Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat


In Prague there stands a monument to an odd couple: Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Tycho, the Catholic Dane—by far the more colorful of the two– dabbled in alchemy, wore a prosthetic nose as a result of a wound he received in a duel, and died as a result of a rather infamous drinking binge. In contrast Kepler–the German, Protestant mathematician–was rather dull.

This unlikely pair was brought together by a clash of paradigms. Tycho championed a variation of the old geocentric Ptolemaic view of the universe, while Kepler not only championed the heliocentric Copernican view, he corrected some of its worst errors. Tycho’s strength was in his observations, which he, thankfully, documented quite carefully. But it was Kepler’s mathematical skill and genius at theorizing that enabled him to make sense not only of Tycho’s notes but of the heavens.

Ross Douthat is quite a colorful character, too. A Harvard-educated Pentecostal-turned-Catholic, he’s made quite a name for himself as a writer of editorials and movie reviews at The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The National Review, and the New York Times, where he is the youngest regular op-ed writer in its history. He’s also authored three books, including most recently Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012). In 293 pages (plus 18 more of welcome notes) Douthat weaves an extraordinary tapestry of quotes, observations, and trivia that while not always convincing are never boring. For one of such tender years he has an amazingly good eye for distinguishing the significant from the merely interesting. That alone makes him worth reading.

The dust-jacket summary of BR is short and to the point: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued: nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.” If so, then what constitutes good religion and what distinguishes it from bad should be at the heart of BR. In support of this premise Douthat samples four flavors of Christianity—orthodoxy, heresy, fundamentalism, and neo-orthodoxy—in two categories—Catholic and Protestant.

Douthat defines orthodoxy early on in BR; it’s a historical consensus on basic dogmas, including

“…Christ’s incarnation and atonement, the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of everlasting life. It includes a belief in the divine inspiration and authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, with no additional revelations added on and nothing papered over or rejected. It includes adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and expanded and deepened in the New Testament: a rejection of violence and cruelty, a deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, and a heavy stress on chastity. It includes a commitment to the creeds of the ancient world—Nicene, Apostolic , Athanasian—and to the idea that a church, however organized and governed, should guarantee and promulgate them. And it includes the idea of orthodoxy—the belief that there exists “A faith once delivered to the saints,” and that the core of Christianity is an inheritance from the first apostles, rather than being something that every believer can and should develop for himself.

The second category—heresy—gets more attention in BR than the other three, but Douthat doesn’t exactly offer a definition of it, preferring instead to merely call heresy heresy when he sees it. And he sees a lot of it. Indeed, much of BR is devoted to a critique of America’s peculiar heresies, from the politicization of religion by the left in the 60s and 70s, to neo-paganism, to the rise of the health and wealth gospel, and the odd blend of east and west in the new spirituality. His purpose in identifying heresy isn’t only to condemn it; he also affirms what he sees as its function:

“… Christian faith needs heresy, or at least the possibility of heresy, lest it become something rote and brittle, a compendium of doctrinal technicalities with no purchase on the human soul. Indeed, like flying buttresses around a great cathedral, the push and pull of competing heresies may be precisely the thing that keeps the edifice of Christian faith upright.”

His third category is the vaguest of the four. Fundamentalists, he acknowledges, were once orthodox. (“The five fundamentals from which the fundamentalist movement took its name were mainly just a restatement of orthodox Christian beliefs”). But in the aftermath of Darwinism and biblical criticism, they embraced “separatism” and “anti-intellectualism”, lost their influence in modern culture, and as a result were relegated to our cultural backwaters. Fundamentalists in Douthat’s usage serve primarily as a sharp contrast to those whose example Douthat admires most: neo-orthodox theologians, especially Reinhold Niebhur. Douthat’s describes the “overall pattern” of neo-orthodoxy thusly:

“… a rejection of utopianism in all its forms; a return to Protestantism’s Reformation roots; a renewed interest in creedal, confessional, and liturgical issues; a stress on the saving life and death (as opposed to just the ethical message) of Jesus Christ; and a demand for Christian humility in the face of the mysteries of God’s purposes.”

