I am anxious to read this book, as I think that the author has hit on something. I wonder though, if he will give due credit to theological liberalism that has done more to destroy the European and North American church than any other force. If one considers the role liberalism has played in the dismissal of Biblical authority on matters of life (abortion and euthanasia), sexuality, marriage, economics, politics, etc., it becomes clear that religious liberalism is the problem of the 20th century in the Western Church.
Q&A: Author Ross Douthat says the U.S. is turning to ‘bad religion’
Charles Lewis May 11, 2012 – 9:21 PM ET | Last Updated: May 12, 2012 8:03 AM ET
Lucas Jackson/Reuters files
Ross Douthat writes that after the decline of mainstream churches, the U.S. turned to extreme spiritual philosophies, such as those espoused by Oprah Winfrey.
There was a time when institutional Christianity was at the centre of American life because it stayed above partisan politics. A Christian leader could be a Republican or a Democrat, conservative or a liberal. A Martin Luther King and a Billy Graham could both promote civil rights and appeal to those of all political stripes. Religion provided a check on personal behaviour by promoting prudence and a moral compass that helped keep the nation healthy. But in the past several decades something went wrong, writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in his latest book, Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics. The centre began to crumble as the sexual revolution, globalization and increased wealth led to the decline of the mainstream churches. In its place emerged a nation that turned to the extremes: from Glenn Beck to Oprah Winfrey. Yes, that Oprah. The queen of self-actualization, says Mr. Douthat, preaches a brand of spirituality that is self-centred, destructive and parasitic. National Post religion reporter Charles Lewis spoke this week to Mr. Douthat, who was in his office in Washington.
Q: What is your definition of “bad religion?”
A: Bad religion may actually seem more logical than traditional Christianity because it does away with some of the paradoxes and mysteries inherent in the faith. It takes one element of the traditional Christian synthesis and promotes it at the expense of all others. But it ends up failing to do justice to the complexity of human existence and as a result having unfortunate consequences for the way people live their lives and for society as whole.
Q: You say Americans are “God haunted.” Are you saying that even in an era of bad religion, people feel God looming over their shoulders?
A: I think that’s true. One of the underlying themes of the book is because man is by nature a religious animal the decline of one form of religious faith is not necessarily doing away with the religious impulse. It ends up finding expressions in other ways, some of it exclusively religious and some spiritual and some political.
Q: What about when that impulse moves to politics?
A: When religious institutions are weak, as they are now, people with strong religious impulses are more likely to pour that fervour into politics. I argue that this take two forms — messianic and apocalyptic. Both are mirror-image heresies. It can take a messianic form where you assume that politics is the mechanism for bringing about the kingdom of heaven on Earth. This has always been the liberal temptation: to basically assume you can overcome human nature through political reform and bring the New Jerusalem down to Earth yourself. Look at the Barack Obama campaign in 2008 and its quasi-religious air: Magazine covers showed Obama with halos on his head and you had celebrities singing for him on YouTube. He had a messianic style.
Q: What is an example of the apocalyptic style?
A: Glenn Beck. Obama’s messianic campaign prompted an apocalyptic backlash and Beck’s popularity was the most obvious expression of that form. The apocalyptic temptation is that the kingdom of heaven has already been brought down to earth and it’s your political enemies who are taking it away. And that’s what you saw from Beck. He went beyond a healthy Christian patriotism to an almost idolatry of the American founding and this became part of his broader narrative in which his political opponents were not only wrong but evil.
Q: Why did you choose Billy Graham and Martin Luther King to write about?
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Previous U.S. religious leaders like Martin Luther King and Billy Graham could both appeal to those of all political stripes.
A: One of the criticisms made of the book is that people say I over-romanticize the era of King and Graham. And clearly there was polarization in that era as well … not every religious group was holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Graham did some courageous things on integration but he also said some evasive and cowardly things. Certainly he wasn’t always on the same page as King in that era. But that being said, I do think in the civil rights movement, religion related to the culture as a whole and there was a sense that it was easier in that era for religious figures to be influential in a way that transcended partisan divisions. Look at today when the [Roman] Catholic bishops come out against abortion. The assumption is they are siding with the Republican party. At mid-century it was easier for religious figures to present a message that was Christian first and then liberal or conservative second.
Q: How important was it that neither man had political ambition?
A: Even though Graham was more associated with a more right-wing politics and King with a more left-wing politics, they were different figures than say, a Pat Robertson or Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. It’s important to imagine how different mid-century would have been if Graham had tried to win America for Christ by running for president as a Republican, as Robertson did, or if King had repeatedly challenged for the Democratic nomination, as Jackson did.
Q: You say the sexual revolution was one of the triggers that helped erode the mainstream churches as more people became uncomfortable with Christian teachings about sex. Most people will get that. But you also cite the increase in personal wealth as a factor, too. But isn’t upward mobility part of the American dream? How did it become a factor in eroding mainstream religious institutions?
A: I’m a political conservative and a defender of capitalism. Of all the arrangements that we can make in a fallen world, capitalism is the one that has generated the most freedom and wealth. But it’s important for Christians to recognize that capitalist culture and the words of the New Testament rub against each other in sometimes uncomfortable ways. In an era of great wealth I don’t think it’s surprising that the message of an orthodox Christianity resonates a little less strongly than in eras of greater material privation. The idea that it’s harder for a “rich man to enter heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” and “blessed are the poor in spirit” can seem less relevant in a time of great personal wealth.
Q: Is that what divides a Billy Graham from a prosperity gospel proponent like Joel Osteen?
A: Graham was able to combine a spirit of inclusion with a spirit of judgment, which obviously is a very tricky thing to do. The genius of Graham was he could stand up and preach a very stark simple Christian message, emphasizing his audience’s sinfulness and the need for repentance and the need to turn to Christ. Osteen’s genius is purely inclusive. Osteen’s message can be very inspiring and sometimes you need to hear that God loves you. But for Osteen that’s the entirety of his message. And there’s no room in that message for the possibility of real human sinfulness and real repentance. There’s no room in that message for the existence of suffering. Osteen’s message is that all people have to do is pray a little harder or have more faith in God and he will take their suffering away — and then also bless them with a big car and big house. That’s the point of having a cross hanging over a church: to offer a reminder that Jesus himself suffered and there are ways to live with suffering that don’t involve waiting for God to take it away.
Q: A chapter in Bad Religion is called “The God Within.” You describe it as a movement whose practitioners, like Oprah, stress that feeling good and self-actualization is the most important goal in life. It is also the furthest thing from orthodox Christianity. What is the problem with this kind of spirituality?
A: It’s the idea that you need to encounter God primarily within yourself and the highest form of your self may be actually identical to God. Elizabeth Gilbert popularized this in her book Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. So the only God that matters is the one you encounter within and you don’t have to consider other authorities, you don’t have to listen to a church and you don’t have to test your own experiences against scripture, religious authority, dogma and tradition. But it’s very tempting to listen to the voice within and assume that it’s God when really it’s your ego or libido.
Q: Are spiritual philosophies like Oprah’s dangerous to the nation? Is there a link to the risks Americans took on mortgages they could not afford?
A: The religious figures most people are likely to listen to today are not providing a check on people’s worst impulses that a better form of religion would provide. [It became OK] to elevate one’s short-term happiness at the expense of long-term interest of their families and communities. The problem for Americans was that we were trying to get rich and made foolhardy decisions along the way. And that’s where I think the Christian emphasis is most important for the wellbeing of society: it’s good to have a certain suspicion of material ambition and a knowledge that material ambitions often come to grief.
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