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Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
by Ross Douthat
Free Press, 2012
(340 pages, $26.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Leon J. Podles
I grew up in 1950s Catholicism, which had its elements of narrowness and blandness, but functioned well. The experts at the Second Vatican Council, however, falsely assumed that Catholics had internalized the doctrines of the Church and could respond to the new opportunities the council created in ecumenism, the vernacular liturgy, and lay responsibility. So instead of evangelizing the world, Catholics were quickly becoming disevangelized by the world.
Even when they maintained belief in doctrines that did not affect their everyday lives—such as the Trinity and the Real Presence—they quickly assimilated the attitude of the world toward sex and material prosperity. Not only did they sin (which was nothing new), but they did not even think what they did was sinning. Especially on matters of sex, they assumed that the church was wrong and the world was right.
The middle management (the lower clergy and the religious orders) of the Catholic Church steadily maintained a critical attitude toward the doctrines propagated by the Vatican. In fact, firm acceptance of Catholic moral teaching was usually a disqualification for ordination, teaching, or chancery positions. Even now, New Age spiritualities are taught in retreat centers, and Catholics get their interpretation of Opus Dei from The Da Vinci Code.
The rejection of the Christian teaching on homosexuality is an especially serious symptom of the malaise, as it attacks the doctrine of God as Creator. The special significance and importance of procreation in Judaism are closely connected to the doctrine of creation, and this doctrine is at the root of the Old Testament's condemnation of homosexual actions, a condemnation that Paul reaffirms. Liberalized Christians should ask themselves if they are indeed living the same gospel that Paul preached, or whether they have substituted another for it. Is the God such Christians are worshiping really the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Jesus Christ?
The Emergence of Heresies
Ross Douthat has observed the decline of Christian orthodoxy in America, and his thesis in Bad Religion is simple: although the United States remains a religious nation, the religions that are flourishing are Christian heresies. Douthat uses Alister McGrath's definition of heresy, which is "best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith" (Bad Religion, 9). Douthat also largely concurs with Chesterton's view of heretics as simplifiers who want to resolve the paradoxes and tensions of Christianity by discarding or distorting a key element in the Christian synthesis.
He notes that America's freedom of religion has always provided fertile ground for heresies, but also for vigorous forms of orthodox Christianity, of "mere Christianity" in C. S. Lewis's phrase. Orthodox Christianity was strong in the America of the 1950s. Churches were flourishing; popular figures like Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen preached the gospel; intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic—Niebuhr, Barth, Congar, Gilson—provided Christianity with intellectual energy.
The 1960s, however, saw a rapid decline of orthodox Christianity, in large part because of the sexual revolution. Religion did not, however, go away; instead, Douthat observes, it has manifested an increasing tendency to go bad. Accommodationists of different stripes want to conform the church to the world as much as possible, and have done so with appalling success. The church had to follow fashion: in 1965, Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City for technocratic rationalists; four years later, when the Age of Aquarius came, he wrote The Feast of Fools: Whirl is King.
The intellectual underpinnings of Christianity are attacked by those who see orthodox Christianity as merely the outcome of power struggles in the early Church. The Jesus Seminar voted on what words of Jesus were authentic (very few, they opined). Elaine Pagels claimed the Gnostic Gospels as legitimate variants of Christianity. But by discrediting Christian orthodoxy, intellectuals like these inadvertently open the way for popular forms of bad religion which they themselves find appalling.
Douthat reminds his readers that those who worship the God Within—who believe that all organized religions offer only partial glimpses of the God or Light or Being that all of them pursue, and that the truly spiritually adept must seek to experience God through feeling rather than reason, experience rather than dogmas, a direct encounter rather than a hand-me-down revelation—have long prospered in America. But, as church authorities have known for centuries, experiential religion, uncontrolled by public doctrine, leads to irresponsible and immoral behavior. To this Douthat adds critiques of the enormously popular preachers of health and wealth, and of American exceptionalism.
Call to Commitment
The responses to Bad Religion have been almost as interesting as the book itself, though some evoke the question of whether the critic has actually read it. Michael Shawn Winter, for example, castigates Douthat for praising Michael Novak, whom Douthat in fact roundly criticizes. Peter Steinfels, who represents the moderate accommodationism of Commonweal, dismisses Bad Religion as "simplistic and misleading" because its author fails to see that Christians like Steinfels are really trying to engage the culture rather than simply accommodate it.
In the end Douthat calls the reader to the personal commitment to God that must be at the root of any true renewal of religion, admitting that others could use the same facts of American history to tell a different story. In my own experience, however, his analysis rings true. •
Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and has worked as a teacher and a federal investigator. He is the author of The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity and the forthcoming License to Sin (both from Spence Publishing). Dr. Podles and his wife have six children and live in Naples, Florida. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.