Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, traces the decline of institutional Christianity in post-war America. Mr. Douthat recently sat down with Wunderkammer to discuss the book’s argument as well as its reception.
Wunderkammer: How long was the book germinating in your mind before you decided something needed to be said along the lines of your argument? When and why did you feel the need to articulate a thesis about orthodoxy and American heresy? How did you envision your critique as distinct from other critiques of weakening religious institutionalization and watered down theology?
Ross Douthat: The book has probably been percolating in earnest since 2005-2006, which was a period when I spent a lot of time engaged in the great theocracy debate, which was basically this long and pretty pointless argument about whether it made sense to describe religious conservatism as a potentially theocratic force in American life. It was an argument about the definition of American liberalism, about how secular American society is or should be. How separate should religion and politics be, etc. And out of those debates, and perhaps out of also watching the various new atheists vs. religion debates unfold, I developed this sense that there was a lot to be said about Christianity in America that didn’t fit into these kinds of secular vs. religious, liberal vs. conservative binaries. So that was the seed for the second half of the book, which is the half that looks at contemporary religion and tries to spend a lot of time taking seriously the figures and trends that are often dismissed as a sort of pop theology—the Joel Osteens, Oprah Winfreys, Elizabeth Gilberts and Dan Browns—and describing how they fit into and even define our contemporary religious moment.
The first half of the book, the more historical side, in a way just came out of conversations with publishers (and my agent and editors) when I was in the process of figuring out the outline for the book that we would shop around and eventually sell. And there was a pronounced interest in a “how we got here” story. I also thought there was room for somebody from my generation to look at what was really the previous generation’s story—the post 1960’s story of Evangelicalism’s rise, the mainline’s decline, Catholicism’s civil war—and hopefully bring something new as someone who had never participated in those debates. To date, almost all of the people writing about American Christianity from the inside are participants. They are people who have the scars and the wounds of the Commonweal vs. First Things, evangelical vs. mainline debates. I don’t have those scars and those wounds, and so hopefully, even though I obviously have my own biases and sympathies, I hope that I bring at least a fresh pair of eyes to some of those debates, but also that at this point we can put some of those arguments in context in ways that were harder to do thirty or forty years ago.
WK: What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?
Douthat: Well, a couple things. This has turned out to be one of the more controversial parts of my argument, and I’m sort of surprised, in a way, that it’s controversial, but maybe I’m not surprised because I was surprised by it myself. The book starts out with post-war America and the post-war religious revival. Because the conceit of the book always involved describing institutional decline from that point on, it was always going to involve at least partial praise for some of the institutions and personalities of the post-war era. But I do end up writing a very favorable account of that period—both the high brow and middle brow aspects, both the political and intellectual side of things—and I think there are a couple characteristic ways of thinking about the post-war revival. One is to say that it was just a sort of Eisenhower era—religion for the sake of being religious kind of shallowness, and another way of looking at it is to say that it was a sort of last gasp of repression. Anyway, there are lots of ways to be critical of it. And I ended up being more favorably disposed toward some aspects of it than I expected to be. And that, in turn, has provoked a lot of criticisms of the book. Many people think I painted too rosy a picture.
WK: From which spheres has that criticism come?
Douthat: There’s been straightforward academic criticism that I’m painting with too broad a brush, that I’m a journalist, that I’m oversimplifying, etc., and undoubtedly some of that is true. Some of the more sharply worded reviews have come from more liberal Christians. One of the few reviews I actually responded to was from Michael Shawn Winters of The New Republic, in which he basically denied that there had been any post-war convergence of Christian groups whatsoever. The liberal view is that this is just conservative nostalgia, right? And then from an evangelical perspective, there’s a sense that they were the only branch of American Christianity that continued to flourish amid this period of institutional decline, a decline that perhaps deserved to happen. The decline is viewed rather as an opportunity. As a Catholic, I obviously have slightly more sympathy for the institutional churches.
So, yes, the book has been criticized from all sides. (Whereas my attacks on Elizabeth Gilbert have earned less criticism, which I suppose is not surprising.) But I do think that my portrait of the post-war era is well within the mainstream of American religious historiography. I’m drawing on fairly obvious writers like Martin Marty and Sydney Ahlstrom. Overall I feel pretty comfortable with the portrait. But yes, I suppose I was a little bit surprised by how I think it was generally a very positive era for Christianity in American life, and one that we can learn a lot from today.