In truth the second item in his description (“a return to Protestantism’s Reformation roots”) is the most problematic. The theology of the Reformers is often summed up in five “solas,” the first of which—“Sola Scriptura,” i.e., Scripture alone—was hardly an emphasis of neo-orthodoxy. To be sure, many neo-orthodox theologians wanted to revive old theological categories, e.g., sin and redemption, which had been rejected by 19th century German higher criticism, but they were hardly champions of the authority and accuracy of the Bible. What Douthat seems to admire most about his neo-orthodox heroes isn’t so much their theology as the cultural influence they once commanded. Douthat’s quote of Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom sums up his feelings well: “If one looks to the remarkable way in which theology and theologians loomed up during the forties in the nation’s moral, intellectual, and cultural life… neo-orthodoxy becomes essential to an adequate explanation.”

Herein, of course, lies a problem, for Douthat’s heroes, theologically speaking, had feet of clay, as he acknowledges:

The neo-orthodox theologians did such a brilliant job of making the Christian intellectual framework intelligible to a secular audience, but they also frequently seemed to purposefully dance around some of the most important—and necessarily controversial—issues of Christian faith. (Martin Gardner’s 1971 novel-of-ideas, The Flight of Peter Fromm, features a young seminarian driven mad by Reinhold Niebhur’s evasiveness on supernatural questions; “He tapped his finger on the book’s brown cloth cover and said angrily: “Can you imagine this? There are six hundred pages here. It’s a full statement of the theology of America’s most famous Protestant thinker. How many references do you suppose there are to the Resurrection of Christ?… Not one! Not a single one!”)”

So which of Ross’ Four Flavors are which? Heresy plainly is bad, and orthodoxy just as plainly good. But fundamentalism is downright ugly, and neo-orthodoxy, I guess, is beautiful, at least in contrast. Which leaves us with the most practical question of all: what are we to make of all this?

It’s in answer to this question that Douthat shows his cards most clearly, for his goal is loftier than merely distinguishing the good from the bad and the ugly. He wants to see a renewal of the American church and American culture and in the last chapter of BR– “The Recovery of Christianity”—he offers four modest proposals for advancing this cause.

First, the renewed American faith should be political without being partisan. Anyone who is still blind to the failings of both the Republican and the Democratic Parties hasn’t been paying attention.

Second, it should be ecumenical but also confessional. The joint statements of ECT—Evangelicals and Catholics Together—are the kind of cooperation he has in mind.

Third, a renewed Christianity should be moralistic but also holistic. Simply put Douthat wants us to practice what we preach. Touting the sanctity of marriage while getting divorced at the same time doesn’t advance our case or our credibility.

Fourth, a renewed Christianity should be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. It’s as Francis Schaeffer argued in Two Contents, Two Realities. When the gospel is taken seriously, holiness and beauty are the most visible byproducts.

I hope that in this review I’ve painted a picture of a book that is fascinating, insightful, and very worth reading, for BR is all those things and more. If at the same time I’ve painted a picture that feels somewhat incomplete that would be appropriate, too. It’s not that Douthat’s pieces don’t fit together; it’s more as if some of his pieces are missing. His stress on the primacy of good theology is welcome. His emphasis that good religion is never just a private and personal matter but always has social and cultural consequences is equally welcome. What’s missing is the link between the two: how my theology should inform my involvement in my culture.

Brahe needed Kepler to take his observations and deduce the three laws of planetary motion from them. Once they were properly understood,  his observations became very useful indeed. So, too, Douthat needs a Kepler to tie his observations to the theology that will renew the church and guide it in being salt and light in our culture. Just as Brahe’s partnership with Kepler was brought about by a clash of paradigms, so too the century Douthat reviews in BR has been dominated by the clash of modernism and post-modernism. The neo-orthodox theologians he admires twisted the gospel to fit modernism and in so doing briefly won the mid-20th century cultural high ground, only to find that the culture changed around them and they were no longer relevant.

What kind of theology can avoid this dilemma? That would be an excellent topic for another book. Douthat and I share a fondness for CS Lewis. Let’s give him the last word.
All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”