.- Are Americans actually trading in faith for a more secular outlook? Or is the country's religious center merely shifting â toward a array of sects, visionaries, charismatic leaders and unorthodox doctrines?
In his new book âBad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Hereticsâ (Free Press, $26.00), New York Times author and Catholic convert Ross Douthat argues that churches, and society as a whole, are imperiled by belief systems that draw from the Christian Gospel while seriously distorting it.
âI use the term 'heresy' because the reality I'm trying to capture is a country, the United States, that is still more influenced by Christianity than by any other religious tradition, and that is certainly still in many ways as 'religious' as ever,â Douthat told CNA in an April 30 interview.
âI look at the United States and I don't think it makes sense to call us a secular country, or even a 'post-Christian' country. The controlling religious narrative of American life is still, in some sense, the Christian narrative.â
From the success of âThe Da Vinci Code,â to the publicity over alleged âlost Gospels,â Americans are âstill fascinated by Jesus,â Douthat said. âBut at the same time, we are a culture where traditional Christianity is weaker than ever before, both Catholic and Protestant.â
A ânation of hereticsâ is Douthat's term for a country that is âsomewhere in betweenâ â having âdrifted away from things that are essential to Christian faith,â while maintaining select portions of a Christian cultural inheritance.
Rather than denying God outright, the new âheresiesâ detailed in âBad Religionâ radically reinterpret his relationship to human beings. God becomes the guarantor of âhealth and wealthâ promised by some televangelists â or the permissive inner voice of those who are âspiritual, not religious.â
In Douthat's ânation of heretics,â Jesus remains at the center of attention, but no longer as the divine-human redeemer described in the Nicene Creed. Instead, he may be a political icon of âAmerican exceptionalism,â or a teacher of wisdom who takes his place alongside the founders of other religions.
Historically, America's lack of an established state religion has always made it a fertile ground for sectarians and fringe denominations. But Douthat says contemporary America faces problems not seen before.
âWhat's distinctive about our era,â he explained, âis the weakness of an institutional alternative to people just taking some Christian ideas and running with them in whatever direction they want.â
The first part of âBad Religionâ looks back to the post-World War II period in the United States, a time when Christian institutions had greater cultural clout and were more reliably orthodox. Figures like Billy Graham, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr. made important contributions to American life from a Christian perspective.
But factors like globalization and the 1960s sexual revolution shattered this religious and cultural consensus. Mainline Protestantism largely surrendered to the changing culture, while Catholics spent decades embroiled in battles over the Church's teaching authority.
Where mainstream religious institutions withdrew and weakened, heresies stepped in to fill the vacuum. The result is today's plethora of prosperity-preachers, political saviors, Jesus-revisionists, and New Age proponents of the âgod within.â
In the tradition of writers like G.K. Chesterton, Douthat suggests that these heretical beliefs take particular aspects of Church teaching â like Jesus' mercy toward sinners, or God's presence in nature â and sever them from other doctrines that provide nuance and balance.
âThe core of Christian faith has always emphasized the importance of mystery and paradox, and of being willing to say 'both/and' rather than 'either/or' â that God is three and one, that Jesus is God and man, and so on,â he explained.
âOne of the characteristics of Christian heresy is that it basically tries to be a little more 'logical.' It says, 'Let's clean up this mystery a little bit.' Instead of saying Jesus is fully God and fully man, we'll say he was a 'man who was particularly favored by God.'â
Modern heresies, Douthat says, take the same reductive route. Where Christian orthodoxy accepts the legitimacy of patriotism in the service of the common good, heresy hints at a religious covenant between the Founding Fathers and God. Where the Church stresses God's providential care for believers, the âprosperity Gospelâ invents a God who promises real estate gains in exchange for faith.
âThe (heresies) I talk about are less likely to focus on the identity of Jesus himself or the nature of the Trinity,â Douthat noted, drawing a distinction with history's better-known religious errors. âThey're more likely to focus on ideas about sex, money, and what God wants of us in this life.â
In a February 2012 lecture at the Archdiocese of Denver, Douthat drew on theology and sociology in a critical analysis of Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir âEat Pray Love.â Traditional Christians, he said, should not simply dismiss such books, but should seek to grasp the appeal and premises of the âheresiesâ they promote.
âI think it's very important to take 'pop spirituality' seriously,â he told CNA. âWhatever you think of it, I think it's the most important form of religious expression in the United States today, and has the most influence over how people think about God and their relationships with one another.â
âIt's also worth taking seriously because there are powerful theological ideas at the root of even what seems like the shallowest and most glib treatment of religion â whether it's Joel Osteen or Oprah Winfrey.â
Such figures âaren't just sort of making vague appeals,â Douthat observed. âThey are making, implicitly or explicitly, theological arguments â about who is God, and what does he want from us â that people find appealing.â
Douthat's fellow Catholics, and other historically-rooted Christians, will likely agree with the diagnoses of doctrinal error in âBad Religion.â But the New York Times writer is not merely preaching to the choir.
He also wants to engage secular audiences, by arguing that Christian orthodoxy offers important benefits for culture and the common good. Likewise, Douthat maintains that heresy harms not only souls, but also families, communities, and society at large.
âIf Christian anthropology is true â the Christian view of what human beings are, what we're here on earth for, what our relationships should be to one another â then a more robust and culturally-influential Christian faith will make people, in some sense, 'happier,'â he said.
This kind of happiness, he qualifies, is not personal self-gratification, but authentic and shared âhuman flourishing.â While Douthat upholds Christian orthodoxy as an end in itself, he also argues for its contribution to the âordinary forms of human stability and well-being.â
âA flourishing society is a society that is recognizably successful â not just on a 'macro' level of achieving high growth rates, but in the sense of having robust institutions that people feel confident in, (or) having children growing up with a mother and a father,â he explained.
Douthat asserted that if âyou go back to the Roman Empire, and the early spread of Christianity, part of the reason the early Christians were such an appealing group is because they did, I think, manifest this reality.â
âChristians were more likely to take care of each other than pagan Romans, were more likely to seem charitable and look out for one another when a plague struck the city, and so on. They were happier in their marriages; they weren't asking women to expose their infants (to death).â
âThere are some definitions of human happiness and success that secular people and Christians can agree on,â Douthat said, summing up his appeal to skeptics and doubters.
While âBad Religionâ helps believers read the signs of the times, it is also meant to spark a new kind of conversation about Christianity's social role, and the problems posed by a ânation of heretics.â
âEven with the secular readers, I'm saying: 'Look, here are some of the social benefits associated with institutional Christianity that even secular people should be able to recognize. And here are trends that have been going on, concurrent with the decline of institutional Christianity, that even secular people should be worried about.â