Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
By Ross Douthat
Published by Free Press 2012, 337 pages
How does one wash away the sorrow of heresy and yet rejoice in the faith of many brothers and sisters after returning from both the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assembly and the Presbyterian Women’s Gathering? By reading a Catholic’s book about false religion in America, of course! Ross Douthat, author and columnist for the New York Times and author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, explores many facets of the disintegration of Christianity and her offshoots in the United States. Douthat lays biblical understanding as well as Christian tradition beside the rising tide of heresy.
In his prologue Douthat explains that heresy arises from the desire to bring rationality to a faith that is full of paradox and mystery. Writing of the consensus of the orthodox, Douthat beautifully states:
What defines this consensus, above all—what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta—is commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding. (10)The essentials Douthat shows as paradox and mystery include “Christ’s incarnation and atonement, the Trinity and the virgin birth, the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of everlasting life.” He continues with the word of God, “a belief in the divine inspiration and authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, with no additional revelations added on and nothing papered over or rejected.”
Douthat adds the moral aspects of the true faith, “It includes an adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and expanded and deepened in the New Testament: a rejection of violence and cruelty, a deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, and a heavy stress on chastity.” And finally:
It includes a commitment to the creeds of the ancient world—Nicene, Apostolic, Athanasian—and to the idea that a church, however organized and governed, should guarantee and promulgate them. And it includes the idea of orthodoxy—the belief that there exists “a faith once delivered to the saints,” and that the core of Christianity is an inheritance from the first apostles, rather than being something that every believer can and should develop for himself. (10)Douthat, at times, gives a history of early heresy in the United States, but his main concerns deal with heresy as it began and existed in Christianity’s boom years in the fifties and as it grew in the following decades. And there is fairness in Douthat’s history and thoughts since he analyzes both the right and left laying blame at both doors. He examines heresy and orthodoxy within the Roman Catholic Church, the mainline denominations and Evangelicalism. Among the orthodox that Douthat looks at is the Evangelical Reverend Billy Graham, the Catholic Father Richard John Neuhaus and the mainliner Dr. Richard Niebuhr (Niebuhr was neo-orthodox).
Douthat’s examination of the many heretical movements that have fed into all three branches of American Christianity is fairly complete. In a chapter entitled, “Pray and Grow Rich,” he looks at part of the metaphysical movement (Christian Science) rightly aligning it with the so called prosperity gospel. (Here however Unity School of Christianity would have probably been a better example.) He explains how the idea that God is meant to fulfill all of our desires is continued today in the sermons, books and TV shows of such popular figures as Joel Osteen.
Douthat also links the prosperity gospel to a form of liberalism that bypasses God’s redemptive work bound up with human suffering; instead opting for only good works and a utopia of the present.
Douthat’s critique is biblical and frank:
In its [the prosperity gospel] emphasis on the virtues of prosperity, it risks losing something essential to Christianity—skipping on to Easter, you might say, without lingering at the foot of the cross. (205)Douthat’s history of the search for the historical Jesus is of particular interest to me, as it well might be for many mainliners. Working in apologetics in an independent church in the 70’s and early eighties the only real mainline Protestant heretic I was aware of was Bishop James Pike. (And of course Jim Jones who was an apostate mainliner.) I was later, as a Presbyterian, to discover a host of Pike’s duplications in the mainline denominations. Douthat’s history of Pike is informative, from apostasy to séances to death in the barren regions of the Holy Land while searching for further lost gospels.
It is imperative that one read Douthat’s chapter on the religion of nationalism. The chapter, “City on a Hill,” covers a subject that is usually not covered when authors write of heresy, but that particular heresy was the greatest cause of World War II. In fact, a professor in a college class on the cults I attended used Nazi Germany as an image of one vast national cult. Douthat points to both the left and the right when writing about nationalism, explaining that in an earlier period the left fed on utopianism while the right was concerned with apocalyptism.
Of the first, the progressive side, Douthat writes:
Piggybacking on the parallels between American universalism and Christian universalism, messianic Americanism turns liberal democracy into a religion unto itself; capable of carrying out the kind of redemptive work that orthodoxy reserves for Christ and his Church. (255)Of the conservative urge he writes:
We are not just “almost chosen” but actually chosen, and our constitution is not only consonant with Christian principles but literally divinely inspired. The founding is our Eden and our Sinai; everything else is a tragic falling away, a descent into idolatry that God will justly punish. (255)Of the combining of these two views by both the right and the left, Douthat writes:
Instead of the normal pattern of American History in which conservatives are tempted by the reactionary pessimism of apocalyptic style, and liberals by the seductions of utopianism, now messianic and apocalyptism have increasingly become bipartisan afflictions. (265)I have simplified, with my quotes, Douthat’s extensive and carefully laid out understanding of religious nationalism as it exists now in the United States. As I stated above it is imperative that the chapter be read. But there is another section of the chapter “City on a Hill” that should be read by members of the mainline churches. That is Douthat’s thoughts about the Jewish people and the question of a chosen people. Because Douthat is orthodox in his faith, he is not afraid to state the biblical view concerning both the Old Testament and the Jewish people. He writes:
When the universal God actually entered history … it was as the champion of a very particular race and people. This is the strange revelation at the heart of the Old Testament story: a Being who seems at first like a particularly powerful tribal deity gradually reveals himself as the eternal YHWH, the great I Am without ever abandoning his unique covenant with the Jewish people. Indeed, the Old Testament, or at least the prophetic tradition therein, argues that Yahweh’s particularity is actually the means through which His universality will be ultimately manifested to the world. Of all the scandalous claims embedded in the Hebrew Bible none is more scandalous then this: that Israel, alone among the peoples of the earth, will have immortality as a people, and that if the rest of the world claims a share of that same immortality, they will claim it through the Jews. (246)And of course, once again there is more. But the important point here, much like the points made by Karl Barth in his essay on the Jews found in Against the Stream, there is only one exceptional people and even they are only exceptional because God, through them, provided grace for broken people. No other nation, race or people are chosen—only those engrafted into the tree Israel by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion there is so much thought provoking reading in Douthat’s book, a review might become far too lengthy. If there is any criticism it would be to simply state that adding a bit more about the emergence of radical feminism in the Catholic Church, as well as some references to the rise of some very orthodox and reformed black pastors and churches, would be helpful and add to the reader’s understanding of what is happening in Christianity in the United States.
But overall Douthat’s book superbly and very seriously meets the crisis that many Christians in the United States now find themselves facing. While upholding ecumenical dialogue and political activism by the orthodox, Douthat turns the believer back to the Church, be it Reformed or Catholic. While not forsaking the issues of the times, which include sexual morality and life issues, Douthat calls for a holistic faith that does not neglect any aspect of Christianity. Bad Religion is an important book for the days ahead.
 Unity School of Christianity has grown, expanded and evolved its teaching which in many cases has entered into the mainline denominations. (Consider a Course in Miracles.) On the other hand, Christian Science has insisted on staying within the teaching of Mary Baker Eddy.