In this very interesting book, Douthat traces Christianity in America from its post-war golden years through its gradual decline over the following decades to the present day. He starts by highlighting four key figures that embodied this golden age: the intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, the evangelical Billy Graham, the Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen, and the African-America prophet, Martin Luther-King. In the years following the Second World War, Christianity in America thrived, its churches grew, its institutions prospered, and there was considerable confidence in the gospel.
This all changed in the ensuing years, through the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies on into the eighties and nineties. There was an institutional collapse of Christianity, churches declined and organized Christianity was considerably weakened. Douthat lists 5 catalysts for this decline:
- Political polarization
- The sexual revolution
- Religion consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth
- Class – the dismissal of Christian orthodoxy as unworthy of an educated elite.
Douthat then reflects on Christianity’s response to this decline, either accommodation or resistance. He writes of Harvey Cox and Bishop James Pike and of the downgrading or orthodox belief, the creeds and Christian traditions in order to make the church more relevant to contemporary culture. He traces the gradual disappearance of denominational distinctives and the ultimate loss of a sense of truth.
On the resistance front, he considers the rise of the Evangelicals, the coalition of Protestants and Catholics in their opposition to key areas such as abortion, and the influence of figures such as Francis Schaeffer. But, argues Douthat, these never gained the institutional strength and strategic influence and confidence that had been enjoyed in those early post-war years.
The main premise of Douthat’s work, however, is that traditional and orthodox Christianity has been replaced by bad religion and by heresy. He takes aim in particular at the prosperity gospel teaching of the likes of Joel Osteen and Hagin/Copeland and the therapeutic God-within gospel of the likes of Elizabeth Gilbert, Chopra, Tolle and Oprah Winfrey.
This was where Douthat was at his strongest and really got into his stride. He named and identified the rot at the heart of contemporary American (Western) Christianity. The pick-your-own-Jesus approach of many contemporary Christians, the downgrading of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and the moralistic therapeutic deism of Smith and Denton.
And I agree with his main thesis. I think he argues coherently and convincingly for a return to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and he calls out the rotten core of much of what passes off as Christianity these days, but which is in fact an amoebic blob of spiritual, do-it-yourself, syncretistic goo.