Where Religion Went Wrong in America

July-August 2013By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  By Ross Douthat. Free Press/Simon & Schuster. 337 pages. $26.



In his latest book, Ross Douthat, a public intellectual and a Catholic, argues that “bad religion” poses a greater danger to our nation than does secularism. His book is divided into two parts: in the first he chronicles the decline of traditional Christianity since 1965; in the second he examines four heresies that have flourished since then.

Douthat begins by looking back at the Indian summer after World War II, when the Christian faith seemed to be a “moral bulwark against totalitarianism,” and our public intellectuals, such as W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis, and Christopher Dawson, were notably Christian. He examines in detail four key figures of that era: Reinhold Niebuhr, who restored Christian thinking at Union Theological Seminary; Billy Graham, who won the cooperation of mainline Protestants and Catholic leaders with his revivals and made the evangelical faith “not only relevant but modern”; Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who addressed an audience of thirty million on television and showed that Christian thought was our “natural common ground”; and Martin Luther King Jr., who led the civil rights movement as a virtual Christian revival. Yet Douthat wonders if these men succeeded “only insofar as they met the American Way of Life halfway.”

In his second chapter, he examines the fallout from the sexual revolution. From 1965 on, the major churches started to shrink for the first time in American history. In politics, mainline Protestants went to the left, evangelicals went to the right, and Catholics stood divided in the middle. It turned out that the Pill involved “the entirety of sexual ethics,” so that in a few years there was a spike in those who approved of extramarital sex and abortion, and who developed a “presumptive bias” against traditional Christian sexual ethics. Moreover, globalization made Christianity look “like just one spiritual option among many.” The number of those who agreed that it is “the one true religion” suffered a massive decline. Meanwhile, academe and the media attacked Christian history as replete with the only sins that still mattered: anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism.

In the next two chapters, Douthat analyzes Christian reactions to the sexual revolution, which generally took one of two forms: accommodation or resistance. Protestants who chose accommodation turned away from the supernatural and embraced the prewar modernism that Niebuhr had rejected. Typical was Episcopal bishop James Pike, who denied Christ’s divinity, renounced Christian morality, and ended up consulting psychics. By the early 1970s almost every mainline denomination had accepted some form of legal abortion. Politics replaced theology in seminaries, and “inclusion” was the excuse for negating Christianity’s truth claims and moral teachings.

Catholics who chose accommodation welcomed Teilhard de Chardin’s “marriage of Darwinism and Christianity.” Richard John Neuhaus, a convert from Lutheranism, observed that Teilhard’s work was “a powerful presence in the background conversation surrounding Council deliberations.” Some Vatican II documents seem to take from Teilhard the concept of a “unified, developmental, and evolutionary cosmos,” and to locate God “not above us but ahead of us.” In the 100,000 pages of Council documents, Neuhaus added, “the distinction between natural and supernatural” is rarely mentioned; even Gaudium et Spes describes “Christian hope” in “remarkably this-worldly terms.” Five years after the Council, the National Catholic Reporter noted that “progressive views” dominated “most Catholic religious and theological training…the public prints, the catechetical training seminars, the publishing houses, the professional associations, much of Catholic bureaucracy.” In addition, papal nuncio Jean Jadot, a “progressive’s progressive,” helped change the face of the hierarchy by recommending political activists for the episcopacy. Catholics started leaving the Church in droves. Ironically, Garry Wills and Andrew Greeley blamed Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 birth-control encyclical, for alienating Catholics, but at that time only those churches that resisted the spirit of the age were still growing.

To the forefront of resistance to the revolution stepped Pope John Paul II, a veritable “rallying point” in the fight against a “redefinition of Christianity.” His success was not “institutional” since he failed to recapture the theology departments, but he drew converts from the mainline intelligentsia and found important friends among evangelicals. After the Supreme Court voted in 1992 for “a nearly unlimited right to an abortion,” Catholics and evangelicals began making common cause — a “genuinely startling development.” In 1994 they issued a declaration of their “common political and cultural agenda.” Yet America was not returning to orthodoxy, and the resistance project had weaknesses: the Catholic side suffered from the sex-abuse scandal while the evangelical side was chastened when George W. Bush’s “religious style” polarized rather than united Americans. Christian orthodoxy had become by then a “minority persuasion, easily dismissed as sectarian by the press and the wider public alike.”

