Book Review of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat

This Book Review of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat is brought to you from Kody Nerios from the Titans of Investing.

Genre: Sociology & Religion
Author: Ross Douthat
Title: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Buy the Book)

Summary

The crash of 2008 left America suffering. As blame shifted across party lines, some understood the problem sourced from something more than the leaders of Washington D.C.. New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, explains America’s struggle by proposing it is not from too much or too little religion, but from Bad Religion.

Douthat recognizes America for what it really is: “not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.” Since World War II, America has seen an overall decline of traditional, or orthodox, Christianity and the rise of a variety of heresies.

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Religious leaders such as Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. drove an orthodox revival that peaked in the mid 1900’s. Unfortunately, by the 1960’s, politics, sex, globalization, and wealth shifted America’s priorities away from traditional faith and out of church services.

The Church’s first attempt to accommodate the decline made Christianity easier and more natural. In the 1960’s and 70’s, accommodationists married the Church to the secular world and lost the conviction and Transcendence that Americans needed to fulfill their hearts.

The failure of accommodation spurred a late 20th century alliance: an Evangelical and Catholic resistance. The Evangelical zeal and strong leadership of Pope John Paul II saw early success, but the resistance was eventually exposed through events such as Catholic sex scandals and the Bush presidency.

This loss of a true, historical Jesus has brought on today’s variety of heresies. The Pray and Grow Rich of Joel Osteen, the God Within of Oprah Winfrey, and the American Nationalism of Glenn Beck all paint a picture of Christianity that simply is not biblical.

Douthat concludes his modern take on American Christianity with ways that we as a nation and as individuals can reclaim the orthodox religion and hopefully demolish these destructive heresies.

THE STORY OF ORTHODOXY’S DECLINE

The post World War II Christian revival

Wystan Hugh Auden joined the Anglican Communion in October 1940. The Anglo-American poet credited his horror of Nazi Germany and the writing of colleagues such as C.S. Lewis as key reasons for his conversion back to his childhood faith. His 1937 poem, Thanksgiving, illustrates those same elements of a similar journey many Americans took during a post war revival of Orthodox Christianity.

“Finally, hair-raising things that Hitler and Stalin were doing forced me to think about God. Why was I sure they were wrong? Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis guided me back to belief.”

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This period marked a reemergence of Evangelical Protestantism, the peak of the Catholic Church, and a black church rising to a national story. By 1960, 69 percent of Americans were officially affiliated with a church or denomination, sacred architecture spending reached 1 billion dollars, and popular culture was dominated by a revivalist spirit.

The tragedies America faced in the 1930’s and 40’s prompted its people to covet ideas from Christian pasts as they became more respectable than they had been for decades.

A Christian convergence

The post war revival featured the convergence of a fragmented Christendom led by four figures; a protestant intellectual, an Evangelical preacher, a Catholic bishop, and an African-American prophet.

The intellectual was Reinhold Niebuhr of the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

The harsh 1930’s begged for a reassessment of the modernist theology which dominated the period’s Christian teachings, and Niebuhr led the way with neo-orthodoxy. Niebuhr reemphasized the traditional Christian concepts written off by modernism.

Neo-orthodoxy stressed the life and death of Christ as more than an ethical message, and that human’s irredeemable sinfulness could never be legislated away by modernism’s Social Gospel agenda. Neo-orthodoxy marked a “twilight glow” for the Protestant mainline, including the creation of the National Council of Churches headquarters in 1958. The NCC’s mission; to “draw together the scattered sheep” of Jesus Christ.

The preacher was Billy Graham of North Carolina, who became the face of American Christianity by the 1950’s.

Graham led the revival of Evangelical Christianity over the modernist and fundamentalist ideas of the time. His poise, confidence, literal interpretations, and style brought his backwoods evangelism to America’s largest cities, and eventually the world.

The neo-evangelical brought hope, applying conservative theological positions to liberal political and social problem solving. Graham’s famous 1957 Manhattan crusade filled the Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium for weeks at a time bringing in thousands to hear Billy preach.

The Roman Catholic Church reached a Golden Age in the postwar era.

