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In the years following World War II, traditional religious institutions flourished: more than half of all Americans attended weekly church services, and 70 percent were formally affiliated. Religion dominated public discourse and helped propel the civil rights movement. But the culture wars of the 1960s triggered a downward spiral for mainstream Christianity that has continued to the present day. In a new book, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that this loss of a traditional, Christian center is at the heart of America’s current crisis. He says we’ve become a nation of heretics and explains what that means for our future.
- Ross Douthat Op-ed columnist for The New York Times and author of "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics."
Polls consistently show that large majorities of Americans classify themselves as religious, but the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990. In a new book, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues this rejection of traditional religion in favor of so-called pray and grow rich churches and spiritual journey-seeking has dire consequences for American society. Douthat’s new book is titled “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.”
More Americans Don’t Identify With A Specific Religion
Douthat said that the social scientist Robert Putnam has called this phenomenon of Americans not identifying with a specific religion “the rise of the nones.” Some people see this as a real sign of secularization. “This is a sign that more and more people are just post-religious,” Douthat said.
Is Politicization Of Religion A Reason For Alienation?
There’s a perception now that “…to be a Christian is to be a Republican, right. Or that to be involved in the Episcopal Church means having endless fights over homosexuality and property disputes and so on,” Douthat said. The real challenge for religious people is that it’s not enough to say, “Let’s get religion out of politics,” he said. There has always been and always has to be room in American life for healthy expressions of religion and politics “that challenges making sure that religion influences partisanship rather than partisanship influencing religion,” Douthat said, which he believes is a “tricky thing to pull off.”
A Failure Of Institutional Religion
Institutional churches must “get their houses in order,” Douthat said. That being said, it’s too simplistic to point the finger at corrupt clergymen, the corrupt hierarch, and so on, he said. Diane pointed out that going to church won’t solve the economic and social problems the U.S. is having right now. Douthat countered that going to church “can provide a useful corrective to the idea that the best way to live out your spiritual life is to sort of match your spirituality to your own impulses,” he said.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Polls consistently show that large majorities of Americans classify themselves as religious, but the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990. In a new book, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues this rejection of traditional religion in favor of so-called pray and grow rich churches and spiritual journey-seeking has dire consequences for American society.
MS. DIANE REHMDouthat's new book is titled "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." Ross Douthat joins me in the studio. I'm looking forward to hearing your comments as well. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us email to email@example.com Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning Ross it's good to have you here.
MR. ROSS DOUTHATGood morning, Diane, thank you so much for having me.
REHMMy pleasure, Ross. You said the idea for this book came to you late in the Bush administration. There was a debate going on between religious people and the so-called new atheists. Tell me about that.
DOUTHATWell, if you remember, Diane, after the 2004 election when President Bush won very narrowly over John Kerry, there were some polls that came out and I think they were actually slightly dubious polls, but they showed that moral values had been the crucial factor in putting Bush over the top.
DOUTHATAnd as I remember it, at least, this inspired a kind of obsession among a lot of liberals with the idea that, you know, the religious right was on the march. America was on the verge of turning into a theocracy. There were actually books with titles like "American Theocracy" and so on. And I think out of that liberal anxiety, there was a big wave of books both sort of critical of Christianity, but then especially books by writers like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on that made the case against faith in general.
DOUTHATAnd this, in turn, produced a period when it seemed like everybody wanted to argue about the existence of God, right? You know, it would be Hitchens up on a podium with some bishop and Dawkins up on a podium with some Christian intellectual and so on. And that was a fascinating debate. Obviously, the debate over the existence of God is one of the most interesting ones there is.
DOUTHATBut watching it and sometimes writing about it and participating in it, I felt like it was setting up a kind of binary where America was either a Christian country or a secular country, right? We were either going to be dominated by Christian conservatism or the new atheism. And I felt like the real story of American religion was much more complicated than that certainly, but that there was this. We were actually, as a country, in this kind of middle zone that over the last four or five decades, we've lived through the steady decline of institutional Christianity.
DOUTHATThe mainline Protestant churches have declined steeply. My own Catholic church has sort of staggered from crisis to crisis ever since Vatican II. But at the same time, even as the institutional churches have declined in the country, you know, if you dig into polling and ask people, do you believe in God? Have you had a personal experience of the divine? Do you pray? Do you believe in miracles? And so on.
