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.
In going after the bad elements in Christianity in America, Ross Douthat had an easy taskâ€”so much low-hanging fruit! He has some harsh (but truthful) things to say about both the Christian Left and Christian Right, but he does it in the spirit of an insider (i.e., a believer), not the snippish outsider who has contempt for any form of belief.
The Religious Left, he reveals in detail, is a cesspoolâ€”to be precise, it has let itself be molded by the increasingly secular culture, so at present a liberal pastor sounds more like a liberal New York Times editorial writer than a minister of God. Whichever way the cultural wind blows, the Left goes with it. Abortion? Gay "marriage"? Carbon footprints? Pick any issue and the Religious Left is in lockstep with the radical faculties of Harvard and Yale. That their positions are not remotely in keeping with real Christianity does not bother them one iota.
However, Douthat finds some bad religion on the Right tooâ€”particularly some of the popular "feel-good" preachers like Joel Osteen. He has some criticism for megachurch pastors like Rick Warren also. The Religious Left's Gospel is: God wants you to be a liberal activist! The Right (or part of it, anyway) announces: God wants you healthy, wealthy, and financially secure. Neither quite fits Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God.
I would give this book five stars, except for one thing: I don't think he gives enough attention to the "emergent" church movement, which is on the Right (sort of) but attempting to appeal the vast and vapid "spiritual but not religious" crowd that likes its religious as solid as Jello. With any luck, by the time Douthat updates his book, that shifty and shapeless movement will be a mere footnote to history.