Ross Douthat, the youngest writer to win a regular spot among New York Times columnists, is a promising recruit to the tribe of public intellectuals. He is a cultural conservative, which stirs my sympathy, and a political conservative, which doesn’t. Either way, he regularly writes as though he knows there is something to be said for the other side.

That awareness is evident a little too intermittently in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, a readable, thought-provoking book that in my view should be labeled Good Religion, Bad History. Why it is bad history, and bad in a way of particular interest to Commonweal readers, can hold for a moment. First, a description of his case for good religion.

The roots of our nation’s current plight, Douthat argues, are essentially religious. Like Matthew Arnold, he believes that “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full”; but its long retreat has left us on a darkling plain “Where ignorant armies clash by night.” For Arnold, that “once” was the Middle Ages; for Douthat (b. 1979), it is 1950.

In postwar America, he argues, the religious establishment—the old mainline churches, the rising evangelicals, and a solid Roman Catholicism—provided “a moral and theological center,” an “invisible mortar for our culture and a common vocabulary for our great debates.” In the various revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s, the center, to echo another poet, did not hold. Novel heresies had always been thick on the ground in America, but now this “slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity” let “destructive pseudo-Christianities” flourish unchecked. They fed our worst impulses toward self-infatuation, avarice, and national overreach.

So “America’s problem isn’t too much religion,” as the left imagines, “or too little of it,” as the right laments. According to Douthat, “It’s bad religion.”

Good religion, by contrast, is Christian orthodoxy, which Douthat sums up, in several places, with impressive deftness. He lists “basic dogmas”—incarnation, atonement, Trinity, virgin birth, everlasting life, authority of Scripture—along with the Ten Commandments, the ancient creeds, and a church, “however organized and governed,” to safeguard them. This consensus, he insists, cannot be understood apart from mystery and paradox, and he underlines all the tensions that have defined orthodoxy: Jesus as divine and human; the godhead as three and one; the world as broken and yet good; and so on. Heresy is almost always an effort to banish these tensions, to render the faith simpler and more coherent. Predictably, he quotes G. K. Chesterton’s image of orthodoxy as the “whirling adventure” of a heavenly chariot behind a team of horses swerving this way and that to avoid obstacles and keep on course.

After tracing the increasing debility of this good religion in the 1960s and ’70s and then its incomplete revival in the ’80s and ’90s, Douthat devotes the final third of his book to dissecting the bad religion that followed. Here are the Scripture scholars whose slicing, dicing, and reassembling of a Jesus du jour flowed smoothly into The Da Vinci Code. Here are Joel Osteen, megachurch pastor and best-selling TV pitchman for the prosperity gospel, and all his “name it and claim it” kin. Here are Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, James Redfield, and other proselytizers of self-esteem and “the God Within.” Here, finally, is Glenn Beck, apostle of apocalyptic and conspiratorial nationalism.

These pages are informative and insightful, and unavoidably entertaining. Although some of Douthat’s targets deserve a more exacting critique, it is hard to deny that taken overall these heresies have nurtured “solipsism and anti-intellectualism, jingoism and utopianism, selfishness and greed.”

But do they really explain the nation’s current plight? Without the Jesus Seminar, Elaine Pagels, and Dan Brown, without Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey, and the like, would the United States have been spared voodoo economics, Oval Office lust and presidential impeachment, starry-eyed faith in market self-correction, precarious and predatory financial dealings that propelled millions of people into economic ruin, the willful pursuit of an unnecessary war in Iraq, the tax-cut-and-spend policies of a Republican administration and its Democratic accomplices?

In his opening pages, Douthat takes glancing notice of several other “comprehensive” explanations of these follies. But “the most potent theories,” he promptly declares, “involve religion.” That emphasis naturally appeals to people like me and readers of this magazine. But is it justified? It is easy to see how Douthat’s popular heresies became fodder for mass entertainment, glitterati culture, and grass-roots movements. It is less easy to see how they infected the souls and minds of powerful decision makers. If there is a thread connecting the deconstruction of Scripture, the prosperity gospel, or the religion of self-esteem to the triumphs of Alan Greenspan and Dick Cheney, Douthat needs to demonstrate how that thread passed through the University of Chicago school of economists, the neoconservative think tanks, or the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard. Perhaps less of our disarray is due to heresy and more to plain old stupidity. Or even sin.

To be sure, it is almost unanimously granted that, as Douthat says, the “orthodox center” of American Christianity lost its cultural ascendancy during the 1960s and ’70s, and only a little less unanimously acknowledged that this entailed the loss of moral and intellectual antibodies that might have staved off many of the nation’s later fevers, whether one sees those instantiated in Monica--gate, “Mission Accomplished,” or Madoff. No argument there.

Nor is there any question that this decline was succeeded by an upsurge of Evangelical religious energy and political mobilization allied to neoconservative Catholics and the traditionalist bishops and movements favored by John Paul II—but that this countermovement, in turn, fell short of replacing the old orthodox center.

Douthat, however, doesn’t simply maintain that this happened. The subject of his book is how it happened. And here is where Bad Religion passes over into bad history.

That history is constructed around dichotomies: the “Lost World” of postwar Christian ascendancy versus the “Locust Years” of cultural revolution; the “Accommodation” of Christians who “adapted” Christianity to the new social and cultural mood versus the “Resistance” of Christians who kept the faith and opted for cultural conservatism.

