January 27, 2021

Bad Religion: A Prelude

Last week I wrote about heresy in a way that upset many of you. First of all, I used a baseball manager (Ozzie Guillen) as an example of a heretic—though not a religious one—and then said clearly that we should not be on a witch hunt for heretics, which prompted some of you to tell me not to be on a witch hunt for heretics.

Sigh …

Sometimes, iMonks, you really need to read an essay several times through before jumping straight to sharing your thoughts. But that is a conversation for another day.

Today I want to give a brief preview of a book we will be reviewing shortly here, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat. Douthat is a New York Times op/ed columnist and conservative Christian. His words will be well worth a close examination. Until we can do a complete review of this book, here is a brief nougat for you to chew on.

The United States Remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. These faiths speak from many pulpits—conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionable “spiritual”—and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing …

This is the real story of religion in America. For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.

Anyone interested in what else Douthat has to say?


  1. Robin Cranford says

    I am very interested. Jeff, did you read the WHI blog yesterday? Horton wrote an amazing essay about the parables and how liberals and conservatives misuse them.

  2. Heretic!!!

  3. Make that a nation of Astronauts and Heretics.

  4. Jeff,
    Sounds like a good read. I look forward to your review. This might have been mentioned in the comments of the previous heretic post, I’m not sure. Isn’t it almost impossible for evangelicals to use the word “heresy” in any meaningful way? I’m not saying there aren’t heresies and heretics but we don’t really have a way to determine them. Just to be clear, I consider myself evangelical, so I’m not throwing stones from the outside. It just seems to me to be one of the inherent situations we deal with. Thoughts?


    • My immediate thought Brain, sorta centers around the thought of how quickly “we” are willing to deny that “so-and-so is a Christian”.

      I once was called a “godless liberal” because I said that anyone willing to say – with a sincere heart – the Apostle’s Creed and follow the “Royal Law” (James 2:8) was my brother/sister in Christ. This person wouldn’t have it, and said that if anyone who didn’t believe “XYZ” was…

      Well, I just think if that Peter and Paul argued, that we should be a little more open to each other.

    • The Previous Dan says

      I guess my question would be, when does heresy become apostasy? I, myself, am probably a heretic since my beliefs are ever growing/changing. Or maybe I was a heretic but am not anymore 🙂 Yet as a baseline I have always held to The Nicene Creed.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Isn’t it almost impossible for evangelicals to use the word “heresy” in any meaningful way?

      Well, when you have thousands of “I Speak For GOD” types and their independent churches and theological studies, each denouncing all the others as Heretics and Apostates, it does kind of cloud the whole issue.

      Increasingly, “Heresy” is defined as “Anyone who doesn’t agree 1000% with My Special Theological Revelation as God’s Anointed”. And the Truly Reformed parsing theology letter-by-letter like Oceanian Thought Police just so they can smell out Witches — I mean Heretics — sure doesn’t help.

  5. Jon Bartlett says

    Reading that quote, we may of course find that it is also a description of Ross Douthat….. I look forward to the series with interest!

  6. I am looking forward both to reading the book and talking about it hear with ya’ll…

  7. A simple question: Who gets to define “real Christianity?” Paul? Peter? James? John? The authors of the gospels who most likely didn’t even know Jesus and certainly were not first-hand witnesses to his teachings and ministry? Origen? Iraneaus? Constantine? Augustine? I’m not sure even Jesus could define “real Christianity” since he was a Jew and working to define “real Judaism”.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      A simple question: Who gets to define “real Christianity?” Paul? Peter? James? John?

      Reverend Apostle Billy-Bob Joe Soap whom God Hath Led to re-found the One Original New Testament Church after 2000 years of universal Great Apostasy?

    • cermak_rd says

      The people alive right now who claim to be Christians. The living are the people that define culture and they are the people that define religious culture. Democracy of the dead sounds good and all but if those old ways weren’t working, they’d be tossed aside by the living in a New York minute.