DOUTHATThe country isn't just still as religious as ever, it may be more religious than ever. So we're less traditionally Christian, but we're not actually secular, so what are we? And the somewhat provocative answer of my subtitle...
DOUTHAT...is that we're a nation of heretics. And obviously calling someone a heretic, it's a very loaded term, but I think it's actually a very useful term because it describes forms -- in this case, forms of religion that are still so heavily influenced by Christianity that it doesn't make sense to call them a new religion, right? We're not becoming a nation of Muslims or Hindus or Buddists, even though...
REHMSo how do you define heretic?
DOUTHATI define heretic as a believer who is, as I was saying, is still sufficiently influenced by Christianity in their beliefs that they haven't entered a new religious tradition altogether, but they depart in some, I think, very significant way from the historic core of Christian faith. So let me give you an example, right?
DOUTHATIn the introduction, you mentioned pray and grow rich theology, right, which figures -- I mean, the figure I start out with in that chapter is Joel Osteen, this tremendously popular preacher whose message, it's not always sort of baldly pray and grow rich, but it certainly implies that pretty strongly. That, you know, if you are sort of in tune with God's purposes for your life, if you know how to ask God for the right things in prayer, then nothing, not the big house, not the big car, nothing is impossible for you.
DOUTHATAnd I think that, you know, Osteen is operating in many ways out of the Christian tradition. He draws on the Bible. He talks about Jesus Christ and so on, but that idea that God mostly wants to shower riches on believers, I think, is sufficiently distant from the traditional emphasis, the traditional Christian emphasis on a suspicion of great wealth, right, and the idea that God sends you blessings, but sometimes he says, you know, blessed are the poor.
DOUTHATSometimes he says, take up your cross and follow me, that it's fair to call that a heresy of Christianity. But one of the points I stress in the book is that heresy in and of itself isn't a bad thing, that one of the geniuses of religion in America is that we've always had sort of people doing do it yourself religion, new sects springing up, you know, whether it's the Mormans and Jehovah's Witnesses or the Christian Scientists in the 19th century.
DOUTHATWhat's different about our era isn't the presence of heresy, it's the absence of a strong institutional counterweight. The heretics basically have the field to themselves. So my story is not necessarily a story of sort of heresy conquering, it's almost a story of orthodoxy collapsing.
REHMYou know, it's interesting when I saw the word heretics there, it occurred to me that what you were writing was that these non-believers -- and you're not really talking about non-believers. These non-believers are pushing against religion, but what they're not doing is pushing against God.
DOUTHATYes. I think you mentioned again at the top of the show these numbers showing that more and more Americans don't identify with any specific religion. And I think the great social scientist Robert Putnam has called this the rise of the nones, people who say they have, you know, they no longer identify as Methodists or Presbyterians and so on. And you can see that, and some people do, as a sign of real secularization, right? This is a sign that more and more people are just post-religious.
DOUTHATBut then, if you poll the nones, right, you say, well, what do you believe about God? Meaning and the universe and so on. Some of them are actually atheists, but not that many.
DOUTHATMost of them have some kind of religious belief and often they, you know, I think often they're getting sort of spiritually nourished, not by going to their local, again, Methodist or Presbyterian or Catholic church, but by going to the religion and self-help section in their local, well, no longer Borders because it's gone, but at least their local Barnes and Noble and buying books. You know, books by writers like Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra or Elizabeth Gilbert, whose book "Eat, Pray, Love" I spent a fair amount of time on.
DOUTHATAnd I think that kind of spirituality, I mean, in a way I'm very critical of it, obviously, the title of this book is "Bad Religion." But I also, I think, try and take it a little more seriously than sort of theologically, than people sometimes do. I think there is a real and quite interesting theological message in a book like "Eat, Pray, Love" and it's an important factor in sort of how Americans think about God and the universe and their moral lives today.
REHMSo then why does a book like "Eat, Pray, Love" constitute bad religion?
DOUTHATWell, the critique I make of Gilbert's book and what I more broadly call God within theology, right, which is the idea that the best way to experience the divine is through prayer and meditation, which, again, are traditional, religious ideas, but that this will bring you into contact with the God who resides sort of at the seat of yourself, in your innermost being, your sort of highest thought.
