From Theological Orthodoxy to Moral Orthodoxy

In Saturday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat published a fascinating sneak peek at his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (By the way, who do I have to threaten to get a review copy of that book?) Discussing the faith of the presidential candidates in the context of collapsing theological orthodoxy and weakening religious institutions, Douthat says:

Americans have never separated religion from politics, but it makes a difference how the two are intertwined. When religious commitments are more comprehensive and religious institutions more resilient, faith is more likely to call people out of private loyalties to public purposes, more likely to inspire voters to put ideals above self-interest, more likely to inspire politicians to defy partisan categories altogether. But as orthodoxies weaken, churches split and their former adherents mix and match elements of various traditions to fit their preferences, religion is more likely to become indistinguishable from personal and ideological self-interest.

This is exactly right. As I’ve said before, the consumer-oriented evangelical culture is facing the twin disasters of selective religious commitment and dissolving religious institutions. Church-shopping (“The kids are more engaged by the Sunday School at First Baptist, but I like the pastor at Four Square Fellowship. However, the worship service at Community Bible is outstanding”) and “priesthood of the believer” extremism lead to exactly the kind of mix-and-match theology that scratches us just where we itch (at least today). As a result, church ends up affirming us rather than challenging our consciences, and we slide ever-deeper into a fully rationalized life.  

It’s tough to see any coherent theological counter to this religious entropy. The cultural counter to theological heterodoxy may, however, be moral orthodoxy. In other words, the unifying force in the truly vibrant quarters of Christendom isn’t so much a single theological view as a moral view that is remarkably uniform across divergent theologies. Devout Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons have similar views of sexuality, abortion, and a host of other issues despite widely divergent views of everything from the Canon to the Trinity. We’re now at the point where, for example, a PCA Presbyterian is likely to feel far more affinity for a devout Catholic than for a fellow Presbyterian in the PCUSA. A Southern Baptist will ally with Mormons to defend traditional marriage from attacks by liberal American Baptists seeking “marriage equality” for gays and lesbians.

The source of this moral orthodoxy is debatable. In my own Calvinist view, I see God’s hand in preserving a remnant, those who have not “bowed the knee to Baal” and have resisted strong cultural currents. If it truly is the case that “by their fruit you shall know them,” then this resistance is a marker of a Christ-following life. Others, of course, see such resistance as mere tradition (at best) and fear and intolerance (at worst).  

Whatever the case, Douthat is right: We are in the midst of spiritual upheaval, the center is not holding, and this very religious nation faces an uncertain religious future.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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