Are We a Nation of Heretics?

Are we a nation of heretics? Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times, says “Yes.” It’s a rather elaborate “Yes,” actually, taking up 293 pages of Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

I always enjoy Douthat’s writing, and Bad Religion is no exception to this rule. He is thoughtful, knowledgeable, and can turn a phrase with the best of them. I’m about a quarter into Bad Religion and am finding myself both informed and entertained. So far, Douthat has been focusing on the rise and fall of mainline Christianity in America in the last half century or a little more.

If you’re looking for a way to sample Douthat’s thinking before you purchase Bad Religion, Christianity Today has a fine interview available online.

Here’s how it begins:

The biggest threat facing America is not a faltering economy or a spate of books by famed atheists. Rather, the country meets new challenges due to the decline of traditional Christianity, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press). Douthat has taken his own personal tour of American Christianity: he was baptized Episcopalian, attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches as a child, and converted to Catholicism at age 17. He argues that prosperity preachers, self-esteem gurus, and politics operating as religion contribute to the contemporary decline of America. CT spoke with Douthat about America’s decline from a vigorous faith, modern heretics, and why we need a revival of traditional Christianity.

What do you mean when you say we’re facing the threat of heresy?

I try to use an ecumenical definition, starting with what I see as the theological common ground shared by my own Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations. Then I look at forms of American religion that are influenced by Christianity, but depart in some significant way from this consensus. It’s a C. S. Lewisian, Mere Christianity definition of orthodoxy or heresy. I’m trying to look at the ways the American religion today departs from theological and moral premises that traditional Protestants and Catholics have in common.

How did America become a nation of heretics?

We’ve always been a nation of heretics. Heresy used to be constrained and balanced by institutional Christianity to a far greater extent than it is today. What’s unique about our religious moment is not the movements and currents such as the “lost gospel” industry, the world of prosperity preaching, the kind of therapeutic religion that you get from someone like Oprah Winfrey, or various highly politicized forms of faith. What’s new is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response. There were prosperity preachers and therapeutic religion in the 1940s and ’50s—think of bestsellers like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking—but there was also a much more robust Christian center.

The Protestant and Catholic churches that made a real effort to root their doctrine and practice in historic Christianity were vastly stronger than they are today. Even someone who was dabbling in what I call heresy was also more likely to have something in his religious life—some institutional or confessional pressure—tugging him back toward a more traditional faith. The influence of heretics has been magnified by the decline of orthodox Christianity.

Of course, Douthat won’t win any popularity contest by using the words “heresy” and “heretics” to describe people in our day who think they are Christian or, at any rate, acceptably spiritual. He’s got enough here to make just about everybody upset. Mainliners will object to his blunt depiction of denominational decline. Freethinking Christians and other religious folk will be put off by being labeled heretics. And atheists will be bugged by the fact that a book on “bad religion” turns out to believe that certain kinds of religion, especially orthodox (right-thinking) religion, is in fact good.

Whether you agree with Douthat’s basic thesis or not, I think he’s on to something. I’ll have more to say about this later.

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  • Rodney Reeves

    I watched the discussion of his book at the Trinity Forum last night on Book TV.   Very interesting.

  • Pastor Duane Ritter

    If I understand it right, what you are trying to say is todays Christians are headed off in their own direction which ever that might be. If this is the case then I do agree some what. But if you are trying to say we all need to follow Catholosism I strongly disagree due to Catholic tradition in doctrine.
    However our own stand on the KJV Bible has brought us some argumental controversy as well.
    When we begin to tamper with the Word of God we open ourselves up to spiritual attacks without any spiritual armor to defend ourselves.  We then grow weak not knowing the power of Gods word and fall prey to Satan himself. Once this happens Christian men and women start to fall for very subtle misdirections within the church, causing many many church splits and gang type take overs. Creating Sunday morning country clubs and dens of devils.
    This is exactly what Jesus combatted with the Pharasees and Sadusees if you would remember calling they hypocrits and white washed tombs full of dead mens bones.
    It all begins when we as Christians fall away from the true teachings of Gods Word, preachers and pastors working for a pay check and not for the sheep.
    As you can gather I’m not a big fan of TV evangelist that started with a great idea but finished paying alms unto the devil.
    It’s all about how many people we can pack in a huge building and feed them as little of the truth as possible because we have to add on for the next thousand lost and left undone individuals we can seduce with their feather tickling messages. All so they don’t make anybody mad and run them off.
    Don’t you dare tag this as jealousy, if you’ve got any discernment at all you’ll know for sure this is far from jealousy.
    We are in a battle against Satan trying to steal our children and loved ones through all these false doctrines and false teachers.
    Time is running out, nothing is restraining the Lord from coming at any time and the devil knows this as well as we do, and is working overtime luring people into his trap by using distorted bible teaching.
    In Matthew Chapter 4, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the spirit to be tempted by the devil.
    This scripture is in the bible for a purpose!
    It is there for us to understand that down through the years following Christ passion no living person would escape this same type temptation.

    Thank You and May God be with you and keep you safe from all harm.
    Heavens Hand Ministry
    Pastor Duane Ritter

  • markdroberts

    That would have been fascinating.

  • markdroberts

    Thanks for your comment. No, I’m not advocating that we all become Roman Catholic. But I do think we Protestants need to rethink what Scripture teaches the church should be.