Ross Douthat has written an “on-the-one-hand” and “on-the-other-hand,” learned yet highly readable analysis of the changing role of religion in American politics, culture and history. His result is not simply an agree-to-disagree shaking of narrative hands but a critical view of how both the left and the right hands seek political potency through the simplifications that Douthat identifies as the essence of “heresies.” His controlling thesis is that “the boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them.” This clashes with the goal of heresies, which “has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined and noncontradictory Jesus.”
Douthat argues that the orthodoxy-heresy distinctions are far more than matters of “religion.” His core argument, familiar to the social scientists Talcott Parsons and Daniel Bell, is that religion powerfully affects cultures, social structures and identities and thus the assumptions, goals and practices of politics. Douthat’s nimble and mannerly writing style perfectly weds with his substantive points. Regarding our current politics, Douthat’s seemingly juggler-like style itself subverts the Democratic-Republican political polarization currently intermeshed with left-right “fundamentalist” versus “social justice” sectors of American religion. As truth is the first casualty of war, complexity is the first casualty of polemics.
The terms heresy and orthodoxy require each other for their intelligibility. Heresy is commonplace because it is simple, while orthodoxy is precarious because it is complex. Douthat neither evades complexity nor succumbs to it. His mastery of sources and his contemporaneity are matched both by a literary flair and by a down-to-earth concern for ordinary people. The real story, he writes, is what’s happening in the vast America where papal encyclicals rarely penetrate and the works of Richard Dawkins pass unread.
My advice to librarians is, first, to place this book immediately after Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm and then, heretically, to break with the Dewey decimal system and move the entire row to the contemporary politics section. There these works can more tangibly confront the common assumption of too many authors who refer to the United States as a “Christian country” instead of using the more accurate designation, “America, the nation of heretics.”
It is time for a few definitions. While orthodoxy confronts, Bad Religion accommodates to the main tendencies of the age, downplaying historic religions’ dogmas, differentiating practices and strict codes of conduct including, of course, the sexual. Bad Religion could have been entitled The Eclipse of Orthodoxy and the Decline of Institutional Religion.
Douthat maintains that the United States has always been a haven for religious experimentation, but that until the last five decades, it had maintained a lively center of orthodoxy, broadly defined as the beliefs of the early church, truths handed down by the apostles and the conviction that as we more faithfully commit ourselves to these constitutive truths, the more we become a good people, if not always observant, at least acknowledging the New Testament’s deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power and its challenging sexual ethics. The accommodationism of the 1960s, the author says, has resulted not in the disappearance of religion but in the flourishing of heresy.
For Douthat (as for Chesterton, Lewis and Knox), what above all distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Think virgin birth, Incarnation, Trinity; ponder the teaching that the world is corrupted by original sin yet somehow also essentially good. You get the idea: orthodoxy accepts paradox and complexity and acknowledges that the meaning of the world will forever remain just beyond our grasp, while heresy always contains something of the gnostic—an attempt to minimize paradox and complexity. Unlike the simplifications of the heresies of bad religion, the paradoxical complexities of orthodox religion act as a cultural corrective and critique of both spiritual narcissism and the heresy of American nationalism, with its tenets of providential purpose and national innocence. Douthat readily acknowledges—another paradox?—that Christian orthodoxy needs the challenge of heresy, particularly utopianism, lest it become rote and remote.
Here are a few examples of some of the American heresies. In Chapter 6, entitled “Pray and Grow Rich,” Douthat writes that God seems less like a savior than like a college buddy with good stock tips. You know the names: L. Ron Hubbard, Mary Baker Eddy, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Trinity Broadcasting Network, Father Divine, Reverend Ike.
Douthat also examines some of the more complicated and less self-referential entrepreneurial reverends, including Rick Warren, James Dobson and Pat Robertson, whose overall heretical message tempts Christianity to become an appendage to Americanism. The chapter includes a brief summary of the Catholic encyclical tradition’s emphasis on personal asceticism and social solidarity, which Douthat, a convert, argues has long offered the most prominent alternative to the marriage of God and Mammon.
As readers of the op-ed page of The New York Times know, Douthat’s style is both taut and engaging. Here is an example from Chapter 7, “The God Within.” Douthat compares and contrasts two contemporary examples of bad religion, the anti-institutional “I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious” and the “prosperity-gospel” heresies: “The prosperity gospel makes the divine sound like your broker; the theology of the God Within makes him sound like your shrink.”
It is misleading if that last citation suggests that Bad Religion is full of journalism and empty of scholarship. Douthat’s 18 pages of endnotes, along with the book, would make for a worthy senior year honor’s seminar in American Religion and American Culture. Almost all the important historical trends and important names are present, from Karl Barth and Joseph Ratzinger to Elaine Pagels, from Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton to Joel Osteen and Elizabeth Gilbert, from Leo XIII and Benedict XVI to Harvey Cox and Glenn Beck.
To this Vatican II enthusiast, the major disappointment with the book is Douthat’s lack of sustained effort to draw some brighter lines between an accommodationist spirit leading to a loss of theological roots and heresies and religious institutions’ efforts to both renew themselves and engage contemporary society. Admittedly, it is institutionally difficulty to invite and challenge at the same time, to be both prophetic and institutional. That is why there are sociological cycles and church councils. Notwithstanding, the nearly homiletic last few pages of Douthat’s concluding chapter, “The Recovery of Christianity,” are winning. Like saints and artists, he urges, the would-be Christian should always be uncomfortable in his or her cultural skin, and he points out that, like art and sanctity, cultural transformation starts with self-transformation. Mindful of his flair for corrective balance, this reader missed an explicit Douthat admonition that the good hierarchy should likewise feel uncomfortable in its ecclesial skin.