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Douthat's excellent critique of American heresies [Bad Religion]
CatholicCulture.org ^ | 11-27-12 | Phil Lawler

Posted on 11/28/2012 2:07:04 PM PST by Salvation

Douthat's excellent critique of American heresies

By Phil Lawler  | November 27, 2012 8:27 AM

Ross Douthat will forgive me, I hope, for saying that it is remarkable Bad Religion was written by such a young man. I don’t mean to patronize him. A conservative Catholic writer who has established himself as a regular op-ed columnist for the New York Times doesn’t need a condescending pat on the head from me.

Still, as I read Douthat’s description of the seismic shifts in American culture during the 1960s and 1970s, I had to remind myself repeatedly that he is too young to have seen the events he describes. Among the dozens of books I have read about the same era—mostly written by authors who were at least eyewitnesses to, if not active participants in, the cultural revolution—none has been more perceptive.

Thus, very early in Bad Religion, Douthat demonstrates an extraordinary ability to absorb historical lessons. That ability serves him well throughout a book that is, essentially, a critical history of unorthodox American religious beliefs.

Although he frequently alludes to his own Catholic beliefs, Douthat constructs the main argument of Bad Religion from the perspective of what C.S. Lewis termed “mere Christianity”—the fundamental faith that is shared by all those who embrace the Apostle’s Creed. The main theme of the book is that America suffers today from the influence of popular heresies: schools of thought that are incompatible with the basic tenets of orthodox Christian faith.

Douthat adroitly skewers the “accommodationists” who tailor the teachings of the Bible to suit secular trends, and the profiteers who exploit their Bible-believing followers to pay for their own tailor-made suits. More importantly he notices that in America there has always been a tendency to soft-pedal the more demanding precepts of Christianity when they conflict with conventional public opinion. Even at the apparent zenith of Christian influence on American society, in the early 1960s, he notes that towering figures such as Reinhold Niehbuhr and Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen and Martin Luther King, even though they refused to compromise on principle, “often tended to succeed only insofar as they met the American Way of Life halfway…” Within the Catholic Church specifically, he observes: “A generation of bishops had come of age knowing that the best way to establish their faith’s American bona fides was to outdo Protestants in patriotic fervor.”

In recent years the challenges to orthodox Christian belief have included some new variations on old heresies, tracing their lineage back to the Gnostics and beyond. (Think Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code or, a bit upmarket, Elaine Pagels and the Jesus Seminar.) The influence of the Gnostics can be clearly identified in the work of distinctly American thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson. Douthat entitles his chapter on that subject “The God Within.”

Douthat makes the interesting observation that the classic Christian heresies, which are generally popular because they offer an easily digestible version of Christ’s teaching, arose after the epistles of St. Paul. Thus the most demanding version of Christ’s teaching was the authoritative version, presented to the world originally, and since the earliest days of Christianity, those who chafed under the demands of orthodoxy have sought to find an easier route. He also notes that today’s versions of the old heresies often come with a conspiracy theory attached: if there is no evidence available to support the latest outlandish theory about “the real Jesus,” that can only be because the Catholic Church suppressed the evidence.

America has its own characteristic heresies, Douthat argues: messianism and apocalypticism. The messianic strain is clearly visible in the widespread support for “American exceptionalism”—the notion that the United States has a special role to play as God’s instrument in history. Europeans understandably find this idea unsettling, and Douthat observes that orthodox Christians put their trust in the Church, not any earthly power. Abraham Lincoln—whose Christian faith was real, albeit somewhat unconventional—cautioned that the United States would serve God’s purposes only insofar as the country obeyed God’s laws. Douthat sees in Lincoln’s modesty a healthier understanding of a nation’s role in the history of salvation, informed by the understanding that no institution formed by sinful men can presume to embody the design of Providence. He remarks: “Our exceptionalism must be a provisional exceptionalism, in other words—expectant but not presumptuous, perpetually tempered by humility and open to correction and surprise.”

American messianism, with its belief that mankind can construct a sort of heaven on earth (under American leadership, of course), appeals to liberal instincts, Douthat observes. Apocalypticism, the other characteristic heresy of American public religion, generally lures conservatives. Whereas the messianic strain sees it as America’s destiny to advance righteous causes, “the apocalyptic view suggests that the American founding was literally a covenanted event, akin to the biblical establishment of Israel.” The latter view leads naturally to lamentations that the America of today has abandoned the principles of the founding. The apocalyptic style, Douthat says, “tends to be more purely negative,” and therefore unattractive to Americans, who like their political theories served with a garnish of optimism. In a passage that some frustrated Republican political candidates should take to heart, he explains: “It may call for moral renewal, but its millenarian hostility toward present-day decadence tends to make it a poor vehicle for any kind of real reform.”

Yet if messianism is by nature liberal, and apocalypticism by nature conservative, the two heresies have merged in the early years of the 21st century. Douthat demonstrates his analytical skill once again by showing how and why the two strains of American heresy have come together. He concludes: “The right has become more Wilsonian, the left steadily more apocalyptic, and the two forms of the nationalist heresy have intertwined within the Republican and Democratic parties alike.”

