Has American Christianity become heretical?

A review of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

By John H. Armstrong

New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat (pronounced “dow-that”), the author of several books on politics and social issues, has given us a great gift in a new book with the provocative title: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press: New York 2012). This is a thoughtful and (often) contrarian look at how Christianity has been misunderstood and abused on both the left and the right since the late 1950s. Douthat spares no church, denomination or Christian move- ment from his critique, powerfully demonstrating G.K. Chesterton’s thesis that when people turn away from God “they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in everything.”

Douthat argues that American Christianity has gone off the rails. He exposes the spiritual roots of our present political and economic crisis in a way that no politician, and far too few ministers, talk about. He believes our problem is not too much religion, as atheists and secularists have argued. Nor is our problem an intol- erant secularism, as many conservative Christians advance.

Our real problem is bad religion, or classical heresy. He defines this as a slow-motion collapse of traditional faith accompanied by the rise of numerous pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses. The result is a multitude of churches, on both the left and the right, who have nothing significant left to say about the real claims of historic Christianity.

Douthat charts the decline of institutional Christianity in America. He shows that what was once a vigorous, mainstream, and bipartisan faith — a faith that acted as a “vital center” and moral force behind the civil rights movement, for example — has been lost. Beginning with the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, right down to the polarizing political/social debates of the present time, Douthat believes we have lost the impact of orthodox faith in America. He ranges from Glenn Beck (whom he sees as representative of our darkest apocalyptic fears) to Joel Osteen (who promotes personal success with the best of America’s prosperity teachers). He engages the progressive left and the conservative right. He shows how the Jesus Seminar, and numerous related heresies taught in many of our finest mainline seminaries, have continued the accommodationist patterns of Harvey Cox and James Pike. These have contributed to the massive breakdown of mainline Protestantism, which still hemorrhages dollars and members annually. At the same time, and with equal concern, he shows how evangelicals have fostered the “cult of self-esteem” to the point of making mere Christianity virtually unknown to large numbers of churchgoers.

Christianity shares in the spirit of paradox and mystery. When it is healthy it is a faith of both/and, not either/or. This has made Christianity extraordinarily adaptable. But it has also exposed the Christian faith to a “constant stream of criticism as well” (Bad Religion, 11).

Douthat rightly believes that all Christian heresies try to resolve the “knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith” (Bad Religion, 12). Heretics create division and destruction by trying to resolve tensions. When they do this, their rescue attempts tend to make the faith more appealing, at least for a time, by making the faith more overtly supernatural. Gnostics, to give a prominent early church example, tried to give followers of Jesus a being of more pure spirit through which salvation could come without physical suffering. Deists and Unitarians, in early American history, went in the opposite direction. They stripped away the supernatural parts of Christianity so that we could retain confidence in a god who seemed under the assault of modern science.

Douthat ends his incredibly incisive critique of religion and culture in America by writing: “Sometimes cultural crises lead to reassessments and renewals. But sometimes they just make people double-down on their original mistakes” (Bad Religion, 284). Here is the rub. Which will it be? None of us knows.

But for us, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “There is only the trying, the rest is not our business.” Amen! The deeper trends that might inspire a culture-wide shift are “beyond any individual believer’s control. But the kind of faith that should animate such a renaissance can be lived out Christian by Christian, congregation by congregation, day by day, without regard to whether it succeeds in changing the American way of religion as a whole” (Bad Religion, 284). That is the best statement of our personal and corporate role in culture that I’ve read by a current Christian analyst.

Bad Religion offers three glimpses into what a renewed, robust Christianity might look like in the coming decades:

1. A renewed Christianity should be political but non-partisan.

This means we must avoid the nationalist tendencies of Americanism as well as the temptations that lead us to fall prey to quietism or indifferentism. It means that there is no single model for Christian politics, no single party and, most certain- ly, no single person. This means principle must triumph over party and no party should gain our devoted allegiance. We are Christians first. Everything else is a distant second.

2. A renewed Christianity should be ecumenical and confessional.

This point touches on the specific burden of my life’s mission. Douthat rightly notes that robust ecumenism must not be a watered-down version of weak faith with no conviction. We can have robust disagreement while we seek new forms of Christian unity. C. S. Lewis, the man who coined the phrase “mere Christianity” warned against the word “mere” becoming an alternative to the creeds of the existing churches.

3. A renewed Christianity should be moralistic but it must also be holistic.

“No aspect of Christian faith is less appealing to contemporary sensibilities than the faith’s long list of ‘thou shalt nots,’ and no prohibition attracts more exasperation and contempt than the Christian view of chastity and sex” (Bad Religion, 288). But continued efforts to downplay the moral demands of Christian faith have re-contextualized Christian faith and practice beyond anything remotely like historic and confessional Christianity. “The Christian view of sexuality is more essential to the faith as a whole than many modern believers want to acknowledge. Like most Christian dogmas, from the identity of Christ to the doctrine of the Trinity, it doesn’t just rest on a literal reading of a few passages of Scripture, which can easily be revised or reinterpreted” (Bad Religion, 288).

Douthat writes: “It is not enough for Americans to respect orthodox Christianity a bit more than they do at the present” (Bad Religion, 293). To make any real difference, we must understand the faith and then live it.

Christian faith is not a means to an end (think instrumentality), even the end of a great national revival. Douthat concludes, “It is an end unto itself.” If we would change America then we must begin by changing ourselves first. Then, and only then, can we intentionally and prayerfully labor to change our churches. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” There’s the place to begin again. My hope is that this eye-opening book will help many of us to truly and honestly begin again.

John H. Armstrong is the president and founder of ACT 3 (www.act3online.com), a mission for equipping leaders for unity in Christ’s mission, and an adjunct professor of mission at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author of the much reviewed and discussed book, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church (Zondervan 2010).