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).
As Douthat sees it, the Church of America also promotes the heresy of nationalism, confusing the mission of the gospel with the mission of the United States. At home, this heresy is championed by religious liberals, who mistake the kingdom of heaven for their visions of a “great society”, having anointed Barack Obama as its latest high priest. For their part, many evangelicals and “theocons” became unduly enamoured of George Bush’s democracy agenda in the Muslim world, as if free elections and the US military could usher in the political equivalent of the Second Coming of Christ.
These heresies are not new, but the decline of traditional belief has given them a ferocious influence over our culture and our politics. Only biblical religion can resist the hubris of nationalism, Douthat argues, because every party, every political agenda and every nation stands under the judgment of Almighty God. Likewise, only the weighty virtues of the ancient faith — such as humility and charity — have any power to curb self-absorption and consumerism in all their varied forms (including by-products of runaway capitalism).
In Douthat’s skilful critique, even the disillusioned doubter is given reasons to hope for the renewal of Christian orthodoxy. “There is something to be said for returning to the source,” he writes, “for looking again at your half-forgotten patrimony, for considering anew the possibility that Christianity might be an inheritance rather than a burden.” Amen to that.