The Church’s demographic, political, and cultural strength was unrivaled. America’s political economy and media-entertainment of the 1950’s were rampant with Catholic principles. A notable Catholic leader was bishop and radio broadcaster, Fulton Sheen. Sheen’s skills made him an American icon.

His funny, elegant, relaxed, and formulaic approach convinced 30 million viewers into seeing his form of Christianity as a common ground for society. Sheen fought off an “un- American” criticism as Catholicism shifted towards more pro-democratic ideals. A strength of the Church’s midcentury growth was the ability to reform based on its own Catholic teachings as opposed to outside secular forces. Sheen’s radio broadcast was vital to this reform.

Prior to the Civil Rights era, African-Americans had effectively exiled their religion from the Catholic and Protestant Church. This built solidarity among a suffering black community, but also allowed for complacency in its inferior status to white churches.

The Civil Rights Movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., gave the African-American Church a center stage to display the best example of the mid-century’s revival spirit and Christian love to all of America. Dr. King’s African-American neo-orthodoxy drew parallels to Mainline Protestants of the time, ultimately winning the enthusiasm and support of American Christians across the nation, even the white south.

The support of revivalists like Billy Graham, along with the Catholic Church’s continued integration, marked the Civil Rights Movement as a key convergence point for the entire Christendom of the middle 20th century.

End of the revival

The peak of American Christianity through the Civil Rights Movement also marked the beginning of Christianity’s decline in the latter half of the 20th century. In 1973, author Dean Kelley noted, “for the first time in [America’s] history most of the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink.

By the mid 1960’s, both Mainline Protestant and Catholic Churches witnessed unprecedented declines in funding, school enrollment, and attendance. Membership in many Protestant denominations peaked by 1968 and now ran on deficits.

Roman Catholic Priests and Nuns abandoned their religious lives at unparalleled rates during the same period.

Smaller, conservative religions such as Southern Baptists and Mormons sustained growth past the mid-century, but not enough to curb the overall decline in Christianity that defined the late 1900’s. The decline represented a shift in significance from institutional religion to an individualistic, consumer mentality.

Although America continued to become more religious, the religion increasingly strayed from traditional Christianity. Douthat credits the Church’s loss of credibility in this extraordinary decline to five key themes.

  1. Political polarization – Political issues turned partisan and destroyed the convergence from the Civil Rights era. The Vietnam and Iraq Wars, immigration, and global warming split churches, political parties, and generations. The divide caused religious leaders to act more like legislators and politicians than men of God.
  2. The sexual revolution – The invention of birth control and contraceptives perverted American’s ideas of biblical, sexual behavior creating a leap they had no real intent on rationalizing. Christian ethic of chastity, monogamy, and marriage were previously respected more through fear of disease, babies, and illegitimacy than scripture itself. The separation of sex and procreation spiked pre-marital sex, infidelity, homosexual activity, and divorce. People now saw these sins as a repression that the government had no right to interfere in.
  3. A global perspective – Globalization introduced non-Western traditions and Christianity was seen as one spiritual option among others. A familiarization of Eastern religions and newfound consciences of the historical Christian treatment of Jews influenced American religion. The Christian past littered with anti-Semitism embarrassed and ashamed Americans. Christians lost self-confidence as, for the first time, some saw a two-thousand year history tainted by sin. The more Americans learned about new cultures and western imperialism, the more skeptical they became of their own faith. Some were convinced all religions were “basically true” and more than Christians had a right to Heaven.
  4. Ever-growing wealth – A flourishing American economy had religious consequences. Rising salaries widened the income gap between professional and clerical careers, depleting the pool of young leadership in ministry as educated and capable individuals sought after jobs not related to their faith. A surge in economic production created a suburban society making religious communities more difficult to sustain than the small town/urban system did. Lifestyles were increasingly busy and mobile, and faith dropped in priority. The upper-class became liberated, politically savvy, and cultured leading to a preference of self over God.
  5. The element of class – The upper-class became dismissive of orthodox Christianity. Elite individuals and institutions such as universities, media outlets, and government saw traditional Christianity predominantly as something to critique and of lower class.

