'Heretics': The Crisis Of American Christianity

Apr 14, 2012
Originally published on April 14, 2012 8:25 am

The United States ranks as the most religious country in the developed world. And New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says that despite our politics, debates and doubts, this country is as God-besotted today as ever.

But in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Douthat argues that religion has fallen into heresy (hence the feisty subtitle). Douthat recently spoke with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about why he thinks American Christianity has become distorted.


Interview Highlights

On the decline of institutional Christianity

"Institutional religion in the United States — institutional Christianity in particular — is much, much weaker today than it was 40 years ago. But religion itself is as strong as ever. ... But the eclipse of institutional faith, and the eclipse of what I would say was a kind of a Christian center that the country used to have, has created a landscape where religion divides us much more than it used to."

On heresies

"The heresies that I write about are what flourish in the vacuum that's left by institutional Christianity's decline. So if the country remains religious, but the institutional churches are weaker than they used to be, what steps into the breach?"

On the heresy of The Da Vinci Code

"I start with the project to basically go back into the gospels of the early church ... and to sort of fashion a Jesus who seems to fit the modern world better than the Jesus of the Nicene Creed. And this project is best embodied by Dan Brown and by The Da Vinci Code. ... Brown himself is very explicit that he has a theological, philosophical message about what direction Christianity — what direction religion — should go in. And that direction is toward this alternative Jesus that he's sketched out, who is ... a much more congenial figure for a lot of Americans than the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."

On the heresy of the prosperity gospel

"From there I move toward heresies that are about money, basically, and about the idea that God wants you to get rich. This is the prosperity gospel. It's Joel Osteen. It's the televangelist you see on TV. All of these heresies I talk about speak to aspects of contemporary life, where traditional Christianity rubs up against the way we live now, and people don't like it. ... We're a rich country. We're a capitalist country. We're a country of strivers and go-getters. And the prosperity gospel says that's what God wants. God wants you to be rich. Which is not precisely the message of the New Testament."

On the heresy of Eat, Pray, Love

"From there I move to what I call the god within, which is the heresy of Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, of Oprah Winfrey, of Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. ... It's less that God wants you to be rich and more that God is there to make you feel happy about yourself. And that the point of spiritual wisdom is not necessarily strenuous prayer and fasting and moral transformation. It's more sort of blessing impulses you already have. ... This ends up putting a kind of Christian stamp on narcissism, where the things we already want to do, we tell ourselves, are things that God wants us to do, too.

On what Christians should do about these heresies

"I don't have sort of a five-point plan for rebuilding Christianity in America. ... The main point that I'm trying to make is that whatever happens to the institutional churches, individual Christians can try to essentially be better Christians, and honor the complications and paradoxes and tensions of this ancient faith a little better, and not just go as quickly to the easy answer."

On Christianity's staying power

"I'm not without hope. I mean, Christianity is a 2,000-year-old religion. And if you look back across these various crises in Christianity's past, there's again and again been an assumption: Well, the Roman Empire is falling and Christianity will fall with it. Islam is rising, and it's going to just erase Christianity from the map. Charles Darwin has just disproved Christianity, and nobody's ever going to hear from it again. And Christianity has been very resilient."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Despite politics, debates and doubts, religion plays a huge role in American life. This country is still the most religious country in the developed world. New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat has written a new book called "Bad Religion," in which he makes the case that religion, American Christianity in particular, has fallen into heresy. "Bad Religion" has a feisty subtitle, "How We Became a Nation of Heretics." Ross Douthat joins us in the studio. Thank you for coming in to talk about your book.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you begin this book with an almost nostalgic eulogy for the great strength of orthodox religion in the period after the Second World War. You suggest that the awful things that happened in that war sent us back to faith, and that it was huge.

DOUTHAT: I mean, I think what happened in the U.S. after the Second World War was a large-scale popular revival of religion. Churchgoing rates rose to levels that hadn't been seen before or since, and simultaneously in American politics you had the remarkable thing, which was the emergence of the civil rights movement as a political cause that was really grounded in a kind of religious, almost revival spirit of its own.

WERTHEIMER: A sort of Christian duty.