I suppose another thing that surprised me was how chaotic things really did get during the intra-Catholic debates of the late 60s and 70s. I became a Catholic in the late 1990s, when there had been over twenty years of John Paul II’s pontificate, which amounted to a kind of reassertion of order. But rewind thirty years and you see how completely up for grabs even the most basic ideas about the essence and practice of Catholicism really were (we’re talking deeper than the normal flashpoint issues like birth control and contraception). Again, that surprised and informed my writing about the period. There, too, especially from liberal Catholics, I’ve been criticized for being unfair to the more liberal side of those debates. One of the more thoughtful criticisms came from Peter Steinfels reviewing the book in Commonweal. He criticized me for using the example of James Pike, this Episcopal bishop, as an exemplary figure in that era, because Pike was so transparently confused and self-promoting, and there were many much more rigorous liberal figures, both Protestant and Catholic. And I would just say that I kept returning to Pike in part because the more I read about the era, the more it seemed like Pike’s journey was much more representative of how a lot of ordinary Christians, or even Christian leaders, experienced that era. Not as a period when there was a coherent liberal program of reform, but as an era when everything was up for grabs and you might believe one thing one year and another thing the next. I feel like there was just a lot of that in that era, and that Pike’s pinballing around, his attempt to keep up with whatever seemed to be happening—in both the mainline and the Catholic church—was more characteristic of how a lot of people went through the era than, say, just reading the editorials that Commonweal would put out. If the more grounded liberals had been the dominant force in that era, it would have been a very different era.
WK: From the standpoint of style, there was a particular fervor in your prose during the more strictly theological sections. With all of the sweeping historical range you cover, your pen becomes most poignant, most animated when you’re digging into the fundamental, radical, both/and claims of the Gospel, of Jesus Christ himself. And it begged the question: What was the most enjoyable, contagiously exciting chapter to write? And, why?
Douthat: Well, that’s one of the tensions in the book, right? I am trying to write a book for multiple audiences, and I’m trying to write a book that’s hopefully a dispassionate account of events and trends in American religion while also making a particular case for the value of Christian orthodoxy. You’re probably just picking up on the inevitable, not tension, exactly….the book is not just an apologia for Christianity. But there are moments when it trends in that direction, and those are moments when I’m probably showing my cards a little bit, and letting my own passions run away with me.
WK: Was there a most enjoyable part to write? Where it just flowed out of you?
Douthat: Oh, God, no…I don’t find writing to be a terribly enjoyable process in general. And this book was written during the birth of our daughter, and I didn’t take an extended book leave, so the writing process was a bit of a grind. I was also trying to weave together a lot of research and argument. So when I think about enjoyability, there’s hardly anything I look back on and think, “Ah, remember the joys of writing that chapter!” I mean there are parts that I am particularly happy with. I was very happy with how the chapter on “The God Within”—the Elizabeth Gilbert Eat, Pray, Love/Oprah Winfrey chapter—turned out. One of my disappointments with the response to the book has been how much more conversation there’s been about whether I get 1957 exactly right. Ultimately, whether I get the history right or wrong, what I’m happiest about in the book is the portrait of contemporary religious culture. And I think in particular that chapter was the chapter within that portrait that I was happiest with.
WK: Did the writing of the book alter at all the way you view your own church—the Catholic Church? And did it alter your perspective on American Protestants, particularly evangelicals, or merely confirm your assumptions and knowledge heading into the book?
Douthat: Well it probably altered my perspective on evangelicalism more, even though I had some cultural background having been in evangelical churches as a kid with my parents before we became Catholic. It had been a while since I had re-engaged with the evangelical world and with Protestant thought in general. I knew less than I thought I did about the history of evangelicalism, especially over the last fifty years. I’ve since come out of both the writing of the book and the subsequent conversations surrounding its promotion with a greater appreciation for the insane complexity of evangelical history. Whatever you think about the hierarchy of Catholicism, it makes it a little easier to write about church history than it does to write about what happened to American evangelicalism from 1969 to 1981. That’s because the evangelical world is so divided and so diverse, and there’s so much disagreement about what’s inside and what’s outside. It’s harder for an outsider to wrap his arms around it. So, I definitely gained a greater appreciation for those kinds of complexities. And then, even though I’m quite critical of contemporary evangelical culture in the book, I’ve been reminded of the extent to which evangelical zeal is a very impressive thing. From the perspective of someone who’s been a Catholic now for fifteen years, it’s been salutary to be reminded of just how real that zeal is.
