Douthat on heresy and the failure of Christianity in America

Christianity Today has a wide-ranging interview with Ross Douthat about his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press). Here are a couple of excerpts: 

Douthat has taken his own personal tour of American Christianity: he was baptized Episcopalian, attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches as a child, and converted to Catholicism at age 17. He argues that prosperity preachers, self-esteem gurus, and politics operating as religion contribute to the contemporary decline of America. CT spoke with Douthat about America’s decline from a vigorous faith, modern heretics, and why we need a revival of traditional Christianity.

What do you mean when you say we’re facing the threat of heresy?

I try to use an ecumenical definition, starting with what I see as the theological common ground shared by my own Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations. Then I look at forms of American religion that are influenced by Christianity, but depart in some significant way from this consensus. It’s a C. S. Lewisian, Mere Christianity definition of orthodoxy or heresy. I’m trying to look at the ways the American religion today departs from theological and moral premises that traditional Protestants and Catholics have in common.

How did America become a nation of heretics?

We’ve always been a nation of heretics. Heresy used to be constrained and balanced by institutional Christianity to a far greater extent than it is today. What’s unique about our religious moment is not the movements and currents such as the “lost gospel” industry, the world of prosperity preaching, the kind of therapeutic religion that you get from someone like Oprah Winfrey, or various highly politicized forms of faith. What’s new is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response. There were prosperity preachers and therapeutic religion in the 1940s and ’50s—think of bestsellers like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking—but there was also a much more robust Christian center.

The Protestant and Catholic churches that made a real effort to root their doctrine and practice in historic Christianity were vastly stronger than they are today. Even someone who was dabbling in what I call heresy was also more likely to have something in his religious life—some institutional or confessional pressure—tugging him back toward a more traditional faith. The influence of heretics has been magnified by the decline of orthodox Christianity. …

How can we begin to address a nation of heretics?

There has been much healthy Catholic and Protestant dialogue and cooperation during the past 30 years. But ultimately the success of U.S. Christianity depends on individual churches and confessions, not on ecumenism for ecumenism’s sake. Protestants and Catholics need to recognize everything we have in common and then say we’re also going to focus on building separate effective churches.

Christianity’s failure in the United States is an institutional failure, and the answer to institutional failure is stronger institutions. America has more to gain from a more potent Protestantism and Catholicism than it does from even the most fruitful Protestant-Catholic dialogue.

For evangelicals, it means thinking more seriously about ecclesiology and what it will take to sustain Christianity across generations. Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade for Christ, and other parachurch groups have been important to evangelicalism. But “parachurch” makes sense over the long term in the context of a church. The danger for evangelicalism is becoming too parachurch without enough church. Some megachurches seem to function like parachurches rather than churches, as though everything else that’s going on is more important than the central life of the community of worship. It might be important for evangelicals to think of themselves as Presbyterians, Baptists, and so on, and recover the virtues of confessionalism, because it’s confessions, not just superstar pastors, that sustain Christianity over the long haul. 

Catholic World Report will be reviewing Douthat’s new book in the near future.. Along similar lines, CWR will also be posting a review of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard University Press, 2012), by Dr. Brad S. Gregory.


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About Carl E. Olson 1138 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.