“Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.”
At 35. Ross Douthat (DOW-thut), is the youngest New York Times columnist ever. In ‘Bad Religion’ he gives a historical and cultural account of the decline of institutional Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic) in the United States over the past 50 years. There is plenty of religious fervour in the United States but Douthat suggests it has turned away from traditional Christian orthodoxy and has become its own version–a theology of the ‘God within.’ Bad religion refers to modern heretical thinking and practice in the church today, with such things as prosperity preachers, self-help gurus, and an over involvement of religion in politics. It is a world where self-help gurus like Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, tell us that God is not a being to be defined but a reality to be experienced, and prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen offer up a Christianity with an emphasis on the financial possibilities of prayer and positivity that suits an age of abundance.
What I enjoyed most about Douthat’s analysis is that he frames an explanation for what I’ve had a sense of all along–that a mix of Christianity, nationalism, and partisan politics can be unhealthy. The United States is a unique nation in that it doesn’t have the historical ties to the Christian church that other places have. That kind of freedom and flexibility, without being rooted in orthodoxy, has allowed for more heresy and has turned into bad religion. No matter where you stand on issues, this is an important book to read.
Although Douthat is a journalist and offers up some articulate and engaging writing, this is a not an easy read because of its incredible scope and insight. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a profound and insightful view into the story of religion in America and what caused and constitutes a ‘nation of heretics.’ This is not just “back to the basics” stuff. It is a surprising, original, and provocative view that many will enjoy, but won’t be for everyone.
Here is a lecture (1 hr) by the author which gives a nice overview of one chapter in the book.