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.
Douthat also reserves, in this chapter, a particular scorn for Glenn Beck and Cleon Skousen. They, I think, are worthy targets. However, Douthat goes to no effort to point out that as Mormons go, they are extremists. There is a subtlety here that should be examined in detail. Douthat chooses to discuss the problems he sees with the church today as “heresies.” Heresy is a theological term meaning, “An opinion or a doctrine at variance with established religious beliefs, especially dissension from or denial of Roman Catholic dogma by a professed believer or baptized church member.” Most of what he discusses in the book is rooted in heresy, somewhere, but he goes to no effort to distinguish the heresy from the consequence of the heresy. There are many heresies that are of little or no consequence in political or other behavior. Most of the Mormons I know would agree with the problems that Douthat finds in the church today because their particular heresies are of the type that are relatively inconsequential. However, by not distinguishing heresy from the consequences of heresy and not distinguishing between Beck/Skousen from more normative Mormons he creates the impression that Mormonism is one of the great heresies he is railing against. As we have discussed on this blog numerous times, we prefer the word “heterodoxy” to “heresy” when discussing Mormonism because of the highly pejorative nature of the word “heresy” and because “heterodoxy” is more theologically distinct and less prone to confusion with the consequences. Douthat’s NYTimes column is begrudgingly supportive of Romney – one begins to wonder.
Finally, in the chapter on politics, Douthat comes off as if he has appointed himself near papal levels of authority. On page 272, Douthat writes, “The failure of Catholic bishops and high-profile Evangelicals to influence their co-religionists on this issue isn’t entirely surprising.” I found this tone quite off-putting. By portraying this judgement as a foregone and obvious conclusion, he portrays those bishops and leaders as foolish, and himself as smarter than all of them combined. That is the first sentence of a paragraph, not its concluding one – had he laid out his facts and arguments, then such a conclusion might be “unsurprising,” but to have it be “unsurprising” before his case has been made is a bit prideful. Douthat spends much time in the book discussing the need for a “humble” approach to culture and politics and yet there is little humble in forming the judgments he makes in this fashion. It is this tone and “above the fray” approach that accounts for some of my visceral dislike of the book, while agreeing with much that it has to say. But my “gut level reaction” runs a bit deeper.
About Those Impressions…
Imagine that someone you deeply love, a spouse or a child, is very ill. After much examination the doctor sits you down and in exquisite detail describes the symptoms of the illness, the causes of at least some of the symptoms, and the trail of logic that he followed to arrive at his diagnosis. In living with and loving the ill person, you are already aware of much, if not most, of what you are being told, but you sit through it in the conviction that the doctor is using this discussion to provide a framework that you can use to understand and make a judgement about proposed treatments. Instead, once the doctor pronounces the diagnosis he says, “Well, that about wraps it up,” and begins to leave the room. “So, they are just going to die?!” you shout at the doctor’s rapidly retreating back. The doctor pivots and says, quite briefly, that there are a few hopeful signs, but, “I would not hold my breathe.” Then he runs out the door.
That is exactly the feeling you get when reading this book, at least if you love the Church. In fact, the penultimate chapter about political polarization concludes in a fashion indicating the book ends when the chapter ends. The final chapter, the chapter that Tim Keller’s summary that opens this post spends most of its time on, seems an afterword or a postscript. One is forced to wonder if Douthat handed in his first manuscript without the final chapter and his publisher looked at him and said, “You CANNOT end this book this way.” The last chapter is the shortest chapter of the book, the least researched (at least if footnotes are any judge of the level of research) and its tone is best described as “begrudging.” Admission that there is anything good happening within the Christian sphere in America has to be pulled out of Douthat with as much difficulty as a healthy tooth extraction.
I think there are few people that think the general state of Christianity in America is healthy, but I think there are fewer still that would say it is fatally ill – yet such seems to be Douthat’s contention. As Keller quotes Douthat above, the book was “written in a spirit of pessimism.” It is my contention; however, that in being so pessimistic Douthat misses the point of much of what it means to be Christian and especially what it means to be Christian in America. By Douthat’s own admission, Christianity has survived much over the millenia of its existence – in my opinion some of it much worse than the place it finds itself now. It simply defies logic to be pessimistic in the face of that history. There are three specific areas where I think Douthat misses the boat on what it means to be Christian that I want to discuss.
Douthat portrays Christianity in America as if it is shaped by the social and cultural forces around it. It is true that often throughout history the church has punted on its role to be a shaper of culture and society – choosing to follow instead of the lead – but that can only ever be a temporary condition. The church rests on a different foundation than society and culture generally. This leads to perhaps my largest objection to the book taken as a whole. Douthat treats the church as if it is entirely a materialistic and worldly institution, while claiming to be a believer. With such a treatment it seems that the church belongs to us instead of we belonging to the church and the church belonging to God. Put bluntly, Douthat’s grim view seems devoid of any expectation of supernatural action.
Douthat never really declares an audience for his book. However, it seems silly that such a lament of the sorry state of an institution would be written to an audience outside the institution. Why bother? Those outside an institution do not value it sufficiently to be concerned about its survival. Therefore, we must assume that Douthat’s intended audience are those of us in Christianity in America, and particularly those of us that love it. Given that audience, why would we shun mention of the the Almighty and His action amongst us?
