American Heretics Abounding

In my First Things column of last week, I quoted a small portion from Ross Douthat’s remarkable book Bad Religion; How We Became a Nation of Heretics, which will be released this week.

I plan on writing a fuller review of the book, but one of my concerns with my column was that I’d inadvertently given the impression that Douthat spent a lot of time discussing the issue of sexual morality, hypocrisy and homosexuality. In fact, he spends very little time on that front — mostly, in fact, as he is building to his rather humbly offered summary-solution — and much more time examining all the ways the “gospels of prosperity” have shrunken, distorted and trivialized Christianity. Fearing that I had misrepresented the book, I was very happy to see Douthat adapt a little of the book for this column in the Sunday NY Times:

Americans have never separated religion from politics, but it makes a difference how the two are intertwined. When religious commitments are more comprehensive and religious institutions more resilient, faith is more likely to call people out of private loyalties to public purposes, more likely to inspire voters to put ideals above self-interest, more likely to inspire politicians to defy partisan categories altogether. But as orthodoxies weaken, churches split and their former adherents mix and match elements of various traditions to fit their preferences, religion is more likely to become indistinguishable from personal and ideological self-interest.

Here it’s worth contrasting the civil rights era to our own. Precisely because America’s religious center was stronger and its leading churches more influential, the preachers and ministers who led the civil rights movement were able to assemble the broadest possible religious coalition — from the ministers who marched with protesters to the Catholic bishops who desegregated parochial schools and excommunicated white supremacists. Precisely because they shared so much theological common ground with white Christians, the leaders of the black churches were able to use moral and theological arguments to effectively shame many Southerners into accepting desegregation. (The latter story is told, masterfully, in David L. Chappell’s “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow.”)

The result was an issue where pastors led and politicians of both parties followed, where the institutional churches proved their worth as both sources of moral authority and hubs of activism, and where religious witness helped forge a genuine national consensus on an issue where even presidents feared to tread.

Today’s America does not lack for causes where a similar spirit could be brought to bear for religious activists with the desire to imitate the achievements of the past. But with the disappearance of a Christian center and the decline of institutional religion more generally, we lack the capacity to translate those desires into something other than what we’ve seen in this, the most theologically diverse of recent presidential elections — division, demonization and polarization without end.

As I’ve said elsewhere, if you liked Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism, and you are politically-aware (and as discomfited by the notion of Ameridolatry as I and some others are), this book should be on your reading list.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Alicia

    I’m not so sure about the notion of a “Christian center.” What center? Catholics were never part of this center. And just lumping everything under “Christian” really misrepresents the fragmentation that has always represented Christianity in America. Douthat is right that it is becoming more self-centered today, but that is only a consequence of the originally self-centered strain in Protestantism that was there at the beginning. I guess in many ways I don’t see what’s new in Douthat’s book that hasn’t been said many times before.

    [You should probably read the whole book, then. It's really hard to understand what a man's saying from a few truncated excerpts. -admin]

  • kt

    For that matter, I still haven’t seen an explication of the term “Ameridolatry”. From what I can gather, the only possible working definition is it’s a pejorative used to describe those who self-identify as both Christian and conservative. Short-hand for “I, the user of this term, am not one of *those* Christians and/or catholics.”

    [ Check my archives. I've wondered for a very long time about the danger of ideologies becoming idols, which I think is a valid thing for Christians to think about and be careful of, and I include myself in that. That's all it means. If you choose to be offended, or believe it's simply not possible for Christians to fall into idolatry, then you're quite mistaken...but it's your right to be offended, if you like. -admin]

  • Pauli

    The insinuation in the use of the word “Ameridolatry” is that this idolization is primarily a problem for Americans, and that those of other nationalities are immune from thinking of their country before their religion. If anything, it seems to me that we do a more thorough examination of our collective conscience than others. But perhaps I’m already too far gone….

    [Ameridolatry is a portmanteau I created after I observed some Christians (Catholic and non) seeming to confuse something "sacred" with something holy. The constitution, for instance, is a "sacred" document, but it's not holy. Patriotism is a fine thing, but governments, countries and societies do vanish -- it happens all the time -- they are not eternal in the way holy things are eternal. I don't think there is anything wrong with wondering if national pride and ideologies can slip into idolatry, and I am not offended by the notion that I or my fellow countrymen can have slipped into such a sin from time to time. It's human nature, and has been since Eden. It's not something "exclusive" to Americans, just something I've wondered about. I always reserve for myself the right to wonder about anything I like.- admin]

  • Kt

    Funny, i dont know anyone who “likes” to be offended, including myself. Perhaps this is a characteristic of the mystery breed “Ameridolator”….

    [I know a lot of people who like to be offended. It's almost a default mode for them! :-) -admin]

  • Kt

    Oh, and I did check your archives. Hence the confusion.