So we are left with a single dominant American heresy, intellectually confused but politically powerful. Both liberals and conservatives claim that they are advancing Christian principles in public life, yet neither political faction explains its plans in terms that orthodox Christians of another time and place would understand. Douthat argues:

The present danger to our democracy isn’t that Christianity has gained too much power and influence over our politics. Rather, it’s that the heresy of nationalism’s co-option of Christian faith has left the faith too weak to play the kind of positive role it has often played in our public life.

In the final section of Bad Religion Douthat outlines the possible ways in which genuine Christian influence in American public life might be revived. Hostility to traditional Christian beliefs might reach a level at which the Church once again became truly counter-cultural. Believing Christians might succeed in converting the nation’s opinion leaders—it certainly wouldn’t be the first time—and a broader social acceptance would soon follow. A new form of monasticism (which, Douthat observes, is quite different from separatism) could develop. However it happens—if it happens—a renewed Christian influence will follow the main steams of orthodox belief, not the odd tributaries of American public religion.

In the final pages of Bad Religion Douthat offers a more specific, practical proposal: a simple challenge to Christian believers and to all other readers as well. But I won’t give away the ending, because I want people to read this book. Even with a few weeks remaining in 2012, I’m ready to give Douthat my personal nod for the best new book of the year.

Bad Religion

Ross Douthat



TOPICS: Apologetics; Catholic; History; Theology
KEYWORDS: catholic; heresy
Sounds like an amazing book.
1 posted on 11/28/2012 2:07:13 PM PST by Salvation
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To: Salvation

Has anyone read this?


2 posted on 11/28/2012 2:09:25 PM PST by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: nickcarraway; NYer; ELS; Pyro7480; livius; ArrogantBustard; Catholicguy; RobbyS; marshmallow; ...
Rather, it’s that the heresy of nationalism’s co-option of Christian faith has left the faith too weak to play the kind of positive role it has often played in our public life.

Catholic Ping!

3 posted on 11/28/2012 2:09:56 PM PST by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: Salvation

I got tired of Ross Douthat when he became a “crunchy con” and started attacking those that didn’t buy into his other pet religion.


4 posted on 11/28/2012 2:12:26 PM PST by Fledermaus (The Republic is Dead: Collapse the system. Let the Dems destroy the economy!)
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To: Salvation

I haven’t.


5 posted on 11/28/2012 2:21:38 PM PST by onyx (FREE REPUBLIC IS HERE TO STAY! DONATE MONTHLY! IF YOU WANT ON SARAH PALIN''S PING LIST, LET ME KNOW)
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To: Fledermaus
BUMP

"Crunchy Cons" are not to be trusted

which are generally popular because they offer an easily digestible version of Christ’s teaching, arose after the epistles of St. Paul

LOL

I have to remind people that ONLY God through JESUS is Christianity. Things like St. Marianne the Baker, patron saint of brownies is NOT Christianity... it is heresy.

6 posted on 11/28/2012 2:21:41 PM PST by GeronL (http://asspos.blogspot.com)
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To: Salvation
The present day Catholic Church is heresy who tailor the teachings of the Bible to suit secular trends

Like social justice?

7 posted on 11/28/2012 2:21:46 PM PST by GeronL (http://asspos.blogspot.com)
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To: GeronL; Fledermaus
"Crunchy Cons" are not to be trusted

Rod Dreher was and is the "crunchy con." I'm not aware that Ross Douthat was or is one. A lot of people get them confused.

Most people in politics aren't easy to trust. And why would you want to anyway? However silly "crunchy cons" are, they may help to balance out some of the excesses of the "drill, baby drill" crowd, and that wouldn't be a bad thing.

What Douthat's saying about religion is reminiscent of the neo-orthodoxy of the 1950s. But most people have forgotten what actually is orthodox -- or they don't care -- so his book probably won't have much of an impact.

It's a little like complaining that American football doesn't follow the rules of rugby or vice versa. With a lot of people nowadays, "heretic" doesn't pack the punch it once did.

8 posted on 11/28/2012 2:40:32 PM PST by x
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To: x; GeronL

DOH...Dreher.

Oh well, I was close! lol

Now I remember why I don’t care for Douthat...Mark Levin one night just ripped into him and I loved it.


9 posted on 11/28/2012 2:43:53 PM PST by Fledermaus (The Republic is Dead: Collapse the system. Let the Dems destroy the economy!)
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To: Fledermaus

d’oh!

Yeah, I knew Dreher was... I thought you meant this guy had joined Dreher’s cliche


10 posted on 11/28/2012 2:53:22 PM PST by GeronL (http://asspos.blogspot.com)
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To: Salvation
I haven't read the book, but if Douthat fails to recognize the rapid advance of agnosticism (actually better described as crypto-atheism) as a greater threat than heresy he is missing the elephant in the room. Today the majority of the Left does not see themselves as champions of Christian principles-however loosely defined-but as champions of unvarnished humanism. Lately the same rot has begun on the Right. We are not witnessing the co-opting of religious principles by politicians, we are witnessing the decoupling of western civilization from religious principles.

I guarantee that there will be tears before bedtime.