Accommodating the decline of traditional Christianity

Accommodation to the decline in traditional Christian faith characterized America’s first reaction to the decline. Christians accommodated to the Liberalist spirit of America and hoped to reconcile its differences with traditional Christianity.

“Accommodationists” deemphasized traditional Christian-truths, and focused on man’s responsibility to build the Kingdom of God now on Earth as opposed to preparing for the hereafter. They depicted Christ as an example to be admired more than a necessary savior.

Books such as The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (1966), and Secular Christianity (1966) described the “turn from the supernatural to the natural, from theology to anthropology, and from the Kingdom of God to the City of Man.” At the forefront of accommodation, Harvey Cox of Harvard University stressed the revision of traditional Christian principles as necessary to achieve the “maturation of man.” Cox led a revolution that transformed the Bible into a social science textbook.

An Episcopal Bishop, James Pike, brought Cox’s philosophy to Mainline Protestants.

Pike discarded truths such as the Trinity and divinity of God, and relaxed Christian codes. Mainline Protestant’s movement was political in nature and ultimately sought to achieve inclusion. Protestant accommodationists believed the inclusion of race, gender, sexuality, age, culture, etc. through relaxed traditional practices would build the community as envisioned in Jesus’ pre- crucifixion prayer: “[we would] all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I in you.

The Catholic Church’s accommodation of the 1960’s prevailed through its intermediate institutions. Catholic universities pushed for freedom and autonomy from authority so it could examine the Church for an “objective evaluation.” Seminaries reinterpreted the Transcendent and relaxed sexual disciplines.

Catholic liturgy became experimental as liturgists debated on how to make mass appear relevant. Pastors reformed by their own opinions, causing mass to vary dramatically across the nation. Accommodationists dominated the culture, text, press, and education of the Catholic Church by the late 1960’s.

Surprisingly, as the accommodation grew, Protestant and Catholic congregations shrank. One form of accommodation led to countless others and faith dwindled. Douthat credits three reasons for the end of accommodation.

  1. It overestimated the ability to sustain religion while marrying the secular world. The movement was exposed as an interest group with nothing transcendent to offer.
  2. Americans wanted the transcendence from religion that accommodationists sought to remove. To assume America’s secularization was attributed to Christianity’s irrationality or mysterious nature was incorrect.
  3. It lacked the conviction necessary to retain believers. Douthat says “the more accommodationists emptied Christianity…the more they lost any sense that what they were engaged in really mattered, or was really, truly true.

Evangelical and Catholic resistance

Evangelical Protestants and the Catholics formed an unexpected alliance in the late 20th century during what Douthat calls the “resistance” movement. Accommodation’s threat made the alliance necessary, and the political climate made it possible. Topics such as abortion allowed for Evangelicals and Catholics to align on Christian principles in public affairs, reminding the two of how much they had in common.

The Supreme Court’s announcement to the right of abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973) sparked the Catholic Church’s resistance movement.

The decision caused the Catholic Church to reconsider its accommodation of the 1960’s. John Paul II was elected Pope in 1978, and championed resistance. He sought to prove traditional Christian belief was compatible with the times.

Through sermons and writings, John Paul reestablished what Catholicism stood for, and attempted to end the accommodationist interpretations before his time. John Paul’s teaching also created a more orthodox group of priests to lead the Church going forward.

By the 1990’s, Evangelicals were the greatest force in American Protestantism.

Leaders such as Francis Schaeffer promoted engagement with secular and Catholic culture and politically mobilized Evangelicalism through issues such as abortion. By the Reagan era, Evangelical voters were synonymous with the Republican Party, bringing about mixed results.

The tight political ties turned off many, but also led to a conservative social-justice agenda that outshined the Great Society eras of the past. Evangelicals reconciled Biblical interpretations of fundamentalists while upholding the scripture’s inerrancy.

Scholars found themselves among the best and brightest as Evangelical universities increased in quality. An upward mobility of Evangelicals placed members in powerful public and private positions. Evangelical officials led most of the Bush administration and companies such as Intel and Coca-Cola.

The rise of Evangelicals and reconsideration of Catholics proved that liberal theology was unable to satisfy man’s heart.

