Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
by Ross Douthat
Free Press (New York, 2012)
In a 2005 study conducted by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, they found that 97% of teenagers professed some sort of belief in the divine. 71% of those teenagers also agreed that they were “very” or “somewhat” close to God, and an overwhelming majority identified themselves as Christians. Contrary to public opinion—and the fear of many parents and churches around the nation—secularism does not appear on the rise in the United States. Celebration, however, would be premature. According to Ross Douthat, it’s not that we no longer have religion in this country. Instead, we have bad religion—which is the theme (and title) of Douthat’s latest book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.
For Douthat, the youngest ever New York Times op-ed columnist, “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it.” Bad religion, according to the author, is “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.” Chock full of telling anecdotes and history, Douthat surveys the rise and decline of mainline Protestantism in the United States, as well as the golden era of American Catholicism that reached its peak in the 1960’s. For Catholics and Protestants alike, much of the twentieth century was defined by an individual or a family’s commitment to their particular faith tradition, which had a core understanding of orthodox beliefs and practices, dubbed by the Anglican C.S. Lewis as a mere Christianity. The problem today, however, is that most Americans are losing that center.
Gone are the days when religious debates throughout the country were over Catholic belief in the real presence in the Eucharist or Southern Baptist condemnation of alcohol. Even more divisive topics like women’s ordination or the use of contraceptives within marriage have taken a back seat, while beliefs that were once considered to be at the very heart of Christianity and widely shared in all Christian traditions, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, a common understanding of sin, the need for constant repentance, and the hope of Heaven after death, are now largely questioned and viewed as irrelevant to our modern age.
Some may respond that Douthat is too pessimistic and argue that those embracing or promoting unorthodox beliefs are simply heretics. For Douthat, however, these heretics are becoming the new norm. Once upon a time in American Christianity, thinkers like Jacques Maritain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Henry Newman, Elizabeth Anscombe, and G.K. Chesterton were heralded as men and women who spoke and wrote with authority on matters related to Christian thought. They have now been replaced with figures like Benny Hinn, Oprah Winfrey, Dan Brown, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and Elaine Pagels and orthodox Christianity is being replaced by a do-it-yourself spirituality or therapeutic religion.
Consider, for example, the 2006 buzz around the Gnostic Gospel of Judas in which the National Geographic Society spent $1 million dollars to purchase the document and hundreds of thousands more in restoration and analysis or the over four million copies of Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now that have been sold. This interest in religion does not at all hint at secularization, but instead, a redefining of what Americans consider to be true religion. The success of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Glibert, which spent 187 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, is the brand of religion that Americans are now embracing. Gilbert, who divorced her husband, traveled the world, and supposedly found happiness by marrying a Brazilian man she met in Bali, has become a mouthpiece for religion in America today. In her book and other writings, she chronicles her quest to discover the God within, and encourages readers to “take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving to the light.”
Throughout Bad Religion, Douthat convincingly argues that Gilbert and others are not only changing the way Americans view religion, but they are also weakening the moral fiber of our country. Christianity and its teachings have long shaped the way in which Americans live their lives—from Christian sexual ethics that demand chastity and aim to uphold marriage and the family to Christian principles of virtue and charity that should transform the way Christians engage in business transactions, there has been a distinctively Christian approach to American public life that is now in jeopardy of being lost. The bad religion being taught by Osteen, Gilbert, and others, which emphasizes personal pleasure and happiness over adherence to moral norms and unchanging values, offers little to sustain families or communities—or even the individual.
In this new era, in which self-help has replaced self-sacrifice and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has supplanted T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, there is much work to be done if we are to reorient our country and ourselves. For Catholics, this is part of what both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI are calling for in the new evangelization—a renewed zeal for the faith and its witness to the world around us. The millions of dollars Americans spend on self-help books and therapy can all be found for free in the confessional at any Catholic Church.
As Douthat concludes in Bad Religion, anyone wanting to save their country should first be concerned with saving themselves. Americans looking to achieve personal success or greatness—or even simple happiness—would be wise to look to the saints who bear witness to lives of great heroism and virtue. The lives of these holy men and women remind us that it is a full, robust commitment to the faith that ultimately satisfies both our wants and our needs. Seeking first the kingdom of God will not only amount to satisfaction in this life, but also the hope of the world to come.