Ross Douthat’s Rosy Old-Time Religion

On the eve of the Second World War, the poet and social critic T. S. Eliot delivered a series of lectures about the crisis of the West, subsequently published as a small booklet entitled “The Idea of a Christian Society.” In these talks, Eliot distinguished between the so-called “neutral society” of liberalism, the modern “pagan” (i.e. fascist and communist) societies, and the traditional Christian society. The neutral society of liberalism, Eliot alleged, was merely a negative culture: by “destroying traditional social habits of the people” and “dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents,” liberalism led to “the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.” On account of the privatization of religious belief and conduct, no agreement or unified cultural values are available to the society at large. It did not provide “a way of life for a people,” but left its citizens weak and exposed. 

The only true alternative to modern paganism, which the liberal rightly abhorred, Eliot argued, was a return to a society based upon Christian faith. “I believe the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.” 

“It is only in a society with a religious basis,” he proclaimed, “that you can get the proper harmony and tension, for the individual or for the community.” For Eliot, only such a culture could “match conviction with conviction” and ward off the threat and allure of paganism.

One may be reminded of Eliot’s essay while perusing Ross Douthat’s widely discussed new book, Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics. While Douthat’s own hero-poet is W. H. Auden, the New York Times’ conservative Wunderkind also finds a nation in crisis. Douthat perceives in the financial crash of 2008 and its aftermath a more troubling symptom of American decline. And, like Eliot, he regards our manifold problems—political, social, economic—rooted in a deeper spiritual crisis: the slackening of Christian “orthodoxy” and the turning away from the virtues it had inculcated. For Douthat, “the eclipse of Christian belief has led, inevitably, to the eclipse of public morality and private virtue alike.”

“America,” he writes, “has indeed become less traditionally Christian across the last century, just as religious conservatives insist, with unhappy consequences for our national life.”

Unlike Eliot, however, Douthat is not concerned about the threats of pagan society or of the fragility of neutral secular liberalism. Douthat regards the weakening of orthodoxy as the result of self-inflicted wounds and the displacement of its august faith by what he considers contemporary Christian heresies. “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it,” Douthat claims. “It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (emphasis in original). Orthodoxy had provided both “a moral and theological center for Americans,” as well as “a means of necessary dissent.” Not unbelief, but the prevalence of heretical Christian beliefs, lies at the root of our nation’s decline.  

This is an interesting but unconvincing claim, buttressed by a rather tendentious reading of American history in which the 1950s represents “the lost world,” the high point of a convergence of “traditional” Christian forces.

Much has been written about Douthat’s nostalgic projection. In his brief, highly idealistic, and highly simplistic account, figures as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther King Jr. came together in a consensus of Christian forces, whose “good religion” supported a halcyon age of good morality and apple pie.

“There was a deep and abiding confidence [in the ’50s],” Douthat writes. But then, of course, came the ’60s. Douthat blames the decline of the churches on increasing political polarization (beginning with the war in Vietnam, not the Civil Rights Movement), the passions let loose by the sexual revolution, the development of a “global perspective” which brought the non-Western religions to the attention of Americans (oddly, he does not mention the changes in American culture brought on by the immigration act of 1965), the growing wealth of Americans, and the waning of the East Coast WASP establishment. These factors, he claims, led to a weakening of Christian orthodoxy and its hold over the American spirit. The traditional churches responded by either capitulating to cultural trends or by exercising a culture warrior’s resistance. 

Douthat’s Heretics Gallery: Scholars, Pulp Novelists, and Conspiracy Theorists

What did grow in this sterile soil? Such contemporary heresies like our putative fascination with lost Gnostic writings and Dan Brown novels, in the prosperity gospel proclaimed by the likes of Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, and the ego-stroking self-affirmations of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and the vapidities of Oprahism. For Douthat, such heresy, not un- or anti-Christian, but a perverse misshaping of Christian faith, “actively encourages the sort of recklessness that produced our current economic meltdown, rather than serving as a break on materialism and a rebuke to avarice.” Such false teachings have replaced sin with permissiveness, made virtues of pride and self-love, have led to overreaching messianic policies (domestic and foreign), and stoked apocalyptic fears. 

It’s difficult not to sympathize a bit with Douthat’s critique of contemporary American spirituality, even if he has a penchant for the low-hanging fruit. But this heretical American spiritual seeking is not really anything new, of course. For generations, Americans have been a religiously promiscuous people, attracted to all forms of non-orthodox beliefs and practices. What Douthat sees may be more of a hastening than a transformation.

Moreover, we should pay attention to the way in which Douthat frames his assault on modern heresy, which reveals, I believe, his deeper motivations and fears. Douthat introduces his conception of American heresy with a travesty of biblical scholarship in a chapter that runs from serious scholars of early Christianity, like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, to the popular novelist Dan Brown, to conspiracy-mongerer Glenn Beck. And how do we know that his intention is to connect such disparate figures?  Because Douthat says so, claiming that the academics “speak the language of the conspiratorial pamphlet, the paranoid chain e-mail—or the paperback thriller.”

In the end, Douthat suggests that biblical criticism is not only corrosive of orthodox faith (which it certainly may be) but also leads to a relativism that undergirds the American heretical project: “No account of Christian origins is more authoritative than any other, ‘cafeteria’ Christianity is more intellectually serious than the orthodox attempt to grapple with the entire New Testament buffet, and the only Jesus who really matters is the one you invent for yourself.” He also seems to suggest that scholars such as Pagels are apostles of some neo-gnosticism.

