words, certain ideas which have been regarded as Christian ideas may turn out to be ideas imported from a secular context.”
These heresies are subtle, and most are held by those who identify as believers. As Douthat shares about writing this book, “The heretics I write about aren’t detached completely from Christianity. Some of them identify as Christians and like the idea of identifying with Jesus. But they aren’t interested in sustaining any historic Christian tradition or church apart from their own ministry.”
Written from the perspective of a doctrinally conservative Catholic, Douthat’s view of “good religion” is the umbrella scope of orthodox Christianity from which both Protestantism and Catholicism flow. Here, he believes we have lost our way from the traditions and creeds of the Church. By traditions, he is not referring to the cultural or small church traditions of American Christianity–those are relatively young–but to the church tradition and creeds that have been proved over millennia.
As a Catholic, he does not dance around the issues and the problems that the American Catholic church has had to deal with, either. He is open and forthright about many of the scandals and even offers thoughts as to why he believes they occurred.
Douthat believes that there is still time for an America re-embrace of orthodoxy–a Christian renaissance of sorts, while at the same time admitting that there has not, and will not be, a perfect “golden age” of the Church.
During my reading, I often found myself surprised that Douthat was not writing as an Evangelical. His grasp of many of the subcultural nuances was not lacking. I did find it interesting to note that in his teens, Douthat converted to Pentecostalism, and only later to Catholicism. Douthat also gives acknowledgement to the work that Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian are doing in New York City, noting them as one of the few contemporary, well-known Evangelical ministries which Douthat believes has managed to avoid entangling their ministry with these four heresies.
Far more than these 1600 words can convey, this book delves deeply into the ways American Christians have allowed their message to be undermined by embracing nationalism as their faith. (And to counter potential pushback, Douthat is not arguing that Christians should entirely remove themselves from any politics.) Even while this book shares a powerful message, it is likely that many will read with a nod to the book’s message, but while simultaneously entering into a state of cognitive dissonance.
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