In his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explores the present decline—economic recession, a divisive, stagnant political climate and a deteriorating moral structure—of American civilization. Rather than citing religious excess or wide scale secularization as the problem, Douthat points his finger at what he calls “bad religion,” or, four basic heresies that present faux-Gospels contrary to the Christian faith.
Douthat’s solution, presented in the book’s conclusion, comes in the form of Christian orthodoxy, what one might call Good Religion. Without delving too far into critique, readers of all ecumenical stripes—even those without any—can profit from a quick examination of Douthat’s four points essential for traditional Christianity to reclaim a respected voice in the American public square.
First, Douthat calls for Christian engagement in the sphere of politics that is “political without being partisan,” marked by a “clear Christian difference.” He allows room for political disagreement while professing the necessity of Christian principles to mark the Christian ballot or campaign.
Second, Douthat endorses a Christianity that is “ecumenical but also confessional.” Douthat desires broader Christian discourse and unity, but vibrant doctrinal debate and a steadfast upholding of characteristic theological standards.
Third, Douthat calls for Christians to cut against the grain of contemporary society with a faith that is “moralistic but also holistic.” To present the Bible’s ethical system as a desirable path for a life, rather than a condescending rulebook, he says, is the great challenge for the Church of today.
Finally, Christian orthodoxy must be “oriented toward sanctity and beauty.” Christians occupy too sparse a share of today’s aesthetic landscape, he argues, calling for more distinctly Christian art the mirrors the novels of Marilynne Robinson or the poetry of Christian Wiman.
Douthat’s book will no doubt stimulate much discussion about Christianity’s place in politics, ethics and art. And voices like Douthat’s are an integral part of the debate. With any providence, both the Church and society will benefit greatly from a wider appreciation of Douthat’s hope:
“My hope throughout has been to persuade even the most skeptical reader that traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe.”