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

The Prognosis for Recovery of Christianity in America

Written by: on March 21, 2019

In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat examines some of the most significant changes that have occurred in U.S. religious life since the 1950s. Douthat argues that the problem with contemporary American religion is not growing secularism or unrelenting religious fanaticism. Instead, Douthat contends that religious denominations and leaders have increasingly adopted heretical approaches to belief and practice in well-meaning efforts to reconcile faith with modern perspectives on some issues including science, sexuality, and politics (65-81). That is, in his view what has transpired is simply bad religion. Such shifts, Douthat argues, seek to make faith more palatable to the public by deemphasizing important tensions that exist in Scripture, doctrine, and tradition and by encouraging overly simplistic methods for dealing with dilemmas posed by social and cultural change (81). He suggests that such shifts ultimately rob Christianity of its power to influence society. In concluding Douthat suggests a way forward for Christianity in America. Orthodox faith must strive to be “political without being partisan,” ecumenical and confessional, moralistic and holistic, and “oriented toward sanctity and beauty” (284-293). Douthat seems to believe that an emphasis on these central tensions within Christian faith and practice might counteract the influence of the various heresies currently plaguing the church in America.[1]

I must say I do not share the reviewer’s mood or less-than-hopeful conclusion of Douthat’s work. I found Douthat’s Roman Catholic faith and journalistic style, while not necessarily academic or especially theological, to be clear and helpful. His arguments, prognosis, and conclusion were encouraging and practical (a vast improvement over Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion). I was startled how much I valued this source. While not playing a role in my research, I was unexpectedly affected by this assignment. I was captivated by Douthat’s construct that, “We have always been a nation of heretics, but heresy has never had the field to itself. Instead, the potency, creativity, and resilience of American faith have been a testament to both the boldness of our spiritual freelancers and the staying power of our religious establishments – “[2] Formerly I would have thought of heresy as demeaning and devaluing as well as dangerous and nefarious. Douthat has helped me to see this is why the alleged heretics of another day and time (Pentecostals and Third Wave Charismatics) were needed to do their part to move the Church forward. That is, what may be viewed as heretical at the moment may prove to be invaluable to the greater Church over time. However, my own particular “heretical” faith movement also needs (and deeply appreciates) the orthodox streams of the Church that predate us and are “other than” us. In so doing, we all form “the river of Christian orthodoxy.”[3] The author promotes that this “spirit of paradox and mystery, of both/and rather than either/or, has made Christianity extraordinarily adaptable.” Douthat contends that the challenge of the Church in America for the twenty-first century is that orthodoxy does not slowly wither away and only leave heresies.[4]

I think what so moved me about this construct, is that this affirms why after some forty years of ministry experience, I went back to seminary and eventually became part of this program and this cohort. We are not merely passive participants coming from different generations, genders, cultures, and streams of the Church who happened to end up in LGP9. We are all the river of Christian orthodoxy and are called to love, learn from each other, and grow to “recover Christianity.” in our lifetime, within our respective callings, in our assigned locales. Douthat left me optimistic that we can be political without being partisan, ecumenical but also confessional, moralistic but also holistic, and oriented towards sanctity and the arts.[5] While I am sure I do not tell each of you enough, I deeply appreciate your perspectives, thought processes, and respective streams of Christian orthodoxy.

[1] Polson, Edward C. “Ross Douthat. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” Christian Scholar’s Review 42, no. 2 (2013): 198.

[2] Douthat, Ross, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York, NY: Free Press, 2012) 6.

[3] Ibid

[4] Douthat, Bad Religion, 11.

[5] Douthat, Bad Religion, 284-291.

About the Author

Harry Fritzenschaft

Harry is the Coordinator of Coaching for Multiply Vineyard (the church planting resource arm for Vineyard USA) and part-time pastor of business administration for the Vineyard Church of Houston. He is a certified coach with the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and is pursuing a DMin in Leadership and Global Perspective with a focus on internal coaching networks. Harry has been married to Gloria for almost forty-two years and has two grown children; Michelle, who is married to Brandon and has two sons (Caleb and Judah), and Mark, who is engaged to Cannus. He loves making new friends (living and dead) from different perspectives, watching college football with Mark, and helping global ministry leaders (especially church planters and pastors) accomplish their goals in fulfilling their call. He especially loves learning about and nurturing internal coaching networks.

6 responses to “The Prognosis for Recovery of Christianity in America”

  1. Jenn Burnett says:

    Harry you are always so generous and positive. I appreciate your wisdom. This book arose in me a curiosity as to how we define what is sacred, or orthodox. Given we hold to a faith that is realized in many different cultural contexts, this is not a simple discussion. Perhaps as a Catholic orthodox practice would be more uniform? On some points I agreed with him, but others I disagreed. How broad should our categorization of orthodoxy be? Do you think Douthat was constructing a spectrum from Orthodox to Heresy or more of a binary? At times he seemed to lean towards one and then other times to the other. I appreciate you my friend!

    • Harry Fritzenschaft says:

      Great questions! I would say Douthat does not consider himself a theologian but rather a reporter of historic developments within the Church in America. Therefore, I would view his usage of the term “heresy” as given in the context of the time rather that a defined theological absolute. My guess, my thoughts. Many blessings!

  2. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    We love you too Harry! Thrilled this weeks reading helped reaffirm your call.

    • Harry Fritzenschaft says:

      Thanks so much for the words of encouragement. Being a long-time pastor and practical theologian, I especially enjoy seeing the views and thought processes of you and all of the other local pastor leaders. Many blessings on you as you learn and lead!

  3. Mary Mims says:

    Thank you, Harry, for your perspective. Even though I do not share your perspective I can appreciate where you are coming from. I understand that Douthat is writing from a certain viewpoint and it comes through in his writings. I consider this an opinion piece and nothing more.

  4. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thank you so much for your gracious challenge of my perspective. After reading your blog post, I can understand how and why you would view Douthat’s work very differently. You personify what I love about our cohort and this LGP program. You are wise, experienced, and thorough in your presentation of your critique of Douthat’s work. You teach me from your perspective and you inspire me to be a better leader and scholar. I really appreciate you sharing your viewpoint and graciously challenging mine. I am richer because of you. Many blessings dear friend and thanks again for helping me to understand your thoughts.

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