Bad Religion and a Nation of Heretics

I have been reading the new book by Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Douthat is a rising star in the political commentator world. He became an op-ed columnist for the New York Times in 2009 at the tender age of 29. He is seen as the NYT’s replacement for William Kristol, the long-time conservative voice for the NYT editorial page.

I will blog more fully about this book at a later date, but wanted to mention what Douthat’s basic argument is. He sees the current religious situation in America as the result of the erosion of orthodox Christianity in the last fifty years. The main tenets of historic Christianity have been compromised both on the right and on the left (according to Douthat), leaving us with “bad religion,” and causing us to become a “nation of heretics.”

I have always understood Christian heresy as the overemphasis of a single doctrine (sometimes even a biblical doctrine) to override any tensions that exist in Christian theology and understanding. For example, the Gnostics had problems with the human nature of the Messiah, and overemphasized his divine nature. This was done several ways in Gnostic thought, but the end was a Jesus who really could not die because he was not fully human. This destroyed the idea of sacrificial atonement for human sins, and Gnosticism tended toward salvation through secret knowledge or enlightenment as an alternative. Heresy.

Douthat understands this in a similar way, believing that a commitment to orthodox Christianity is a commitment to both mystery and paradox.  He recognizes that there are many seemingly irreconcilable elements to Christian doctrine, and that we must be content with a certain level of mystery in their solution, meaning they are sometimes beyond human understanding or current revealed knowledge. Douthat puts it this way:

Thus orthodox Christian insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament’s God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God’s Kingdom for all extremes of human life–fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.

So far I like what I am reading. Douthat promises to look at such characters as Chris Hitchens, Oprah Winfrey, Joel Osteen, Glenn Beck, and Dan Brown. It sounds very intriguing.

If your are interested, you can find a long interview of Douthat by Andrew Sullivan here. It is a fascinating video, because Sullivan and Douthat share Roman Catholic roots and presuppositions, but have arrived at very different places in their spiritual odysseys.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College


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