Their alliance was a powerful combination. The Catholic’s accessible natural law and presence in legal scholarship gave Evangelicals a language and platform for influence on swelling public controversies. The admiration of John Paul also provided leadership to Evangelical Protestants like no Pope had done before.

The Catholic Church benefited from Evangelical’s passionate and zealous practice of Christian faith. Evangelicals inspired Catholics to desire personal encounters with God and spread the resistance movement.

Unfortunately, the resistance was exposed in the early 21st century. The Catholic Church suffered from priestly sex abuse, a decline in Anglo participation, an indifferent generation of cradle Catholics, a lack of political influence, and an intellectually exhausted congregation.

Whether the sex scandals sourced from accommodation or resistance, the fault “clearly lay somewhere in the Church – and that knowledge alone was enough to undercut even the most fervent Catholic’s loyalty, to damn the Church in the eyes of many” and to “provide endless ammunition to its critics.

For Evangelicals, the Bush presidency had similar results. George Bush Jr., an Evangelical President, uncovered the limit for a politician to achieve religious and cultural change. Having a conservative Evangelical in the White House made it easier for the press to write off his administration’s stances as sectarian views, making it hard for conservative Christians to progress in cultural and moral debates.

Evangelicals faced demographic trouble as numbers flattened prior to the Bush presidency. A decline in talented leadership also caused Evangelicals to struggle to sustain a vibrant Christian culture.

True atheism remained rare, but more and more Christians distanced themselves from institutional religion and stopped attending church. These “unchurched Christians”, as Douthat calls them, are a lasting legacy of the early 21st century struggles.

Half a century removed from Traditional Christianity’s peak, America now found itself in a rough spot. “The Mainline has drifted to the sidelines of American life, Catholicism’s’ cultural capital has been reduced by decades of civil war, and Evangelicalism still has the air of an embattled subculture.” Now, enter the age of heresy.

THE AGE OF HERESY

Today’s debate over Christian origins

In 2006, National Geographic publicized The Lost Gospel of Judas, an ancient text retelling the story of Judas’ relationship with Jesus. The publication caused a stir that dominated the news. In an effort to create the buzz, National Geographic liberally interpreted the text in a way that made Judas appear a hero instead of the betrayer as initially believed.

By the time scholars discovered National Geographic’s inaccuracy, the press moved on from the story. The Lost Gospel of Judas symbolized the broader Christian trends of its time.

The public was hazy on traditional Christianity, but still excited to hear about Jesus. Scholars, journalists, and novelists were excited to describe Jesus, but on their own terms. Jesus Christ is a paradoxical character, so the intent of these heresies was simple; to make Jesus consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory.

They retold the New Testament in four ways.

  1. Subtraction – Thinning out tension and contradictions from the New Testament.
  2. Combination – Making the four gospels one, smoothing out contradictions in the process.
  3. Invention – Rewriting portions of the New Testament, to create a smoother theology.
  4. Addition – Bringing in new scripture to supplement the gospels. Sometimes additions were woven into original scripture itself.

The quest for a real Jesus was fueled by the liberal Christianity characterizing academia. These accommodationist academics wanted revenge from their Evangelical counterparts who gained ground after the 1960’s. They argued that the orthodox story was mythical and self-serving, and that a diversity of Christianity existed since its beginning.

Their goal was to find a Jesus for the third millennium. Douthat claims, “No matter who the real Jesus was…modern popularizers always come around to the idea that [Jesus] would want his followers to be accommodationist Christians today.” A historical Jesus, according to them, must be a revisionist Jesus. A revisionist Jesus, is ultimately a heretical Jesus, not the orthodox Christ.

The search for a “real Jesus”

Along with Mainline Protestants, Catholics and former Fundamentalists were enthused by the search for a “real Jesus.” They held that orthodoxy, like all Christian forms, was a product of generations and its conclusions were open to doubt and dismissal.

Theologians such as Elaine Pagel and Bart Erhman denied orthodoxy’s premises and searched gospels not in the Christian canon. New Testament scholar, C.E. Hill, countered in his book Who Chose the Gospels? Hill discovered a great unanimity concerning the canon in the early centuries of the Church.

