Bad Religion, part 2

I am still reading a fascinating new book, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. I posted on this a few blogs back, and would like to unpack the book a little more this morning. As mentioned, Douthat is the new conservative voice on the New York Times op-ed pages. For example, this morning his column appeared in the Omaha World Herald (a critique of President Obama’s current campaign strategy). I read and enjoy his columns because he is unlike most of the über-conservative columnists who start with the premise that our President is evil or an idiot, then scrounge for their daily reasons why (Krauthammer? Sowell?).

But back to the book, Bad Religion. The title itself makes me ask the question, “What is Good Religion for Douthat?” He gives a preliminary answer in his lengthy first chapter, “The Lost World.” In this section, Douthat promotes four individuals from the post-World War II era as examples of “good religion.” He is an honest evaluator, so he knows that all four had faults, weaknesses, blind spots, and personal failings. Yet the four represent societal and cultural movements that were strong in this period, and which were contributing to a resurgent Christianity.

Douthat’s first hero is the great neo-orthodox theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, Douthat celebrates his “quest to make orthodox theology relevant in the academy and in the halls of power alike.” Niebuhr is not read so much these days. I first encountered him thirty years ago while working on my master’s thesis. Niebuhr (along with Karl Barth) called for the abandonment of the idea of essential human goodness and progress, and called Christians to come to grips with the sinfulness of mankind and of society.

Douthat’s second hero is Fulton Sheen, the Roman Catholic bishop who mastered the new technology of television broadcasting to promote a “genial confidence in the underlying theological coherence of the Catholic faith.” Sheen’s straight talk, winsome style, and wide exposure were partly responsible for the possibility of electing a Roman Catholic as President (JFK), an idea that would have been unthinkable a few generations before.

Douthat’s third hero is Billy Graham, a man who almost single-handedly was responsible for creating the Evangelicalism we see today. Graham struck “a delicate balance between Evangelical rigor and openhanded ecumenism, … between warnings about God’s justice and promises of God’s all-encompassing love.” Douthat attributes Graham’s success to his great ability, but also to his willingness to work with mainline Protestants and Catholics in his revival crusades. He also points out that Graham rejected the racism of his Southern upbringing, refusing the request of the city fathers of Little Rock to hold segregated revivals in their city.

Douthat’s fourth hero is Martin Luther King, Jr. Douthat is upfront about some of King’s flaws, seeing him as “a reckless adulterer whose academic work was partially ghostwritten.” But Douthat emphatically states that “no subsequent marriage of Christian faith and political activism has come close to matching [King’s} ability to use the language of Scripture to break down ideological barriers and transcend partisan debates.” It is often forgotten today that King was an ordained Christian minister who preached in a church almost every Sunday. The current version of King has divorced him from his Christian background and principles.

Douthat is well-read and a good student of history, so his accounts are full of interesting tidbits that he uses to characterize the spirit of the 1950s for Christian America. For him, a signal event took place in 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower led a parade of choir members and religious leaders from New York City’s Riverside Church to the site of the new headquarters for the National Council of Churches. Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for this nineteen story building, paid for by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The stone had been excavated from the site of ancient Corinth, making the event seem almost biblical in its significance. This building was intended to be the “Protestant Vatican” in the thriving city that served as the capital of the world with the headquarters of the United Nations not too far away. (It has recently been rechristened the “Interchurch Center.”) A few pages later, however, Douthat points out that this same Eisenhower remarked that American democracy depended on “a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

More to come on my analysis of this book as it moves to characterize and critique current trends in the church, and then to offer its look at the future.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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