'Bad Religion': When faith transcended differences

The obvious allusion in the title of Ross Douthat's new book, "Bad Religion," is to a veteran Los Angeles punk band. But I kept thinking of Dan Aykroyd's "Saturday Night Live" character Leonard Pinth-Garnell, a pompous fop who hosted sketches lik...

Bad Religion
"Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics," by Ross Douthat; Free Press, 337 pages

The obvious allusion in the title of Ross Douthat's new book, "Bad Religion," is to a veteran Los Angeles punk band. But I kept thinking of Dan Aykroyd's "Saturday Night Live" character Leonard Pinth-Garnell, a pompous fop who hosted sketches like "Bad Cinema" and "Bad Ballet."

Pinth-Garnell would introduce a ridiculous performance -- think of John Belushi attempting arabesques -- then sum up merrily at the end: "Well now! That wasn't very good at all, was it?"

Douthat, a Catholic conservative and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has written a book about contemporary U.S. Christianity that is quite good. But the religion he describes is comically bad.

On the left, he maintains, U.S. Christianity is beholden to a self-centered, Oprah-fied spirituality, and, on the right, Christianity is too often represented by a jingoistic, wealth-obsessed evangelicalism. Mainline Protestantism is disappearing, and a beleaguered Catholicism is running out of priests. (The author ignores Jews and other non-Christians, who should be grateful to slip his noose.)

After World War II, Douthat argues, churches created a sane, centrist religious culture, anchored by Christian tradition but hopeful about progress. Church attendance reached an all-time high. Suspicions lingered between Catholics and Protestants, and among Protestant denominations, but their larger aim transcended those differences.


"Both doubters and believers have benefited from the role that institutional Christianity has traditionally played in our national life," Douthat writes, referring to the Eisenhower era. He cites the old Christianity's "communal role, as a driver of assimilation and a guarantor of social peace, and its prophetic role, as a curb against our national excesses and a constant reminder of our national ideals."

Christianity the uniter

U.S. Christianity was a uniter, not a divider. You might have attended a Lutheran church, and your neighbor a Presbyterian one, but your churches shared basic assumptions about marriage, fidelity, charity -- generally speaking, good citizenship.

Although these churches had the prejudices of their time, they were progressive on many social questions. Evangelicals remained a major part of the New Deal coalition, and white pastors, even in the South, tended to be ahead of their followers on civil rights, rather than lagging behind them.

Better still, churches resisted party labels. Some churches were more conservative, of course, and others more liberal, but those terms did not map easily onto electoral politics. One could find pastors who preached against war but also against divorce or abortion, without running afoul of the laity's Democratic or Republican expectations. The clergy's concern with theology and history, rather than self-help or self-interest, focused the people in the pews on big questions.

Douthat's portrait of mid-century religiosity is too idyllic. He does not fully explain how churches could be so good at binding people to U.S. institutions while also offering a strong social critique. He admits that his is but "an interpretation of an era," and that a different interpretation of the same time might focus on the early harbingers of counterculturalism, like Hugh Hefner or the rage for Freudian analysis. I might have added more discussion of the churches' capitulation to McCarthyism and worried more about their postwar abandonment of the cities.

In fact Douthat mentions suburbanization as a cause of our religious decline. His other causes include political polarization, brought on by Vietnam and worsened by the abortion debate; the sexual revolution; "ever-growing wealth"; and a "global perspective," which, in introducing Christians to other faiths, undermined their convictions.

Replacing the WASP elite


Finally, the old WASP elite was replaced in the class structure by a media, university, and intellectual meritocracy that either rejected Christianity outright or demanded that it accommodate the new post-1960s liberalism.

Of all these Douthat is shrewdest about the role of wealth. "Entering the ministry had always involved sacrifice," he writes, but with salaries rising so swiftly in other sectors, "the scale of that sacrifice grew considerable steeper during the 1960s and '70s."

The quality of the clergy declined, as did its ability to preach about charity and encourage sacrifice. Worshippers grew richer, and on Sundays they wanted to drive SUVs to megachurch campuses, guilt free.

The dissolution of the old ethnic ghettoes was particularly disastrous for Catholicism. The parish's social cohesion disintegrated, parochial schools closed, priests and nuns left. But Protestants suffered their own decline. Lutheranism, for example, was a powerful part of German and Scandinavian ethnic identity, so it may have never stood a chance in tolerant, integrated America.

Douthat attacks nonsense on both the cultural right and left, from preachers like Joel Osteen, whose sunny prosperity gospel ignores sin, to the narcissistic "Eat Pray Love" soul-questing embraced by many liberals.

'Clownish but influential'

But in his attempts at evenhandedness his emphasis can be off. He spends as much time ridiculing serious, if heterodox, biblical scholars on the left, like Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, as he does decrying clownish but influential figures like Osteen.

And Douthat never sufficiently confronts the way consumerism and disparities of wealth warp meaningful religiosity. Rich people want to be told they deserve their success; poor people want a God who will make them rich.


"Bad Religion" is not scholarly, but it is responsible and fair. Douthat's conservative politics show through mostly in his U.S. exceptionalism. He locates alternatives to bad religion in the U.S. past, or maybe future.

But he never looks abroad. Canada has a healthier political culture than the United States -- and better schools, better health care, and lower abortion rates -- while being far less churched.

But for those who accept our destiny as a religious nation, Douthat offers a lively, convincing argument for what kind of religion we need.

The Christian "we," anyhow.


Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times. He is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture" (Yale).

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