Ross Douthat’s thesis is that Christian orthodoxy is in decline in the United States. His is not the familiar story of irreligion replacing religion, however. Instead, he posits a culture in which many declare themselves to be Christian, but actually hold a set of beliefs not recognizable as such.
To say that heresy has taken hold among professing Christians, one might expect Douthat to say first what orthodoxy is, and then contrast it with heretical beliefs. In short, a work of theology. But that is not precisely what this book is. Instead, Douthat is able to cite to the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, and demonstrate that even those do not hold sway among self-described Christians. That he can do so suggests that the heresy is more profound than we are prone to recognize. The belief systems passing as Christian do not require high-concept parsing by gray-bearded seminarians. Douthat describes a disconnect at street level, so to speak. Moreover, the prevalent deviations from orthodoxy are identifiable as coherent systems of belief, and they cannot be fairly described as Christian.
So, what are Douthat’s basic dogmas of the faith? Or, borrowing from C.S. Lewis as Douthat does, what constitutes “mere” Christianity? Christ’s incarnation and atonement, the trinity, the virgin birth, the forgiveness of sins, and the possibility of eternal life. It includes a belief in the divine inspiration and authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, with no additional revelations and nothing “papered over” or rejected. It includes an adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and development from it. It includes commitment to the creeds of the ancient world.
Douthat first points out that what has gone missing in recent days is the very idea that there is such a thing as orthodox doctrine, the content of which is to be asserted by the church. Further, that it is the appropriate task of the church(es) to insist upon and promulgate those doctrines to which it holds. The jumping-off place for modern heresy is the idea that no church has such authority, and that beliefs are something that every believer can and should develop for himself.
Now the heresies; or rather, the families of heresies. One, a liberalizing of American Christianity among mainline churches, whereby “accommodationist” theologians steered the churches toward adoption of secularist ideology, arguing for example that “The Gospel does not call man to return to a previous stage of his development,” as Harvey Cox wrote in his 1965 book, The Secular City. Douthat brilliantly traces this evolution.
Two, prosperity theology. Douthat has much to say about Joel Osteen as one of its more sophisticated proponents. Aside from being a departure from what the Bible actually teaches, this way of thinking is pernicious because it moves our attention from eternity to the here-and-now.
Three, the “God Within” beliefs. These are numerous, and Douthat identifies many, showing their common thread in the views that organized religions offer only partial glimpses of spirituality; that to be more spiritual, one must emphasize feeling rather than reason and experience rather than dogma; that God resides somehow within the soul of man; and that sin and death and evil will ultimately be reconciled rather than defeated. Douthat traces this evolution from Emerson and the Transcendentalists, to Deepak Chopra, Paul Coelho, and Oprah. The most convincing manifestation of this trend is what some have dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a more realistic name for what self-described Christians actually believe.
Four, nationalism in the form of a civic religion that enjoys a level of devotion akin to that which was once reserved for genuine Christian belief. It is the conflation of religious enthusiasm with the faith in American exceptionalism. The erasing of lines between religious orthodoxy and political belief. (Compare Peter Hitchens’ observations on this subject, in his book reviewed here).
(See, Bad Religion/How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat (Free Press, 2012))