Bad Religion: Bad Theology (on Ross Douthat)

Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion has received considerable attention. Having read a number of reviews, I don’t think I’ll bother reading it. From all accounts, his historical retelling of American religious history is full of errors, and his understanding of “orthodox” Christianity is equally mistake-ridden. First, from the camp of his supporters:

Alan Jacobs writes here:

If you’re a Christian, it’s tempting to say (drawing on the Perfidious-Mainstream-Media account) that we were forced into these subaltern modes by the relentless hostility of the cultural elites. That’s a very comforting narrative: we get to cast ourselves as the persecuted minority, and who can resist that temptation? Ross is offering a less consoling explanation: that Christians lost their cultural influence in large part because they lost their connection to historic orthodoxy, preferring comfortably flaccid theologies — of the Right and the Left — that were pretty much indistinguishable from what most religiously indifferent Americans believed anyway.

So for those readers especially hostile to Ross’s account, I have a queston: Are you sure it’s not because he’s telling you something you don’t want to hear? — That if you have a marginal place in American culture, the situation may be largely your own fault?

Now from those who find his perspective inadequate. The Catholic author, Michael Sean Winters writes in the The New RepublicHe begins:

ROSS DOUTHAT’S ANALYSIS of religion in America is more sophisticated than the analysis of, say, Rick Santorum—but not by much. There are many ways to be simplistic and coarse. In contending against what he sees as an America afflicted with too many heresies, Douthat’s book, like Santorum’s speeches, is riddled with mistakes of fact and interpretation that would make any learned person blush.

And he concludes:

My problem with Douthat’s book is not that his opinions differ from my own. My problem is that he does not seem to have any idea what he is talking about. In the West, there has been no universally accepted authoritative voice on orthodoxy since the Reformation. “What am I to do when many persons allege different interpretations, each one of whom swears to have the Spirit?” asked Erasmus in 1524. But Douthat does not see the larger picture that he aims to explain, and his treatment of his subject is so pitifully mistaken in things large and small that what we are left with is a meandering, self-serving screed. The book has the same reliance on private judgment that anyone who was really concerned with heresy would recognize as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Randall Balmer’s review is here. Ballmer is an Episcopal priest and a prominent scholar of American religious history. He points out weaknesses in Douthat’s argument, and the numerous factual errors (as well as several egregious errors of interpretation). Ballmer writes:

Although Douthat’s grasp of American religious history is sometimes tenuous — he misdates the Second Great Awakening, mistakes Puritans for Pilgrims and erroneously traces the disaffection of American Catholics to the Second Vatican Council rather than the papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” — there is much to commend his argument. Yes, the indexes of religious adherence are down, and the quality of religious discourse in America has diminished since the 1950s, in part because of the preference for therapy over theology. Theological illiteracy is appalling; many theologians, like academics generally, prefer to speak to one another rather than engage the public.

But the glass-is-half-full approach, to borrow from the famous Peace Corps ad of this era, looks rather different. I’m not sure that the enervation of religion as institution since the 1950s is entirely a bad thing; institutions, in my experience, are remarkably poor vessels for piety. An alternative reading of the liberal “accommodationists” Douthat so reviles is that they have enough confidence in the relevance and integrity of the faith to confront, however imperfectly, such fraught issues as women’s ordination and homosexuality rather than allow them to fester as they have for centuries. I suspect, moreover, that Douthat has overestimated the influence of intellectual trends like the Jesus Seminar. The thinkers he quotes are important, but I would also recommend the lesser-known work of writers like Roger Olson, Jean Sulivan, Doug Frank, Miroslav Volf and David James Duncan as evidence of the vitality of Christian thinking; they may occasionally poke provocatively at the edges of orthodoxy, but most do so from well within its frame. Finally, the fact that we are having this conversation at all (much less in the pages of this newspaper) is testament to the enduring relevance of faith in what sociologists long ago predicted would be a secular society.

Like any good jeremiad, “Bad Religion” concludes with what evangelicals would recognize as an altar call. Douthat invites readers to entertain “the possibility that Christianity might be an inheritance rather than a burden,” and he elevates such eclectic phenomena as home schooling, third-world Christianity and the Latin Mass as sources for renewal.

Religion in the rearview mirror never looked better.

An hour-long video conversation between Douthat and Andrew Sullivan:

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