The decline of orthodox Christianity (I)  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

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 The invention of the Pill and the embrace of casual sex have made orthodoxy’s teaching on sexuality seem hopelessly outdated.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.)

This entry was posted at Monday, July 30, 2012 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



I'm not sure how to comment because I think I'm lacking a frame of reference in the discussion. The questions that run through my head at this point are:
1. What is "orthodox Christianity" as you see it?
2. When was it initiated/reinstated (yes, at the death and resurrection of Christ, but historically, what's your view)?
3. When was it at its zenith?
4. What influences were there that brought about the "zenith" that we no longer enjoy?
4. How widespread is this decline (national or worldwide)?

September 8, 2012 at 9:51 PM

Ok, you answered one of the questions in your post and I missed it; North America. I do tend to agree that we've been a hotbed for heresy. Freedom of religion that Christians are so adamant about also logically implies the right to be wrong. It would seem reasonable that every person in a free world must maintain that view to some extent, at least, if we're to maintain the freedom we cherish. I do find it interesting that some evangelicals are questioning whether or not they even should vote for Mr. Romney, being a Mormon. I have to wonder about a hallmark of American philosophy that I heard promoted in both public school and my staunch Baptist church. How does this align with "separation of church and state"? Of course, this isn't the main point of the discussion, but it is an interesting parenthesis. I do apologize for not reading more carefully.

September 8, 2012 at 10:01 PM

Sorry for not responding earlier--trying to steward my time around a series of deadlines.

I am sorry this was not clearer. I am using these terms, as Douthat does in his book, to refer to the loss of cultural authority and attractiveness suffered by Christianity in the US (primarily and in the West more widely) in the latter half of the 20th century. In this usage and discussion, historic orthodoxy is best defined as "mere Christianity" or that which accords with the Apostles Creed. The decline is therefore the loss of cultural standing, which also parallels, Douthat argues, with a blossoming of various heresies.

My primary interest in this is not a tracing of Christian belief over centuries, nor identifying various heresies or heterodoxies. I am more interested in how those of us who find historic orthodox faith (say in the tradition of Augustine and Calvin and Kuyper, where I am located) compelling, should live and think since we find ourselves in a society where Christian faith is usually imagined to be implausible, unattractive, and on the defensive. What do we see, in addition to Douthat's sociological analysis, as causing the decline and what shape should our faithfulness take in such a setting.

Hope this clarifies things a bit.
Would love to know your reflections on this.

September 14, 2012 at 1:21 PM

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