  8. A review of this book would be right in this blog’s wheelhouse.

  9. I guess how it gets received will depend on whether he names names. If you just say that we’re a nation of heretics, people will be quite happy to assume that he means other people. It’s another thing to read someone saying that this guy, this guy, and your favorite pastor who wrote a book that you found very comforting and inspiring during a rough time, is a heretic.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Remember, “Heresy” is what the OTHER guy’s theology, never your own.

      Just like “Heathen” is the OTHER guy’s religion, never yours.

      And “The Unpardonable Sin” is whatever the OTHER guy does, never you.

  10. Sure Jeff. Read and review. What he has to say would fit well with Michael’s take on the Evangelical Wilderness.

    I heard him interviewed on NPR sometime in the past week. He presents well.


  11. You know, it’s funny that the question of “Are we a Christian nation?” seems to arise so frequently these days. In his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln wrote that our nation should pray with “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience”.

    It’s not really a new idea…My thought is that Douthat just came up with a new way of packaging it.

    Come to think of it, if we Christians would stop trying to come up with new ways to package Christianity, then maybe we wouldn’t be a nation of heretics…

    Seriously, it does seem that pantheism is the flavor of the month right now, what with cultural icons like Oprah, political figures’ uncertain stances on faith, and Hollywood’s fickle affair with spirituality.

    It’s funny to me that Deepak Choprah can write a book about Jesus, and make every talk show in the universe, and NT Wright can go virtually unnoticed outside of circles that already know his work. A mark, I believe, that we are becoming more pantheistic. I look forward to reading Douthat’s book…

  12. I’m a heretic…
    Well, some friends label me as a “liberal”.
    If that means trying to see my way through all of the “authorities” and the history of Christianity to find the truth, then you can label me whatever you want to.

  13. C. Michael Patton did a good post (and included some of his famous “charts”) about heresy and the various definitions of “orthodoxy”

    He starts it by saying:

    “Have you ever been called a heretic? Have you ever had someone say that your faith is “unorthodox”? Have you ever wondered what it meant to be “orthodox”?… I am talking about orthodoxy which carries the meaning of “straight or right teaching and worship.” The answer is not easy. For some people, ”orthodoxy” is a shallow word meaning that you agree with them. For others, it means you agree with their particular denomination or local church confession. For many, it is a meaningless heavy handed designation that should no longer be used. What does it mean to be orthodox in your beliefs?”

    Here is the full post:


    • Interesting article from Patton….to me, it reads as a list of reasons to avoid Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury……none of them terrible persuasive.

      • I think his main point is that when we use the words “heresy” and “orthodox”, we need to clarify/define what we mean.

        He certainly is reformed, but is supportive of the Vincentian Canon as a standard.

  14. Why, no–as a matter of fact, I am NOT interested in Ross Douthat’s opinion of my religion, notiwithstanding his no doubt impressive theological credentials as a “New York Times op/ed columnist and conservative Christian.”

    • +1 🙂

      • But you might still be interested in reading his back-and-forth dialogue in Slate that EZK links to in the next post. I found it (and some articles their exchange links to) to be thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  15. I totally agree with him that many people in the US are heretics. I probably totally disagree with him on which ones are heretics and which ones are the “Real Christians,” though. (grin)

    Seriously, rather than pointing fingers I think it’s much more helpful to ackowledge that we’re _all_ idolaters, we _all_ read the Bible selectively, that we _all_ at times live in ways contrary to our Christian witness, and that we _all_ have limited and distorted views of God – and that that last problem isn’t going to change, because God will always be beyond our understanding. That calls for humility, not witch-hunting. I’m a big fan of N.T. Wright’s policy of always taking it for granted that roughly 30% of his theology is wrong and that he doesn’t know which 30% that is…

  16. I mentioned this in a comment on the post about Diana Butler-Bass the other day, but this blurb from Amazon gives me pause:

    In a story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, he brilliantly charts institutional Christianity’s decline from a vigorous, mainstream, and bipartisan faith—which acted as a “vital center” and the moral force behind the civil rights movement—through the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s to the polarizing debates of the present day. Ranging from Glenn Beck to Barack Obama, Eat Pray Love to Joel Osteen, and Oprah Winfrey to The Da Vinci Code, Douthat explores how the prosperity gospel’s mantra of “pray and grow rich,” a cult of self-esteem that reduces God to a life coach, and the warring political religions of left and right have crippled the country’s ability to confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.