The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) showed up in nearly every pre-fourth century version of the New Testament. Questions of the supernatural also persisted. Some modern readers preferred a Christianity with less supernatural elements, but many apocryphal gospels (those not chosen by the Church) and early heresies contained even more supernatural elements than their canonical counterparts.

Ultimately, the argument over how Christ lived and died revolved around the synoptic gospels, and most scholars accepted their rough accuracy. The search also lead to speculation and conspiracy. Scholars searched for cover-ups and read the New Testament as propaganda, which might have suppressed older, purer ways of being a Christian.

The New Testament might have been accurate only because its writers colluded.

Pagel explained Christ’s bodily resurrection as political: “The doctrine of bodily resurrection also serves an essential political function….whatever we think of the historicity of the orthodox account, we can admire its ingenuity.” Conspiracies provided inspiration for pamphlets, chain e- mails, and paperback thrillers such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: the story of a scholar’s fictional discovery of a New Testament cover-up.

Brown’s portrayal of a fictional Jesus sold almost 100 million copies worldwide. Many American’s were more excited to hear conspiracies of what Jesus was not rather than hear what Jesus really was. While the “real Jesus” movement attracted a large American audience, it did nothing to grow the accommodationist movement. This search strengthened only the religion of intellectuals, and like accommodation, it dimmed the public’s desire to go to Church.

Douthat claims the tragedy was for “American Christianity as a whole. For a generation or more, many of the writers who might have busied themselves exploring and explaining the Christian tradition have been engaged instead in a project that has undercut historic Christianity while building nothing lasting in its place.”

Christians trained in a choose-your-own Jesus mentality screened out uncomfortable parts of scripture and focused on only on parts they found pleasing. This set the tone for a variety of heresies.

Heresy #1: Pray and Grow Rich

Joel Osteen packs Houston’s Compaq Center with over 18,000 on a weekly basis and has written three New York Times best sellers. He has the highest-rated religious TV show in America with over 200 million viewers worldwide. Osteen’s success marks an Evangelical shift toward an age of abundance. Championing a prosperity theology, Osteen reconciles religious faith with America’s unbiblical wealth and consumer culture.

Prosperity theology started with a 19th century movement known as “New Thought.”

The movement claimed “prayer could lead to healing, and positive thinking to worldly wealth. The key was to recognize the spark of divinity within yourself and bring it into alignment with the divine spirit of the universe.” New thinkers believed Christians could achieve their purpose through spiritual actions. E.W. Kenyon’s promoted man’s omnipotent power through prayer with great influence.

After Kenyon’s death in 1948, a Texas Evangelical, Kenneth Hagin, carried on the heresy with books such as Write Your Own Ticket with God. Hagin reached millions including predecessors like Kenneth Copeland and Joel’s father, John Osteen.

Copeland, Hagin, and others can be seen on the world’s largest Christian Network, Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN). Besides the older, more obnoxious generation of prosperity preachers, TBN is also home to a newer generation. Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer make-up the new generation that is more subtle than the Kenyon-Hagin past. Meyer and Osteen’s ideas that “believers can pray and grow rich is constantly implied but rarely stated baldly.”

The traditional warnings of wealth-worship fall flat when we are constantly fighting for promotions and holiday bonuses.

These temptations are easily relaxed by a prosperity gospel that views the temptations as God’s gifts. If you are suffering, it’s because you have strayed from faith, and by exerting more spiritual discipline, the suffering will pass. This warped theology afforded people more control over their life than past interpretations.

Prosperity gospel quickly gained footing in America’s largest churches, and among recent immigrants, African Americans, and Pentecostalist. Prosperity gospel exists in many forms. Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez describes your business as “the territory in which God has trusted you. [God] wants you to accept it as a significant opportunity to touch individual lives, the business community, and the larger world for His glory.”

While seeming less greedy, this gospel still blurs the line between a missionary and entrepreneurial spirit. Pastors like Larry Burkett, a businessman turned minister, lead successful “financial ministries” ripe with heresy.

Prosperity gospel also led to a “more money, more ministry” theology responsible for the growth of mega-churches, Christian organizations, and a thriving Evangelical culture industry. In the Catholic Church, Michael Novak argues that people would not be judged on the existence of wealth, but merely the use of it.

