Summary of today’s show: Ross Douthat’s new book “Bad Religion” looks at how the landscape of American spirituality has changed over the past 60 years–from traditional orthodoxy to individual spiritualism– and what that means for our society and culture. Scot Landry and Douthat talk about the American religious revival after World War II in a common Christian orthodoxy and then splintered into a series of heresies that hold sway today.
Listen to the show:
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry
Today’s guest(s): Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times and author
Links from today’s show:
Today’s topics: Ross Douthat and Bad Religion
1st segment: Scot welcomed everyone to the show. He recalled as a father how time flies past when raising kids andy ow it’s tough to see trends when living in the present. This is true of our faith and it can be tough to see how much has changed in our faith over the past 40 years and to understand why.
The new book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” has helped Scot to understand how Catholicisicm has changed in the past 40 years. Scot welcomed Ross Douthat to the show. He’s the youngest-ever op-ed columnist in the history of the New York Times. He was previously at The Atlantic. He’s also authored two other books “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” and “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream”.
Scot asked Ross about his background. He’s from southern Connecticut originally. He grew up in the 1980s and was baptized in the Episcopalian church. When he was about 8 or 9, his family started attending charismatic healing ministries conducted by this particular woman and they became introduced to Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, until at about 15 years old, when they started attending a Catholic church. He formally converted at 17. He took a tour of American Christianity when he was young. It gave him a slightly broader perspective on American religion than most journalists certainly.
Ross said he wasn’t pressured to convert, but with his mom converting he kind of moved in the wake of his parents’ spiritual journey. He didn’t take an unconventional path into the faith. He also found it a relief to enter a church where nothing unexpected happened during worship, like in Pentecostalism.
He said his parents spent a lot of time at a startup Evangelical church at Yale university and were involved in several smaller Protestant churches. For his mother, she always said she had an encounter with Jesus through Evangelical Christianity, but was looking for the Church that was the fullest expression of Jesus on earth. For her, the absence of final authority in Protestantism was a mark against it. The Catholic mystical tradition provided a bridge for her from Pentecostalism. They were also still Episcopalian enough that Catholic liturgy wasn’t foreign either.
Scot said that as a cradle Catholic going to Harvard he found defending his faith as a spur to growing deeper in it. He asked Ross what it was like for him at Harvard about a decade later. Ross said intellectually it was a great experience. As a Christian entering such an environment, you either abandon your faith immediately or you hold onto your faith and end up getting the best possible education because you’re working even harder as someone outside the academic mainstream. You’re more likely to challenge and be challenged by the experience. In terms of the practice of his faith, he doesn’t think an Ivy League education is not necessarily the best thing because the culture of the elites in this country is oriented around achievement for achievement’s sake and success at any cost. It’s not so much atheism as worldliness.
He started writing in high school and in college he worked on the conservative campus newspaper and wrote a conservative column for the Harvard Crimson, but he didn’t really decide on becoming a journalist as a career until he needed a job after graduation. He was hired at the New York Times at 29 years old. He said it wasn’t much of a choice to move from The Atlantic to the Times. He loved The Atlantic, but the Times–even in this age–is a unique institution with an unparalleled reach. Maybe particularly for someone with his conservative, Catholic vies, it makes him distinctive among their columnists.
He mostly writes about American domestic politics. Mostly he’s been writing about the presidential campaign. He most recently wrote about healthcare. But he also writes about religion and religious issues, plus pop culture, sociology, and topics like that.
Ross said the idea for the book Bad Religion came to him during George W. Bush’s second term when the battle in American politics and culture seemed to be between the Irreligious Left and the Religious Right. Ross took part in the debates and dismissed claims that America was about to turn into a theocracy. He also thought the binary division in that approach didn’t come close to reflecting religion in America today. He wanted to write about where Americans were getting their spiritual ideas and beliefs from. The thesis became that America has become less institutionally religious and less overall Christian, but just as religious. He writes a lot about people like author Elizabeth Gilbert, Joel Osteen, and Dan Brown. He argues that you need to look closely at pop spirituality: books, TV shows, and the like because that’s where people are getting their religion from, not churches.
Scot said the religious cultural history Ross documents was helpful. After World War II, orthodox Christianity was at the center of American culture. Ross said the books start after WWII which historians of American religion call the post-war religious revival: People were attending church at higher rates, church construction was booming, there were more movies of Bible stories and depicting Catholic priests. There was a broad revival, but he also says that it coexisted with an intellectual revival. The experience of totalitarianism led to a reassessment and a new willingness to look back at traditional sources of wisdom to understand what had gone wrong in the modern age. So he started the book with the poet William H. Auden,who returned to his Christian faith after being confronted with the evil of the Nazis. Ross argues that this kind of reassessment happened in al to of places. There was a new interest in religion on college campuses.
