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Bad religion

Written by: on March 17, 2017

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:

  1. Political polarization
  2. The sexual revolution
  3. Globalization
  4. Religion consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth
  5. 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The main premise of Douthat’s work, however, is that traditional and orthodox Christianity has been replaced by bad religion and by heresy.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.

 

 

 

About the Author

Geoff Lee

10 responses to “Bad religion”

  1. Mary Walker says:

    “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.”
    Wow, Geoff. There goes that classic British understatement! Just kidding.
    I am glad someone with Douthat’s clout has called American Christians on the carpet. We need a wake up call and the typical televangelist certainly isn’t going to do it while they are making so much money!! See, I can be cynical.
    How do we overcome our selfish, indulgent situation? I don’t like to say it but I’m afraid we may need another disaster. That seems to be the only time we will pull together.

  2. Jim Sabella says:

    Great post Geoff! The book is “North America” centric and the USA specifically. I’m interested to know if you sense any of the same in the UK. Is this just a “North American” issue? Am interested in your thoughts.

    • Geoff Lee says:

      Hi Jim
      They say that America sneezes and Britain catches a cold. Britain and British Christianity has certainly been affected in some of the ways that Douthat mentions. People here have bought into the same variations of faith (prosperity gospel, the god-within of the therapeutic gospel. Our church setup here is somewhat different than in the States, but there are many similarities I feel.

  3. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Geoff, while I wrote mostly about the last section of the book, you did a terrific job in summarizing the first section. I found it interesting that Douthat found Christ through the Pentecostal faith, then converted to Catholicism. It was clear that he has a good handle in both Catholic and Protestant thought.

  4. Yes Geoff, I agree…”This was where Douthat was at his strongest and really got into his stride.” He seemed to have a bone to pick with many of the successful spiritual leaders, simply because they were wealthy. In my opinion, he didn’t sound very balanced and lack integrated thinking when addressing the spiritual leaders/celebrities. It might have been good to differentiate between spiritual leaders and entertainers who express their spiritually. He lost me when he lumped everyone together and talked so judgemental of everyone, especially when I know some spiritual leaders dubbed heretic by Douthat have had a significant impact in building the faith of others and their relationship with JC (Bell, Osteen, Meyers). He sounded like he was hurt, jealous or had a personal vendetta with someone…I found myself diagnosing him versus aligning with him. Hope he never mentions me in a book!

  5. Well Geoff,

    I picked up on the same individuals he spoke about in relationship to how their belief inspired them to make an impact on the world. He of course address whom he considered prosperity preachers which I disagree with a few of his selections as Stu did.
    I was listening to Pastor Murphy of dReam Church in Atlanta and he made a statement that I had to agree with. We don’t have a problem with our doctors and lawyers whom we give our money to driving expense cars and living in large homes, but when it come to a Pastor we Christians have issues and the pastor is now misusing our funds.

  6. Geoff, I really struggled to accept Douthat’s thesis, mainly because he (of course) approaches all Christianity from the view that “traditional orthodoxy” is that which aligns with Catholic orthodoxy. His 5 reasons for decline do make some sense, but he presents them without nuance or complexity. Why did we have a sexual revolution? What parts of globalization are inherently evil and are there any good things? I just found his work a bit shallow.

  7. Geoff,
    Good post – I am pretty familiar with Douthat and like to read his stuff, even though I often disagree with at least some of it.
    I thought he was strong in points, particularly as he diagnoses the issues prevalent in contemporary American Christianity…..
    Where I struggle with him is what you might call ‘plank eye syndrome’ -that incisive, clear critique he used so well when looking at the liberal left or the prosperity preachers is completely missing from vision of both the ‘traditional Christianity’ he is a part of and the ‘Golden era’ he would like to return to.
    Two quick examples – both of them Billy Graham centric.
    1 – Although Graham is often noted as supporting MLK, he never participated in one of MLK’s marches or demonstrations.
    2 – Graham’s son, Franklin has in many ways taken up his father’s mantle and for many (maybe Douthat – I searched and couldn’t find any public comments RD had made about FG) he is well within the definition of ‘traditional Christianity’……. At the very least this raises some issues and I think the reason Douthat is relatively weak in terms of a response…. you can’t really begin to recover until you have fully dealt with the sickness.

  8. Geoff I agree that the strong emphasis placed on prosperity or God as being whatever we believe him to be is very problematic. The danger is that by taking a few scriptures and running with them we end up teaching a theology that simple does not exist. This form of Christianity has so many Christians living faithfully to a spiritual myth.

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