    His urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity is sure to generate controversy, and it will be vital reading for all those concerned about the imperiled American future.

    I get nervous when people frame their arguments in terms of “America’s future”. I don’t know if as Christians that’s something we should be overly concerned about. I also wonder how strong the “vital center” was in the era from the ’50 to the ’70s. It seems that if your main concern is America’s future, some sort of standardized civil religion.

    Personally, I guess I am always for a system that errs on the side of personal freedom and choice rather than control. That sometimes will lead to what will be chaos and mess, but that’s life. I disagree with the thinking that we disagree with each other too much in this country. I don’t see partisanship as a necessarily bad thing. Actually, our nation has evolved the way it has because we have a system that encourages a diversity of opinion.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I also wonder how strong the “vital center” was in the era from the ’50 to the ’70s.

      And when anyone references “the Fifties” in a Christian context, I always have to ask: “The real 1950s or the Mythic 1950s, i.e. the Godly Golden Age according to Ozzie, Harriet, and Donna Reed?”

    • Our present duty is to defend the gravesites of Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, etc. Theirs is the received evangelical tradition handed down to us. All the cavities have been filled and all we need now is regular brushing. Our future is in the nostalgic past, and we look to the Spirit to blow us, not where it will, but close to the familiar shores where we feel still in control.

    • I just re-read my earlier comment, and I think I must have gotten distracted while writing the last sentence to my one paragraph. I think what I meant to say is, “It seems that if your main concern is America’s future, some sort of standardized civil religion is what you’ll end up promoting.” – or something like that.

      Actually, reading the promotional material and the author’s replies on Slate, he kind of reminds me of David Brooks. Brooks says some stuff that I think is good, but on the other hand, I think he ends up saying that what we all need is to simply be good, well-behaved children. It’s not that I’m generally a rabble-rouser, but I have trouble squaring that sort of message with the lives of Jesus, Paul, and the Apostle. Society generally doesn’t turn well-behaved children into martyrs.

    • Where is there a loss of freedom if it is surrended willingly to someone who is smarter and closer to God than I am??? (Really frrely given, not coerced under pressure or threat of any kind??)

  17. David Cornwell says

    “from many pulpits—conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionable “spiritual”—and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing …”

    I give a lot of leeway as to individualized versions of Christian faith, but there must be some kind of limits if we are really to continue calling ourselves Christian. There is a solid core of orthodoxy, teaching, and practice that must always inform us. And these days it isn’t just liberals that drift in weird directions, but also those who claim to be “bible believing.” We’ve got some strange things coming from pulpits and churches these days, strange indeed.

    If John the Revelator were writing to the churches now, I wonder what he would say. Would it take more than seven letters?

    • David Cornwell says

      So, yes, I like what he has to say and would like to hear more. I don’t have to agree with every word, but someone needs to say something like this. Of course it will cause controversy because we like to pick and choose from a tree of infinite fruit. and he might snatch something from our hand.

    • I agree, David. The issue is not just religious but linguistic. Just as postmodern people demand the freedom to reinvent religion the way they want it, so do they demand the right to make words mean what they want them to mean. Of course religion and language are complex and varied, but as you say, there must be some definitions that are commonly accepted in order just to communicate. The extreme postmodern position, that God, the universe, and everything just exist in my own head and have no external referents, is the most isolating and despairing-inducing position I can imagine.

    • David, I always enjoy and benefit from your thoughts…Damaris’ as well. I believe we must have unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials…but most importantly…solid definitions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Otherwise, pantheism does become a real problem…and is.

      Whatever happened to the Didache?

      • David Cornwell says

        Didache; good question. Some of the things that pass for Christian teaching now are pathetic, from Spong’s ultra liberal denial of the resurrection and watered down whatever it is, to Osteen’s prosperity gospel.

  18. Am I interested ?…… Make me a clearer offer, cuz, I’m like, getting , ya know, these OTHER offers from some other blogs that are off the chain…. Will I feel better, look better, is it a better worship experience ? Give me something solid and text me, no low ball offers plz…..


