Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

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Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

The CT Interview

Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion

Why the New York Times columnist wants to see America return to its confessional roots.

Interview by Sarah Pulliam Bailey | posted 4/16/2012 10:01AM

The biggest threat facing America is not a faltering economy or a spate of books by famed atheists. Rather, the country meets new challenges due to the decline of traditional Christianity, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press). Douthat has taken his own personal tour of American Christianity: he was baptized Episcopalian, attended evangelical and Pentecostal churches as a child, and converted to Catholicism at age 17. He argues that prosperity preachers, self-esteem gurus, and politics operating as religion contribute to the contemporary decline of America. CT spoke with Douthat about America’s decline from a vigorous faith, modern heretics, and why we need a revival of traditional Christianity.

What do you mean when you say we’re facing the threat of heresy?

I try to use an ecumenical definition, starting with what I see as the theological common ground shared by my own Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations. Then I look at forms of American religion that are influenced by Christianity, but depart in some significant way from this consensus. It’s a C. S. Lewisian, Mere Christianity definition of orthodoxy or heresy. I’m trying to look at the ways the American religion today departs from theological and moral premises that traditional Protestants and Catholics have in common.

How did America become a nation of heretics?

We’ve always been a nation of heretics. Heresy used to be constrained and balanced by institutional Christianity to a far greater extent than it is today. What’s unique about our religious moment is not the movements and currents such as the “lost gospel” industry, the world of prosperity preaching, the kind of therapeutic religion that you get from someone like Oprah Winfrey, or various highly politicized forms of faith. What’s new is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response. There were prosperity preachers and therapeutic religion in the 1940s and ’50s—think of bestsellers like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking—but there was also a much more robust Christian center.

The Protestant and Catholic churches that made a real effort to root their doctrine and practice in historic Christianity were vastly stronger than they are today. Even someone who was dabbling in what I call heresy was also more likely to have something in his religious life—some institutional or confessional pressure—tugging him back toward a more traditional faith. The influence of heretics has been magnified by the decline of orthodox Christianity.

Have evangelicals created a fertile ground for heresy?

People have asked, “Don’t all the trends that you describe go back to the Protestant Reformation?” Since I am a Roman Catholic, I do have sympathy for that argument [laughs]. But it’s important not to leap to a historical determinism about theological and cultural trends. Some of the trends might represent the working out of ideas inherent in Protestantism or grow out of religious individualism that is more Protestant than Catholic. But I don’t think it was necessarily inevitable that we reached this point. It’s a long way from Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian to Eat, Pray, Love, and a vigorous Protestantism should be able to prevent the former from degenerating into the latter.

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May 2012, Vol. 56, No. 5, Page 36

The CT Interview

Q & A: Ross Douthat on Rooting Out Bad Religion

Why the New York Times columnist wants to see America return to its confessional roots.

Interview by Sarah Pulliam Bailey | posted 4/16/2012 10:01AM

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You suggest that Christian leaders from earlier decades contributed to the decline of traditional Christianity by trying to accommodate cultural norms. Would you consider Oprah, Glenn Beck, and others to be today’s accommodationists?

We’re in a slightly different era today. There were tremendous cultural challenges to Christianity in the 1960s and ’70s that both liberals and conservatives struggled to respond to, starting with the sexual revolution. “Accommodationists”—what we think of as liberal Christians, Protestant and Catholic—weren’t out to destroy Christianity. They saw their mission as a noble one, preserving institutional Christianity in a new era. Their choices ultimately emptied Christianity theologically, but they intended to save the faith, or at the very least their own denomination.

The danger for evangelicalism is becoming too parachurch without enough church.

The heretics I write about aren’t detached completely from Christianity. Some of them identify as Christians and like the idea of identifying with Jesus. But they aren’t interested in sustaining any historic Christian tradition or church apart from their own ministry.

Instead of trying to reform and strengthen institutional Christianity, they’re picking through the Christian past, looking for things they like and can use, and discarding the rest.

Why do you claim that one of evangelicalism’s contemporary struggles is an alignment with former President George W. Bush?

The Bush administration represented both the best and worst of a broader evangelical reengagement in politics and culture. It was the fulfillment of this post-1970s era when evangelicals reengaged with the broader culture, returned to the halls of power, and left the fundamentalist past behind. That you had an evangelical President and his speechwriter drawing on Catholic social teaching to shape domestic policy was a remarkable achievement, a sign of what you might call “the opening of the evangelical mind.” And some of the Bush administration’s initiatives, such as its aids in Africa efforts, made a real attempt to achieve a more holistic Christian engagement in politics.

But the administration exposed the limits of using politics to effect broader cultural change. The Bush era was the moment when religious conservatives finally had one of their own in the White House, but it wasn’t a great era for evangelicalism or for institutional Christianity. But it’s pretty clear that institutional religion in the United States has lost more ground than it’s gained in the past 10 to 15 years. While evangelicalism is obviously quite robust, evangelical churches aren’t growing as fast as they were during the 1970s and ’80s. Instead of being a period of revival and renewal for evangelical Christianity, the Bush era looks like a period when evangelical Christianity hit a ceiling.

After 9/11, evangelicals were also particularly tempted toward what I call the heresy of nationalism: that promoting democracy overseas by force of arms would be God’s will, which is at best a theologically perilous idea, and at worst, explicitly heretical.

How has Christianity historically tempered nationalism?

The idea that America has some distinctive role to play in the unfolding of God’s plan is compatible with orthodox Christianity. But it should be tempered by recognizing that America is not the church. It’s fine to see ourselves as an “almost-chosen people,” as Abraham Lincoln put it, but if we decide we’re literally chosen, then we’ve taken a detour away from a healthy patriotism towards an unhealthy nationalism.

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May 2012, Vol. 56, No. 5, Page 36



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