Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Book review)

Not the cover my book has, but I needed some sort of visual!

Not the cover my book has, but I needed some sort of visual!

The “we” in the title of this book applies to citizens of the United States of America, as that is who Ross Douthat (the author) has in mind. Yet many of the generalities he makes are applicable to other western countries, and it’s an interesting peek inside the mindset of our southern neighbour. I normally try to stay away from politics on this blog because it isn’t my area of expertise and American politics are an apocalyptic, partisan mess that I don’t want to step into. I don’t know who is best to vote for in my own country, let alone tell others how to vote in a country where both sides allege that if the opposition wins the world will end and other outrageous things! Finally, God doesn’t champion a particular political party, and this blog is as much as possible about the things that God does champion. But, ‘To the rest I say this (I, not the LORD)…’ (I Corinthians 7:12)

Let me first say that I am not an American. In high school I rather liked right-wing American concepts and ideas as the Republican party seemed to be a natural ally for Christians looking to protect the unborn, marriage and other important things. (Douthat will criticize this erstwhile view of mine when dealing with ‘The City on the Hill’ heresy) However, since then and before reading this book, each encounter I have had with “right-wing” Americans has served to make me gradually more aware of the incredible gulf between Canadians and Americans on certain issues. Puzzlement has turned to dismay, dismay to, well, a little bit of fear.

Yes, that’s right. Fear. Pastor Jerry Falwell Jr. wants all the twenty-somethings at his Christian university to carry concealed firearms so they can shoot ‘those Muslims’, for instance. There’s something rather perverse and wrong about presenting this as  a ‘Christian’ sermon right before ‘Peace Sunday’ in Advent beyond the terrifying image of thousands of jumpy young adults with concealed guns. Or Donald Trump, in a move that fools none, has courted pastors and proclaimed himself Christian despite his woeful ignorance of anything religious. At best he’s a hopeful heretic, and I doubt Jesus would like having Trump’s platform read into the Gospels. This has happened with other GOP hobby horses; for example, denial of climate change seems to have become a de facto dogma of ‘conservative’ American Christians. Many more examples could be made. I’m not picking on Americans. When I find a book about Canadian heretics, I’ll be just as forthcoming about my own nation’s many faults.

So this book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is a very interesting book. It bucks the trend of complaining about a lack of religion in Western culture (again, he specifically applies his thesis to the USA; I’m generalizing) and complains that we have too much bad religion and not enough good religion.  Though rooted in a critique of American culture, the author does spend a little bit of time thinking about the global implications of the phenomena he is describing. The author is a conservative New York Times columnist and the book won a Christianity Today award.

His book is split into two parts. The first explores ‘Christianity in crisis’ from the post-World War II boom in belief and church attendance through the great decline and then into a period of growing Christian resistance to accommodationist movements. The second part looks at ‘The Age of Heresy.’ Here, Douthat critiques a range of problems from “pray and get rich” (think Joel Osteen), “the God within movement” (like Oprah Winfrey), “the city on a hill idea” (a heady mix of faith and right-wing politics/patriotism exemplified by Glenn Beck) to movements attempting to mine the Gospels and fourth century heretical texts for a more ‘modern’ Jesus.

Of course, running throughout this work is a distinction between ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy.’ Orthodoxy, or right belief, is defined by Douthat as a commitment to the common patrimony of Catholic, Orthodox and Reformation era Christians. Heresy, the traditional label for false teaching that originally meant factionalism, is broadly applied by Douthat to 20th century movements that introduce demonstrably new faith material to the Christian faith.

The really excellent thing about this book is that Ross Douthat pulls this masterful critique of both politics and religion off without feeling partisan. This makes his book very readable and thought-provoking no matter your political/religious leaning. Bear in mind that I may not a particularly good judge of his bias; I am a Catholic and politically conservative, which is the exact angle that Douthat is coming from. Particularly if you are a fan of Joel Osteen or Oprah Winfrey (and there must be fans out there, right? they can’t get millions of viewers by only attracting critics…) you may not agree with my assessment.  Either way, it is an insightful book, from the perspective of a broadly orthodox and ecumenical Christian, about what is going wrong with religion and what needs to happen to fix it. This makes it well worth reading for any sincere believer invested in the fate of Western Christianity.

This may seem like a dreary book – a book all about how Western Christianity (and particularly American Christianity) is going wrong, but it does end on a hopeful note. We can do our part to rescue the faith from misplaced patriotism, political partisanship, prosperity gospel and ‘God within’ movements without subscribing to doomsday scenarios. For, after reminding readers that Christianity has been in danger of ‘extinction’ before, Ross Douthat notes:

“In each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterton noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”

Bad Religion, 278


2 thoughts on “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Book review)

  1. Love the Chesterton quote. Have been impressed with Russ Douthat; hope he goes after more than the easy targets like Osteen and Oprah.

    The propaganda machine relentlessly pursues us all, and we often discover that we Christians need to take care not to be led from the Narrow Way. An aside in your reiview illustrates the point: ” denial of climate change. ”

    Christians who have jumped on the end of the world climate change bandwagon do so with honorable motives–caring for God’s creation. But it is the poor who wiil suffer most from our hubris of thinking that we can control climate.

    Here is a good discussion by two top scienists, one a Canadian, who set us a good example on how the topic ought to be discussed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the feedback and for sharing those links!

      Yes, reading a ‘left-wing’ emphasis on the environment into the Gospels is damaging when animals or other created things are elevated to the same level of or above human beings. I wonder though if and how directly environmental measures have been hurting developing nations. Pope Francis, In Laudato Si, alleges the opposite, that Western neglect of the environment hurts developing nations the most. I would love to see more respectful, unbiased discussion by individuals calmly discussing the issue like in the YouTube video that you linked to, rather than the alarmist tone currently dominating public affairs.

      My personal take on this (irrespective of the science) is that God has given us a mandate to care for and govern the world well, and this does include caring for the environment. Regardless of the credibility of individual scenarios or scientists, we can agree that pollution is bad and can have an impact on the quality of life and the preservation of what God has entrusted to us. (I lived in China for two years; there this was very apparent.) Inasmuch as environmentalism is willing to place the well-being of human beings first and merely challenges comfortable, profitable indifference to the environment, I would hope that Christians would be on board. I wonder what your thoughts are on this post I made on this topic?


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