DOUTHATAnd this language pervades not only writers like Gilbert, but writers like Neale Donald Walsch who wrote "Conversations with God," which was a bestseller five or ten years ago and many of the other writers I've written about. And again, this idea that, you know, that you can find sort of God within yourself and that there is sort of a voice inside yourself that sometimes is the voice of God. This is an idea that's found in Christian mystical traditions and also Jewish, Muslim and Eastern mystical traditions as well.
DOUTHATThe danger that you get into is that if you don't have any sort of institutional faith, right, to sort of balance against the voice you hear from inside yourself, if you don't test your mystical experiences against some larger tradition either, you know, that includes, let's say, moral commandments and sort of a structure for thinking about, you know, how God wants you to behave, then the temptation will always be to just assume that anything you hear from inside yourself is the voice of God and that can be a spur to narcissism, to self-indulgence, to saying, oh, it's the voice of God, when really it's the voice of your ego or your libido.
REHMAll right. Let me take for just a moment a sense of challenge because it does seem to me that, and we can talk more about this after the break, that people have moved away from that practice of traditional churchgoing because of the politics, because of what's happened to the Roman Catholic Church with its scandals, the Episcopal Church with its arguments over property, the Hebrew faith with its arguments over Jerusalem and people want peace and maybe find it within.
REHMRoss Douthat is here. He's a columnist for the New York Times. He's written a very provocative new book titled "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." And if you've heard the first portion of the program, you've heard him talk about the number of people who have fallen away from institutional church involvement, church going.
REHMI myself told him that I go, from time to time, to the Washington National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C. I always feel great after I leave there. And yet at the same time, I pray every morning. I pray on my way to work. I look at a tree and pray. I look at the homeless person and pray. And yet you're saying to me that the involvement in institutional religion is the important factor.
DOUTHATWell, I think it's an important factor, yes. I'm not arguing that there isn't real religious experience -- I mean, we were talking about Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love" before. And one of the reasons I find that book so fascinating is that I think her religious experience is entirely authentic. I think it's, you know, she goes on a sort of religious quest. She ends up in India in an Ashram. She has very evocative descriptions of what mystical experience feels like. And so the book isn't just some sort of corny self-help book filled with platitudes. It's a book about real lived religious experience.
DOUTHATBut at the same time, as I was saying before, that experience needs a context and it needs to be tested against things. It needs to be tested against disciplines and authorities and wisdom that's outside yourself. There's a moment in these books that I mentioned before, "The Conversation with God" by Neale Donald Walsch where a guy sort of, you know, he has a sort of mystical back and forth with the god he finds within.
DOUTHATAnd that god says, if there comes a moment when your personal experience of god conflicts with what your teachers have told you, that what an authority has told you, ignore those teachers, ignore that authority and listen to the voice. And sometimes that's true, but sometimes it's not because sometimes that voice isn't really God and sometimes your teacher or your authority has something to say to you.
DOUTHATBut you brought up before the break, politics, Diane. And you made the point that for a lot of people what's alienated them from religion is the feeling that it's highly politicized. That to be a Christian is to be a Republican, right. Or that to be involved in the Episcopal Church means having endless fights over homosexuality and property disputes and so on. And I think that that's absolutely true.
DOUTHATOne of the things I try and do in the book is look at sort of, well, what are the factors leading to institutional decline. And one of the factors is the way that partisan polarization in American life, which is a factor, something we talk about all the time across the board, not just when we're talking about religion, has sort of bled into religion. So there is this sense that, well, if you're a liberal, you can't be a Christian because they are sort of crazy and bigoted and hate women and so on. And if you're a Christian you can't be a liberal because they're secular and, you know, they want to persecute Christians and so on.
DOUTHATBut the challenge here, and it's a real challenge for religious people in particular, is that it's not enough to say, well, we need to get religion out of politics. Because if you do that, you don't just throw out, let's say, Jerry Falwell. You also have to throw out Martin Luther King. There has to be room, and there always has been in American life, for healthy expressions of religion and politics that challenges making sure that religion influences partisanship rather than partisanship influencing religion. And that's a tricky thing to pull off.
REHMAnd let me take you back. The first part of the book talks about the rise and fall of institutional Christianity in America. What was it like in the heyday of American Christian institutions?
