Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

A choose-your-own Jesus mentality, by contrast, encourages spiritual seekers to screen out discomfiting parts of the New Testament and focus only on whichever Christ they find most congenial. And our religious culture is now dominated by figures who flatter this impulse, in all its myriad forms—conservative and liberal, conspiratorial and mystical, eco-friendly and consumerist, and everything in between.

Among the tastemakers and power brokers and intellectual agenda setters of late-twentieth-century America, orthodox Christianity was completely déclassé.

As a purely intellectual matter, nothing was suddenly discovered in the 1960s that contradicted the biblical witness on fornication, adultery, and homosexuality, or that established that Jesus hadn’t really meant what he said about the indissolubility of marriage. . . . The difference was that in 1970 many more people wanted to believe these arguments because of the new sexual possibilities associated with the birth control pill.

As messianism tempts liberal Christians, apocalyptism tempts their conservative cobelievers: The vision of American history as a long apostasy, a steadily downhill slide, blurs easily into the fundamentalist vision of the modern age as the gradual fulfillment of the book of Revelation. As

at the deepest level, every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them.

But again, the requiem for faith was premature. America at the close of the Bush presidency was in many ways still as religious as ever, and the spiritual instincts of most Americans were still heavily influenced, overtly or covertly, by two millennia of Christian faith. Culture abhors a metaphysical vacuum, and there was no materialist ideology capable of supplying the kind of holistic account of human life that the great “isms” of the nineteenth and early twentieth century had attempted to provide. Marxism and fascism had been ground into fertilizer by the wheels of history, and Freudianism was increasingly regarded as a superstition—or, at best, a kind of literary conceit—rather than a science. Darwinism supplied explanations but not meaning: the attempts of evolutionists to answer the ultimate questions were either thin and unpersuasive or else led swiftly into Nietszchean abysses that only a few safely tenured academics still felt comfortable plumbing.

Christians can disagree about public policy in good faith, and a libertarian and a social democrat can both claim to be living out the gospel. But the Christian libertarian has a particular obligation to recognize those places where libertarianism’s emphasis on freedom can shade into an un-Christian worship of the individual. Likewise the Christian liberal: even as he supports government interventions to assist the poor and dispossessed, he should be constantly on guard against the tendency to deify Leviathan and wary of the ways that government power can easily be turned to inhuman and immoral ends.

In the contemporary United States, a host of factors—from the salience of issues like abortion to the anti-Christian biases of our largely left-wing intelligentsia—ensure that many orthodox Christians feel more comfortable affiliating with the Republican Party than with the Democrats. But this comfort should not blind Christians to the GOP’s flaws.

For American Catholics, a millennium that John Paul II had hailed as a “new springtime” for Christianity began instead with a wave of revelations about priestly sex abuse. There had been intimations of this crisis in the 1980s, when several high-profile instances of priestly pedophilia had surfaced in the media. But nothing prepared Catholic America for the flood of 2003, which began in New England but ultimately left no diocese or community untouched, reaching even to the doors of the Vatican itself. Horror upon horror, cover-up upon cover-up, and sacrilege piled on sacrilege—it was like an anti-Catholic polemic from the nineteenth century, except that it was all too terribly true. No atheist or anticlericalist, no Voltaire or Ingersoll or Twain could have invented a story so perfectly calculated to discredit the message of the Gospel as the depredations of Thomas Geoghan and the legalistic indifference of Bernard Cardinal Law. No external enemy of the faith, no Attila or Barbarossa or Hitler, could have sown so much confusion and dismay among the faithful as Catholicism’s own bishops managed to do.

Having a conservative Evangelical in the White House, it turned out, didn’t necessarily make it easier for conservative Christians to win converts or to gain ground in moral and cultural debates. Indeed, in certain ways it seemed to make it harder. The president’s very public piety made it easy for his detractors to lay the blame for his administration’s policy failures at the door of Evangelical Christianity itself, so that the more things soured for the Bush administration, the more they soured for Evangelicals as well. And

However superficially appealing, the idea that a religious tradition could be saved from crisis because a group of intellectuals radically reinterpreted its sacred texts is the kind of conceit that only, well, an intellectual could possibly believe.

if messianism has done more good than apocalyptism, it has probably done more damage as well. Precisely because the messianic style has been more influential among the American elite, the consequences of messianic excess have generally been more comprehensively disastrous. Apocalyptism is rarely harmless, but its very marginalization limits its destructive power. Witch hunts are dangerous and deadly, to be sure. But “wars for righteousness” often have far more victims, and they do more lasting harm.