All of which is nonsense, revealing little more than Douthat’s poor understanding of the scholarly project. It does, however, underscore an important point about the author: his conviction that one should place their trust in traditional authorities rather that in those who would challenge them. I suspect that the real problem Douthat has with Pagels and Ehrman, scholars with impressive scholarly credentials, is that they make their research accessible to the broader public. That is, what really is at stake is who has the authority to interpret Scripture, or what Scripture is to begin with.

The “Good” Old Days?

Douthat hopes for another Great Awakening. But if wants us to join him in the pews, Bad Religion presents a weak brief. Douthat never really argues for the plausibility of orthodoxy, conceding that he relies instead on an instrumental case for its value in society. (Indeed, one might ask if social utility ought to be the measure of religious truth or value.) And what are we to make of Douthat’s conception of Christian orthodoxy: “Not the orthodoxy of any specific Christian church, whether Lutheran or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, but the shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early Church.” Douthat claims this was a consensus which included:

the basic dogmas of the faith: Christ’s incarnation and atonement, the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of everlasting life. It includes a belief in the inspiration and authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments with no additional revelations added on and nothing papered over or rejected. It includes an adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and expanded and deepened in the New Testament: a rejection of violence and cruelty, a deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, and a heavy stress on chastity. It includes a commitment to the creeds of the ancient world—Nicene, Apostolic, Athanasian—and to the idea that a church, however organized and governed, should guarantee and promulgate them. And it includes the idea of orthodoxy—the belief that there exists “a faith once delivered to the saints,” and that the core of Christianity is an inheritance from the first apostles, rather than being something that every believer can and should develop for himself.

I’ll leave it to professional theologians to parse this passage. Suffice it to say, however, that this conception of Christianity is more narrow and divisive than Douthat might think or like us to believe. (One suspects it is an argument for the primacy of Catholicism.) In fact, it’s questionable whether Douthat’s own religious champions from the ’50s would fit comfortably within this definition; Graham is a non-creedal evangelical, for example, and the Niebuhrs spoke of a “living tradition,” not the static form of orthodoxy described above.

Douthat seems blithely unaware of the real—and enduring—divisions over matters of doctrine and practice that kept different churches at each other’s throats (sometimes literally) over matters of doctrine. Nor does he consider the historical and political dimensions of these theological problems.

Douthat commends his orthodoxy’s “commitment to mystery and paradox,” in contrast to heretical positions whose “common desire [is] to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.” Indeed, in his celebration of paradox, Douthat sometimes sounds like a modern day Tertullian declaiming his belief in the absurd

Yet, Douthat’s orthodoxy does not have a monopoly on paradox. (He might want to consider some of the great thinkers of the Christian past who have been marked as “heretics,” theologians such as Origen and Meister Eckhart. He might even benefit by auditing a course or two at one of those Ivy League Divinity schools he so disparages.) What is essential to note is that the paradoxes he endorses are the ones that are taught by the authority of the church. Moreover, what Douthat regards as spiritually engaging paradox can otherwise be regarded as “priestcraft” or intellectual obscurantism.

One might argue that orthodoxy’s paradoxes themselves emerged from an attempt to resolve contradictions; that is, the contradictions of the gospels and the tensions of Paul’s own attempts to describe the redemptive work of the Christ/Messiah. Douthat is right, however, to insist that orthodoxy “clearly was a project rather than a simple matter of reading the gospels and believing what they said.”

Douthat’s claims often outpace his knowledge. Only someone unschooled in the history of Christianity and ignorant of the intellectual trends in Judaism and Islam could so confidently proclaim that “the world’s most paradoxical religion [Christianity] has cultivated rationalism and scientific rigor more diligently than any of its rivals, making the Christian world safe for philosophy as well as fervor, for the study of nature as well as the contemplation of divinity.” Or that the proponents of the social gospel “subordinated their faith to a vulgar social Darwinism.”

But Bad Religion’s most glaring flaw is perhaps the most obvious: that the “good old days” were not as good as they seemed. Douthat calls his reading of the ’50s “an interpretation of an era, not a comprehensive history,” yet despite this hedge it is too cheery and one-sided a presentation to do the work he wants it to do; that is, to make us long for those (better) days. The consensus that he endorses was not nearly so strong or as real as he would like, and the American society was marred by ugly social tensions and hypocrisy.   

Likewise, Douthat gives no serious consideration to the Christian societies of the past: places such as medieval Europe, 16th-century Spain, and Puritan New England. A long and honest study of such societies might make Douthat rethink his instrumentalist defense of Christian orthodoxy and the virtues it supposable promulgates. He might have to face the problem of religious persecution and violence, of Inquisitions, torture, and hatred. He might see a past rife with the sin and brutality, enforced less by faith than by coercion. In doing so, he might, contra Eliot, begin to see the wisdom of Liberalism and the privatization of religion it endorses.

In short, while Douthat recommends a society grounded in Christian orthodoxy, his vision is based on an ignorance or forgetfulness of the past. It’s a nostalgic vision of a Christian society, but nostalgia, I’m told, is not a Christian virtue.