Posted by: gmscan | October 4, 2012

Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a wonderful and provocative book that covers the evolution of American Christianity in the 20th Century (and a bit into the 21st. ).

Most of the book deals with the recent history of the church, and then he gets more into commentary about what is happening these days. I want to deal with them separately.

The history is fascinating. I have been vaguely aware of many of the changes over the years, but without much understanding of the specifics or the players. Douthat goes into precise detail of all this, while at the same time being humble enough to admit there are other ways then his of pulling the same events into a coherent narrative. In other words he is offering, but not selling, his interpretation. This approach is refreshing in an age that is characterized by cherry-picked information to support an ideological (or theological) agenda.

First, let’s be clear. Douthat believes in orthodox Christianity. That is his anchor and the book is about the ways in which American Christians have moved away and towards orthodoxy. He provides a very fine explanation of what orthodoxy is –

(O)rthodox Christians insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow essentially good, with the stamp of its creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament’s God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God’s Kingdom for all the extremes of human life – fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.”

This is all a mystery and a paradox, yet the fathers of the early church insisted on it and resisted temptations to simplify and paper over their understanding of what Jesus and Scripture taught.  Douthat argues that the greatest Christian paradox is its fearless embrace of the intellect –

“The world’s most paradoxical religion has cultivated rationalism and scientific rigor more diligently than any of its rivals, making the Christian world safe for philosophy as well as fervor, for the study of nature as well as the contemplation of divinity.”

But it is this very mystery that makes Christianity so subject to interpretation and distortion. Douthat begins in the early Twentieth Century, during which “modernist theology” dominated the American Protestant church. He says the modernists were trying to “adapt Christianity to the new scientific and historical consensus” coming out of the late Victorian period, especially the work of Darwin and Freud.  They believed in a Social Gospel that would put Jesus’ teachings into practice largely through legislation. They downplayed anything mysterious or miraculous in favor of trying to perfect humans in the here and now.

Douthat says this all came to an end after the humbling atrocities of Word War One. One of the people most influential in a reconsideration was German theologian  Karl Barth whose 1922 “Epistle to the Romans” “doubles as a long attack on every kind of Christian accommodation – to history, to humanism, to the nation-state, to fashionable ideas of progress and development and reform.”

In the United States, this theme was picked up by Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Douthat can’t say enough about the influence of Niebuhr, who began as a modernist, but in his words, “underwent a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals and ideas with which I ventured forth in 1915.” Douthat sums up this neo-orthodoxy as –

“A rejection of utopianism in all its forms; a return to Protestantism’s Reformation roots; a renewed interest in creedal, confessional, and liturgical issues; a stress on the saving life and death (as opposed to just the ethical message) of Jesus Christ; and a demand for Christian humility in the face of the mystery of God’s purposes.”

This neo-orthodoxy took hold and grew in Mainline Protestant churches through the Depression and World War Two. Interestingly, it was very supportive of the New Deal and liberal politics, and Niebuhr considered himself a socialist all that time. Douthat writes, “For Niebuhr, the quest for reform was authentically Christian, the quest for utopia was a dangerous and destructive heresy.” He says this Niebuhr era (mid-1950s) was the last time Mainline Protestants (Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians) would grow in membership or conduct serious missions overseas.

They were being replaced by the dynamism of Billy Graham’s evangelism. Douthat spends quite a bit of time on Graham, whose greatest triumph was perhaps his New York revival in 1957. For sixteen weeks he preached nightly at Madison Square Garden, drawing 20,000 people a might. In mid-summer he drew 100,000 people to Yankee Stadium, and a similar number to Times Square on Labor Day. Douthat argues that Graham took a fairly fundamentalist theology and made it mainstream with his ecumenicalism. In founding Christianity Today, for instance, Graham promised it would be theologically conservative but liberal on social policy.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church in America was enjoying its own golden age.  Again, politically progressive and theologically conservative, it had carved out a large and growing niche in American culture with its own schools, hospitals, and charities, and was popularized in Hollywood and the media, of which Fulton Sheen was the greatest example. His weekly television show attracted 30 million viewers.

The third great leg of this Christian ascendency was the black church. The social witness of the black church transformed America in the decade between Brown v. Board of Education and passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, according to Douthat, but it was able to play that role because of decades of internal institution building and the emergence of preachers like Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. The movement was profoundly Christian. King, like Niebuhr, was trained in modernism but rejected it for a Protestant orthodoxy, and near-fundamentalism.

