The nation I love and honor seems to be disintegrating into a place I hardly recognize: The dress standards, the language, the disrespect, the lack of motivation and self-reliance, the “what’s in it for me” mentality, the blatant political partisanship on any and every subject…and in the most recent years the purposeful destruction of innocent lives. How can we in just five decades evolve from a nation focused on family, God, self-reliance, and a strong moral compass, to a society that is focusing it’s efforts on destroying the family, a government that encourages free handouts, right is called wrong, wrong is called right, and religion is looked at as a crutch for the weak?
I recently read a review of Ross Douthat’s book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” Obviously Douthat has more insight and understanding on the subject than I do. I found his explanation fascinating.
Douthat, now a New York Times columnist contends, “America doesn’t suffer from excessive or insufficient religion, but from bad religion that exacerbates rather than heals our sociopolitical ills.” Douthat writes that the “slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities” have been disastrous for the nation.
Where Religious conviction used to include commitment to the Trinity…, the Ten Commandments, a “rejection of violence,” a “deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power,” and a “stress on chastity,” many in our society have found that heresy is simpler and much easier to live. If it feels right to the individual, then it is right. Moral demands are irrelevant.
Douthat writes about the years following World War II and the horror of the Holocaust. These historical events exposed the weaknesses of secular humanism. True humanism, the nation saw, “needed to be grounded in something higher than a purely material account of the universe, and in something more compelling than the hope of a secular utopia.” Only religious premises could adequately support and give understanding to “basic liberal concepts like equality and human rights.” As a result, there was at mid-century a revival of robust Christianity. Church attendance was up, clergy were held in high esteem, religious schools, hospitals and churches were constructed at record paces. Even popular culture was onboard, with movies like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments.
Douthat focuses on four key figures who embody this spirit—Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—”a Protestant intellectual, an Evangelical preacher, a Catholic bishop, and an African-American prophet.” Each leader had both a distinct community and the nationally respected authority to promote models of Christian orthodoxy for the modern world. The result, Douthat argues, is that “both institutionally and intellectually, American Christianity at midcentury offered believers a relatively secure position from which to engage with society as a whole.”
All of that fell apart in the 1960s and ’70s. Church membership peaked, and then rapidly declined. Douthat identifies five causes for the institutional collapse:
“1. Political polarization (first Vietnam, then abortion, now everything),
2. The sexual revolution (“a large swath of America decided that two millennia of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality were simply out of date”),
3. An increasingly global perspective (multiculturalism leading to relativism and then indifference),
4. Ever-growing wealth (a prosperous people rely less on God, and religious vocations become less appealing),
5. A new class divide (elites showering scorn on traditional religion).”
Churches tried their best to accommodate this new trend of thinking by making Christianity relevant by eliminating its unfashionable ethics and values. Predictably, churches accommodating the world had less to offer it, and people stopped seeing the point of attending.
Douthat explains that one influence that the “modern thinker” bought into was Elizabeth Gilbert’s beliefs published in her book Eat, Pray, Love. Her book peddles the “God Within” theology: “God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” Douthat notes, “trying to remake ourselves “in the image of God” this is not. Why search for God in ancient texts when he is really inside each of us?”
Ironically, this search for happiness from within ends up leaving us “more isolated, lonelier, and more depressed.” Americans pay hundreds of thousands of therapists to listen to us whine about “everyday life problems.”
The God Within certainly doesn’t confine our behavior. The “promptings of one’s inner self aren’t necessarily identical to the promptings of the Holy Spirit,” Douthat writes. “Sometimes the God Within isn’t God at all, but just the ego or the libido, using spirituality as a convenient gloss for its own desires and impulses.” How sad when a society thinks that the only commandment we should adhere to is “Don’t be a jerk.”
The end result:
“A nation of narcissists turns out to be a nation of gamblers and speculators, gluttons and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough.”
Douthat suggests four reasons for hope:
“1. The rootlessness of our postmodern age will finally motivate a return to Christian orthodoxy’s satisfying account of human origins and destiny;
2. Our culture’s corruption will accelerate the growth of communities of virtue;
3. The flame of faith will fan out from the increasingly Christian global South;
4. The new millennium’s various crises may well revive faith, as the ravages of war did before.”
All this, Ross Douthat insists, will require a faith that is “political without being partisan,” “ecumenical but also confessional,” “moralistic but also holistic,” and “oriented toward sanctity and beauty.” As Douthat pleads, “only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.”