WK: I was struck by your embrace of paradox, both in the emphasizing the spirit under-girding Christian orthodoxy, as well as in your evaluation of the various epochs within Christian history in America. To quote you: “What defines orthodox consensus above all—what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta—is a commitment to mystery and paradox.” Later you say that the central boast of Christian orthodoxy has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and non-contradictory Jesus. As the world has become more complex and we are supposedly aware of its complexity, do you see this commitment to mystery and paradox atrophying because we can’t handle holding two or more things in tension given everything bombarding our palates? Or do you instead see a cause for hope? In a generation that embraces complexity and is (supposedly) able to process and retain competing narratives, do you see a renewed appetite for paradox? Particularly amongst the younger millennial group?
Douthat: This is the theory, right? That the post-modern world is more hospitable to Christian orthodoxy than was the modern world, and that this could be true in intellectual life. I suppose it’s possible. But my general response is that I would like to see more real-world evidence of it. I think if you just look at overall trends among the millennial generation, at the macro level the postmodern landscape still seems to be leading people toward an ever more thoroughgoing relativism. A state where here you hold competing truth claims in your head, not by synthesizing them in paradox, but by saying, “well, they’re all truth with a lower-case t, and what’s true for me isn’t true for you, and so on….” And that isn’t the orthodox Christian [way]. The way of orthodoxy is to at least attempt the synthesis, and to take two truths and take them seriously as truths, even if that leads into paradox. Rather than making them go together by not taking their ultimate value seriously.
I feel like there’s been this long period...you can date it to whatever you want…maybe it’s useful to date it to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the final end to alternatives to liberal democracy. You can date it to the post-9/11 era. But basically Christianity keeps being presented with opportunities to restate its case, but so far I haven’t seen those restatements bearing large-scale fruit amongst the younger generation. It doesn’t mean they aren’t bearing fruit in particular communities, but in the book I do want to push back against the attitude I sometimes hear from both Catholics and Protestants. It’s a sort of pride in the resilience of their small communities, which ignores the continuing losses in the culture as a whole. So you go to a thriving Catholic diocese, or a thriving evangelical community, and their confidence seems good, right? I certainly admire the people who say, “Well what we’re building here in this community, in this church, this thing will spread and re-take the culture as a whole.” But you also need to be realistic and recognize that not only has this not happened, but in fact, the overall trend seems to be in the opposite direction.
WK: You seem to be lamenting a lack of Christian influence, but isn’t that lack precisely the driver behind so much heresy in the church?
Douthat: Oh, yeah! I may not be sufficiently sympathetic to a lot of the liberal Christians of the 60s and 70s, but I’m certainly sympathetic to them up to this point. I think they saw these deep trends at work undercutting Christianity, and they loved their churches. And they loved, in some form, the Christian Gospel. They wanted to keep it relevant, they wanted to maintain its cultural influence, and maybe they ended up emptying it out in pursuit of that influence, and so that’s a cautionary tale, but I understand what they were seeking. And so, yes. You have to be able to say that sometimes the quest for influence is only a way of leading you into temptation. And obviously Jesus didn’t say to the disciples, “Go forth and become America’s hundredth-most influential people,” right?
This is where you get something like James Davidson Hunter’s book, To Change the World, which does a great job of looking at the perils and pitfalls associated with a world-changing spirit on the part of Christians, and how it hasn’t born anything like the kind of fruit people have hoped for either on the left or the right over the last few generations. But, by the same token, in the end the goal is to change the world, right? I know Hunter ends up with a slightly different model—“faithful presence within”—but in the end, what’s the point of that faithful presence? It’s to witness to something, right? And what are you witnessing to? Well, you’re witnessing to something that you hope other people will be attracted to. You can redefine your terms, if you like, so you don’t have to use a word like influence. You can say: “Well, you want to convert the world.” Well, okay, but isn’t that an even more sweeping goal? I simply don’t think there’s any way for Christians to get away from the fact that the original cultural model for Christianity was the conversion of a pagan empire. And that model, that mandate doesn’t go away. You can’t escape it just because it leads into temptation. It of course doesn’t mean that individual Christians are all called to spend a lot of time trying to directly influence the world. I mean, I’m a Catholic, and I obviously believe in the virtue of the monastic life and the idea that a cloistered nun’s prayers probably make more difference than any blog post or column that a Catholic writer might pen, but, even allowing for that, I don’t think there’s any path that absolves Christians of the responsibility to think in some sense about influencing the non-Christian culture. Or the heretical culture, I guess I should say.