The marriage of God and material wealth is well-meaning and empowering, but paints a naive picture of the larger Christian principle.

This theology “risks losing something essential to Christianity – skipping on to Easter, you might say, without lingering at the foot of the cross.” Although innocently, prosperity teachings do not consider that God does not desire perfect success for all followers. It also fails to recognize that success comes at a price, and often times the pursuit of wealth can bring the loss of one’s soul.

As the 2008 financial crisis crushed America, Joel Osteen released It’s Your Time: Time to Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor. Osteen confidently promised the same good fortune as before, but now to a congregation swallowed by financial distress. Instead recognizing another possible force at work, Americans bought the book. With unemployment at 8.5 percent, Osteen sold out Yankee Stadium.

Heresy #2: The God Within

In the 2006 best-selling book, Eat. Pray. Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert premises that all religious tradition can lead to the divine, and institutions claiming monopolies on divinity are wrong. Gilbert’s do-it-yourself religion stresses the divinity inside us all.

The principles of this therapeutic religion sweeping American popular culture are as follows:

  1. Organized religions offer only partial glimpses of God. We intimately reach God through direct encounter rather than handed-down revelation and dogma.
  2. God is everywhere, but the easiest way to reach God is through the divinity within us all.
  3. God’s all-encompassing nature ensures that death, sin, and hell will be reconciled rather than defeated.
  4. Heaven is here on Earth and those willing to let go may achieve eternity at any moment.

While overlapping with prosperity gospel, the God Within ultimately focuses on internal harmony over material abundance. Instead of a divine broker, the God Within gospel provided a divine shrink. Oprah Winfrey exemplifies the popularization of the God Within movement.

Oprah claims her mission “is to use television to transform people’s lives…[Oprah is] talking about each individual coming to the awareness that ultimately [we are] the Spirit come from the greatest Spirit.” Oprah’s ministry emphasizes everything as secondary to the spirit.

This ministry is a path to self-affirmation, where the search for God is the ultimate therapy. This heresy reconciles a transcendent yet immanent God. It made God “so absolute that He’s immanent, so beyond time and space that He’s available to everyone at every moment, and so universal that He’s in you as you.”

Karen Armstrong’s 2009 book, The Case for God, endorsed faith through practice rather than system, with personal experience of God trumping theological definitions. Armstrong’s lack of specificity left a deity more open for interpretation than religious institutions were comfortable with allowing.

The God within heresy was parasitic to more dogmatic forms of faith.

Traditional orthodoxy distinguishes the Creator and creation, while the “God Within” could get comfortable, doing what it feels like and justifying it as “obedience to a Higher Power or Supreme Self.”

Christian Smith and Melinda Denton’s 2005 research on the religion of American teenagers found many symptoms of the God Within heresy. According to their results, the religion of America’s youth had five main premises.

  1. A God exists who created the world and watches over human life.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to Heaven when they die.

The dominant religion of American youth is defined by well-being, resolving problems, and getting along with others. Other side effects of this heresy include a growing narcissism, shrinking empathy, and an apathy towards sexual sin.

The God Within provided Americans with more freedom, tolerance, and choice than ever before. This therapeutic religion brings an “isolation that’s at once comfortable and terrible – leaving us alone with the universe, alone with the God Within.”

Heresy #3: American Nationalism

In 2010, the right-winged Tea Party spokesman, Glenn Beck, led a “Restoring Honor” rally that was surprisingly nonpartisan. This event of patriotism and piety crossed a tent revival with an American pep rally.

Glenn Beck’s hatred of Woodrow Wilson and love of conspiracy were completely left out of the picture. Despite good intentions, it is still impossible to sidestep the outline of heresy that Beck so readily fuels: American Nationalism.

Rome’s Jupiter and Greece’s Zeus characterize a world history of a “local god” tied to a particular people.

The problem with local gods was their perishable nature: as the people go, the local god’s go. Real hope can only be supplied through a universal god, like the God of the Old Testament. However, even the Old Testament God was introduced through His covenant with the chosen, Jewish people.