DOUTHATWell, I start the book in the 1940s and '50s, which was a period of what we think of as the post war revival which was a sort of popular revival of religion. You had more people in church, more churches being built. People were moving out to the suburbs so they were building more churches as they went. But it was also a kind of heyday for intellectual faith as well. It was a moment -- you know, you always hear people today talking about, well, why don't we have a Reinhold Neibuhr anymore, the, you know, great Protestant theologian?
DOUTHATAnd, you know, sometimes that can be a sort of silly nostalgia, but I think some of that nostalgia is justified. There really was an era that produced great public theologians, a lot of great Christian literature, whether it was C. S. Lewis or Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and so on. And it was a moment when the way Christians engaged with politics, I think particularly in the way the Civil Rights Movement played out, was a very healthy thing.
DOUTHATYou had an era when there was sort of a spirit of Christian convergence, right, where mainline Protestants, Catholics, obviously the black church at the center, but then also even Evangelical Christianity were all sort of moved by the rhetoric of Martin Luther King and appealed to Christian principles and so on. And it made it possible for the Civil Rights Movement to be something that we haven't really seen in American life recently, which is a kind of bipartisan religious movement.
DOUTHATCivil Rights Act passed with Republican and Democratic votes alike and it wasn't just associated with one faction or one political cause.
REHM...so when did you see things begin to change?
DOUTHATWell, it's very clear that in the '60s and '70s if you just look at sort of demographics, like how many people are going to church, how much money your church is raising, how many buildings are being built, there's this incredibly steep fall off. It's steepest in the mainline churches. It's pretty steep in certain ways in the Catholic Church. And evangelicalism sort of holds its own and grows actually sometimes fairly robustly but it isn't able to fill the void that's left by the decline of the mainline and the decline of the Catholic Church.
REHMAnd why did it do so?
DOUTHATWell, very quickly four reasons. The first is what we were just talking about, partisan polarization. We went from an era when you had Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, let's say, as sort of embodiments of Christian engagement with public life. They could be political, they were engaged with politics but they weren't necessarily defined as partisan figures to an era when -- think about their successors in the 1980s, Jesse Jackson on the left as sort of an heir to Martin Luther King, Pat Robertson on the right as an heir to Graham in certain ways. They run for president.
DOUTHATImagine if Martin Luther King and Billy Graham had run for president as partisan politicians. And that shift I think is, as you said before, profoundly important in sort of turning people off on the left and the right to religion. Then, sexual revolution. Everybody talks about it when they talk about religion. They're right to talk about it. It poses a big challenge to traditional Christian sexual ethics. You know, we were saying before that the core of Christianity has always emphasized poverty and sort of suspicion of wealth. It's also always emphasized chastity, monogamy and so on and, you know, just the invention of this reliable birth control pill alone creates a challenge for that ethic.
REHMAnd the divorce rate shoots up.
DOUTHATAnd so the divorce rate shoots up. I mean, today we have debates over gay marriage and homosexuality, and those are the flashpoints. But the original flashpoints were with heterosexuality and, you know, sort of the churches just sort of coming to terms with divorce rates that, frankly from a Christian perspective, were a scandal. So that's two factors, politics and sex.
DOUTHATThen you just have the wealth factor, the fact the country gets so much richer in the postwar era. And just as, you know, a more highly sexualized country challenges Christian sexual ethics, a richer country challenges Christianity's emphasis on renunciation. It's easier for the generation that came of age in the great depression to sort of hear The Sermon on the Mount and be attuned to it, I think, than for the generation that came of age in the really cornucopia and abundance of the postwar era.
DOUTHATAnd then finally globalization, decolonization, the fact that the world is suddenly brought to America on television screens I think creates a climate of sort of inevitable relativism where people say, well, how can -- you know, there are so many religions in the world. How can mine be the one true church? But what's fascinating about that is that even as that's happening in the west, in the areas that are actually being decolonized in Africa and Asia Christianity is growing.
DOUTHATSo it's this weird dynamic where the Christian colonizers, decolonization makes them suddenly more skeptical of their faith, whereas decolonization makes the colonized find Christianity more appealing 'cause it's no longer a white man's religion.
REHMAnd you talk about Christianity's response as being one of accommodation.