  19. I guess my question would be, “Okay, we’re a nation of heretics. What is your point? Where do we go from here?”

    Is this just continuation of the tired conversation where someone with an orthodox theology calls everyone who doesn’t hold to their orthodoxy, “Heretics,” and then laments and complains about it.

    I think this kind of “dialogue” has been tried and generally found wanting.

    Like others have already pointed out, this book might tell us a lot more about what Ross Douthat thinks, than it tells us about what it means to follow Jesus. That said, and my cynicism aside, I would be interested in the review and interested in what you think about the book.

  20. I think everyone ought to consider actually reading the book and then commenting on it, so that we have a general idea of what Douthat means by “heresy”, “orthodoxy”, etc. That’s what I plan to do.

    Lots of assumptions and speculations here, none of them seem to be giving Douthat a fair shake based on the impressions I’ve gotten from actual reviews I’ve read.

  21. Joseph (the original) says

    am i interested in what Douthat has to say? with a grain of salt…

    from the previous article/post by Michael Spencer:

    And you must especially beware of people who pretend to have explanations for you. Churches are full of these people, usually at the pulpit end or in the academic section. They have a favorite book or a DVD presentation that gets right to the explanation for your family’s troubles or your business failure, and what you should do now.


  22. Dear friends,

    I wonder how many of the harsh critics of everything that goes wrong in American christianity (especially its evangelical form) would be pleased to live in a highly secularized Europe??

    • That may be easier than you think. At least there people are open in their attitudes ‘I don’t believe in religion.’ This opens the possibility of meaningful dialog.

      I find that a whole lot easier to cope with then the christian subculture where everyone is saved, including the neighborhood dog and we have a Christian celebrity culture of TV evangelists who fly around in jets and live like royalty. I lived in the south (Texas) and it seemed to be that people were immunized to the gospel

      Somehow the thought of putting up with the hash smoking cafes and prostitution in downtown Amsterdam to me seems less daunting.

    • Do you have a very cheap, or free, loft in Tuscany you are looking to fill ??? I might be able to find a willing , and humble, occupant …..

    • cermak_rd says

      I’d be interested in knowing how it differs from living in Chicago these days. Chicago seems pretty secular and thankfully the evangelicals have made little headway here. What we have is an older, more mature Roman Catholic church that tries to have good relations with the other faith traditions present. Even Cardinal George seems to be controlling his temper a little better these days.

  23. Jeff Dunn
    You need to stop writing about the very things I am thinking!

    In my journey I have been doing a dig through the past to try to see just what this faith of ours is all about.
    Years ago I always assumed that what early Christianity looked like was charismatic Christianity that distrusted the mind and stood for a very strict form of holiness. Basically a form of garden variety American Christianity.

    As I have worked my way back in time, read sources, struggled with it all (hundreds of hours of work) I have started to conclude that lots of what I see today is a distorted form of traditional Christianity. I am not saying that means people are not believers! For whatever reason, since we have broken off from Europe hundreds of years ago we seem to have become like a group of people living in the mountains somewhere and we have all inter-married with the cousins through many generations. And now we tend to deny that we ever had anything at all to do with our ancestors overseas.

    • Very well-worded. Much of American Christianity ignores the first 1500 years of Christianity, in favor of what they’ve deemed “Biblical authority”.

      Lord, have mercy on us…

  24. Bill Metzger says

    Ah, fundamentlism! Just can’t stand Grace. It’s what “got Jesus killed”. Sin boldly, my friends, and turst in Christ even more boldly.

  25. Aidan Clevinger says

    I think this series *could* be much-needed. I love the iMonk community, but I think that we can be just as guilty of the thing we call our brothers out on – that is, emphasizing one portion of Scripture to the detriment of others. We need a little Law every now and then. If we aren’t comfortable accepting a concept and a word (i.e. “heresy”) that’s used in Scripture, we’re doing it wrong.

    • Aidan, that is part of why I like this site so much. Most everyone is struggling to follow Christ, but we come from all over the map…..no matter what is said, someone will have an opposing view. Keeps us honest, IMHO.

