In his provocative new book, Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat argues that heresy has always found a home in America. Our insistence on religious freedom has always attracted sects and free thinkers who were not accepted in places that had state churches, and a frontier mentality lent a wild aspect to life that extended to personal beliefs and values. What has changed in recent decades, Douthat says, is that the institutions and persons who represent and seek to defend historic Christian orthodoxy have fallen out of favor. No longer do they speak with cultural authority, and no longer is orthodoxy viewed as an attractive option in a pluralized world.
In the process of his discussion, Douthat lists five “proximate causes of Christianity’s decline” (p. 65-82). Though his examination is far richer than my too-brief notes here—I recommend his book, as it will make you think—Douthat’s list includes:
Political polarization. Though America’s political process has always contained its share of rancor, the past few decades have witnessed a sharp uptick. In the past, major religious voices have commented on important issues facing society, but rarely in such a sharply partisan manner as we see today in the public square
The sexual revolution. The invention of the Pill and the embrace of casual sex have made orthodoxy’s teaching on sexuality seem hopelessly outdated. Most Christians, lacking a robustly biblical theology of the body meant their response has been primarily negative, a judgmental imposition of law and rules at a time when religious authority is deemed suspect by increasing numbers of people, believers and unbelievers alike.
Global perspective. As our world has become increasingly pluralized, it has become increasingly difficult to defend the exclusive claims of orthodox Christian faith. As the world has moved in next door, the exotic nature of spirituality found in other traditions and world religions have become available for experimentation and adoption.
The religious consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth. The economic uncertainty we sense at present is a novel experience, and long years of rising living standards, comfort, and self-confidence have eaten away at the foundations of faith. Except for personal salvation, many orthodox Christians would be hard pressed to identify any area of life in which they actually “walk by faith.”
Class. As elite centers of higher education turned from orthodoxy, the educated classes moving into leadership positions in commerce, politics, the media, and education began to see orthodoxy as primitive. Rather than needing to demonstrate it as false, it increasingly can be dismissed with the cynicism of those who feel themselves above and beyond such things.
Add all of these cultural influences together, Douthat argues, and orthodox Christian faith rather quickly turned defensive and reactive, appearing increasingly unattractive by the end of the 20th century. Other commentators and scholars might come up with a slightly different list, but I suspect theirs will need to include the cultural upheavals represented in the social forces Douthat has identified.
I’d be very interested in hearing, in the Comments you leave, what you think of Douthat’s list.
(In part two of this blog post, I’ll list a few things that seem to me have added to the decline from inside the world of evangelical Christianity.)