I recently read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and thought that it might be an idea to say something about it. I hadn’t intended reading it as the nation referred to in the subtitle is the U.S.A. and I tend to get irritated at the way American concerns dominate so many conversations. However, when a (South African) friend started posting quotes from it on Facebook, my interest was piqued and I realised that America has, after all, been exporting its bad religion around the world for a long time now. Or, perhaps more responsibly said, that the societal forces that give rise to developments in American religion are also present elsewhere, although the details, and even some of the trends, may vary. One of the key questions in my mind as I read the book was how what Douthat describes both does and does not relate to South Africa.

Douthat’s fundamental thesis is that, far from becoming a secular society, America is still a nation obsessed with religion. He argues that the problem is neither that its society is becoming irreligious, as the Christian right would have one believe, or that it is too religious, as the secular left would have one belief. Rather, the problem is that the last fifty years have seen the weakening of a broadly based Christian orthodoxy and the rise of “destructive pseudo-Christianities” as the institutions that sustained Christian belief have declined, giving way to a do-it-yourself religion on both the left and the right.

Douthat begins by describing the “lost world” of a broadly based Christian orthodoxy had seemed resurgent in the mid-twentieth century and that encompassed mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics and African-American Christianity, as personified by Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King. Despite their differences, they represented a unifying force that provided a positive contribution to society and spoke with real moral authority, notably with regard to the civil rights movement. However, that authority was eroded and undermined as both mainstream Protestant and Catholic Churches entered a period of decline in the 1960s, and, while Evangelicals and Pentecostals showed some growth, they tended to become aligned with conservative politics and were not immune to heretical influences.

The social forces that accompanied this decline, including the sexual revolution, the impact of non-western religions and ideas, and an increased affluence which prioritized material wealth, deserve a far broader discussion. However, the end result was an accommodation to the spirit of the age that took different forms, from the wilder excesses of the Episcopalian Bishop Pike to, for example, the widespread acceptance of feminist thinking in religious institutions. This generated a reaction which was associated among Catholics with the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and among Evangelicals with the growth of the religious right, but which also led to a growing co-operation between these two groups. However, “Like the accomodationists before them, the resistance project assumed that Christianity’s chief peril was growing unbelief, when the greater peril was really rival religious beliefs – pseudo-Christian and heretical”. (131) And the growing identification among Evangelicals and conservative Catholics of Christian orthodoxy with political conservatism was to prove just as damaging as when the liberal Christians placed ideology above theology in the 1970s.

In the second part of the book Douthat outlines various aspects of this “Age of Heresy.” He starts with the way in which alternative readings of Christian origins have now become fashionably mainstream. The quest for the historical Jesus – whether propogated by the Jesus seminar or Dan Brown – has effectively meant that the Christ of orthodox Christianity has been replaced in the popular imagination by a fictitious figure whom anyone can make up at will.

Douthat then turns his attention to the “Pray and Grow Rich” phenomenon in which shameless televangelists have built enormous industries by peddling heresies that effectively serve to neutralize Christianity’s inherent wariness of the values of capitalist competition. This development has led to business models replacing the “lilies of the valley” approach to fundraising with big-budget megachurches and parachurch organizations. While Catholicism had had an inbuilt resistance to such trends with both its emphasis on personal asceticism and social solidarity, this has been undercut by the decline of religious vocations and the ascetical ideal, and by the way Catholic neoconservatives have challenged Catholic social teaching by embracing the values of extreme capitalist individualism.

The more liberal mirror image of this prosperity gospel can be found in what Douthat terms the “God Within” movement which is the broadly New Age-ish “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon. He introduces this chapter by looking at the popularity of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love with its message of eclectic self-fulfillment and subjective do-it-yourself spirituality. While the prosperity gospel makes God one’s broker, the God-within movement makes him one’s shrink. Nevertheless it remains firmly within a consumerist approach to religion, mixing and matching at will but ultimately leading to a pantheistic approach to religion that ends up deifying our own desires.

Douthat then turns his attention to what he terms “The City on the Hill” phenomenon. Beginning with the populism of Glenn Beck, he looks at the phenomenon of American exceptionalism and the dangers associated with a tribal deity. He also looks at the twin dangers of messianism and apocalypticism that are associated with progressivism and conservatism respectively, although he argues that both messianism and apocalyptism are now to be found in both of the country’s political alliances. Moreover, the polarized nature of the political landscape has made it difficult for Christian leaders to take a moral stand on any issue that isn’t straightforwardly partisan, and when they do they are routinely ignored by their flock, indicating the declining influence of religious institutions in public life.

The concluding chapter of the book is entitled “The Recovery of Christianity.” After painting a bleak picture, Douthat notes that one cannot view such a recovery as inevitable, although there are historical precedents that could make it possible. He then outlines four potential touchstones for such a recovery of Christianity. The first is the hope that the very postmodern rootlessness and relativism may in fact inspire a renewed search for truth, something that can (perhaps) be seen in movements like radical orthodoxy and the emergent church. The second is a focus on smaller groups of highly committed and somewhat separatist believers who sustain and pass on faith in a hostile environment in the same way that Benedictine monasticism did during the decline of the Roman Empire. The third is the hope that contemporary migration patterns may mean that Christians from the Third World will re-evangelize the West, although Douthat is quick to note that Third World Christians are not immune to the influence of bad religion. And, fourthly, there is the hope that the present economic crisis might diminish expectations and lead to soul searching on the bad theology that has contributed to it. For, what is ultimately needed is both a more rigorous and a more humble form of Christian faith. Such a faith would be political without being partisan and would remain critical of all policies when necessary. It would be ecumenical but also confessional, retaining the distinctiveness and claims to truth of different traditions. It would be moralistic but also holistic, not watering down traditional Christian morality but also not simply focusing on hot-button and politicized issues, and demanding consistency across a spectrum of issues. It would, finally, be orientated to sanctity and beauty. For, as Joseph Ratzinger noted, “The only effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”

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I’ve effectively just summarized Douthat and this is already a very long post but is nevertheless a rather fleeting summary and doesn’t begin to engage the issues. There are details that I might quibble, American discussions that I find too remote to get really interested in, and elements that I would like to pursue further. So I’m going to post this as is, and hopefully come back to it to pick up on issues that seem important to me, and hopefully also think some more about the similarities and difference to our South African context.

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