WK: Can you expound on exactly why a country filled with people deeply committed to one ecclesial tradition would flourish over and above a society of theological floaters?
Douthat: It leads to a flourishing country only because it leads to a more basic form of human flourishing. Christianity—a more resilient, institutional, orthodox Christian faith—is a prescription for what ails America only insofar as it’s a prescription for what ails the human race. Because the book is written for multiple audiences, I am making the case that even people who aren’t going to become Christians should welcome a more robust institutional faith. Obviously, in the end, the only ultimate argument for a religious tradition is that it’s True. And if it’s true, if it’s the truth about human nature and the world, then you would expect that when it is lived out fully and comprehensively that it produces greater human flourishing. And I like that word because it’s a little bit of a weasel word, a way of evading certain questions about, well, what is the definition of happiness, and so on.
I was just talking about early Christians and the early Roman empire, right? You know, one of the reasons that the early Christians won converts and ultimately won the Mediterranean world was because they presented a model of human life that was attractive to people, and that seemed to represent human flourishing at a higher level than the pagan society around them. This manifested itself in how they treated their spouses, in how they treated their children, in how they took care of the poor, and everything else. That’s a model Christians can and should try to emulate today, and it’s a model that, if it leads to greater human flourishing, should lead to greater flourishing for society as a whole. Now, it is true that the Christian revolution in Rome coincided with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, so, it is obviously not a 100% guarantee that what’s good for a country. I guess one way to put it is there are no political guarantees in the Gospel, right?
WK: And to assert that might be kind of dangerous…
Douthat: And to assert that might be heretical, right? I think what we can safely say is that American life has benefited from Christian influence. It’s easy to look at American history and see the ways in which American culture has benefited from a robust, resilient Christian faith, and so I think it is reasonable to say that American culture could continue to benefit from it in the future. This does not mean, however, that if there were such a revival of Christian faith, it would be guaranteed to maintain America’s position in the world, keep the Chinese at bay, and so on. I am not offering a religious prescription to building a next American century. I’m just arguing that all things being equal, leaving aside questions of global power dynamics and so on, that there’s reason to think—and that there are very strong reasons for Christians to think—that an America that had stronger churches would be a better place for almost everybody to live.
WK: Do you think there are any major heresies you missed? Can you predict the next one we’re bleeding into over the next 20 yrs or so?
Douthat: No, no. I make no predictions. To the extent that all predictions are just extrapolations of the present, and with part of the book’s argument being that the trends I’m describing are accelerating, I’d guess I’d say we can expect more of the same. I think what the book can’t predict, and nobody can predict, is the ability of particular religious geniuses to capture, to take these trends and crystallize them into a new religious movement. I’m writing a lot more about general phenomena, less specific movements. So the prosperity gospel is a general phenomenon that covers a lot of different kinds of preachers, a lot of different kinds of churches. Likewise when I talk about The God Within and Oprah and Eat, Pray, Love, that’s a very broad cultural trend. Same thing when I talk about politics and theology. What we haven’t really seen in American life lately is more of what we saw a lot of in the 19th century, when you had particular figures like Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy start new institutions and new movements. Instead, the growth we’re seeing is still in some of those institutions and movements—take the Mormon church that’s still growing, for example. But obviously you could say some Pentecostal churches fit this bill. What will be interesting to see is whether we’ll have new prophets, new religious entrepreneurs who create a kind of Mormonism for the 21st century? Or a Christian Science for the 21st Century? Out of some of these broader trends. Or, will today’s Mormonism just be the Mormonism of the 21st century? That’s certainly where we seem to be going at the moment.
What is interesting is that there is all of this religious energy that is unfocused and seems like it should be drawn to the liberal Christian churches because it’s more liberal on sexuality and all these things. People who aren’t going to become Mormons. People who are turned off by the traditional Catholic/evangelical positions. And people who are unchurched but are very interested in religion. Right now they’re just getting their religion from pop spirituality. They are people who the mainline tries to reach and fails to reach. And so the question is: is it the nature of that part of the American religious landscape, that it’s just going to remain totally deinstitutionalized, or is there some actual movement? Or some actual cult? Not in the pejorative sense, but just in the more focused, organized form of spirituality that could actually attract these spiritual-but-not-religious people to join. To not just mix and match, but to follow someone more comprehensively than anyone followed Deepak Chopra. I don’t know that answer. That’s just something that will be interesting to see.
Anne Snyder works for the op-ed department of The New York Times in its Washington bureau.