In his book Bad Religion New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat describes how, America has always inhabited a strange paradox of being formally secular, but also relying on religion – more heavily than almost any other Western world – to provide a moral framework for its citizens (Douthat, Kindle location 118), something has changed, however in our current culture.
Christianity has lost it’s place or at least its prominence and we have lost something important, a traditional – or orthodox – center that binds us together and just as important as what we have lost is what has replaced what is gone: ‘a rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in it’s place’ (Douthat, Kindle location 139).
I find a lot to like about Douthat generally. I fairly regularly read his work in the Times and while we tend to have somewhat differing views on many things political, I appreciate his perspective, that he is willing to share his excitement and ‘geek out’ at the latest papal encyclical and that, at least based on his twitter interactions, he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously and enjoys a good laugh – even if it is at his expense.
When it comes to the argument Douthat makes in this book, there is likewise much that I find compelling and am sympathetic to. Much of this is in his diagnosis of the problem as he sees it with our current cultural context.
Douthat says of America that it: ‘remains the most religious country in the developed world, as God-besotted today as ever; a place where Jesus Christ is an obsession, God’s favor a birthright, and spiritual knowledge an all-consuming goal. But it’s also a place where traditional Christian teachings have been warped into justifications for solipsism and anti-intellectualism, jingoism and utopianism, selfishness and greed.’ (Douthat, Kindle location 135)
As Randall Balmer said in his review of the the book:
there is much to commend his argument. Yes, the indexes of religious adherence are down, and the quality of religious discourse in America has diminished since the 1950s, in part because of the preference for therapy over theology. Theological illiteracy is appalling; many theologians, like academics generally, prefer to speak to one another rather than engage the public.’ (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/bad-religion-by-ross-douthat.html)
Where I diverge with Douthat is on his diagnosis of the cause for this situation. He traces American culture and Christianity to a sort of ‘golden age’ after World War Two, when the center of traditional, orthodox Christianity was broad enough and strong enough to withstand the heresies and pseudo-Christianities that have always (and will always) exist.
Balmer talks about our preference for ‘therapy over theology’ and I find this to be a much more compelling cause. That is, there has undoubtedly been a significant cultural movement away from community generally and more towards individualism.
We have always been, as a part of human nature (of course), self-centered…. but our technology and culture has developed to the point now where we can begin to realize and act on the impulse to self-reliance…..we are no longer so obviously bound to community by our needs.
Of course, as I say that, what I really mean is that we are no longer bound to each other by our obvious and immediate needs. So, instead of being drawn into community out of necessity we isolate ourselves and in that isolation make ourselves much more susceptible to the kind of heresies and pseudo-Christianities that Douthat warns about.
As we are isolated and separated from the community that we are called to experience and practice our faith in, we also become more isolated and desperate for those connections to others and that relationship in community. Separated from that community of faith we often look to other connections and relationships for that sense of community.
This longing and searching for connection and relationship has lead Christians of different stripes in different directions. Some have sought alignment with political power and authority while others have sought to find common ground on social issues.
In the end, it is not – for me at least – that we have lost a ‘traditional Christian’ center to our country, but rather that even those that Douthat would identify as being part of that group have been affected by the shift away from community and towards an inward facing, ‘self-reliant’ and ‘self-regulating’ world has meant that we have lost some of the depth and richness of our faith that can only be found in the midst and experience of community.