    [Well, not sure why you couldn't find anything. Then again, as the Partly Cloudy piece shows, I have lost stuff in the moves. I think the two links I provided for you were pretty clear, though. Unless they're not. Whatever. I'm tired. If you are offended, I can't help that. You're entitled to your feelings -admin]

  • Pauli

    Ameridolater should be an album name. Maybe Green Day’s next… are they still around?

    [I wouldn't know. -admin]

  • Kt

    Perhaps, when you are less tired, you might undertake some self-examination and ask yourself whether, indeed, you meant to offend.

    [No, I don't think I need to do that; quite aware of my thoughts and motives, thanks for your concern. -admin]

  • Kt

    Especially since I found your explanatory posts unresponsive. You really don’t want to define the word, but own it: it’s yours.

    [Yep. I own it. I made a point of saying that it was a portmanteau I made up. You're welcome to not like it. Think what you want. -admin]

  • Kt

    Ameridolators as American Idiots, Pauli? Well, it’s definitely consistent with use of the term…

    [Wow, really? You don't "like" to be offended, but that's what you've taken from it? That I have a concern (which I include myself in) that we can sometimes, in our patriotism, fall into idolatry, and that this is a concern worth having -- or a fault worth watching out for -- can reasonably be reduced to me somehow calling people "idiots"? Really? (Shrug) Then this conversation is done, and I have no idea why you continue to read someone who you think is calling you an idiot. Excuse me. I'm going to go do my Sunday crossword puzzle and call it a day. -admin]

  • Kt

    Oh, and it’s news to me that what is “sacred” is not “holy”. In fact you’ve totally lost me there.

    [I've clearly lost you in many places. As demonstrated by your continual comments, this piece has nettled you. Perhaps, since you are a lover of self-examination, you might ask yourself why? Taking a look at your past comments -- including your twice-cried demand that I "stop trashing conservatives" when I'd done no such thing, I remember you, now. You sort of prove my point for me. I think my explanations have been pretty clear and as I said, I'm done. -admin]

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Sadly, I think there is far less danger at the moment, of Christians loving America too much, and more danger of them loving it not at all, and being too willing to denigrate it for its lack of perfection (and it never will be perfect), and hate it for not being a Utopia, and because it can’t solve all the world’s problems.

  • kt

    I comment on here about twice a year, if that, and it’s always calling you out on the same stuff. You have a blind spot, a big one. Dealing with it would make you a far better writer. In the meantime, expecting your readers to unquestioningly accept stuff like the term “Ameridolatry” or, for that matter, your indefensible distinction between “sacred” and “holy”, is absurd.

  • kt

    and yes, you do need the self-examination. Big time.

  • Mark Greta

    I find this post seems to lack the consistent clarity of most posts by Anchoress. I think that is why commenters are kind of floundering around and why we see some edits back that they have not understood the post. I got the feeling in reading it that it is an attempt to find some way to bring some sanity to the issues of “division, demonization and polarization without end” that many hate. Using the civil rights era as some framing point when the “Church center” still existed fails to take into consideration that the civil rights era was a development that started at the time the first slaves arrived and through the founding of our country if we only look at this country. What made the civil rights marches become a “center” issue was TV coverage of evil into everyone’s living room which forced politicians, church leaders, and the people to have to look at the problem and at those using power in a very evil way. We rejected beating people, hitting them with fire hoses, sicking dogs on them, and certainly killing them in the middle of the night and hiding their bodies. We accepted what MLK said when he wanted all people to be judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin and felt that the Constitution with the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments had put in place equality if properly enforced as the law of the land in regard to African Americans. Civil rights marches were all about these amendments, now almost 100 years old, being enforced in areas which were largely controlled by the same party of slavery, the Democratic Party. Had these amendments been obeyed by all the states, the later civil rights acts would not have been needed. So the “center” was easy to build out in both directions because amendments were in place and being violated. What ended up being created by courts and legislation started many of the race issues we still have today because unlike what MLK called for, we now saw laws created not measured on character, but on the color of skin as a determining factor. You want to create division in communities, give special preference based on skin color to reward one race over another when the race given preference much worse qualifications. This new style court legislation would soon force “division, demonization and polarization without end” by finding words to make killing infants legal, awarding gay behavior special rights such as marriage, and taking God away from our schools and instititutions and you have a perfect storm for creating those “division, demonization and polarization without end”. Again, it was the Democratic party that created, supported, and enforced this history which would take a country with 90% of its people believing in the Judeo Christian God and our government formed with a clear wall of separation around that government so as to protect that religious belief or that government from forming any state religion, and most certainly not a secular godless state religion, and those “division, demonization and polarization without end” had to occur. If in 1947 and after, the Democrats had tried to pass a constitutional amendment to create this godless state secular religion, or to pass making killing infants legal, or to pass an amendment making gay behavior normal and equal as marriage, then with their passage, we would not have these devisions today. Until people get a handle around how our constitution has been violated and a firm committment to fix it, expect these “division, demonization and polarization without end” to continue to grow and probably get ever more violent.