Our Progressive Traditions
BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS
by Ross Douthat
Free Press, 2012
We are a not a nation of believers, nor are we a nation of skeptics. We are a nation of heretics whose misshapen homemade spiritualities reign unchecked by any strong orthodox criticism. We live amid a glut of “pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worse impulses,” from Glenn Beck’s Christian Nationalism to Joel Osteen’s Prosperity Gospel, from Oprah Winfrey’s New Age consumerism to Dan Brown’s conspiracy theories. This is the thesis of Ross Douthat’s provocative, if deeply flawed, book, Bad Religion.
By “orthodoxy,” Douthat simply means the traditional Christian doctrines, mysteries, and paradoxes expressed most succinctly by the Nicene Creed. Orthodoxy, in this sense, functions within Christianity in roughly the same fashion as T.S. Eliot’s tradition, Harold Bloom’s canon, and Mathew Arnold’s touchstones function within literary criticism. It is a collection of texts and doctrines that survive the test of time and continue to give weight and substance to a tradition. It is a past that is still present.
“For all their claims to ancient wisdom,” Douthat warns us, “there is nothing remotely counter-cultural about the Tolles, and Winfrey’s and Chopras. They’re telling an affluent, appetitive society exactly what it wants to hear: that all its deepest desires are really God’s desires and that He wouldn’t dream of judging them. This message encourages us to justify our sins by spiritualizing them.” This leads to a misrepresentation of tradition and an overall demise of community life (a trend noted by Robert Putnam and others) which can be seen, Douthat points out, in the rise of children being born to single parents, unchecked greed among our economic elites, and a growing ideological extremism within our political culture.
Longing for the good old days, Douthat contrasts these developments to a mythical time just after World War II, the time of the postwar religious revival. And it is true that after the war, the country was casting about for a serious socio-political ideology to match the philosophical sophistication of Soviet Marxism. Figures as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr., Dwight Eisenhower, and Fulton Sheen saw that there was no contradiction between Christian orthodoxy and the values of liberal democracy. In fact, the two seemed mutually supportive in their rejection of Godless communism and the idolatries of the fascist state. But what united Niebuhr, Graham, Sheen, and King was not a shared theology– their interpretations of the gospels were very different. What united them was a pragmatic tolerance for one another born from sharing a common enemy that posed an existential threat.Douthat claims this religious consensus, such as it was, was destroyed by the birth control pill and the politicization of religious values in the early Sixties, and his numbers documenting the rapid decline of the mainline Churches during this period are startling and undeniable. But he doesn’t show how this decline is in any way linked to the loss of a shared orthodoxy (or prove for that matter such a shared set of values ever existed). The decline in orthodox theology as a common standard and rule is more an effect– rather than the cause– of these social trends. If you are looking for the source of our confused and untethered religious response to modernity, consider that Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts and J. Edgar Hoover’s covert war against Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They were far more damaging in undermining whatever religious unity might have been brewing, returning the country to its prewar bigotries. Witness the contentious 1960 presidential campaign and the biblical justifications for racial segregation offered by some southern governors throughout the Fifties and Sixties.
In fact, the Second Vatican Council, much maligned by Catholic social conservatives over the years, was designed to head off any such heretical retrenchments. As the Second Vatican Council and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) understood the problem, Christianity (and this went back at least as far as the Protestant Reformation) had increasingly become primarily a rule-bound, ethical faith—think of Kant’s essay “Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone”—divorced from the beauty, joy, and the cultural inclusiveness of classical Thomism. This generated, at worse, a bitter religiosity born of the fear of personal damnation and, at best, a self-congratulatory piety divorced from cultural life and social responsibilities. By a return to sources, Vatican II hoped to return to a Catholicism free of the ethical reductionism that had plagued the Church for a very long time. Its answer to the Pill (and this was later deepened by John Paul II’s theology of the body) was not a return to sexual repression but to a fuller articulation of the meaning of eros as fulfilled through agape.
To Douthat’s credit, he understands the nuances of Vatican II and approvingly cites then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark from 1985 that “the only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” But in Bad Religion, Douthat prefers to stay focused on the last fifty years of American religious history as it has played itself out in journals such as First Things and television shows like The Hour of Power. The result is a rather quirky and skewed overview of religion divorced from larger market forces, changes in demography, and the growing influence of political and economic oligarchies.
