April 17, 2012

NR Review

Interesting review in National Review of Ross Douthat's new book Bad Religion:
Douthat concludes his book by expressing hope for a renewal of traditional Christian faith — of an orthodoxy that will chasten not only a rising secular tide, but also the dominant forms of heresy. His practical advice, however, is modest. One of his main recommendations is for Christians to exercise “the Benedict Option,” a monasticism-inspired withdrawal from a dominant culture that appears incapable of correction and that increasingly appears to view orthodox faith with hostility. While this may be a long-term strategy for the restoration of a healthy Christian culture, it might take as many centuries for such a movement to influence the nation as it took the monasteries to foster Christendom following the fall of the Roman Empire. Implicitly, Douthat seems to acknowledge that hope for renewal must be chastened, even minimal.


A further troubling note lurks beneath his efforts to encourage “good religion.” While he attributes the decline of orthodoxy after 1963 to a series of discrete historical causes, ranging from the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution to globalization and rising economic prosperity, on a broader view of American history it might be more correct to note that orthodoxy has always been the exception rather than the rule in the American setting — that America, in a certain sense, has always been a magnet for heresy. After all, the phrase “city upon a hill” was invested with political import by John Winthrop already in 1630, intimating that from the very outset America understood itself to be the New Zion. The heresies of self-creation, moral perfectibility, progressivism, and millenarianism are hardly new on the American scene in the post-Sixties era, but rather are continuations of a longstanding rejection of Christian orthodoxy, expressed variously by American high priests ranging from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, through Emerson and Whitman, down to John Dewey. America was the child born of rebellion against orthodoxy, and a major national storyline has been one that equates democracy’s advance with liberation from doctrine — from Roger Williams to Dan Brown.

Douthat makes a bold and compelling argument that what is needed on the American scene today is a renewal of good religion. But his book cannot dispel the gnawing worry that, in America, good religion has been the exception, and that the growing dominance of bad religion is not something recent and reversible, but the culmination of a long national story.

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