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Book Review: Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

May 6, 2012

There are two types of Chestertonian: those who worship Chesterton and those who make use of him.  The first type is epitomized by Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society.  Author of three books on Chesterton and host of the EWTN series The Apostle of Common Sense, Ahlquist has played a leading role in the Chestertonian revival now underway among Catholics and Evangelical Christians.

What Ahlquist has failed to do is bring Chesterton to a secular audience.  Whereas Chesterton publicly debated George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and a host of other modernist intellectuals, Ahlquist has taken Chesterton to the pews and to an echo chamber of Christian conferences and EWTN appearances.  Ahlquist and other devout Chestertonians tend to be dismissive of modernist philosophy; rather than engaging in public debate with feminists or liberals, they tend to sneer from a distance, relying on Chestertonian one-liners to expose any and all errors of the Modern World, a phrase they like to repeat as a term of abuse.

This lack of self-scrutiny and unwillingness to make distinctions–modern philosophy is a very broad category–is itself troublesome.  In addition,  Chestertonians of the first type run into the same problem as do Protestants, which is that texts do not interpret themselves.  Even if it is true that Chesterton’s logic was remarkably lucid and even in some sense inspired, the question remains as to the relevance and application of his insights today.  Chesterton must be sifted through and adapted to changing circumstances; the key difference between those who worship Chesterton and those who make use of him is that the former do this unknowingly.

The version of Chesterton Ahlquist gives us is above all a social conservative.  Consider, for example, this discussion between Ahlquist and Fr. Mitch Pacwa, which took place on EWTN Live in May 2010.  We do not learn of Chesterton’s philosophy of wonder or his use of paradox or his fierce critique of capitalism.  Rather, Chesterton is used as a springboard for a conversation about the evils of modern–or, more accurately, liberal philosophy.  In the course of an hour, we learn that public schools promote the deification of nature.  We learn that prayer in schools would prevent the need for metal detectors.   We learn that birth control and abortion are best understood as the upshot of Nazism and racism.  We learn of Nietzsche’s profound influence on all of the following: the new age movement, Rahm Emanuel, and protesters of the Arizona immigration law.  We learn that America is a Christian nation and that college is a very dangerous place.

Taken to an extreme, Chesterton worship looks a lot like fundamentalism–albeit fundamentalism for Catholic intellectuals.

Fundamentalism is partly a matter of what is believed; but it is also a matter of the manner in which beliefs are held and articulated.  Like Ahlquist and Fr. Pacwa, Ross Douthat is a social conservative.  And yet his new book Bad Religion strikes a markedly different tone, a tone that reflects Douthat’s genuine engagement with modernity.  Even though Douthat’s central thesis is lifted directly from the pages of Orthodoxy, specifically the chapter on “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” Chesterton is only quoted twice in the book.  Chesterton is not worshiped by Douthat, but used to make broader points as to popular heresies in   American Christianity.

What, exactly, does Douthat mean by heresy?  Heresy is not exactly a commonplace word in the American vernacular–certainly not in the vernacular of New York Times columnists.  Douthat means pretty much what Chesterton means: someone whose views are formed by the Christian tradition, but who nevertheless rejects the basic Christian dogmas contained in the Apostles Creed. Following Chesterton Douthat asserts that Christianity is, at its core, a paradoxical religion, citing the Incarnation, Trinity, and other dogmas as examples.  In Douthat’s view, America has not rejected Christianity altogether; it has tried to “resolve Christianity’s contradictions, unite its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.”

In developing the central theses of Bad Religion, Douthat does not rely exclusively on Chesterton, but blends him with other influences, notably C.S. Lewis.  If the second half of the book describes our present day Age of Heresy, the first half describes how America became a nation of “mere” Christians following the Second World War.  “After the death camps and the gulag,” Douthat tells us, “it was harder to credit the naïve progressive belief that the modern age represented a long march toward ever-greater enlightenment or peace, or that humanity was capable of relying for salvation on its own capacities alone.”  As a result, America returned to its Christian roots, gaining a newfound appreciation for such doctrines as original sin and divine judgment.

