Has America become a nation of heretics?

Is orthodox Christianity in America nearing the end of the line?  

Douthat book
Free Press photo

Ross Douthat’s answer is: Could be.  

He lays out his case in a disturbing new book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” (Free Press, $26). 

“This book has been written in a spirit of pessimism,” the author confesses. Few readers will doubt it. Yet Douthat deserves a hearing.  

A conservative Catholic columnist with The New York Times, he shows himself in “Bad Religion” also to be an exceptionally clear-eyed student of American religion as it has waxed and waned — mostly waned — in the last five decades. 

But is he right?  

Is it to be the future of American religion in the 21st century that “orthodoxy slowly withers and only heresies endure”? Isn’t the United States still the most religious country among the world’s developed nations and likely to remain that for the foreseeable future?

Bleak reality

In a sense, the answer to the last question is yes. American religiosity is, superficially, an enduring feature of national life. 

But looks are deceiving. Consider American Catholicism. Officially, U.S. Catholics number about 68 million. 

Behind that impressive number, however, is a far less impressive reality. 

In any given week, fewer than one Catholic in three attend Mass. (Christmas and Easter, when lots of no-shows do show up, are obvious exceptions.) Many attend rarely or never. 

The same situation prevails on other measures of participation in the sacraments, from penance to matrimony, as well as the acceptance of Church teaching.  

Sociologists and poll-takers continue to count as Catholic whoever calls himself that, so the 68 million figure includes a vast number of non-participating, non-believing people who simply say “Catholic” when asked. 

Christian roots

But that’s getting ahead of the story. The story as Douthat tells it begins around 1950. 

Religion in the United States was enjoying a postwar “renaissance” then, with numbers and morale soaring. The cultural influence of the churches was profound.  

No one saw anything odd in calling America a Christian — or at any rate Judeo-Christian — nation. 

The 1960s and 1970s brought dramatic changes.  

Succumbing to the worm of Liberal Protestantism that had gnawed at their doctrinal roots for decades, the Mainline Protestant churches fell into what may prove to be a terminal decline. Evangelicals remained stuck on the cultural margins even as they became too politically partisan for their own good. 

And Catholics split into contesting factions locked in post-conciliar conflict, with the sex abuse scandal waiting for its chance to shred the Church’s credibility and cultural clout as all too soon it would. 

Confused theology

Meanwhile the rise of the “heresies” had begun. Douthat takes a scathing look at four of these. 

The “real Jesus” movement, popularized by novelist Dan Brown, was fomented by questionable scholarship wedded to the perverse notion that there was more to learn about Christ from bizarre Gnostic fables of the second century than from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For naive readers impacted by this school, the result has been to put the real “real Jesus” largely out of reach. 

The “prosperity gospel” of Joel Osteen and others danced happily on stage with the upbeat message that God wants you to be rich and the only real sin is not to grab your share. Call this a theology of consumerism, suitable for robber barons with religious leanings. 

The “God within” gurus stepped forward instructing disciples to look within themselves in order to discover the meaning of it all. Feelings are everything for these self-regarding pantheists, and Oprah Winfrey is their patron saint. 

The “religious nationalists” — Glenn Beck is a notable example of that clan — exhorted Americans to find God’s will either in messianic hyper-patriotism or some version of apocalyptism.  

Here is American exceptionalism raised to mind-boggling heights, and, Douthat argues, it’s been the driving force behind the foreign policies of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. 

No question about it, all this makes a fascinating tale, but is it necessary to swallow it whole? Probably not. 

For starters, note that Douthat’s designation of non-Catholic Christian bodies as “orthodox” if they simply adhere to some, but not all, core Christian beliefs unwittingly points to one of the sources of the decline he documents.  

Friendly, fraternal and accepting of the separated brethren Catholics should certainly be, but well-intentioned verbal relativizing like this, implying that the differences between Catholics and these folks don’t matter much, is a serious mistake.  

This is a case where differences do matter — a lot — and in the end no one is helped by pretending otherwise. 

A steady decline

More to the point, the story of American religion since colonial days has not been a portrait of steady progress but a jagged line on a chart — peaks and valleys, zigzag ups and downs.  

“Heresies” have often sprung up on these shores, flourished, and then died. Who’s to say it won’t happen again? 

Yet Douthat could be right about the future.  

Citing the “steady institutional decline” of traditional churches in America in the last several decades — a decline apparent in dwindling membership, declining religious vocations, and diminished cultural influence — he delivers this coup-de-grace: “And, judging by spiritual trends within the rising generation, the future of American religion seems likely to be defined by Christian heresy even more completely than the present already is.” 

That’s a chilling thought. Anyone for New Evangelization? 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.