I started reading Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, with great interest because, in the introduction, he promised to talk about the Black Church and its role in the American Church. As I read on, I found Douthat’s first characterization of the Black Church ill-informed at best. Douthat states that “unlike most other forms of segregation, the exile of the black churches had been partially self-imposed” (Douthat 2012, 44). Douthat believes this because of the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the formation of the National Baptist Convention being formed by black ministers seeking refuge from the racism they encountered in white-led denominations (Douthat 2012, 45). This statement of “partially self-imposed” is troubling and an oversimplification of how these organizations were formed and why. In the case of the AME church, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were attempting to pray in St. George’s Methodist church in Philadelphia around 1787-89 and were pulled up from their knees while praying and were thrown out of the Methodist church for attempting to pray in the non-segregated area. All of the Africans left in protest. Richard Allen wanted to stay a Methodist, bought land and formed a church for the Africans that wanted to worship, eventually forming the AME Church (Woodson 1985, 64-65). Does Douthat believe that Richard Allen and others should have stayed a part of this racist system that did not allow all men equal access to God? I would not characterize this action as a self-imposed exile, but a necessity in developing the faith of a people.
I also found it troubling that Douthat chose to take a swipe at MLK, stating “Martin Luther King was a Christian hero, but he was also a reckless adulterer whose academic work was partially ghostwritten” (Douthat 2012, 51). While I can acknowledge MLK’s moral shortcoming, I wonder why Douthat does not consider the egregiousness of the sin of racism and those that supported Jim Crow laws. Douthat states that the Southern Baptist endorsed desegregation (Douthat 2012, 48-49), but it was done in word only and not in deed. This lukewarm response toward racism cost many Christians their lives. What about the four little girls who lost their lives when their church was bombed on Sunday morning in Birmingham Alabama or the assassination of Medgar Evers (SPLC Southern Poverty Law Center n.d.)?
It seems that Douthat, a Roman Catholic, should put more focus on the sins of the Roman Catholic Church as one of the reasons for the decline of orthodoxy in America. As someone who attended Catholic schools for 12 years, the sexual sins of the Catholic Church, as well as alcoholism amongst the clergy, were an open secret. Douthat does discuss this moral failing (Douthat 2012, 132), but seems to put more blame on the Civil Rights movement concern over the Vietnam War (Douthat 2012, 66-67). Perhaps many left the church because of its evident hypocrisy.
Douthat recommends being political without being partisan (Douthat 2012, 284). Ironically, I think that is what many who were fighting against racial discrimination were doing in the Civil Rights Movement. I hope and pray that Douthat is still giving this advice to Christians currently in political power in Washington, DC where he resides.
Douthat, Ross. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. New York: Free Press, 2012.
SPLC Southern Poverty Law Center. “Civil Rights Memorial/Civil Rights Martyrs.” SPLC Southern Poverty Law Center. n.d. https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs (accessed March 23, 2019).
Woodson, Carter G. The History of the Negro Church. Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1985.