By Ross Douthat
Reviewed by Thomas J. Burns (2012)
“Bad Religion” is a tale of two epochs: the state of American Christianity in the years following World War II, and this millennium’s subsequent pastoral attempts to religiously right the boat, no pun intended. If the name Ross Douthat is not familiar to the reader, the thirty-something journalist is the youngest permanent op-ed contributor of the New York Times. He arrived at Catholicism by way of mainstream Protestantism and later Pentecostalism. It is little surprise, then, the American religious scene is depicted in this work primarily in the Protestant/Evangelical/Catholic triad. All three cohorts are taken to the wood shed.
As is often the case with adult converts to Catholicism, Douthat carries that particular hypervigilance regarding disintegration of something he has worked long and hard to attain, in this case a tradition of faith that brings order out of secular chaos. He is not a theocrat, but he does believe that some sixty years ago the major Christian Churches provided the backbone for a kind of good order and reform. The term “bad religion” used here is less a criticism of personal practice as it is a denunciation of polluted theology and religious philosophy that the author believes has wounded the churches since then.
Douthat is a better journalist than he is historian. His designation of post-1945 American religion as a kind of high water mark rings of Adam and Eve in pre-serpent paradise; the Times’ own review [April 18, 2012] calls the author to task over this arbitrary designation. This is a serious methodological flaw, because for Douthat all of the frenetic religious activism of 1950-2000, most notably Vatican II [1962-65], can be interpreted as a frivolous, dangerous dissipation of moral authority.
Douthat is not the first observer to make this mistake, but as a journalist he is still on the hook for it. The moral horrors of Nazism and the death camps had originated in ostensibly Christian countries. That the Tridentine brand of Catholicism was toothless to prevent such sin was evident to thoughtful Catholics around the world. It was particularly evident to Angelo Roncalli, Papal Nuncio to Turkey and later to occupied France, greatly respected for his work on behalf of Jews. Roncalli was never the jolly, perhaps reckless, John XXIII that many would like to make him, perhaps even the author.
Instead, John XXIII was the honest reformer who blessed the efforts of Catholics [and all Christians, to whom the Council Documents are addressed] to make things right. We forget that barely days after the Council began, the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened global annihilation. The author’s absence of any sense of gravitas as the motivation of reform is lost, and it is hard for me to understand how any treatment of Christianity, a universal church, can be as parochial or American-centered as this work.
That Catholicism and its sister churches fumbled the reform through the balance of the twentieth century is beyond contestation. But the reasons are much more complex than Douthat would have us believe; he wastes considerable ink on Bishop James Pike, of all people, as an errant pied piper of the late 1960’s. Douthat is on safer ground in discussing Harvey Cox and “The Secular City,” for religious liberals of the time labored mightily to harmonize the Christian Church with “modern man,” a notoriously empty concept.
In Douthat’s paradigm, a half century of experimentation with mixed results at best left Roman Catholics and Evangelicals still standing as the best hopes for a fresh start in the new millennium. But the sex abuse scandals of 2002 effectively sidelined American Catholicism, and the author turns a critical eye toward Evangelicals. Here Douthat is at his very best in his analysis of the Religious Right. Once something of the apocalyptic conscience of America, the Evangelical movement came to occupy the ground held by Billy Graham in Eisenhower’s time as America’s house religion. Theologically and strategically this was accomplished in two ways:  a merger of American exceptionalism with the Biblical symbol of the “City on the Hill;” and  an uncritical embrace of capitalism in a pragmatic theological message that “God wants you to be rich.”
In his chapter, “The City on the Hill,” the author dismantles possibly the most pernicious form of “bad religion,” that the success of God and the success of America are biblically and cosmically intertwined. I was concerned when he began this chapter with Glenn Beck, the Religious Right’s contemporary answer to the long deceased Bishop Pike, both essentially media creations. But Beck simply serves up for the reader the heretical equation of America=the New Israel. Douthat observes that American presidents themselves—Washington, Lincoln, even Coolidge—labored to discourage such thinking. Their wisdom, however, was superseded by Woodrow Wilson [257ff], whose theologically driven political ideology of national righteousness begot a century of what amounts to international US crusading and buttressed military adventures as recently as the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In his chapter “Pray and Grow Rich” Douthat scorns the theology of “economic blessings preachers” such as Joel Osteen. He illustrates the irony that the message of such cloth worn preaching appeals less to the rich themselves and more to those who wish to be affluent. He marvels that at the height of the Recession, March 2009, Osteen sold out Yankee Stadium. For the author such theology combines manipulation and gullibility.
Having thus unburdened himself, Douthat is somewhat confused about what to do next. [Perhaps he now has more sympathy for the well intentioned reformers of the Vatican II era.] I think it is fair to say that the author would apply Gresham’s Law to contemporary religious thought: disposing of bad coinage, the good currency of traditional faith and values might have renewed opportunity to provide an ecumenical renewal of the personal heart and the communities of Christian faith.
Postscript: Douthat's next book, The Benedict Option, became a major and controversial best seller.
As for Bad Religion, did my review measure up to The New York Times own review of Mr. Douthat's work? You be the judge.