Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

I was really surprised by Ross Douthat's Bad Religion. I expected something much less thoughtful and constructive in tone, but should have known better given Douthat's strong portfolio (Douthat writes the religion column for the New York Times which I would encourage you to explore).

The first half of the book is a post-WWII history of American Christendom. In dealing with such a broad scope (Douthat carefully divides the history into three camps: evangelical, mainline, and Catholic) in such a small space, Douthat has to make some choices in winnowing the story down. There are some that I took exception to, but overall, I think he writes a compelling history and even in his editorializing, he usually hits the target.

In the second half of the book Douthat takes on various heresies that have crept into all three of the quarters in various ways. He explores the ways in which the gnostic gospel, the prosperity gospel, the gospel of self, and the politicized gospel have impacted American Christianity. Douthat asserts that, “the Christian teaching that every human soul is unique and precious has been stressed, by the prophets of self-fulfillment and gurus of self-love, at the expense of the equally important teaching that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin. Absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins. The result is a society where pride becomes 'healthy self-esteem', vanity becomes 'self-improvement', adultery becomes 'following your heart', greed and gluttony become 'living the American dream'.” Douthat is dead on in his analysis and he rightly takes the church to task for falling prey to these heresies.

He is sharp and thoughtful, perceiving our shared weaknesses with a keen eye. He suggests that because of this influence, we are “a nation where gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends, and where professional caregivers minister, like seraphim around the throne, to the needs of people taught from infancy to look inside themselves for God. Therapeutic religion promises contentment, but in many cases it seems to deliver a sort of isolation that’s at once comfortable and terrible—leaving us alone with the universe, alone with the God Within.” Where Christian Smith analyzed the impact of this new therapeutic Christianity from a sociological angle (I commend American Evangelicalism to you), Douthat does so masterfully from an historic angle.

Unfortunately, Douthat spends little of his time engaging the constructive biblical response to these heresies, instead opting to assume a basic answer that usually isn't as satisfying as the way he unfolds the heresy. But given the complexity of the issues and the broad camps he is dealing with, this weakness is to be understood.

Douthat is trying to speak for the 'orthodox' Roman Catholics, mainline, and evangelicals, and while he admirably creates a space for himself there, when it comes to a shared constructive project between those three traditions, the turf becomes a little more difficult to tread. Overall, I am very grateful for Douthat's Bad Religion and think it's a helpful read for any American trying to make sense of the contemporary spiritual landscape we inhabit.