DOUTHATInitially, initially. In the '60s and '70s the first strong Christian response was a kind of liberal response that said, look the world's changing. You know, the sexual revolution's happened so we can't keep placing such a strong emphasis on, you know, sex and sort of traditional sexual teachings and chastity and so forth. The world is becoming more political so the church needs to be more political as well. And, you know, we need to be more relativistic and not claim that Christianity's just the one true church and so on.
DOUTHATAnd we need to essentially make Christianity a kind of faith of secular improvement, right, where the churches will be working to bring heaven to this earth rather than preaching heaven in the next life. And that was a response that was popular in Catholicism. It was very popular in the mainline churches. And there was an assumption this was the future, this is what Christianity had to do. The problem was that by sort of emptying Christianity of a lot of religious content that sort of accommodation-ist response didn't give people a reason to go to church, right?
DOUTHATIf all Christianity is about is being political, being kind to your neighbor, voting for Democratic politicians you can do that without getting up on Sunday morning. So that was the accommodation-ist response. But it didn't work because it turned out that people still, you know, they still -- I mean, there's a reason that "Eat, Pray, Love" is so popular. And it's so popular because it is supernatural. It's a book about mystical experience. That's what people want from religion.
DOUTHATAnd if you say the only point of Christianity is making this world a better place, you aren't giving people what religion is supposed to supply.
REHMBut then you talk about a comeback of traditional Christianity in the 1990s. What brought that about?
DOUTHATWell, so I mentioned before that the Evangelical Churches were more resilient in the face of this crisis and particularly over...
REHMAnd these glass palaces were being built, if you recall.
DOUTHATRight. It was the beginning of the mega church era.
DOUTHATAnd the Evangelical churches benefited from, you know, a lot of believers who left the mainline churches and left the Catholic Church actually ended up in Evangelical Churches. And then you have, in Catholicism, the pontific of John Paul II where there's sort of a reassertion from Rome of a more traditional Catholic identity. You know, now we still believe in certain things. You know, we still believe certain things are true.
DOUTHATAnd then you have issues like abortion, the sort of culture war issues that provide a common ground for Evangelicals and Catholics who historically were sort of at opposite ends of Christianity. You know, Evangelicals were calling the Pope, you know, the Antichrist, you know, deep into the 1950s and even into the '60s. But suddenly, you have this alliance and this period -- it starts as political common ground, but it becomes theological common ground, too.
DOUTHATAnd to this day now if you go to Notre Dame, right, the sort of seat of sort of Catholic university life in the United States, Notre Dame's faculty includes some of the leading Evangelical scholars and historians, which would've been unimaginable 50 years ago. So that alliance for a while provided a lot of sort of unexpected vitality to a more traditional Orthodox Christian faith.
REHMRoss Douthat. His new book is titled "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." You can join us and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to understand the four major Christian heresies that you see at work in America today.
DOUTHATWell, we'll work backwards from my list 'cause we were talking about politics. So one of them is what I call the heresy of nationalism. And this is the idea that -- and it's both a leftwing and a rightwing idea. It's the idea that America is not only as Abraham Lincoln put it, an almost chosen nation, but that it is literally a chosen nation. And that in one way or another, it is the place where, you know, sort of heaven and earth can meet.
DOUTHATAnd you see this going back a long way on the political left in progressive Christianity where there's the idea that, you know, it starts with the social gospel in the 19th century, the idea that sort of America can be a Christian country. But that the way Christianity will be expressed is through sort of perpetual waves of social reform that eventually in a sense bring the new Jerusalem to earth, right. So that's sort of the leftwing version. I call it messianic. It's the idea that sort of we can sort of bring about paradise through our own efforts in the United States of America.
DOUTHATThen the other side of that is what I call the Apocalyptic nationalism, which is the idea that again we're a chosen people but the chosen-ness happened, you know, the new Jerusalem happened. It was called the founding, right. And everything since then has been this sort of falling away. And we're like Israel in the Old Testament. We've betrayed God. We've turned our back on this covenant.
DOUTHATAnd that's what I think you got from the broadcasts of Glen Beck, right, this sort of apocalyptic spirit. The sense that, you know, that the founding wasn't just a sort of amazing political achievement, but that it was kind of a religious achievement as well. And that there almost was a literal covenant between God and the U.S.
