New book asks: Is US a 'nation of heretics?'

Ross Douthat Credit Josh Haner New York Times CNA US Catholic News 4 30 12 New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. | Josh Haner-New York Times.

Are Americans actually trading in faith for a more secular outlook? Or is the country's religious center merely shifting – toward a array of sects, visionaries, charismatic leaders and unorthodox doctrines?

In his new book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” (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.

“I 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,” Douthat told CNA in an April 30 interview.

“I 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.”

From the success of “The Da Vinci Code,” to the publicity over alleged “lost Gospels,” Americans are “still fascinated by Jesus,” Douthat said. “But at the same time, we are a culture where traditional Christianity is weaker than ever before, both Catholic and Protestant.”

A “nation of heretics” is Douthat's term for a country that is “somewhere in between” – having “drifted away from things that are essential to Christian faith,” while maintaining select portions of a Christian cultural inheritance.

Rather than denying God outright, the new “heresies” detailed in “Bad Religion” radically reinterpret his relationship to human beings. God becomes the guarantor of “health and wealth” promised by some televangelists – or the permissive inner voice of those who are “spiritual, not religious.”

In Douthat's “nation of heretics,” 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 “American exceptionalism,” 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.

“What's distinctive about our era,” he explained, “is the weakness of an institutional alternative to people just taking some Christian ideas and running with them in whatever direction they want.”

The first part of “Bad Religion” 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 “god within.”

In the tradition of writers like G.K. Chesterton, Douthat suggests that these heretical beliefs take particular aspects of Church teaching – like Jesus' mercy toward sinners, or God's presence in nature – and sever them from other doctrines that provide nuance and balance.

“The 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' – that God is three and one, that Jesus is God and man, and so on,” he explained.

“One 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.'”

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 “prosperity Gospel” invents a God who promises real estate gains in exchange for faith.

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“The (heresies) I talk about are less likely to focus on the identity of Jesus himself or the nature of the Trinity,” Douthat noted, drawing a distinction with history's better-known religious errors. “They're more likely to focus on ideas about sex, money, and what God wants of us in this life.”

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 “Eat Pray Love.” Traditional Christians, he said, should not simply dismiss such books, but should seek to grasp the appeal and premises of the “heresies” they promote.

“I think it's very important to take 'pop spirituality' seriously,” he told CNA. “Whatever 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.”

“It'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 – whether it's Joel Osteen or Oprah Winfrey.”

Such figures “aren't just sort of making vague appeals,” Douthat observed. “They are making, implicitly or explicitly, theological arguments – about who is God, and what does he want from us – that people find appealing.”

Douthat's fellow Catholics, and other historically-rooted Christians, will likely agree with the diagnoses of doctrinal error in “Bad Religion.” 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.

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“If Christian anthropology is true – the Christian view of what human beings are, what we're here on earth for, what our relationships should be to one another – then a more robust and culturally-influential Christian faith will make people, in some sense, 'happier,'” he said.

This kind of happiness, he qualifies, is not personal self-gratification, but authentic and shared “human flourishing.” While Douthat upholds Christian orthodoxy as an end in itself, he also argues for its contribution to the “ordinary forms of human stability and well-being.”

“A flourishing society is a society that is recognizably successful – 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,” he explained.

Douthat asserted that if “you 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.”

“Christians 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).”

“There are some definitions of human happiness and success that secular people and Christians can agree on,” Douthat said, summing up his appeal to skeptics and doubters.

While “Bad Religion” 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 “nation of heretics.”

“Even 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.”

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