This trend Douthat refers to as the “Christian convergence.”  All of the major branches of Christianity–mainline Protestantism, Evangelicalism, the Black Church, and the Roman Catholic Church–all actively took part in what Douthat depicts as the Golden Age of American Christianity.  Douthat considers four representative examples: Rienhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Fulton J. Sheen, and Martin Luther King Jr.  Each was, in his own way, a standard bearer of orthodoxy.  Mainline Protestant Rienhold Niebuhr recognized that the “quest for [political] reform was authentically Christian,” while at the same to recognizing that “the quest for utopia was a dangerous and destructive heresy.”  Billy Graham preached revival while avoiding the pitfalls of fundamentalism to which Evangelical Christianity was and is susceptible.  Catholic bishop and radio broadcaster Fulton J. Sheen embodied the “self-enclosed otherness” of Catholicism while at the same time blending his Catholic values with an “intense all-Americanism.”  Finally, Martin Luther King blended the intellectual Protestantism of Niebuhr with the “more visceral, prophetic Christian spirituality” of the black Church to build a broad base of Christian support for the civil rights movement.  It was all so perfect and all so Chestertonian in its rejection of onesidedness and reductionism.

But all golden ages must come to an end and this one was no different.  Douthat explains that

beginning with the antiwar movement’s takeover of the Democratic Party in the 1972 election, and continuing through the Republican Party’s deliberate courtship of religious conservatives under Richard Nixon and Reagan, the religious divisions of the Vietnam era were frozen into amber by the growing ideological polarization of the two national parties.

Douthat identifies five specific areas of contention as responsible for the decline of institutional Christianity as America’s moral and spiritual center.   The first, as mentioned above, was polarization over the Vietnam War.  Also significant were the debates surrounding the sexual revolution, the effects of globalization, new levels of material prosperity, and growing class divisions.

The period that followed is the period we are still living in: the Age of Heresy.  According to Douthat’s thoroughly Chestertonian analysis, Christian truth has become fragmented, with each heresy characteristically emphasizing one aspect of Christianity while downplaying the others.  Thus, for example, “accomodationist” Christians argued that Christianity ought to jettison traditional doctrines, particularly in the area of sexual morality, to reflect social, cultural, and political changes.  Accomodationist theology was particularly prominent in mainline Protestantism, where women’s ordination, divorce, premarital sex were all quickly accepted, and where a gospel of social progress reigned supreme.  Following the Second Vatican Council, liberal Catholics followed suit, demanding many of the same reforms within their Church.

The second major heresy Douthat examines is that prosperity gospel propounded by Joel Osteen and within some quarters of the black Church.  As with other heresies, the prosperity gospel

resolves one of orthodoxy’s tensions by emphasizing one part of Christian doctrine–in this case, the idea that the things of this life are gifts from the Creater, rather than simply snares to be avoided, and that Christians are expected to participate in the world rather than withdraw from it.  Then it effaces the harder teachings [against avarice] that traditionally balance it out.

A third heresy, the God Within, emphasizes the ineffability of the Divine, while downplaying religious dogma.  As Douthat points out, however, God Within religion “tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith,” without which it would have no content.  The error of God Within religion is to exalt the universal at the expense of the particular.  Whereas Christianity put God in a manager and identified the Jewish people as the race chosen to spread a universal message of salvation, God Within religion is noncommittal, blending insights from various religious traditions without accepting the sacrifices and limitations each of those traditions impose.

The final heresy Douthat discusses is nationalism, a heresy that alternates between a messianism in which unrealistic hopes are placed in a great leader, and apocalypticism, which “looks for a villain on whom to blame the betrayal of the founding fathers.” In lieu of a healthy admixture of optimism and pessimism, this heresy takes each to an extreme and pits them against each other.

To the extent that he relies on Chesterton, Douthat is on sure footing.  It is his appeal to C.S. Lewis’ notion of mere Christianity that raises questions: for historically, all of Protestantism has been deemed heretical by the Catholic Church.  Chesterton may not have been in full communion in Rome when he wrote Orthodoxy, but he was a high church Anglican with strong Roman Catholic sympathies.  Protestants may accept some of the paradoxes of Christianity, such as Jesus’ status as fully God and fully man and the Trinitarian notion that God is a mystical union of three persons, but there are any number of paradoxes that Protestants downplay or reject.  To take a few obvious examples, for Protestants the Eucharist symbolizes but is not identical to the body and blood of Christ, salvation is achieved through faith rather than works, and the scriptures are authoritative over and against Christian tradition.  In this regard, Douthat’s Christian convergence may reflect historical contingencies surrounding the aftermath of the Second World War more so than genuine consensus as to the centrality of mystery and paradox in Christianity.