DOUTHATNow it's a tricky thing because I think the line between both of those spirits and a healthy patriotism, you know, it's a fine line, right. I mean, 'cause it is true that, you know, the founding was a wonderful, remarkable achievement. It is true that we should, you know, work in all things to make the world a better place and so on. Both of the liberal and conservative ideas are true. The problem is when you invest those political causes with too much religious energy, too much sort of religious zeal I think you end up in what I call a heresy. So that's one, the heresy of nationalism.
DOUTHATThe second is what we talked about before, the heresy of the god within, what I sometimes call therapeutic religion which is the idea that -- you know, that sort of the point of religion is to make you feel good about yourself. And that can be one of the points of Christianity. But I think anyone who reads the New Testament will find that there's a little bit more to the Christian message than just feeling good about yourself.
DOUTHATAnd that heresy I associate with I think a lot of the personal problems that American life has today, our inability to live increasingly in community with one another, whether it's manifested in family breakdown and sort of the decline of communal institutions. You know, people seeing maybe they even have fewer closer friends than they used to, I think that reflects in a way the problem that religious narcissism can create.
DOUTHATAnd then from therapeutic religion, we have the heresy of the prosperity gospel, which is, again, I think connected to some of our economic problems, including the housing bubble. And then underlying all of this, it's less a sort of specific heresy than this general quest for a Jesus who fits our prejudices better. And that can be scholarly, you know, scholars looking for alternative gospels and so on, or it can be Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code. But that, I think, undergirds a lot of the broader religious culture.
REHMRoss Douthat. He's New York Times columnist, author of the new book "Bad Religion." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to go the phones first to Flint, Mich., good morning, Edie, you're on the air.
EDIEHello, Diane. I'd just like to say that on behalf of young people, I think separating ourselves from Christian doctrine kind of is what's working. We're educated. We can't really accept creationism. We're tolerant of homosexuals. It doesn't fit our lifestyle anymore, but I do have a question. Don't you think that we can benefit from not separating from one rigid religion and combining multiples like Buddhism and Christianity and everything, incorporating it into our own life? I'll take my answer off the air, thanks.
REHMThanks for calling.
DOUTHATWell, this is the sort of traditional Catholic in me speaking, but I'm a little skeptical of the idea that this sort of approach that Edie described where you're sort of -- I mean this is a little bit sarcastic of me, but I do, at one point, compare it to kind of refrigerator magnet religion, you know, where you have the piece of Buddhists and then the piece of Hinduism and you sort of arrange it into something that fits your lifestyle.
DOUTHATI think that can produce real spiritual insights and real breakthroughs. And it is a wonderful thing about American life today that we have access, it's true, to the wisdom of all kinds of religious traditions. I mean in my own Catholic faith one of the great things the Second Vatican Council did was say, look, you know, Catholicism we think is the one true faith, but we also think God has manifested himself in other religions.
DOUTHATBut what do you test that against? And this goes back to what we were talking about before, Diane. How if you approach religion sort of purely from the idea that, you know, I have my own life and I want to take what fits my life, you know, and throw out what doesn't fit my life, how do you know you aren't just making religion and really God, himself, sort of the service of your own desires, the service of your own impulses and then how do you know those desires and impulses are necessarily good? And I think that is the challenge for, especially younger Americans today, to find something outside yourself to test it, you know, to test those impulses against.
REHMRoss, the separation that I feel exists out there now is the separation between belief in God or a spiritual power...
REHM...and institutional religion...
DOUTHATYes, I agree.
REHM...which is letting us down. And I think that what you're doing is saying that institutional religion can provide a foundation, a belief and action. But the action within many parts of institutional religion has itself performed in a way that raises questions and doubts.
DOUTHATI completely agree. And look, as I said, I'm Catholic and there's absolutely no question whatsoever that the Catholic sex abuse crisis has played an enormous role, for completely understandable reasons, in alienating, you know, Catholics, specifically in Americans in general, from the idea that there might be value in an institutional and hierarchical kind of church.
DOUTHATAnd the kind of crisis that I'm talking about, the sort of collapse of institutional religion and its consequences for our life, I'm not sitting here and saying, well, the fault lies with those annoying young kids, you know, with their crazy multicultural ideas. Look, this is a failure of institutional religion. It absolutely is and it has been since the '60s and '70s. And, you know, there's no path sort of back from where we are now that doesn't involve institutional churches getting their houses in order.