It didn’t mean America had turned into a land of orthodox Christians. America has always been a land of many competing definitions of what Christianity is, but in this time the institutional churches were stronger then than any other time. It also seemed to be a times when various branches seemed to be merging, when Bill Graham would do a crusade in a city and a Catholic bishop would write an op-ed in support.
Scot said Ross writes that in 1930, 37% of Americans were formally affiliated with a church and it rose to 69% in 1960. Also in 1950, Americans spent $24 million on church architecture. By 1960 it was $1 billion.
Ross said there are many reason all that went away. He tried to look at the more structural factors because there’s often a heavy focus on personalities, like High Hefner or Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem. He said the trends start with political polarization. In the early 1960s, when you look at how Christianity interacted with politics, you see that religious believers were intimately involved in politics. The Civil Rights movement was explicitly Christian. But because the two parties weren’t completely polarized into conservative Republican and liberal Democrat, something like the Civil Rights wasn’t completely partisan. But Christian interventions became identified with the religious left and later with the religious right. It became harder to become a Christian first and a liberal or conservative Republican or Democrat. After Roe v. Wade, there was a moment when it seemed the pro-life movement could be bipartisan, but then it became polarized.
Then there is the sexual revolution, which makes the link between middle class norms and Christian sexual ethics seem weak, out of date, and repressive. American society has severed sex from reproduction and to divorce it from Christian morality.
There’s also money as America becomes a much wealthier country. Just as the New Testament play on chastity doesn’t play in post-sexual revolution America, so too did the Christian suspicion of wealth gets lost too. America becomes a worldlier society.
Then with globalization, the world in all its diversity is beamed into living rooms as never before, while the West becomes associated with imperialism and repression. So people begin to question how their church could be the One, True Church in such a big, diverse world, plus the association of Christianity with European crimes and oppression. Ironically, the areas experiencing decolonization have Christianity take off because Christianity becomes less Western.
Scot said Ross writes that the Christian response is to become more relevant to the culture or become more resistant to the changes.
2nd segment: Scot said Ross charts four main heresies in American Christianity today: the search of the historical Jesus; the prosperity Gospel; spiritual, not religious (i.e. against organized religion); and the nationalism of our destiny of the United States as that shining city on a hill.
Scot asked Ross to describe what he means by orthodoxy. Ross said it’s a kind of Christian consensus shared by the Catholic Church, much of Eastern Orthodoxy, and most of the mainline Christianity, i.e. Christianity as it coalesced in the 3rd of 4th century. He contrasts that with heresy, which he says is something deeply influenced by Christianity, but takes on aspect of Christianity emphasizes it out of balance with the rest. Christianity is willing to speak in terms of mystery and to always be balancing one side with the other: e.g. the world is both good and evil or the balance between faith and works. Heresies try to make the faith more rational, saying mysteries or paradoxes aren’t rational and need to be made cleaner. Heresies are easier to accept and easier to explain than the true mysteries of faith.
For example, there is the prosperity Gospel. He spends a lot of time looking a Joel Osteen, a successful TV preacher and author of many books. He’s a lot like Billy Graham in his preaching a message of God’s universal love, traveling about and selling out stadiums. But the difference is that Graham’s preaching was always balanced between love and the need for repentance in the face of damnation. But you can listen to Osteen for a long time without hearing much at all about human sinfulness and God’s judgment. Graham is more in the orthodox tradition because he’s balancing love and justice, while Osteen only takes one piece of the story and emphasizing it.
Scot said he sees sometimes that the harder demands of Catholicism aren’t perched because it’s thought it will help people come back to faith, even though experience shows the opposite. Ross spends a fair amount of time talking about how institutional churches are good for our society and in fact make it all work. But if a more do-it-yourself form of spirituality becomes dominant, then it becomes harder for churches to do the social part of their job. It’s hard for a religion of people praying on their own to help society. If you’re your own church then it becomes hard to run a soup kitchen on your own. People aren’t as much joiners as we used to be, plus even more children are born out of wedlock making the social fabric weaker. You can see that younger Americans are more narcissistic, more self-centered, less empathetic. DIY religion makes it easy to come into something that never challenges.
Thus the prosperity Gospel is very comforting to people who upwardly module in a materialistic society. But maybe what America could have heard in the housing bubble was that you can’t serve both God and mammon, for example.
Scot said one of the tougher heresies is the DIY religion, cherry picking the beliefs you want. This is tough because we’ve been bombarded by messages from Oprah and others that we don’t need to balance our needs and wants. Ross said it’s a case that takes something good in the Christian message–that you can encounter God within yourself–but then makes it the whole of religion. So if the “god within” contradicts your Church’s voice, then the god within trumps all. Sometimes that voice of god becomes your ego or libido, so people use that to bless their own desires and impulses. The book and movie Eat, Pray, Love depicts a spiritual journey where God seems to exist to bless the author’s decision to divorce her husband for her own self-fulfillment.
Scot strongly recommends this book for Catholic discussion groups and for individuals.