How We Became a
Nation of Heretics
By Ross Douthat
Free Press, 2012
352 pages, $26
Few would dispute that traditional, orthodox Christianity of all denominations used to be the dominant religious influence in American culture, serving as the social and moral rudder for the whole country. Even well into the 20th century, Christianity stabilized and guided America as it emerged from the trauma of a devastating economic upheaval and two world wars and began to navigate the choppy waters of civil-rights reforms.
As recently as 50 years ago, Christianity was mainstream, intellectually respectable and unshackled to any particular political party. Today, few people of faith would dispute that Christianity has been supplanted as the dominant cultural force in America, but New York Times columnist Ross Douthat asserts that it’s not because of widespread apostasy.
Instead, he writes, we have been living through "the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place." Douthat calls these pseudo-Christianities "heresies," and by the phrase "nation of heretics" he means that even though a majority of Americans still self-identify as religious or even Christian, "a growing number are inventing their own versions of Christianity, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of … distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing."
The developments leading to the decline in orthodox Christianity surfaced in the 1960s, but they had their roots in the late 1800s, with the heresy of modernism, which Douthat describes as "a theology that made human aspirations rather than the biblical God the measure of all things."
After mounting two very different responses to the fruits of modernism — accommodation and "culture war" resistance — the dust has settled: Orthodox Christianity has ceased to influence the larger culture in any significant way. Instead, there are four great "pseudo-Christianities." The first such heresy is the fascination with "alternative gospels" and the quest for the "real Jesus." The second is the "health and wealth" gospel of prosperity. Douthat calls the third heresy "the God within," in which the god who speaks to you is nothing but your own ego enabling you to feel good about any choice you might make as you follow your bliss. Finally, Douthat concludes with the heresy of "American nationalism" and its two very different expressions, utopian messianism and apocalyptic doom-saying.
Douthat admits to being a Catholic, yet he’s candid about the Church’s missteps and weaknesses, especially in describing how "spirit of Vatican II" accommodation and capitulation weakened the Church and led to some of its worst moments. His retrospective summary and analysis of the clerical sexual-abuse scandal is one of the best I have ever read.
I came away from the book sobered and worried, but Douthat offers this final word of encouragement: "It is not enough for Americans to respect orthodox Christianity a bit more than they do at present. To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived."
Clare Walker writes from