Douthat proves skillful in jamming a lot of material into these rather procrustean categories, even if it sometimes requires playing loose with chronology and moving his religious markers around to fit the scheme. To personify the range of postwar orthodox Christianity, for example, he chooses Reinhold Niebuhr and Billy Graham for Protestants, John Courtney Murray and Fulton Sheen for Catholics, and Martin Luther King Jr. for African-American Christians. One might very well ask why King belongs in this period of consensus rather than in the conflict-ridden 1960s, which would of course give a different cast to those supposed “locust years.” There is little sense of the turmoil, in the North as well as South, of the civil-rights struggles, or the trauma of Vietnam. The Catholic bishops’ letter on nuclear warfare, once page-one news, goes unmentioned. The sexual revolution gets big play, but the women’s movement and the dramatic reconfiguration of work and family life are virtually missing.

From time to time Douthat has the good sense to stop and concede that his framework is somewhat arbitrary, for example that “a different set of emphases and shadings would yield a very different”—and less imposing—“portrait of American Christianity at midcentury.”

There are no such concessions when he writes about the years that followed and the collapse of that religious center. “Accommodation,” for Douthat, was essentially a slack, cowardly, and possibly corrupt surrender to the zeitgeist. It was a nearly gleeful abandonment of traditional beliefs.

When he writes of “Resistance,” on the other hand, it is essentially the notable convergence of Evangelicals and Catholics brought together by First Things, run aground, unfortunately, on the Catholic sexual-abuse crisis and an Evangelical weakness for right-wing ideology and the Bush presidency. Douthat is not uncritical of this resistance; but its failings are rendered as marginal and its protagonists spared the moral obloquy and nasty gossip doled out to accommodationists. It is clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Douthat weaves the story of Protestant accommodation around Harvey Cox and James Pike. Cox certainly qualifies as a representative figure, especially since he theologized each change in the religious climate. But Pike? I can think of at least a dozen better claimants (including King) to represent Protestant thought and cultural presence during the 1960s.

Douthat’s rendering of the Catholic accommodation is similarly skewed. The footnotes suggest that it is based on the polemical accounts of conservatives like James Hitchcock, George A. Kelly, Malachi Martin, Richard John Neuhaus, and Philip F. Lawler. When Catholic “accommodationists” turn up in the text, they are usually “quoted in Kelly” or in Hitchcock or Martin or someone else. This is disappointing. In his New York Times columns, Douthat does not strike me as doctrinaire or lacking in curiosity or generosity. So why limit his exploration of those at the center of this story to what their enemies choose to report about them? Had he not relied so uncritically on hostile sources, he would have avoided a lot of exaggerations, undocumented rumors, urban legends, and plain misstatements.

One telling example will have to suffice. A major exhibit for Douthat is “The Revolution in the Church,” an article by Thomas Sheehan in the June 14, 1984, issue of the New York Review of Books. According to Sheehan, a post–Vatican II “liberal consensus” of Catholic theologians and exegetes had accomplished nothing less than the complete “dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology.”

How did Douthat find the Sheehan article? One doubts that he was reading the New York Review of Books at age five or just happened upon it years later. And why did he plump whole hog for Sheehan’s description? Is the New York Review the go-to place for information about liberal Catholicism?

I assume that whatever source alerted him to the Sheehan article did not alert him to the subsequent critiques of its accuracy in the pages of this journal (I was then the editor) by David Tracy and Andrew Greeley, with a reply by Sheehan, further Tracy and Greeley rebuttals, plus the comments of a dozen theologians and exegetes, most of them challenging Sheehan’s views. Bottom line to a multifaceted discussion of fundamental matters: Sheehan’s version of the “liberal consensus” was radically misleading.

Douthat’s monotone picture of accommodation simply has no room for this kind of give-and-take. Likewise, in highlighting vulnerable quotations from Harvey Cox’s The Secular City he seems unaware that even that best-selling book did not get a free pass. Leading Protestant and Catholic thinkers were quick with questions and pointed criticism. Within a year, then Commonweal executive editor Daniel Callahan published many of their essays in The Secular City Debate, along with Cox’s own rejoinders and second thoughts.

What Douthat chooses to call the “locust years” were at least a decade and a half of intense social turmoil that probably suffered more than the usual quota of intellectual lockstep and hasty enthusiasms. That those years might also have involved honest, thoughtful, even painful, reconsiderations in the face of developments that could not be brushed aside, like the sometimes violent struggle for African-American equality, seemingly intractable warfare abroad, feminism, the sexual revolution, the appeal of Asian religions, and a quantum leap of historical consciousness among Catholics, escapes his and his sources’ imagination. One can run through issue after issue and discover serious debate, steps in one direction and then another, thinkers who confounded party lines, initiatives hesitant or bold and, yes, resistance. Was it simply accommodation? “Engagement” would be as good a term.

Bad Religion closes with Douthat’s hopes for “the recovery of Christianity.” A renewed Christianity, he argues, should be “political without being partisan”; “ecumenical but also confessional”; “moralistic but also holistic” (i.e., concerned with the Christian life as a whole rather than a narrow list of “thou shalt nots”); and finally “oriented toward sanctity and beauty.”

Well, Amen to that. Good advice, and capped with a movingly straightforward appeal to the reader to touch again the sources of Christian faith. But the capacity to be “political without being partisan” or “moralistic but also holistic” involves wisdom, empathy, prudence, courage, and imagination well beyond what is sketched in Douthat’s final nine pages of anecdotal examples and exhortative generalizations. Nurturing those capacities will not be done on the basis of a dichotomized, polemical history of the recent past.

Bad Religion is lively, provocative, informative, and useful as well as simplistic and misleading. It is a good book by a talented author. It could have been a lot better.

Related: Jim Sleeper's review of Grand New Party by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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Published in the 2012-05-04 issue: View Contents
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