In an age of general religious revival, the most powerful image of Christian love available to any midcentury believer was supplied by the black protesters who stood praying and singing while segregationist policemen loosed dogs and water cannons on them. Through

In an age of stagnant or declining birthrates, too, these communities’ willingness to heed the admonition to be fruitful and multiply has led to speculation about what the demographer Philip Longman calls “the survival of the godliest.

Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest Christian paradox of all—that 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.

In their quest to be inclusive and tolerant and up-to-date, the accommodationists imitated his scandalously comprehensive love, while ignoring his scandalously comprehensive judgments. They used his friendship with prostitutes as an excuse to ignore his explicit condemnations of fornication and divorce. They turned his disdain for the religious authorities of his day and his fondness for tax collectors and Roman soldiers into a thin excuse for privileging the secular realm over the sacred. While recognizing his willingness to dine with outcasts and converse with nonbelievers, they deemphasized the crucial fact that he had done so in order to heal them and convert them—ridding the leper of his sickness, telling the Samaritans that soon they would worship in spirit and truth, urging the woman taken in adultery to go, and from now on sin no more.

In this America, too, the Christian teaching that every human soul is unique and precious has been stressed, by the prophets of self-fulfillment and gurus of self-love, at the expense of the equally important teaching that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin. Absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins. The result is a society where pride becomes 'healthy self-esteem', vanity becomes 'self-improvement', adultery becomes 'following your heart', greed and gluttony become 'living the American dream'.

Many of the overlapping crises in American life, from our foreign policy disasters to the housing bubble to the rate of out-of-wedlock births, can be traced to the impulse to emphasize one particular element of traditional Christianity—one insight, one doctrine, one teaching or tradition—at the expense of all the others. The goal is always progress: a belief system that’s simpler or more reasonable, more authentic or more up-to-date. Yet the results often vindicate the older Christian synthesis. Heresy sets out to be simpler and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme.

[M]ost Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. . . .
Both doubters and believers stand to lose if religion in the age of heresy turns out to be complicit in our fragmented communities, our collapsing families, our political polarization, and our weakened social ties. Both doubters and believers will inevitably suffer from a religious culture that supplies more moral license than moral correction, more self-satisfaction than self-examination, more comfort than chastisement. . . .
Many of the overlapping crises in American life . . . can be traced to the impulse to emphasize one particular element of traditional Christianity—one insight, one doctrine, one teaching or tradition—at the expense of all the others. The goal is always progress: a belief system that’s simpler or more reasonable, more authentic or more up-to-date. Yet the results often vindicate the older Christian synthesis. Heresy sets out to be simpler and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme. . . .
The boast of Christian orthodoxy . . . has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. . . .
These [heretical] simplifications have usually required telling a somewhat different story about Jesus than the one told across the books of the New Testament. Sometimes this retelling has involved thinning out the Christian canon, eliminating tensions by subtracting them. . . . More often, though, it’s been achieved by straightforwardly rewriting or even inventing crucial portions of the New Testament account. . . .
“Religious man was born to be saved,” [Philip Rieff] wrote, but “psychological man is born to be pleased.” . . .
In 2005, . . . . Smith and Denton found no evidence of real secularization among their subjects: 97 percent of teenagers professed some sort of belief in the divine, 71 percent reported feeling either “very” or “somewhat” close to God, and the vast majority self-identified as Christian. There was no sign of deep alienation from their parents’ churches, no evidence that the teenagers in the survey were poised to convert outright to Buddhism or Islam, and no sign that real atheism was making deep inroads among the young.
But neither was there any evidence of a recognizably orthodox Christian faith. “American Christianity,” Smith and Denton suggested, is “either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself,” or else is “actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.” They continued: “Most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it.” . . .
An ego that’s never wounded, never trammeled or traduced—and that’s taught to regard its deepest impulses as the promptings of the divine spirit—can easily turn out to be an ego that never learns sympathy, compassion, or real wisdom. And when contentment becomes an end unto itself, the way that human contents express themselves can look an awful lot like vanity and decadence. . . .
For all their claims to ancient wisdom, there’s nothing remotely countercultural about the Tolles and Winfreys and Chopras. They’re telling an affluent, appetitive society exactly what it wants to hear: that all of its deepest desires are really God’s desires, and that He wouldn’t dream of judging.
This message encourages us to justify our sins by spiritualizing them. . . .
Our vaunted religiosity is real enough, but our ostensible Christian piety doesn’t have the consequences a casual observer might expect. . . . We nod to God, and then we do as we please.

