I cannot think of a time when I have read a book where I agreed with so much of what was said, and yet so viscerally disliked it than when I read New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion.“ While I have a couple of arguments with the book, I found the tone, and to a large extent the writing, simply disagreeable. But to start things off, a brief summary of the book is in order. Pastor Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, about whom Douthat has several complimentary things to say in the book, wrote a good synopsis at the Gospel Coalition blog, so I shall borrow:
Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion attributes Christianity’s decline in the United States to:
- political polarization that has sucked churches into its vortex;
- the sexual revolution that has undermined the plausibility of Christian faith and practice for an entire generation;
- globalization that has made the exclusive claims of Christianity seem highly oppressive;
- materialism and consumerism that undermines commitment to anything higher than the self; and
- alienation of the cultural elites and culture-shaping institutions from Christianity.
What, if anything, can we do about the decline of Christianity? This question has triggered an entire generation of books and blogs. Douthat’s book is mainly descriptive and critical. He even admits that the book was “written in a spirit of pessimism.” Yet he rightly responds that for any Christian, “pessimism should always be provisional.” So in his last chapter he very briefly proposes four factors that could lead to the “recovery of Christianity.”
First, he speaks of the “postmodern opportunity.” The same relativism and rootlessness that has weakened the church is also proving exhausting rather than liberating to many in our society….
Second, he notes the opposite impulse at work, the “Benedict option”—a new monasticism that does not seek engagement with culture but rather the formation of counter-cultural communities that “stand apart . . . and inspire by example rather than by engagement.”…
Third, he cites “the next Christendom,” meaning the explosively growing Christian churches of the former Third World could evangelize the West….
Finally, he proposes that “an age of diminished [economic] expectations”—along with the devastation of the sexual revolution and the exhaustion of postmodern rootlessness—could lead to the masses again looking to Christianity for hope and help. A church that could welcome them, he warns, would need three qualities. First, it would have to be political without being partisan. That is, it would have to equip all its members to be culturally engaged through vocation and civic involvement without identifying corporately with one political party. Second, it would have to be confessional yet ecumenical. That is, the church would have to be fully orthodox within its theological and ecclesiastical tradition yet not narrow and harsh toward other kinds of Christians. It should be especially desirous of cooperation with non-Western Christian leaders and churches. Third, the church would not only have to preach the Word faithfully, but also be committed to beauty and sanctity, the arts, and human rights for all. In this brief section he sounds a lot like Lesslie Newbigin and James Hunter, who have described a church that can have a “missionary encounter with Western culture.”
Let’s start with my arguments…
…with the book and then move to the impressions. My arguments lie almost entirely in his chapter on political polarization. On the one hand I agree, deeply, with the essential thesis of the chapter (page 273):
In the Bush era, liberal consistently portrayed the right wing version of this temptation as a theocratic menace to American democracy. But the real danger has less to do with the specter of an oppressive ecclesiastical dominance of politics – which was never a plausible fear in a religiously diverse society – than with the political corruption of religious witness. The present danger to our democracy isn’t that Christianity has gained too much power and influence over our politics. Rather it’s that the heresy of nationalism co-option of Christian faith has left the faith too weak to play the kind of positive rile it has often played in public life.
But the descriptives of the problem and the specific examples he chooses seem designed more to be deliberately moderate than to be examples of where the church may have been co-opted by political aims. Note how the paragraph quoted focuses on co-option coming from the right, ignoring the accommodations of the left to which he devoted an entire early chapter, though not a politically focused chapter. He seems to have a special animus for George W. Bush, and while he never uses the word “cowboy,” his discussion of Bush seems to drip with the implication. One is forced to wonder if Douthat’s political viewpoint is not based more in discussions with his NYTimes colleagues than it is in thinking through the issues, his Catholic faith in hand. Douthat reserves special scorn for the Iraq war and for waterboarding. He is dogmatic in his rejection of these policies without giving them the kind of scrutiny and consideration that the rest of his book calls for. In other words, when he comes off his lofty perch and gets into the weeds, he is guilty of the very sins he seeks to condemn.
To some extent, the second argument I have with him has been overtaken by events. He neglects, almost entirely, the fact that conservative Christians have been pulled into the political arena kicking and screaming. I think the church universal would like nothing more than to get out of the political game, but as government has been the proverbial camel with its nose in the tent of the Church’s business; the Church has had little option. At the time the book was released the latest, and perhaps most brazen, of the government intrusions (Obama’s HHS ruling) had not come down, but the pattern was already well established. Roe v Wade remains the most morally repugnant of such intrusions, but it is far less coercive on the church proper than much that has followed in its wake. There is a limit to how much intrusion the church can accommodate before it must enter the fray or risk eviction from its own spheres. To the extent that Douthat acknowledges this, and that once politics is engaged things will get soiled, he seems to neglect that reality when the discussion gets particular. For Douthat, when it gets specific, there seems to be no battle lines, there is only negotiation and treaty. One must wonder if the church can be preserved through such continual, if more peaceful, erosion.