“We are waiting,” Douthat confesses, “not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley” because “only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can illuminate and redeem the world.” By sanctity, I assume Douthat is speaking of the empathy and humility of a true saint capable of transforming narrow and partisan versions of Christianity from the inside out. But given the dominance of the market mentality and our fascination with technological distractions, would we recognize such a saint if one arrived?
Those of us who lived through the Sixties and Seventies know the distorted accounts that have come to dominate the historical revisions of that time. It was not only a time of political change but perhaps even more significantly, cultural revolution. Rank scholasticism was finally unmasked, and it became a cultural commonplace that beliefs required action and that ideals need to be upheld. For better or worse, the America we inhabit—both red and blue states—exemplifies this change toward a more existential style and ethos. Reality television, contemporary documentaries, and popular memoirs all mirror this shift from top-down to bottom-up, from the concept to the deed, from the theorist to the actor. But this sensibility is no longer the vehicle for an alternative, contemplative culture but the delivery system for the economic values of the powers that be.
To describe this complex reinvention of the American character in terms of a fall from Christian orthodoxy is wrong on so many levels and in so many ways, that one is at a loss as to how best set Douthat aright. But a clue is provided by his arresting, guiding metaphor. He writes, “A chart of the American past would look like a vast delta with tributaries, streams, and channels winding in and out, diverging and reconnecting—but all of them fed, ultimately, by a central stream, an original current, a place where all the waters start. This river is Christian orthodoxy.” And as much, as any self-declared orthodox Christian would like this to be true, the historical record tells a very different story.
The source waters of the American religious imagination are larger than Christian orthodoxy—just as Jesus was an Orthodox Jew only more so, and St. Francis, a cosmic Christian whose love for his brethren included birds, donkeys, and the sun. Whatever the source of our common faith, it contains multitudes. Harold Bloom describes it as the “American Religion of Gnosticism”; John Dewey, our “common faith” in what works, and Martin Luther King, the vast “moral arch of the universe.” The conversations this diversity creates need not be one in which “Orthodoxy slowly withers and only heresies endure” but quite the reverse.
In Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton describes the power of orthodoxy to renew itself. In the chapter titled “Five Deaths of the Faith,” he tells us that Christianity was never really reformed, because it was never really deformed. The cultures it lived in died, so Christianity was rediscovered five times as one cultural epoch was superseded by another: first after the fall of Rome, then at the end of the feudal era in the twelfth century. When this medieval synthesis gave way to the energies of the Renaissance, orthodoxy re-emerged in the images of a Michelangelo, then existentially in to hyper-rationalism through Kierkegaard, and yet again in the modernist imaginations of figures as diverse as W.S. Auden, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Merton.
In each instance the end of orthodoxy was proclaimed, but what was really dying was a complex set of institutional arrangements. And in each case, orthodoxy reemerged as something beyond and above the culture that once claimed to embody it. It isn’t that orthodoxy accommodates itself to fit the heresies of its times, nor does it resist the ways of the world to remain pristine and unchanging. It is more that after each subsequent culture is forced to face up to its illusions and misrepresentations, Orthodoxy as a supernatural standard and visionary alternative—not as an enforced set of absolutes dogmas and beliefs—simply reemerges whole-cloth out of the ashes of history. It returns unscathed, clarified, and renewed by new, unexpected saints and visionary practitioners, transcending the straight-jackets imposed upon it by narrow thinkers.
Perhaps we are undergoing just such a re-emergence of Christian orthodoxy on the far side of cultural modernism, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the forms that embodied our last, most recent expressions of the faith should find themselves wanting, and that a nation of heretics may be just what the doctor ordered to challenge our religious complacencies in a world undergoing the spiritual birth pangs of an emerging new epoch. For this to happen, we will need honest critics like Douthat to call the Joel Osteens and Oprah Winfreys to a higher standard of intellectual conscience, but we also need a more progressive understanding of the history out of which these heresies emerged if we are to make such critiques something more than mere conservative hand-wringing.