Heresy has always been with us, and, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tells us in Bad Religion, that has not necessarily been a bad thing. Heresy can stimulate orthodoxy to clarify itself and perhaps help correct an imbalance in the church. What is different now is that heresy is no longer at the margins of an orthodox center. Today the situation is reversed.
chronicles the decline of orthodox Christianity in the United States from a high point in the 1950s to the present. To begin he illustrates by focusing on four religious leaders who were widely admired in mainstream America–a protestant academic, an evangelical revivalist, a Catholic TV personality, and a Black American preacher. These four (Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) had moral authority and influence that spread across the religious, political, and media landscapes for Christians and non-Christians alike. Today, no Christian (Catholic or Protestant) has the stature of any of them.
From this crest (while recognizing there is no pure, golden age), he walks readers through the accommodationist ideals of liberal Christian leaders and gnostic-admiring academics from the 1960s to the present. Often they walked from orthodoxy to the edges of Christianity before abandoning the faith altogether. He then notes some reactions to these developments as former liberals (such as Ratzinger, Nowak, and Neuhaus) changed course. Also in the 1980s a formerly unthinkable coalition emerged of conservative Catholics and evangelicals.
In part two he focuses on three prominent heresies which have captured the center of American culture: the health and wealth gospel of Joel Osteen and others, the “God-within” spirituality of Oprah and Eat, Pray, Love, and the nationalism of both the left and the right, Republican and Democrat. His ability to critique both ends of the political spectrum is particularly impressive and insightful.
While the book tends to be one of doom and gloom, in the last chapter Douthat suggests several signs that could point to a renewing of orthodoxy such as radical orthodoxy, the emergent church, the “Benedict option,” the community of Latin Mass Catholics, the Christian home-school movement, less-partisan leadership at Focus on the Family, the ecumenical and confessional impulses of one like Timothy Keller, and others.
more is needed, he says, such as a holistic moralism that vigorously critiques greed, gluttony, and pride, while putting issues like homosexuality in perspective. After all, the vast majority of sexual sin is heterosexual, and as Ron Sider notes, the vast majority of harm to children comes via heterosexual sin and divorce.
Not surprisingly Douthat leans right–after all he is calling for a return to orthodoxy from leftward excesses. But sometimes he seems to drift farther from center than needed to reach his goal. Also, he is inclined to sweepingly condemn the combination of politics and religion though he clearly admires the way Niebuhr and King combined the two.
Overall Bad Religion is full of important insights and often shows brilliant balance. The church could do a lot worse than to pay close attention to this book.