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Heterodox Nation

by Patrick J. Deneen
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat (Free Press, 352 pp., $26)

This book is at once subtle and bold. Ross Douthat — op-ed columnist for the New York Times and film critic for National Review — seeks to move beyond the rutted secularist-vs.-religionist terms of the culture wars. Americans today are apt to speak about “religious,” “non-religious,” and “anti-religious” worldviews, and largely eschew the language of “orthodoxy” and “heresy.” But Douthat insists that our problem is not too much or too little religion, but rather bad religion: “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities in its place.”

Bad Religion traces this fall and rise, and then makes a far more arresting claim: that today’s religious heretics (who now constitute the mainstream of religious believers) and opponents of religion actually end up reinforcing each other in destructive ways — because they share a belief in the centrality of self-realization and the pursuit of material goods, and also in the notion that politics is the field of ultimate battle. Contrary to the dominant contemporary narrative, the answer to our national woes lies neither in religious fervor nor in religion’s rout, but in better religion: a faith that acknowledges Original Sin, the human propensity to self-aggrandizement, and the need for the difficult discipline of self-governance of our desires (economic as well as sexual). Douthat wants at once not only to advise secularists that they have a strong stake in the revival of “good” religion, but to chide his fellow believers that faith alone is not enough: One must distinguish between good and bad faith.

Religion went bad, says Douthat, around 1963. In the flourishing period before the 1960s, traditional Christianity was a strong and vibrant presence in the American mainstream, as evidenced by the popularity of such figures as Reinhold Niebuhr, Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King Jr. The traditional Christian teachings shared by Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants were widely embraced and admired by a broad swath of Americans. For all the differences among the various Christian denominations, there was widespread agreement upon traditional teachings about the reality of Original Sin and the need for moral strictures. Douthat tells of traditional Christianity’s crisis in the 1960s and the rise of liberal “accommodationists” who sought to move their churches away from traditional doctrine. These reformers sought to further modernize Christianity in ways that minimized doctrine, emphasized personal growth, and stressed individualized religious experience. The net result was the simultaneous and not coincidental collapse of the mainline Protestant churches and the weakening of Roman Catholicism in America.

What took the place of traditional Christianity was not merely, or even predominantly, secularism, but instead — argues Douthat — various forms of Christian heresy. Such heresy was expressed in both “liberal” and “conservative” forms, ranging from the “Prosperity Gospel” of such ministers as Joel Osteen, to the pervasive belief in a “God Within” expressed by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, to the conflation of Christianity and Americanism articulated in recent times by Glenn Beck. What these heresies have in common is a willingness to dismiss what Douthat regards as the defining mark of Christian orthodoxy: the effort to hold together in tension the central mysteries of Christianity. Jesus as the man-god; God as three-in-one; humanity as sinful yet redeemable; the compatibility of reason and faith; the need to both live in, and not be of, the world, and to accord respect, but not ultimate allegiance, to one’s polity — these mysteries, among others, are central tenets of Christian orthodoxy, reflecting “the intuition that the true nature of the world will always remain just beyond our grasp.” The common feature of our dominant heresies is to dissolve one or several of these tensions, and thus replace a modest awe in the face of paradox with a false sense of certainty. The various modern American heresies that Douthat describes all, in their own way, represent this dissolution of “mystery” in favor of settlement, and, not surprisingly, what they settle upon reflects the dominant American proclivities toward materialism, self-absorption, and nationalism. Our heresies, it turns out, confirm what we already knew and believed, rather than challenge our tendency toward self-aggrandizement.

The book’s final chapter — titled “The City on a Hill” — is a tour de force that should be required reading for every soldier fighting in the culture wars. One of the more interesting claims Douthat makes is that the deepest source of our political polarization is theological: We have often invested salvific hope in the nation. From its start, America has understood itself in religious and providential terms, manifested among liberals primarily in the form of messianism (e.g., Woodrow Wilson), and among reactionaries primarily in the form of apocalypticism (the fear of imminent national demise due to the undermining  efforts of enemies, foreign and domestic). Douthat points out that these two impulses are mirror images of each other, both emanating from a heretical investment of hopes and fears exclusively in the fate of the nation. In recent years, he notes, each party has increasingly manifested both types of the nationalist heresy. George W. Bush manifested messianism in his ambition to rid the world of evil, while his foes regarded him as the apocalyptic incarnation of malevolence; Barack Obama claimed the messianic ability to cause the seas to recede, while his opponents speak in apocalyptic terms of his hatred of America. Douthat mounts a powerful case that this dysfunctional politics arises from the decline of the traditional religious caution against investing in the political community all one’s hopes and fears.

Douthat concludes his book by expressing hope for a renewal of traditional Christian faith — of an orthodoxy that will chasten not only a rising secular tide, but also the dominant forms of heresy. His practical advice, however, is modest. One of his main recommendations is for Christians to exercise “the Benedict Option,” a monasticism-inspired withdrawal from a dominant culture that appears incapable of correction and that increasingly appears to view orthodox faith with hostility. While this may be a long-term strategy for the restoration of a healthy Christian culture, it might take as many centuries for such a movement to influence the nation as it took the monasteries to foster Christendom following the fall of the Roman Empire. Implicitly, Douthat seems to acknowledge that hope for renewal must be chastened, even minimal.

This impression is reinforced by his somewhat dour conclusion in a chapter devoted to the story of just such an effort to restore orthodoxy: the alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals associated with the work of the journal First Things. He concludes not by suggesting that this movement represents a hopeful form of resistance, but by pointing to the challenges it faces — most important among them, the continued decline of orthodox religious belief even among the children of those seeking to restore orthodoxy. Douthat seems to conclude that this effort is futile in the face of a dominant culture that promotes, at best, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and at worst, atheism. What is the orthodox Christian in fact to do? Douthat counsels hope, but he doesn’t seem overly hopeful.

A further troubling note lurks beneath his efforts to encourage “good religion.” While he attributes the decline of orthodoxy after 1963 to a series of discrete historical causes, ranging from the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution to globalization and rising economic prosperity, on a broader view of American history it might be more correct to note that orthodoxy has always been the exception rather than the rule in the American setting — that America, in a certain sense, has always been a magnet for heresy. After all, the phrase “city upon a hill” was invested with political import by John Winthrop already in 1630, intimating that from the very outset America understood itself to be the New Zion. The heresies of self-creation, moral perfectibility, progressivism, and millenarianism are hardly new on the American scene in the post-Sixties era, but rather are continuations of a longstanding rejection of Christian orthodoxy, expressed variously by American high priests ranging from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, through Emerson and Whitman, down to John Dewey. America was the child born of rebellion against orthodoxy, and a major national storyline has been one that equates democracy’s advance with liberation from doctrine — from Roger Williams to Dan Brown.

Douthat makes a bold and compelling argument that what is needed on the American scene today is a renewal of good religion. But his book cannot dispel the gnawing worry that, in America, good religion has been the exception, and that the growing dominance of bad religion is not something recent and reversible, but the culmination of a long national story.

– Mr.Deneen is the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University.