DOUTHATBut, again, with that being said, I also think that, you know, it's important when we look at the problems that America has today, right, it's important not just to sort of point the finger at, you know, the corrupt clergymen, the corrupt hierarch and so on. Look at the problems we're living with right now, the economic problems, the social problems, you know, the housing bubble and so on.
REHMBut going to church is not going to solve that.
REHMGoing to church...
DOUTHATYeah, I would put it this way. If going to church -- I think that not necessarily, but going to church can provide a useful corrective to the idea that the best way to live out your spiritual life is to sort of match your spirituality to your own impulses.
REHMAll right. Here, several emails want to know what you think about the New York Times story that the Vatican has appointed an American bishop to reign in the largest and most influential group of Roman Catholic nuns in the United States, saying an investigation found that the group had serious doctrinal problems.
DOUTHATWell, I'm not privy to the details of the investigation. But I don't think it's unreasonable for the Catholic Church to be concerned about doctrinal problems in its religious orders. And I think, you know, one of the stories of Catholic America over the last 50 years is that you have had a lot of religious orders, priests as well as nuns, who took the approach that I described to you before.
DOUTHATThis idea that the best way to be Christian in the modern world is to, sort of, empty Christianity out of supernatural elements and, sort of, moral elements that people find offensive and so on. And those religious orders were often the ones that went into steepest decline because, again, they couldn't provide ultimately a justification for their own existence.
DOUTHATSo, again, you know, I'm not privy to the details and so on, but I think that the sort of common place liberal reaction to something like this, it's like, oh, you know, well, look at these terrible Catholic hierarchs, you know, they're sort of clamping down on these, you know, these nice nuns and so on. But the question is is what the nun's doing is it working? Are their orders thriving? Are they growing or are they sort of shrinking and disappearing.
REHMOr are they...
DOUTHATAnd if they're shrinking and disappearing, why is that happening and doesn't the Vatican have the right to ask?
REHMOr are they challenging...
DOUTHATBut that's not -- I know most of your listeners -- right, they may, right.
REHMAre they challenging the all male hierarchy?
DOUTHATWell, of course, they're challenging the all male hierarchy, but...
DOUTHATBut just because they're challenging it doesn't mean that their challenge is ultimately correct.
REHMNo, of course not, but do they have a right to do that challenge or has the Church set rules by which they cannot voice their human opinion based on their belief in what God has led them to do? And therein we've got the problem. Let's go to Belleville, Ill. Good morning, Dale, you're on the air.
DALEGood morning, Diane. I'm an Episcopal priest in Belleville, Illinois and I'm just fascinated by the gentleman you have speaking about the wide varieties of religion, including within particular denominations and in particular parish churches. I've just got a couple of thoughts. One is so what else is new? I mean, there's so much that is hinted at. For example, in the New Testament of all sorts of ways in which people are looking for religion.
DALEI'm also thinking of people in my parish who are fascinated by Christian fiction like "The Shack" which to me is just bad fiction. You can always pick out Christian fiction because it's usually sold in supermarkets and it has a great number of exclamation points. And then people who think "The Da Vinci Code" is true. And we haven't even touched on the millennialist stuff.
DALEAll the people in the United States focused on the fact that John of Patmos wrote Revelations primarily to affect American Christians in their feelings in 2012 and it's just the most bizarre thing. But that's who we are. That's what we're part of.
DOUTHATI think that's absolutely true and I actually think the parallel between Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" and the "Left Behind" novels, right, which are sort of the fictional expression of some of that apocalyptic enthusiasm that, I guess I should say, Father Dale is discussing. I think that parallel was actually really important to understanding our culture. Because on the one hand you have a sort of a kind of do-it-yourself religion of the Christian right that sort of, as he says, wants to read the book of Revelation and find often very creatively parallels to American life today.
DOUTHATAnd then you have a sort of do-it-yourself Christianity of the left, which wants to sort of take the gnostic gospels and the canonical gospels and sort of pluck out this and that and the next thing you know, it turns out that Jesus of Nazareth was this hip modern guy who had a wife and, you know, lived in a house in the Galilean suburbs and, you know, and would have been totally cool with everything that, you know, modern Americans want to get up to.
DOUTHATAnd it's absolutely true on both sides of the religious divide, that is who we are. But I think what's interesting about our moment -- it's always been who we are, this sounds a little weird, but it's sort of more who we are than ever before. And that's what's distinctive about our moment.
