Monday, April 30, 2012

Ross Douthat's "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics"

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you care about religious life in America — or if you hate religion, siding with the New Atheists — you must read this broad, deep study of Christianity in the United States since World War II. Throughout, Douthat, a practicing Catholic, maintains a striking balance while discuss four main strains of Christian practice in America: Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, Evangelicalism, and the African-American churches. 

The story begins with a Christian renaissance in the 1950s that is stupefying to remember today. Just fifty years ago, each of these four church segments was booming. This boom was personified by four major figures: the Catholic bishop and TV personality Fulton Sheen, the esteemed Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the first televangelist Billy Graham, and the Civil Rights leader and minister, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. 

Douthat analyzes the cultural shifts that coincided with the end of the boom. These include the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and globalization. The final half of the book describes and bemoans Christian life in America today. From first to last, Douthat keeps his focus on the Heretics of his subtitle. Heresy occurs any time a Christian takes portions of the faith and discards others, using for his or her purposes only those portions that suit them. He quotes Alister McGrath, who writes that heresy "is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than by design, ultimately ends up subverting subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith."

In our times, Douthat analyzes three forms of heresy:

1. The Pray and Get Rich school of New Age evangelists, many found as pastors of megachurches, who preach knocking at the door of success, for as the Gospel teaches, He will answer. 

2. The God Within school, a group of ecstatically happy "Christians" led by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and reading the likes of "Eat Pray Love," who believe that God is within themselves and that being happy and nice is about the sum of the Gospel teaching. 

3. The nationalist heresy, in which one's true religion is America and one's religious life is forced to allgn with the political polarities of contemporary life: If you are a conservative Cathoilc, you must not only be pro-life but anti-Democrat, and so on. 

Finally, Douthat proposes ways in which contemporary Christians of any stripe can recover their faith. Here he cites authentic Christian witness as the sine qua non of recovery, quoting Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI:

"The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb."

For me, a Protestant-turned-Catholic born in 1951 who lived through this entire era, from altar boy to adult altar server, Douthat's encyclopedic knowledge is as impressive as his even-handedness. An example of the latter is pointedly reminding readers of the terrible sins of priests within the Catholic Church or the womanizing of the sainted Dr. King. 

If I could give this book six stars, I would do so.

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