Bad Religion: Ross Douthat’s Take on American Christianity

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been reporting on the new book by Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. In the last post about this, I gave Douthat’s heroes of “Good Religion” from the 1940s and 1950s: Reinhold Niebuhr, Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In this post I would like to lay out Douthat’s take on what happened to American Christianity in the 1960s and 1970s. He identifies five major factors (what he calls “catalysts”) that caused the very quick disintegration of the American Christian consensus from the immediate post-war period.

First is what Douthat labels “political polarization.” By this he means the increasing identification of certain streams of American Christianity with a certain political ideology. Eventually, this became wedded to America’s two-party system so that mainline Protestant and African American churches were aligned with the Democratic party, and conservative or evangelical churches were aligned with the Republican party. For Douthat, the culmination of this was the presidential candidacy of Christian ministers from both sides: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Pat Robertson.

Second, are the “debates surrounding the sexual revolution.” By this, Douthat is referring to a radical shift of American sexual morés based.on the introduction of the contraceptive “pill.”. As Douthat puts it, “By separating sex from procreation more completely than any previous technology, … the birth control pill also severed the cultural connection between Christian ethics and American common sense.”

Third, Douthat tracks the rise of a “global perspective as the lens through which more and more Americans viewed their world.” What he means by this was the turning of America from a Western, European perspective to look at cultures throughout the world. This included the embrace of Eastern faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Added to this was a re-examination of the implications of the Holocaust, a genocide carried out against European Jews by a supposedly Christian nation. Douthat describes this as “a persistent sense of embarrassment about Christianity itself.” This trend led to an America defined by “relativism, individualism, and pluralism,” where historic Christianity no longer had a place of privilege or honor in national affairs, or in the lives of most citizens.

Fourth, Douthat notes the inability of American Christians to deal with “the religious consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth.” Douthat quotes the observation of John Wesley, “wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.” Collateral damage for this trend was a decline in religious vocation. As Douthat puts it, “Entering the ministry had always involved sacrifice, but the scale of that sacrifice grew considerably steeper during the 1960s and ’70s.”

Douthat’s fifth catalyst was “the element of class.” The elite of American society increasingly rejected the beliefs and moral practices of Christianity. “All Serious People understood that the only reason to pay attention to traditional Christianity was to subject it to a withering critique.” This was the in some ways the culmination of the first four catalysts:political polarization, rejection of Christian morality, spiritual globalization, and the extraordinary wealth of Americans. The elites now seemed to say, “it wasn’t just that the faith of Peter and Paul, Charlemagne and Aquinas, Luther and Erasmus, John Winthrop and George Washington suddenly seem anachronistic. It was something more devastating than this. Among the tastemakers and power brokers and intellectual agenda setters of late-twentieth century America, orthodox Christianity was completely déclassé” [fallen from a high status to a low status]. The result was a shift “away from institutional religion and toward a more do-it-yourself and consumer-oriented spirituality.” This led to the heresies of the current religious landscape in America.

I will do one more blog on this to outline what Douthat sees these current heresies to be, and then give some comments about his entire project. If you are interesting in reading more Douthat, check out his blog at ross douthat evaluations.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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