      • Pretty easy to believe I have most things right until I pipe up here. I love the diversity. keeps me thinking.

  26. humanslug says

    It’ll be interesting to see if I make this guy’s “heresy” list.
    But, then again, believing anything specific about anything or disagreeing with anything anyone else believes will inevitably reserve you a spot on somebody’s heresy list.
    No way around it — aside from becoming an atheist.

  27. Very….I heard a brief NPR piece about the book and only gathered that he attacks the prosperity gospel…I hope he goes further. Not so much because I want to see people called “heretics” but because I want things to be called “heresy.”

  28. To paraphrase, ” words, words, words,words, is that all you blighters can do? Don’t speak of Love[GOD] show me.” Jesus became human, He died and was ressurected on the 3rd day, and will forgive us our sins if we ask. The rest of doctrine are just details. To those who think too much life is a comedy, to those who feel too much, life is a tragedy. Or Vice-versa.

  29. Kelby Carlson says

    I actually just got done reading this book. It’s sort of two books in one: the first half traces the American Christian landscape from Post-WWII through the 90’s, focusing specifically on the mainlines (their rise, decline and accommodation to the culture) and neo-evangelicalism. The second half looks at the new quest for the historical jesus, the prosperity gospel, self-divinization and culture war religion. It’s a thoughtful book that makes some excellent points. I find many of the negative comments on this site about what the book “probably” says to be off-base and, frankly, preposterous and unnecessary. I’m starting to fear that this site is descending into a collection of memes about how stupid conservative Christians are ad nauseum, and anything that sounds even remotely conservative and/or evangelical is tarred and feathered and damn the reality. (For clarification, Douthat is Roman Catholic.)

    • Perhaps I reacted too hastily–with a jerk of the knee, as it were. The description made him sound like yet another of those popular American evangelists that iMonk is always either promoting or criticizing.

      • Kelby Carlson says

        He definitely isn’t that. He’s certainly calling for a different vision of Christianity than a lot of Americans have–and the commenter below who says that what he’s saying has been said before is right. But his clarity and breadth are quite admirable, and the book is worth reading if you’re interested in where American Christianity is (or ought to be) headed.

    • Thank you, Kelby. This is what I suspected, although I haven’t yet read the book. Reading these comments, you’d think Douthat was John MacArthur or something. People these days see “heretic” and they get all bent out of shape. Unless, of course, they are proudly proclaiming themselves to be “heretics” because they hold to some unconventional opinion about something.

  30. Andrew Sullivan’s excellent blog is devoting some time to Douthat’s book, and it even features some clips of a lengthy Douthat interview about it. That squelched what little interest I had in reading the book – what he says, it’s all be said before. But that’s my view. There probably will be many enjoy the book a great deal.

  31. I still think Douthat’s exhortation for us to personally explore the “complications and paradoxes and tensions of this ancient faith” is a tall order. This gets back to the conversation regarding the pitfalls of do-it-yourself spiritual forming, or small group spiritual forming. There are so many ways to get it wrong. But as I commented on the previous post on heresy, the corner mega-church is not going to teach it, either.

    I think of Luther criticizing the church fathers for not agreeing with each other, while he himself constantly described spiritual topics in terms of paradox. This is not easy stuff. I think religious publishing has to stand up and take some blame for its modern scholasticism which leads one to believe the any idiot can understand these complex issues – spirituality for dummies, if you will. No wonder you end up with parents who won’t take a sick child to a doctor in order to practice “faith healing” instead. If you call it heresy, you can blame the victim; if we call it malpractice on the part of our so-called spiritual leaders, our seminaries who are supposed to train our pastors, and the vast evangelical complex as a whole, that gets closer to the heart of the matter. Sheep without shepherds, or shepherds with lambchop drippings on their collars. Teaching the wrong thing AND failing to teach the right things I believe are equal examples of spiritual malpractice. One can get fired from his or her job for not just doing something wrong but for failing to do what is right. Spiritual leaders have a lot in common with weathermen who never lose their job for misforecasting the weather.

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