Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Bad Religion Kills Churches Dead

Written by: on February 14, 2013

Ross Douthat in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics does an excellent job of explaining the scope of American Christianity over the last century.  He delves into the complex reasons of the ebb and flow of various branches of American Christianity (Mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and Evangelicalism) and their intersections.  He leaves no movement unscathed from his critical eye, yet he also has much positive to say about each movement as he weaves a diverse fabric of the American Christian experience.  His central thesis is not the US is becoming less religious, or less serious about spirituality, but instead heretical doctrines, accommodations, and good old American entrepreneurship and culture have made people less Christian in the orthodox sense.  When orthodoxy falls, so does genuine Christianity, and its positive growth and influence in society.  Here Douthat explores the why and how of this heretical strand of Americanity that is so influential in the American religious lexicon from liberal-pseudo Jesus studies to health and wealth (and its connection with wider American evangelicalism derived from Weber’s vision of the protestant ethic) to the divine Oprah to utopian faith in American Christian exceptionalism. 

At times Douthat may be guilty of simplifying, and painting with a rather broad brush, but he says a lot that feels very real to me in my time.  He seems to find the two most overarching strands of American Christianity are Accommodation and Resistance.  Here Douthat touches on what is essentially Schleiermachian liberalism, or the need to adjust the church to meet the challenges of a changing modern culture.  He shows that as mainline Protestants and liberal, modernist Catholics have moved into a stance where they accommodate to the times and what is seen as the cultural and societal markers of modern Western society.  Thus, faith is stripped of its miracles, Jesus is changed into a thoroughly modern man, sexuality is up for grabs, and any possible doctrine that could cause offense is jettisoned or reconstructed.  Douthat points out ironically that the accommodationist stance has nearly emptied the mainline and liberal Catholic movement of both numbers and meaning, while the conservative Evangelicals and Catholics (who have maintained an orthodox and traditional faith) continue to see their numbers increase.  Douthat accuses the accomodationist movement of engaging “in a project that has undercut historic Christianity while building nothing lasting in its place.”

Douthat’s book is ripe with insights and points of discussions for the present and future of Christianity.  The waylaying of orthodoxy by accomodationist (and essentially liberal) modernism is a theme that most resonates with my life.  While I did grow up in a resistance form of church life, in college I experienced a true spiritual awakening and growth through both Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru) and a mainline Presbyterian evangelical congregation.  Here I found depth of theology, passion for mission in word and deed, a strident yet sacramental biblicalism, commitment to orthodoxy in a gracious and open way,  and female pastors.  These were of course a mix of things my resistance background has taught me were essentially incompatible with orthodox faith.  Yet, the church was thoroughly evangelical and growing (the pastor at the time when I started to attend was Billy Graham’s brother-in-law).  The university group during my four years of attendance would go on to produce 6 missionaries and 8 pastors (all orthodox and evangelical even though half of them were women).  At the same time, the entire denomination, the PCUSA, was locked in an epic battle (ongoing for well over 30 years) over orthodox theology and Christian sexual ethics.  The accommodationist branch was almost exclusively theologically liberal, every year cutting the mission budget in order to stress pet projects like visiting Hamas.  The issue of homosexual ordination became the singular issue however, which at times has felt as almost an imposition of liberal sexual standards on the entire denomination.  Evangelical traditionalists have been called terrorists and drug through the mud.  During this time through my interactions I have found that conservative evangelicals in the PCSUSA are much more gracious and open minded when compared to the high-brow intellectualism of the liberal in the denomination, who as Douthat currently points out carry a real disdain for those adhering to traditional Christianity.  What is more, the liberal wing has ceased growing and begun to die.  The bleeding has been catastrophic.  If a liberal church is growing it is almost always because they have turned over their sanctuary to evangelical Presbyterian Africans, Koreans, or Latinos, ironically only tolerating the “ultra-orthodoxy” of such groups because of the diversity and patina of liberality they bring.  All the while, evangelical PCUSA churches grow, take a stand for orthodoxy, but are eventually forced out.  Recently the General Assembly overturned the fidelity and chastity clause for ordained pastors, effectively striking any sexual limitations for a pastor.  In short, the denomination no longer holds a orthodox position on sex. This has most likely been the final fissure in an ever growing crack.  Already orthodox churches are fleeing having to battle to retain the property that their original members built so long ago.

I love my denomination.  I feel that the nuance and depth of theology and mission among the evangelicals in it, and their high view of God and his grace transcend some of the more problematic simplicities of contemporary evangelicalism.  At the same time, the ability to rub up against liberal accommodationist Christianity has sharpened the theology and mission of these churches.  Balancing between the extremes of resistance and accommodation within the bounds of a historic church (with its own set of liturgy and tradition) has made for a movement of Christians quite possibly of the middle way.

However, Douthat’s critique of accommodationist Christianity, and the heretical streams of American Christianity, whether they be Mainline, Catholic, or Evangelical, holds true.  The move away from orthodox faith has meant the slow slide into irrelevance.  A faith that transforms lives, advocates radical societal transformation, and above all promises a supernatural encounter with God, and a reality of purpose and meaning beyond oneself, has been defanged into a social club, asking nothing and calling nobody to real discipleship.  These are churches that are bound to die, bound to become empty shells and future museums or coffee shops. 

Where do you see specific cases of bad religion that are leading Christians away from a vital and growing faith? 

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