In Part II, Douthat examines four heresies that increased when Christianity decreased, each of which proposed a streamlined Jesus. The first heresy is the “New Quest” for the “historical Jesus,” which destabilized Christianity by bringing about a “choose-your-own Jesus mentality.” Scholars in the Jesus Seminar offered simplistic versions of Jesus as Gnostic mystic, proto-feminist, or apocalyptic prophet. Then other scholars, inspired by the 1945 discovery of alternative Gnostic gospels from the third and fourth centuries, started debunking “the orthodox story of Christian origins” as a myth invented by the winners. This was disingenuous, to say the least, since they well knew that orthodox Christianity had a far greater antiquity than the Gnostic texts. Douthat points out that virtually all biblical scholars agree that St. Paul’s letters are “the oldest extant Christian documents,” and that his earliest letters date from the 50s A.D. Mark’s Gospel is generally dated to the 60s, Matthew’s and Luke’s to the 70s, and John’s to the 90s, while the Gnostic gospels came much later, in the mid-second century at the earliest. Further, St. Paul’s Christianity closely resembles that expressed in the Nicene Creed of A.D. 325. Those on the New Quest showed their bias in 2006 in the hoopla over the Gospel of Judas, an ancient Gnostic text. It was soon discovered that the text had been mistranslated to make Judas a hero.

The second heresy Douthat examines is “Prosperity Theology,” which has roots in E.W. Kenyon’s “New Thought,” the source of Kenneth Hagin’s and Joel Osteen’s pray-and-grow-rich theology. This heresy solves the problem of suffering by “recasting it as a simple failure of piety and willpower.” At its worst, it tends to skip to Easter without “lingering” at the cross on Good Friday, forgetting that strength is found in weakness, defeat, poverty, and renunciation. Douthat tempers such criticism, however, by observing that evangelical Christians as a whole are “the most generous major religious group” in the U.S.: For every dollar they spend on political action, they lavish twelve “on foreign missions and international relief efforts.”

The third heresy is “God Within,” a “mysticism” that gives you the excuse “for doing what you feel like doing anyway, and calling it obedience to a Higher Power or Supreme Self.” This heresy regards evil and suffering as illusory, and repentance, prayer, and charity as unnecessary. Its goal is interior harmony, freedom, and choice, but it leads to solipsism and narcissism. Oprah Winfrey has helped spread this heresy, and so has Elizabeth Gilbert with her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love (2006), in which she tells how she divorced her devoted husband, went on a spiritual quest in Indonesia and India, and discovered that the “supreme Self is our true identity, universal and divine.”

The fourth heresy is American nationalism, which has two sides, messianic and apocalyptic. The messianic side turns democracy into a religion capable of doing the “redemptive work that orthodoxy reserves for Christ and his Church,” while the apocalyptic side envisions our national history as a “downhill slide.” Today these two sides are “bipartisan afflictions.” Each takes its turn in the driver’s seat — the messianic when a favored political party is in power, the apocalyptic when it is out of power — with the result that they go through cycles of “utopian hopes and millennial angst.” Moreover, the two parties are “theological worlds unto themselves,” creating a Manichean landscape of good versus evil where a Christian is pressured to conform his “theology to ideology.”

At the end of this insightful book, Douthat outlines several ways by which Christianity might be renewed in America. One way would be for Christians to “bring their faith to bear on debates about justice and the common good” and show their “allegiance to principle over party.” Another way would be for Christians to accept that our traditional view of sexuality is “more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge.” Finally, Douthat exhorts Christians to orient themselves toward holiness: “Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.” Christianity must be lived again, and not only for its social utility: “Anyone who seeks a more perfect union should begin by seeking the perfection of [his] own soul. Anyone who would save [his] country should first look to save [himself].”



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