Since the first settlers arrived in Jamestown and Plymouth, our common life has been shaped by a succession of fascinating, only-in-America faiths: the chilly Deism of the eighteenth century and the warm metaphysical bath of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism; the Mormon theocracy of the nineteenth century and the New Age movements of the 1960s; Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science and L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology; and many, many more. But

That’s because America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.

The faces and partisan affiliations change, in other words, but the song remains the same. The party in power hero-worships its leaders (recall the evangelical kitsch-art showing Bush praying in the snow with the ghosts of Washington and Lincoln, or Will.I.Am’s worshipful YouTube hymns to the glories of “the One”), and the other party turns them into hate figures. The party in power claims to be restoring American greatness; the party out of power insists that the current administration is actually deeply un-American—heretics in the holy temple of the U.S.A., you might say—and promises to take our country back. The party in power piles on new military commitments and new domestic programs, which the party out of power bitterly opposes right up until the moment that it takes power itself. Meanwhile America’s commitments keep on multiplying, the tide of red ink keeps rising, and the country keeps cycling through savior figures, hoping each time that this one will be the One that we’ve been waiting for.

The most successful Christian-influenced reform movements have transcended partisan divisions, finding supporters in both political parties instead of being associated with just one. (Tellingly, the one great cause that didn’t transcend ideological divisions, the antislavery movement, required a bloody civil war to win its victory.) The

The physical vanity of the diet-and-exercise obsessive is recast as the pursuit of a kind of ritual purity, hedged about with taboos and guilt trips and mysticized by yoga.

There are seven deadly sins, not just one, and Christianity's understanding of marriage and chastity is intimately bound to its views on gluttony, avarice and pride. (Recall that in the Inferno, Dante consigns gluttons, misers, and spendthrifts to lower circles of hell than adulterers and fornicators.)

The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul. Along the way, both sides have embraced a wildly simplified vision of our culture, in which the children of light contend with the children of darkness, and every inch of ground is claimed by absolute truth or deplorable error. The

The result is a nation where gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends, and where professional caregivers minister, like seraphim around the throne, to the needs of people taught from infancy to look inside themselves for God. Therapeutic religion promises contentment, but in many cases it seems to deliver a sort of isolation that’s at once comfortable and terrible—leaving us alone with the universe, alone with the God Within.

The stringency of Christianity’s sexual teachings gets most of the press, but the commandment against avarice, if taken seriously, can be the faith’s most difficult by far. You can wall yourself off from pornography and avoid people who tempt you into adultery, but everybody has to work—and every day in the workplace is a potential occasion of sin.

To this end, they stressed ethics rather than eschatology; social reform rather than confessional debate; symbolic and allegorical interpretations of the Bible rather than more literal readings. Their great project was the Social Gospel, which urged believers to embrace an “applied Christianity” that would put Jesus’ commandments into practice here and now, through legislation as well as conversion, law as well as grace. Some aspects of modernism were compatible with traditional Christianity,

What he felt during his Spanish encounter with left-wing anti-Christianity was similar to his reactions to the anti-Christianity of the right. The "novelty and shock of the Nazis", Auden wrote, and the blitheness with which Hitler's acolytes dismissed Christianity "on the grounds that to love one's neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings", pushed him inexorably toward unavoidable questions. "If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?" The answer to this question, he wrote later, was part of what "brought me back to the church.