Whatever its faults, Bad Religion demonstrates in a way that Dale Ahlquist has not the relevance of GK Chesterton today, not just for Catholics and Evangelicals, but for all Americans.  Chestertonian paradox turns out to be an exceptionally powerful tool, not only for identifying heresy but for understanding what is wrong with it.  Also exemplary is the way in which Douthat has taken the trouble to learn the ins and outs of the heresies he writes about. Whereas Ahlquist tends to give us straw men, Douthat provides a nuanced and at times sympathetic portrait of heresy. His Chestertonian analysis of American Christianity is not just intended for conservative Catholics, but also for liberal Catholics like Andrew Sullivan (see, for example, this hour long interview) and liberal agnostics like Will Saleton (see this online exchange). He writes as a Greek for the Greeks and as a Jew for the Jews. And for that, all Chestertonians can be grateful.


20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2012 4:26 pm

    I’m currently reading the book and I love it. I’m only a quarter of the way through, but it is definitely a page turner.

    I really enjoyed this review, too. You’re an excellent writer.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      May 6, 2012 8:48 pm

      Thanks for reading, Alisha. I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I hope I didn’t spoil the rest of the book for you with my detailed summary!

  2. May 7, 2012 10:05 am

    Well, Innocentsmithjournal, I will begin by saying that I am a friend of Dale Ahqluist’s and I am one of the regulars on his EWTN series, and I will respectfully suggest that you are astonishingly wrong in your critique of him.

    Now I will admit that you got a lot of things right. Many Chestertonians tend to worship Chesterton or use Chesterton as a cover for neo-con politics, and I will admit that most of what you’ll see on EWTN can look like the “700 Club with Rosaries”. And if Dale spent an hour critiquing liberalism on Fr. Mitch’s show (I was in the live audience during that appearance), it’s simply because it would take a lot longer than an hour to critique liberalism and to present Chesterton’s life long oppositions to the errors of liberalists.

    But you haven’t done your homework. Contrary to your claim, Dale’s books and his TV series touch on every aspect of Chesterton. In fact, the conservatives give us grief for even mentioning Distributism. And if you really think that Dale Ahlquist is playing to the pews, all you need to do is call him and ask him what his speaking schedule was like for the past six months. He is not only willing to engage secularists and to challenge conservatives as well as liberals – he is eager to.

    In fact, here’s an invitation for you. Come to the American Chesterton Society Conference in August. This year it’s in Reno, Nevada; next year it’s in Massachusetts. In fact, I’ll bet Dale would even invite you to speak. Call your talk “Why Dale Ahlquist is Wrong” and he’ll make it the keynote address.

    And you’ll have the best time of your life. Seriously. You are clearly an intelligent devout reader who sees the danger of idolizing Chesterton, and you’d be very welcome at our conference. If you think what we’re doing is wrong, help us fix it.

    But there is one thing that does not need to be fixed. Dale Ahlquist, like most of the Chestertonians, loves Chesterton not simply for the man he was, but for the Everlasting Man he points us to. Idolatry is a danger, and you are right to warn us away from it. But in Dale’s case it is very far from the truth.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      May 7, 2012 11:37 pm

      Thanks for this thoughtful response, Kevin! I appreciate the respectful tone.

      I do acknowledge that Ahlquist’s books and television series provide a more well-rounded portrait of Chesterton than can be gleaned from the EWTN Live appearance. Still, I think the EWTN video illustrates the way in which Ahlquist’s presentation of Chesterton lends itself to co-opting by the political right. The details are fuzzy, but I recall a recent EWTN radio appearance in which Ahlquist stressed the centrality of the traditional family and respect for private property in distributism. I think it is easy to see how this manner of presentation might confuse a casual EWTN listener into thinking that Chesterton’s defense of the family was simply about abortion and homosexuality, or that Chesterton’s respect for private property entailed a respect for capitalism.