REHMNow part of the thesis for your book assumes that institutional religion forms the basis for morality, moral behavior. What makes you think that?
DOUTHATOh, I think that the basis of morality and moral behavior lies in sort of human nature and the human conscience and I think that, you know, if you dropped human beings down in, you know, a desert island and didn't give them any institutional religion, they would come up with systems of morality.
DOUTHATI think what institutional religion does is, you know, is preserve, transmit, teach and develop ways of thinking about those moral intuitions and those moral instincts and, you know, choosing between them in a way. I think, you know, there are a lot of different moral systems that you can build out of the moral impulses that everybody has. And, of course, somebody can be a moral person without religion, but the question is what kind of moral person are you going to be? What is your moral system?
DOUTHATAnd in the case of Christianity, you know, the New Testament offers a particular moral vision and over the centuries, institutional churches -- my own, you know, I am a Catholic so I do have an institutionalist-bias. But both Protestant and Catholic churches have been, overall, I think, the surest means of insuring that Jesus' message, the whole comprehensive message, all of the challenging parables, The Sermon on the Mount and everything else, gets passed down in its entirety rather than just sort of being, you know, having one bit picked out or another bit picked out and so on.
REHMAnd of course you had Rick Santorum saying pretty much the same things, that people need to sort of dwell in that place of the Bible and it's teachings and religious institutional faith.
DOUTHATAre you asking me if I agree with Rick Santorum, is that...
DOUTHAT...is that the loaded question?
REHMWhat do you make of that?
DOUTHATWell, I mean, you know, I have a lot of policy disagreements with Rick Santorum, but on the question of the value of institutional religion, I suppose he and I are on the same page, yes.
REHMBut it didn't go over very well to the general public.
DOUTHATOh, well, no. I mean, this is the nature of American life today. We are an anti-institutional and highly individualistic society.
REHMSee that's where I disagree with you. I'm not sure we're anti institutional religion so much -- well, I do think that institutional religion has created so many problems for people of deep thought in the last decade, that they have turned away to find some basic meaning to what it is that God teaches us or the higher spirit teaches us about what it is to be good, decent, moral human beings.
DOUTHATAnd, Diane, I don't disagree. The argument I'm making, though, is that there needs to be, you know, because you are disillusioned with aspects of institutional religion doesn't mean that you've rejected entirely.
REHMAnd I certainly don't. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Rustin, Va. Good morning, Gina, you're on the air.
GINAHi, Diane, thank you so much for this show. First of all, I think I would like to clarify one thing. I think the author is using the term heretic from his point of view as if we're all Catholic because what he's describing sounds like, he's describing a deist who does not necessarily follow any institutionalized religious belief system, but does have a strong moral and belief system of his or her own.
GINAAnd, again, while you were describing, again, tidbits from this religion or that religion and the author was arguing against how you test this -- well, I'll give you an example since you were just talking about it now. For instance, the fact that the Catholic Church failed to come down on those sexual harassment allegations when it happened, you know.
REGINABut then, you know, when the authorities challenged by the nuns within the institution itself that would create some political outcomes maybe doesn't really even wait for it and, you know, just can't see that, you know, cracking down upon maybe a political rebellion within the church is better than cracking down upon, you know, a 9, 10-year-old boys, you know, pain and the institution might have kowtowed to family or even to itself. You know, it makes you feel like, you know...
REHMAll right, I want to give Ross a chance to respond.
DOUTHATAbsolutely, I mean, to the last point that Regina made, again, there's absolutely no question that the Catholic Church's response over decades to the sex abuse problem is a travesty, a tragedy, a shame and the sort of thing. Again, I don't blame people at all from being alienated from the church by it. That being said, the secondary point about the Church sort of cracking down on internal dissent, it doesn't comport, in my view, with the experience of Catholicism in America since the 1960s.
DOUTHATI think, overall, if you spend a lot of time in Catholic churches around the country, you will experience the opposite of a sort of hierarchical authoritarian institution. It's been much more of an anything goes spirit on liturgy, doctrine and so on for a long time.
REHMRoss Douthat, columnist for the New York Times. His new book titled, "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics." Thank you, Ross.
DOUTHATThank you, Diane. This has been wonderful.
REHMAnd I'll be off for the next few days, going out for some station visits. I'll be back with you next Thursday. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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