Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
By Ross Douthat
(Free Press, 352 pages, $26)
MEET THE TWO FACES of American religion. One belongs to Dr. Leroy Thompson, a black preacher who teaches that God not only has treasure stored for the believer in heaven but will also deliver riches in this life. A friend covered one of Thompson’s conferences for a magazine, and his sermons can easily be found on YouTube. Thompson is a cross between Jimmy Swaggart and Scrooge McDuck. After a smattering of Scripture, he leads his flock into a chant: “Money cometh to me now!” But for most of the congregation, it would be more accurate to say money goes. They lay their dollars on the altar. Thompson proceeds to dance in their money, a sight that in a different era would have been more common in a strip club on Saturday night than in a church on Sunday morning.
The second face belongs to Elizabeth Gilbert, whose spiritual journey became the popular book and film Eat, Pray, Love. After a night of despair, she locked herself in the bathroom of her Hudson Valley home and offered the Almighty—or Whoever, really—this unorthodox prayer: “I don’t want to be married anymore…. I don’t want to be married anymore. I don’t want to live in this big house. I don’t want to have a baby.”
Eventually, she received a response, but not of the burning bush variety. “[I]t was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice,” she later wrote, “nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self.” Yet it was her voice as she had never heard it before, “perfectly wise, calm, and compassionate.” Gilbert received two miracles: Her husband granted her a divorce, and a publisher gave her the advance that allowed to her travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia.
One face is at least nominally orthodox, invoking Scripture and tradition while seeking a real, supernatural, and personal God. The other is secular, skeptical of absolute moral claims like the “one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God.” Both are ultimately rooted in the self. God, whether He exists in a conventional sense or not, is reduced to what Harry Emerson Fosdick described as a “cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button to get things.”
ROSS DOUTHAT CONFRONTS both extremes in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times, where he faces the unenviable task of trying to persuade a mostly liberal, secular audience of the reasonableness of being conservative, pro-life, and Christian. In this capacity, he does yeoman’s work and deserves combat pay for navigating the comments sections on his own blog posts.
Douthat paints a familiar picture of old-time religion in decline. The mainline Protestant churches stopped growing in the 1960s and have hemorrhaged members ever since. Douthat observes, “Of the eleven Protestant churches that claimed more than a million members in the early 1970s, eight had fewer members in 1973 than in 1965.”
The plunge in church attendance coincided with a steep drop in cultural influence. Church school enrollment fell dramatically. Donations dried up and churches ran large budget deficits. Foreign missionary work all but vanished. “By the early 1990s,” Douthat writes, “60 percent of Methodist parishioners were over fifty, and there were more Muslims in America than Episcopalians.”
Latino immigration helped the American Catholic Church’s numbers remain steady as the mainline Protestants atrophied, but the Roman church wasn’t immune to these trends. Weekly attendance at mass dropped from 70 percent to 50 percent in just 10 years. The gap between Catholic and Protestant church attendance disappeared—and, writes Douthat, “not because Protestants suddenly became more diligent in their churchgoing.”
In 1950, there was one priest for every 600 American Catholics. By 1980, there was only one for every thousand. Seminary enrollment had fallen by Two-thirds. The rate at which women entered into religious communities dropped by 88 percent just between 1965 and 1971. The ratio of nuns to American Catholics was halved between 1965 and 1985. Douthat concludes: “The thick culture that had defi ned and sustained the pre-Vatican II Church—the round of confessions and novenas, pilgrimages and Stations of the Cross—dissipated like a cloud of incense in a sudden breeze.”
Some of this had to do with the crisis of liberal Christianity. The established churches had largely tried to accommodate changes in the broader culture, often diluting the Gospel in the process. The moral high-water mark came with the civilrights movement of the 1960s. But as social pressure to attend church declined, more secular people decided to stop snoozing away their Sundays in Episcopalian pews. More orthodox Christians left the Catholics and mainliners in search of stronger stuff.
Conservative churches grew and flourished as liberal ones withered. Douthat is nevertheless skeptical of popular claims that this means American Christianity is just fine. For one thing, the new evangelical churches never replicated the cultural and social influence obtained by the mainline Protestants or the Catholic Church of the 1950s. They were, for better or worse, a strong subculture.
Second, Douthat notes, previous religious awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries had strengthened institutional Christianity across the board. The First Great Awakening was a time of explosive growth for the Methodist Church. Even when the most prominent spiritual leaders of the era espoused unusual theological doctrines, the orthodox and the established tended to benefi t from the revival as well.
MOST IMPORTANTLY for the purposes of Bad Religion, these new churches were unreliable in their orthodoxy. Yes, their members were politically conservative, serious about the supernatural aspects of their faith, and strict in their sexual morality. But their fundamentalist theology frequently carried many 19th-century innovations. Douthat calls it the “Evangelicalism of the Left Behind novels and Joel Osteen… rather than of Billy Graham or C.S. Lewis.” Many denominations Dean Kelley classified as “conservative churches”—Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons—were arguably outside of orthodox Christianity.
At the same time, the rise in secularism did not entirely dampen religious enthusiasm even among those who understood themselves to be irreligious. Many of these new seculars were deeply superstitious, confi rming G.K. Chesterton’s observation that when people cease believing in God “they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in everything.” Douthat argues that the 1960s and ’70s were a period when “the heretics carried the day completely.”
“America in those years became more religious but less traditionally Christian; more supernaturally minded but less churched; more spiritual in its sentiments but less pious in its practices,” he writes. “It was a golden age if you wanted to talk about UFOs or crystals, the Kama Sutra or the I Ching.”
This in turn gave way to a golden age of narcissism: the name-and-claim-it prosperity gospel and the secular self-help gurus who can find an excuse for fulfilling your every need. James Frey writes in The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, a 2011 attempt to improve upon the Gospels, “God doesn’t care what we say or who we f–k or what we do with our bodies or who we love or who we marry.” Those words are attributed to Jesus, denying any divine interest in some of the most important things in life.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has been racked by the priest sexual abuse scandals. Evangelical Protestantism frequently becomes a form of redstate identity politics. Outside of the “devoutest of the devoutest,” there’s a wide gap between Christian belief and practice when it comes to sexuality and abortion. Our national civil religion is not Mere Christianity but therapeutic moral deism.
Yet the longing for God remains as strong as ever, even if we don’t recognize it as such. So too is the philosophical and spiritual debt that even the most secular among us owe to Christianity. The evidence is growing that self-help is doing more to foster isolation than contentment.
Near the end of Bad Religion, Douthat quotes the same Scripture that Leroy Thompson cites in promising that the money will cometh: Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “My hope throughout,” he writes, “has been to persuade even the most skeptical reader that traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe.”
If such a rediscovery were to occur, Douthat’s important book would be a valuable starting point.