Ever since Puritans plunged into the New England wilderness, determined to renounce worldly corruptions and establish "a city upon a hill", American preachers have thundered against the poison of irreligion. So, too, today. Christian ministers never sound more emboldened than when they are lambasting secularism as the greatest threat not only to the Church, but to American democracy.
And they have it mostly wrong, writes Ross Douthat in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, £16.24). The deep problem facing America is not the decline of religious belief. It is the collapse of traditional Christianity and the explosion of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place. "For all its piety and fervour," Douthat writes, "the United States needs to be recognised for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics."
A conservative columnist at the New York Times, Douthat is that rarest of specimens among the media elite: an orthodox Christian who isn't ashamed of his (Catholic) church's teachings, yet doesn't blink at the foibles of the faithful. He even manages to find some kind words for heresy: its existence can keep the Christian faith from navel-gazing irrelevance.
Douthat takes aim at "the Church of America", which worships not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the god within. Publishing phenomena such as Eat, Pray, Love — the story of a woman who abandons her husband to seek spiritual fulfilment — represent the religious zeitgeist. It is the happy discovery that deep within every human soul is divinity itself, waiting to emerge and help us actualise our dreams (or our sexual whims).