The difference, though, was the offer of salvation to those who left their local idols behind in favor of the universal God. For example, pagans could effectively become Jews so long as they ceased to be pagans. The resentment of the Jews “chosenness” was a key source of envy from Christians who desired the unique birthright of the Jewish people.

The first solution to the resentment was to claim one’s own nation descended from ancient Israel. America’s New World foundation made this a bit of a stretch, and so paved the way for another form of nationalism: Exceptionalism.

Exceptionalist regarded America as a new Israel, a holy nation of people set apart.

They claimedIf God is the lord of history, then there’s no reason to dismiss the possibility that a nation as significant as the United States shouldn’t have an important role to play in His unfolding plan.” A key part of Exceptionalism was to temper it with humility, which was done remarkably well by leaders throughout our history.

Humility prevailed in John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, George Washington’s farewell address, and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Not all leaders were able to maintain such a healthy balance of patriotism and piety.

Two main temptations unbalanced the equation.

  1. Messianism – The belief that American’s democracy is capable of fulfilling God’s purpose on Earth.
  2. Apocalyptism – The idea that America is plainly a chosen people, and that our constitution is consonant with Christian principles because it was literally, divinely inspired.

Messianic beliefs are naturally progressive and inspire unwarranted optimism, whereas apocalyptic beliefs are naturally reactionary and inspire unwarranted paranoia. Messianism awaits a leader of hope while apocalyptism searches for a villain to blame.

Woodrow Wilson embodied the messianic movement through his foreign policy and explicit agenda to “make the United States a mighty Christian nation, and to Christianize the world.” Glenn Beck embodies the apocalyptic movement through his hints at conspiracy and excessively limited interpretations of government. While apocalyptism tends seem to negative, it is important to note that the messianism has caused considerable damage as well.

While history shows the political right as typically messianic and the left apocolyptic, recent trends have shown a new phenomenon: the coexistence of both national heresies in either party. In the Bush-Obama era, the two heresies have “taken turns in the driver’s seat of both political coalitions, giving us messianism from the party in power and apocalyptism from the party out of power, regardless of which party is which.”

The nationalism heresy has forged a Christianity too weak to play a positive role in government. Believer’s obligations to strive in political affairs have paralyzed Christianity’s ability to move in the direction of a similar spirit.

THE RECOVERY OF CHRISTIANITY

In conclusion, to turn the tides of traditional Christianity’s decline, Douthat notes four potential touchstones for a recovery.

  1. Postmodern opportunity – The forces that weakened traditional Christianity have been successfully confronted by the Church before. An opportunity may arise where believers can recapture a necessary, traditional radicalism. A revolution could convert our cultural elite, and America may follow. The challenge will be to avoid accommodation as previously discussed.
  2. Benedict option – Christianity must contract before it can grow again. Faithful believers will stand apart and lead by example rather than engagement. Hopefully their example may inspire the fallen America surrounding them. The challenge will be for those separatist to not give up.
  3. Next Christendom – By the end of the 21st century, the real home of traditional Christianity may be places other than North America and Europe. A new global Christian landscape could help revive the old one. The challenge will be for the rising Christian heartland to not fall into the same traps.
  4. Age of diminished expectation – The current economic turmoil could persuade Americans to survey the wreckage and turn to a more traditional Christian faith. The challenge is while crisis might bring these desired results, it could also lead to a further break from orthodox faith.

A turn back to society’s embrace of orthodox Christianity is beyond the individual’s control, but Douthat still recognizes key elements for today’s Christians to stay persistent in.

  1. Be political without being partisan – Avoiding nationalism heresies, practice politics without quietism or indifference. The Christian voter and Christian politician should make a difference beyond party lines.
  2. Be ecumenical but also confessional – What Protestants and Catholics do have in common should be protected from the heresies dividing them. While this unity is important, these issues calling for unity are not more important than the gospel itself.
  3. Be moralistic but also holistic – Do not deemphasize faith’s moralistic side. Do not stray from commandments that are difficult and offensive to modern times.
  4. Be oriented towards sanctity and beauty – Americans rarely view Christianity as a source of aesthetic achievement, and the Christian message is immensely weaker for it.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” – Matthew 6:33

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