In essence, the book is a look at the interplay between American Christianity and American society in modern times, with special emphasis on what he considers the rather depressed and malformed state of the former.
The subtitle of Bad Religion is this: “How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” Borrowing Alistair McGrath’s definition of heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith,” Douthat attempts to show how American Christianity has lost its orthodox prophetic edge in the United States.
To do so, Douthat spends the first half of his book analyzing how we arrived at our current state. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, he looks to figures like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, evangelist Billy Graham, television personality and Roman Catholic bishop Fulton Sheen, and civil rights activist, pastor and theologian Martin Luther King, Jr. For Douthat, each of these represent American Christianity at its height, exuding what he calls “confidence” (53) and an ability to transcend borders and boundaries.
Following this, he charts the decades that followed–the “locust years,” as he calls them. During this era–beset with emerging concerns (he lists political polarization, the sexual revolution, global perspectives, the problem of wealth, and class), American Christianity began to decline and fracture. Numbers declined in previously robust mainline and Roman Catholic churches, and with it some of the influential positions they had previously held.
In response, many mainline denominations headed down the path of liberal accommodation, finding along the way that this was not the answer to their losses. Other churches (notably evangelical denominations and, increasingly, segments of Roman Catholicism) chose resistance to the changing times. Though especially in evangelical circles this time period did lead to growth, the last few decades have also marred Catholics with the shameful sex abuse scandal and evangelicals with too close association with the militarism, missteps, and mistakes of the George W. Bush era.
For now, I’ll simply say that I find much to admire in Douthat’s thought, prose, and ability to synthesize and articulate a wide range of materials. I felt as if I were reliving the entirely of my PhD candidacy (American Church History) all over again during the reading of this book…and in a good way! It is a monograph I wish I had written myself. Though as an historian I may question some of the claims he is making here (especially–as is often done–a temptation towards the pseudo-sanctification of the 1950s as the height of all things), his footnotes reveal that he has done his homework.
Douthat’s argument does remind us that things were different in mid-century America. Individuals with wide influence like Niebuhr, Graham, Sheen, and–especially–MLK bestrode America like Colossi. The pervasiveness of this “consensus Christianity” was important, even as it probably covered over the differences that eventually disrupted it in the years that followed. (Or was it perhaps–somewhat less dramatically–just simply apathy or custom that led American to be so “Christian” in the 1950s and early 1960s?)
In any case, Bad Religion‘s read of accommodation vs. resistance makes sense, and anticipates Douthat’s discussion of heresy. The move from a “both/and” to “either/or” approach is one of these haunting developments, as is the emergence of optimistic utopianism…for once again, he asserts, we have confused the City of God with the City of Man.
(to be continued)