I suppose there are some who would contend that if we acknowledge that this is “all part of God’s plan” a sort of fatalism would result that means we would not seek to address the many real problems the book describes. However, I would contend that absent mention of supernatural forces in our midst the book itself is equally, if not more, fatalistic. For those of us of faith, due entirely to the supernatural wind at our backs, the insurmountable becomes surmountable. It often remains extraordinarily difficult, but the power granted to us by the God we worship does make the seemingly impossible, possible.
Religion is the only institution standing in America that can claim authority independent of and higher than the will of the people as expressed in both market and electoral forces. Christianity is unique amongst religions, even in its wobbly state, in having the humility not to exercise that authority autocratically, but seeking instead to exercise it through subtler means of influence. That authority and the winsomeness that results from the inherent humility of Christianity are powerful tools that remain uniquely at the Church’s disposal. That we are not using these tools effectively at the moment does not mean that we cannot. Small changes in attitude, outlook and approach can, with such powerful tools at our disposal, produce mighty changes.
Let’s return to the question of Douthat’s intended audience for this book for a moment. As we have said, it seems logical that the audience is inside Christianity, but that said, it also seems clear that the book is intended for the educated elite inside Christianity. The knowledge Douthat assumes for his reader as indicated by his vocabulary and references is quite substantial. I find this problematic; Christianity at its very root is anything but elitist. Time and again throughout the history of the church, when it has stood on the brink it has been pulled back not by the actions of its leader elite, but by the action and faith of the “rabble” that fill the pews and the plates.
The formal ministry of Christ can be interpreted as fomenting an uprising of the common Jew against the elite Jewish authority of the day. One should not make too much of this interpretation or risk viewing Christ primarily in political terms, but the understanding remains real nonetheless. Christ did not go to Rome and recruit political leaders to His cause, nor did He go to Jerusalem and recruit the religious elite to His cause. He recruited among the locals in His native Galilee – people that could read and write, but their education may have extended no further. The Apostle Paul, who came after Christ left the earth, is the first elite to join the cause of Christianity, but even then the Basilica in Rome does not rest on Paul’s tomb, instead it is on the tomb of a Galilean fisherman.
The “50,000 ft. view” that Douthat takes in his book makes invisible the lives of thousands of Christian individuals that do not participate in the trends he describes or hold the “heresies” he condemns. Everyday, in a million little ways, the reality of Christ is made real in the action of individual followers and each of those actions speaks volumes to those not in Christianity. If the issues Douthat describes are to addressed, it will not happen because he described them any better than anyone else, or becasue of a thousand academic papers that follow in the wake of the book. The kind of changes necessary to contend with the problems Douthat describes will not be wrought by a sermon or a program at a church, or even most churches. Such changes are not forged in world of ideas. The changes needed will happen because the people in the church change. Such change occurs in the context of relationship, not thought – personal one-on-one interaction, not the writings of the smart and credentialed.
Though it is cliche’ the heart of the Christian message is one of love. Not the mushy, “tolerant of all things” love we are so often told about, but a genuine love, born of deeds not words and that wants the best for the people and society around us. From such love flows the consequences of cultural and societal influence that Douthat mourns losing. I find it fascinating that when the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians at Thessaloniki and urges the to love, he does so by urging them to a “quiet life.”
1Thes 4:9-12 – Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you; so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need. (NAS)
Note how love for one another leads to behaving “properly towards outsiders.” This is an individual thing, not an institutional thing nor a “movement.” It is lived out in individuals lives on a daily basis. Christ did not change the world, He changed twelve men and a handful of women, and they changed some and they changed some, and so it went. If that is the model Jesus set for world shattering change, who are we do do or think differently?
After love, yet another essence of Christianity is hope. In what may be the most oft-quoted extended passage of the Bible, I Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul discusses the the three things that abide – faith, hope and love. Douthat’s book, in its professed pessimism, and eloquent description of everything wrong with Christianity in America is essentially hopeless. Yet if hope is one of the three abiding things of Christianity can we accept such a book as valid critique? To critique something one must understand it, yet this book seems to have no grasp of the essential nature of hope to Christianity.
In another letter, this one to the Christians residing in Rome, the Apostle Paul says:
Rom 5:3-5 – And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (NAS)
According to Paul, the very circumstances Douthat so eloquently describes produce hope and that “hope does not disappoint;” yet Douthat seems almost entirely disappointed.
Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion” should be one of the most important books to come along in quite some time. Douthat has worked himself into a unique position to be a voice for Christianity in our nation. Serious Christian voices are not generally heard in the pages of the New York Times, and being there gives Douthat a reach that few writers of faith can ever aspire to. Any treatment for an illness must begin with a reasonable diagnosis – Douthat has crafted an eloquent and thorough one.
Of the five forces to which he attributes the decline of Christianity in the nation, he is wrong on only one account, and that is in the details, not the general. Political polarization is indeed problematic for the Church. However, the political humility that Douthat rightly calls for is not expressed in compromising our stance on many key issues as Douthat seems to contend. Rather it is expressed in how we press our point on those issues.
But by stopping with the diagnosis, and most importantly in expressing that diagnosis in such a morbid and self-admitted pessimistic fashion, Douthat fails to establish credibility, at least within the Christian community, for it. Therefore, the diagnosis eloquent though it may be will never be effectively operative. That is a crying shame because it ought to be.