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Douthat's excellent critique of American heresies

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 27, 2012

Ross Douthat will forgive me, I hope, for saying that it is remarkable Bad Religion was written by such a young man. I don’t mean to patronize him. A conservative Catholic writer who has established himself as a regular op-ed columnist for the New York Times doesn’t need a condescending pat on the head from me.

Still, as I read Douthat’s description of the seismic shifts in American culture during the 1960s and 1970s, I had to remind myself repeatedly that he is too young to have seen the events he describes. Among the dozens of books I have read about the same era—mostly written by authors who were at least eyewitnesses to, if not active participants in, the cultural revolution—none has been more perceptive.

Thus, very early in Bad Religion, Douthat demonstrates an extraordinary ability to absorb historical lessons. That ability serves him well throughout a book that is, essentially, a critical history of unorthodox American religious beliefs.

Although he frequently alludes to his own Catholic beliefs, Douthat constructs the main argument of Bad Religion from the perspective of what C.S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity”—the fundamental faith that is shared by all those who embrace the Apostle’s Creed. The main theme of the book is that America suffers today from the influence of popular heresies: schools of thought that are incompatible with the basic tenets of orthodox Christian faith.

Douthat adroitly skewers the “accommodationists” who tailor the teachings of the Bible to suit secular trends, and the profiteers who exploit their Bible-believing followers to pay for their own tailor-made suits. More importantly he notices that in America there has always been a tendency to soft-pedal the more demanding precepts of Christianity when they conflict with conventional public opinion. Even at the apparent zenith of Christian influence on American society, in the early 1960s, he notes that towering figures such as Reinhold Niehbuhr and Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King, even though they refused to compromise on principle, “often tended to succeed only insofar as they met the American Way of Life halfway…” Within the Catholic Church specifically, he observes: “A generation of bishops had come of age knowing that the best way to establish their faith’s American bona fides was to outdo Protestants in patriotic fervor.”

In recent years the challenges to orthodox Christian belief have included some new variations on old heresies, tracing their lineage back to the Gnostics and beyond. (Think Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code or, a bit upmarket, Elaine Pagels and the Jesus Seminar.) The influence of the Gnostics can be clearly identified in the work of distinctly American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Douthat entitles his chapter on that subject “The God Within.”

Douthat makes the interesting observation that the classic Christian heresies, which are generally popular because they offer an easily digestible version of Christ’s teaching, arose after the epistles of St. Paul. Thus the most demanding version of Christ’s teaching was the authoritative version, presented to the world originally, and since the earliest days of Christianity, those who chafed under the demands of orthodoxy have sought to find an easier route. He also notes that today’s versions of the old heresies often come with a conspiracy theory attached: if there is no evidence available to support the latest outlandish theory about “the real Jesus,” that can only be because the Catholic Church suppressed the evidence.

America has its own characteristic heresies, Douthat argues: messianism and apocalypticism. The messianic strain is clearly visible in the widespread support for “American exceptionalism”—the notion that the United States has a special role to play as God’s instrument in history. Europeans understandably find this idea unsettling, and Douthat observes that orthodox Christians put their trust in the Church, not any earthly power. Abraham Lincoln—whose Christian faith was real, albeit somewhat unconventional—cautioned that the United States would serve God’s purposes only insofar as the country obeyed God’s laws. Douthat sees in Lincoln’s modesty a healthier understanding of a nation’s role in the history of salvation, informed by the understanding that no institution formed by sinful men can presume to embody the design of Providence. He remarks: “Our exceptionalism must be a provisional exceptionalism, in other words—expectant but not presumptuous, perpetually tempered by humility and open to correction and surprise.”

American messianism, with its belief that mankind can construct a sort of heaven on earth (under American leadership, of course), appeals to liberal instincts, Douthat observes. Apocalypticism, the other characteristic heresy of American public religion, generally lures conservatives. Whereas the messianic strain sees it as America’s destiny to advance righteous causes, “the apocalyptic view suggests that the American founding was literally a covenanted event, akin to the biblical establishment of Israel.” The latter view leads naturally to lamentations that the America of today has abandoned the principles of the founding. The apocalyptic style, Douthat says, “tends to be more purely negative,” and therefore unattractive to Americans, who like their political theories served with a garnish of optimism. In a passage that some frustrated Republican political candidates should take to heart, he explains: “It may call for moral renewal, but its millenarian hostility toward present-day decadence tends to make it a poor vehicle for any kind of real reform.”

Yet if messianism is by nature liberal, and apocalypticism by nature conservative, the two heresies have merged in the early years of the 21st century. Douthat demonstrates his analytical skill once again by showing how and why the two strains of American heresy have come together. He concludes: “The right has become more Wilsonian, the left steadily more apocalyptic, and the two forms of the nationalist heresy have intertwined within the Republican and Democratic parties alike.”

So we are left with a single dominant American heresy, intellectually confused but politically powerful. Both liberals and conservatives claim that they are advancing Christian principles in public life, yet neither political faction explains its plans in terms that orthodox Christians of another time and place would understand. Douthat argues:

The present danger to our democracy isn’t that Christianity has gained too much power and influence over our politics. Rather, it’s that the heresy of nationalism’s co-option of Christian faith has left the faith too weak to play the kind of positive role it has often played in our public life.

In the final section of Bad Religion Douthat outlines the possible ways in which genuine Christian influence in American public life might be revived. Hostility to traditional Christian beliefs might reach a level at which the Church once again became truly counter-cultural. Believing Christians might succeed in converting the nation’s opinion leaders—it certainly wouldn’t be the first time—and a broader social acceptance would soon follow. A new form of monasticism (which, Douthat observes, is quite different from separatism) could develop. However it happens—if it happens—a renewed Christian influence will follow the main steams of orthodox belief, not the odd tributaries of American public religion.

In the final pages of Bad Religion Douthat offers a more specific, practical proposal: a simple challenge to Christian believers and to all other readers as well. But I won’t give away the ending, because I want people to read this book. Even with a few weeks remaining in 2012, I’m ready to give Douthat my personal nod for the best new book of the year.

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  • Posted by: larry.roach3086 - Nov. 27, 2012 2:44 PM ET USA

    Huh. And I thought the Americanist heresy was defined by Pope Leo XIII. I don't think you can address the problems with the present American political system without recognizing that this nation was deformed at its founding by the embrace of protestant/englightenment ideals of liberty and freedom which are problematic at best. That erroneous freedom was part and parcel of what Leo XIII decried. Unfortunately, Vatican II softened the stance with respect to that error, and esp. the spirit of VII

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