America has problems. The Christian right says it is because we have fallen away from the faith of our fathers. (They say America was founded as a “Christian nation.”) Others insist the problem is that America is excessively religious. (They make Christian beliefs the problem.)
Douthat says America's problem is not too much or too little religion. It is bad religion, a collapse of traditional Christianity and rise of a variety of pesudo-Christianities in its place.
America remains the most religious country in the developed world. But it is also a place where traditional Christian teachings have been warped.
Heresies are not new. There have always been heresies. “What's changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response.” (8)
He notes that Christianity needs heresy, at least the threat of it. That is what keeps Christianity from being merely a set of doctrines. In the past orthodoxy would come alive. But now, orthodoxy is slowing withering while heresy endures.
How this came to be is what this book is about.
Douthat looks at Christianity after World War II and how it gave way to a Christian “civil war.” He then reviews Christianity today, focusing on heresy's increasing dominance. His is an analysis of how and why American Christianity has changed over the last fifty years and what those changes mean.
I found this book very insightful.
I also found it frightful. He brings us to the end result of the heresy of nationalism we see today on the Christian right. For example, “now that waterboarding has become a right-wing litmus test, polls show that frequent churchgoers are more likely to voice explicit support for torture than other Americans, and that both conservative Catholics and (especially) Evangelicals are the most pro-torture groups of all.” (273)
This book should be read by anyone who cares about the future of the country, Christian or not.
Ross Douthat is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. Before joining the Times he was senior editor for The Atlantic. He has written (or co-authored) two books and appears regularly on national television programs. He lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, D.C.
Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster). 337 pages.