11 posted on 11/28/2012 2:56:26 PM PST by jboot (This isn't your father's America. Stay safe and keep your powder dry.)
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To: Salvation

I have downloaded the Kindle version to my iPad, but haven’t started it yet. I am in the middle of moving, am old, achy, and tired.

I can only get so much done in a day, and it will have too wait until I have finished all the unpacking and finding a place for everything.

I am looking forward to it, as I am a very orthodox Anglican, and plan to convert to Catholicism as soon as they will have me.


12 posted on 11/28/2012 3:16:41 PM PST by jacquej
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To: Salvation

This all assumes the Roman Catholic Church is itself NOT a cult..
fully as strange as the Mormon church is.. or even Scientology.. or most if all denominations are..


13 posted on 11/28/2012 3:22:34 PM PST by hosepipe (This propaganda has been edited to include some fully orbed hyperbole..)
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To: Salvation

He makes it sound as if hateful racist communists like Obama promote liberation theology because they believe in American exceptionalism. The opposite is true.


14 posted on 11/28/2012 3:31:35 PM PST by Tailgunner Joe
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To: hosepipe

I guess we won’t ask you what cult you belong to..


15 posted on 11/28/2012 3:33:35 PM PST by Chainmail (A simple rule of life: if you can be blamed, you're responsible.)
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Comment #16 Removed by Moderator

To: hosepipe

The Catholic Church is NOT a cult. It was formed by Jesus Christ — the first Bishops were the apostles.

How old is your church?

The Catholic Church is over 2000 years old and has stood staunchly against the secular views on abortion, contraception, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, homoesexuality and same - sex marriage, etc.


17 posted on 11/28/2012 4:06:14 PM PST by Salvation ("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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To: Salvation
Bad Religion

I check Amazon now and again, for a cheap used copy. It's on my list of things I want to read.

18 posted on 11/28/2012 4:44:42 PM PST by Lee N. Field ("And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" Gal 3:29)
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To: Fledermaus

In what way, specifically?


19 posted on 11/28/2012 4:58:34 PM PST by Mrs. Don-o ("In Christ we form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." Romans 12:5)
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To: GeronL
Not sure who this St. Marianne is, but I'm wondering if you got Ross Douthat mixed up with Rod Dreher? I haven't noticed any granola tendencies in Douthat.

Disclaimer: I actually like granola. I put it, redundantly, on my oatmeal. Make of it what you will. :o)

20 posted on 11/28/2012 5:02:26 PM PST by Mrs. Don-o ("In Christ we form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." Romans 12:5)
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To: jacquej
Good. We are pleased.

Get into a good parish. Are you anywhere near Upper East Tennessee? I'm on the RCIA team in my parish. You'd like it.


21 posted on 11/28/2012 5:10:09 PM PST by Mrs. Don-o ("In Christ we form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." Romans 12:5)
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To: Mrs. Don-o

Am in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, alas. Will probably go to Our Lady of Grace - in next burb southeast of Minneapolis.


22 posted on 11/28/2012 5:25:08 PM PST by jacquej
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To: Salvation

interesting opinion...


23 posted on 11/28/2012 7:43:23 PM PST by hosepipe (This propaganda has been edited to include some fully orbed hyperbole..)
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To: Salvation

Bad Religion? This song rings true in ways the boys would probably be horrified to realize:

Yeah, can you hear the call
In our rambling land?
Susurrations
That can
Expand beyond all hope of light
And plunge us into unrelenting night

A pall
On truth and reason
It feels like hunting season
So avoid those lines of sight
And we’ll set this right

Welcome to the new dark ages
I hope you’re living right
These are the new dark ages
And the world might end tonight


24 posted on 11/28/2012 9:57:02 PM PST by RichInOC (Palin 2016: The Perfect Storm.)
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To: Mrs. Don-o
Not sure who this St. Marianne is...

I think they were making fun of the whole idea of saints.
25 posted on 11/29/2012 4:28:44 AM PST by Carpe Cerevisi
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To: Carpe Cerevisi

im sure the saints are not amused.

misunderstanding His one holy catholic and apostolic church or setting up straw men versions, dosent get the work of the gospel done.

but, as has been noted elsewhere, 2000 years, she has stood as a bulwark against this world, and i think Christ each day for this incredible gift.


26 posted on 11/29/2012 5:38:52 AM PST by raygunfan
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To: raygunfan; Carpe Cerevisi
"im sure the saints are not amused."

Oh, hot cross buns.

27 posted on 11/29/2012 7:22:32 AM PST by Mrs. Don-o ("God bless the child that's got his own." Billie Holiday / Arthur Herzog Jr)
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To: GeronL
Yeah, I knew Dreher was... I thought you meant this guy had joined Dreher’s cliche

cliche or clique?

Cheers!

28 posted on 12/01/2012 6:19:45 AM PST by grey_whiskers (The opinions are solely those of the author and are subject to change without notice.)
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To: jacquej

FREEPMAIL.


29 posted on 12/01/2012 6:22:46 AM PST by grey_whiskers (The opinions are solely those of the author and are subject to change without notice.)
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