This orthodoxy enabled King to appeal to the white church in the South. The Southern Baptist convention, for example, endorsed desegregation overwhelmingly at its convention – by a vote of 9,000 to 50, which undermined the moral standing of the resisting clergy.

At the same time, King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” which Douthat praises repeatedly, is an indictment of certain Southern clergy for not going beyond neutrality in the struggle for civil rights. This is at least as much a theological as political reflection that is well worth reading today.

But once again Billy Graham provided faithful leadership for evangelical Christians. As early as 1957 he shared the pulpit with King, and in 1959 he refused a request from the city fathers in Little Rock to keep his revivals segregated.

This all came to fruition with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — and I suppose Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Douthat doesn’t go into other Great Society initiatives, even though they were also fulfillment of the “social gospel” aspects of this politically liberal but theologically conservative era.

After all this came the Great Collapse (my words, not Douthat’s). He quotes Dean Kelly as writing, “For the first time in the nation’s history most of the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink.” That is an understatement. Douthat chronicles this new trend dramatically –

“Of the eleven Protestant churches that claimed more than a million members in the early 1970s, eight had fewer members in 1973 than in 1965.”

He cites startling membership figures for several of the Mainline Protestant denominations and then notes that the supporting infrastructure – church schools, seminaries, foreign missions, church building, and mass magazines – “simply disintegrated.” The Roman Catholic Church suffered similar declines, especially in the recruitment and retention of priests and nuns.

Douthat doesn’t really explain very well why this all happened. No doubt books could be (and probably have been) written about it, but the decline coincided with a number of broader trends – the arrival of the Baby Boom into adulthood, the “sexual revolution” spawned first by the birth control pill and then Roe v. Wade, the widespread use of narcotics in the middle class, the disenchantment with traditional institutions (government, military, media) coming out of the VietNam experience.

In the churches, there was also a move away from traditionalism as represented by Vatican II and the 1967 Confession of the Presbyterian Church. These efforts to remain relevant in a changing society may have actually back-fired on the churches, particularly when more conservative churches (including Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, Pentecostals, Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists) did not experience the same decline, but actually grew.

I will leave it there for now, other than to add one closing thought on this era. All of these changes came at lightening speed. None of them lasted more than 20 years or so, and Christians have been repeatedly whipsawed back and forth between reform and tradition to the point of exhaustion. Rather than offering a steady rock of faith and eternal truth, the American churches have been as fluid as water. It is a distressing story for a people who have been told in Scripture to be a light to the world. We have allowed our church to be at best a flickering and uncertain light.

Next time, the ascendance of heresy.



  1. Hi Greg,

    Thank you again for a very interesting post. Hope you are well and like your new church.


  2. Greg, I became a Christian during my year of study in Basel, 1968-69 (actually, during a ten-day trip to L’Abri in the south of that country). Karl
    Barth is buried in the Cathedral there. He was once asked (and I paraphrase) how his God was doing. He said, God is doing fine. It’s the ground crew that I’m worried about.

  3. Greg, thanks for your continued sharing on your personal faith journey. It has been helpful to this single soul and hopefully many others whom you touch with this blog and have personal contact with. Keep the faith and and the commentary coming.

  4. Greg,

    Very interesting review. I may have to read this book.

    But I have a question. It has been observed that the rate of growth and the rate of shrinkage of the Church in the US tends to track the mood of the nation. The PCUSA, for example, reached its high tide during the Kennedy administration. There was an exuberance that came to a crashing halt when JFK was assassinated. And the knees in the curve of membership vs time correlate well with other events that affected the mood of the nation. Today the nation is rather polarized and punctuated by loud extremists screaming over each other and drowning out dialog between the more conciliatory middle. The same exact behavior is evident in Church.

    Does Douthat make the same observation? Does he offer an explanation for it?

  5. Greg, great post and I thank you for mentioning that very positive facts about the Southern Baptist in their endorsement of desegregation and the growth they experienced while the Mainline churches had already begun to shrink. They grew because they remained true to being the church called to transform the world unlike the PCUSA, ECUSA, UCC, etc that have molded themselves to be like the world.
    I was saved at 8 and grew up a Southern Baptist. As an adult I have been a member of two Presbyterian USA Churches but because of the changes in the PCUSA, I have left the Presbyterian Church where I was a member for several years and I’m now in a Southern Baptist church.
    People do not seek a church that looks like the world but a church that teaches that we have a risen savior that transforms lives!

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