DOUTHAT: Right. In the civil rights era, much more than in our current culture or controversies, the various Christian churches ended up being relatively unified. Catholics, Protestants, even Southern evangelicals in the end essentially bought into the message of Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy and people like that.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in your book, that is the mark from which we have fallen, and you make the point that this loss is important to all of us, to the pious and to the secular as well.

DOUTHAT: The eclipse of what I would say was a kind of Christian center that the country used to have, has created a landscape where religion divides us much more than it used to. I think, you know, it's something really important has been lost, and you're left with this kind of ungrounded, perpetual do-it-yourself form and many forms of religion.

WERTHEIMER: One of the most interesting sections of your book is about the heresies that you feel modern American faith has fallen into. The first one is sort of personified by Dan Brown, the author of "The DaVinci Code."

DOUTHAT: Right. So the heresies that I write about are what flourish in the vacuum that's left by institutional Christianity's decline. So if the country remains religious, but the institutional churches are weaker than they used to be, what steps into the breach, right? And I start with the project to fashion a Jesus who seems to fit the modern world better than the Jesus of the Nicene Creed, let's say.

And this project is best embodied by - yeah, by Dan Brown and by "The DaVinci Code," which is a book that was a best-seller for a lot of reasons. It's a page turner and everything else, but Brown himself is very explicit that he has, you know, a theological, philosophical message about what direction Christianity - what direction religion should go in, and that direction is towards this sort of alternative Jesus that he sketched out.

And then from there I move towards, you know, heresies that are about money basically, and about the idea that God wants you to get rich, which is not precisely the message of the New Testament. And so then from there I move to sort of what I call the God within, which is the heresy of Elizabeth Gilbert, "Eat, Pray, Love," of Oprah Winfrey, of Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, and that the point of spiritual wisdom is not necessarily sort of, you know, strenuous prayer and fasting and moral transformation. It's more sort of blessing impulses you already have and so on, and this ends up putting a kind of Christian stamp on narcissism, where the things, you know, the things we already want to do we tell ourselves are things that God wants us to do too.

WERTHEIMER: And then you get to...

DOUTHAT: And then politics.

WERTHEIMER: ...Glenn Beck.

DOUTHAT: To Glenn Beck, and there in the final chapter I say that, you know, one of things that happens as institutional religion weakens is that people start investing religious energy in political figures and in political narratives, and that this has a sort of - I call it a messy annex side, where you are sort of putting all your chips into some great leader who is going to usher in the kingdom of God on earth, which I think we saw a lot of in the enthusiasm for Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign and the sort of yes we can idea. And then the apocalyptic side, where it's sort of the reverse. You're saying well, the other party, you know, is practically in league with the devil.

WERTHEIMER: Ross Douthat is here talking about his new book "Bad Religion." Now, I have to say that some of these people to be pronounced heretics or leading people into heresy, I mean that's making them very important.

DOUTHAT: I think they are very important. One thing I try and do, I think a lot of people who are at a distance from that world just laugh at prosperity preachers, right? It's like, you know, the prosperity preacher with his fancy car who is telling everybody they're going to get rich. This is obviously absurd and only fools could possibly believe it. But if you look at a figure like Joel Osteen, who is one of the bestselling religious writers in America today, and who is a much more sort of canny and subtle promoter of that message, it's a very powerful idea, but it's also a very, you know, I mean what's Jesus' message? To take up your cross and follow me. That's a much harder message than no, just pray a little harder and you'll be happy.

WERTHEIMER: You too can be rich.

DOUTHAT: You too can be happy. You too can be rich.

WERTHEIMER: But you're not, you're not without hope.

DOUTHAT: No. I'm not without hope. I mean, Christianity is a 2,000-year-old religion. Christianity has been very resilient and it's been very resilient I mean, obviously as a Christian I think it's been very resilient because it's true. But also think it's been resilient because there have been figures - whether it's a, you know, a Francis of Assisi in the Middle Ages or both sort of Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and so on, who were willing to sort of sit in the rubble of an institutional failure and start working again. And where those people come from I'm not sure, but they have appeared in the Christian past and it's reasonable for Christians to hope they might appear in the future as well.

WERTHEIMER: Ross Douthat's new book is called "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." Thank you very much for coming in and talking to us.

DOUTHAT: Oh, of course. Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.