      I would also point out that the Chesterton conferences I have attended (including the one last summer in St. Louis) have been overwhelmingly populated by politically and theologically conservative Christians. Perhaps when I am not paying attention, Ahlquist is traveling across the country publicly debating New Atheists and radical feminists; I don’t know. What I do know is that I have observed the same Bush and Romney friendly trend at the conferences. Consider for example Christopher Check’s talk on Islam last summer. The message of Check’s Chesterton was essentially that Islam is a menace to Christendom (i.e. the United States) against which Christian soldiers (i.e. everyone at the conference) must take arms. It was not difficult to see the neoconservative implications of such rhetoric: as a justification for American military presence in the Middle East and a defensive, “America is a Christian nation” posture at home that would marginalize American Muslims.

      On the whole, I have enjoyed Chesterton conferences quite a lot. I especially liked last summer’s production of Chesterton’s play Magic, which I believe you may have had something to do with. As for the possibility of my speaking at one, I would point out that the ACS has just linked to my review on Facebook, stating that “dishonest blogger uses book review to say dishonest things about Dale Ahlquist.” This doesn’t exactly strike me as the kind of language used by an organization that welcomes debate.

      And I’m not even a secularist!

      • May 8, 2012 6:00 am

        It seems that you’ve put your finger on a symptom, but you’ve mis-diagnosed the cause. At this point, more conservatives are drawn to Chesterton than liberals, and you are blaming this on Dale Ahlquist and the ACS – rather than on the true cause, liberals.

        He’s out there for them to read. He’s the most sane and gifted writer of the modern era. He sees through the flaws of capitalism and Puritanism. He has a heart that understands man and God and that loves the poor. And the liberals reject him. He should be their hero, but they reject him. Why? Because when you give yourself over to death and a culture that extols death, you end up hating the light. Until you realize this, Mr. Smith, you really can’t call yourself “Innocent”.

        And you’re simply wrong that Dale downplays certain elements in Distributism. Dale once told me of a speech he gave before a Legatus chapter in which he defended Distributism and Chesterton’s critique of capitalism, much to the chagrin of the wealthy capitalists in attendance. And if you find some Fad Athesists or feminists for Dale to debate, I assure you he’d jump at the chance. But then you’d be upset that he’s not debating neo-cons and Wal-Mart shoppers, it seems – which he’d also be glad to do.

        As to the ACS link, your post is indeed dishonest in one very important respect. It is intellectually dishonest: you’re accusing Dale of things he hasn’t done. He has a show on EWTN that in 70 episodes to date has covered all of Chesterton top to bottom, including Chesterton’s critique of capitalism and defense of joy, two things that irk the typical EWTN viewer. He runs an annual conference in which he invites speakers who make liberals mad, and speakers who make conservatives mad (Mark Shea this year, for example, who drives neo-cons crazy). You yourself are angry at a speaker from last year and you blame this on the Society.

        You sound to me, Mr. Smith, very much like one of those “ex-priests” who have left the Church to marry their girl-friends or shack up with their boyfriends. I know you’re not one, but there is a lingering guilt you’re wrestling with, the kind of guilt I see only in “ex-priests”. What is haunting you is the indefensibility of the liberal endorsement of the Culture of Death. Yes, conservatives have their problems; yes, Islam is not all bad; yes, Obama is a man, not a monster.
        But the fact that contraception and abortion and euthenasia and perversion are destroying both liberals and the rest of us is something that is not Dale Ahlquist’s fault, not Chesterton’s fault and not EWTN’s fault.

        If liberals don’t like Chesterton, they have only themselves to blame.

      • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
        May 8, 2012 9:56 am

        It would be dishonest for me to knowingly make false claims about Dale Ahlquist. If I have misrepresented Ahlquist, I have not done so willfully; I gladly accept correction as to my factual assertions. What I was trying to do in the post is contrast two distinctive ways of presenting Chesterton to new audiences: that of Ahlquist and that of Ross Douthat. This seems to me a legitimate matter for debate.

        The distinction between dishonesty and wrongheadedness is, I think, an important one. To call someone “dishonest” is to direct attention away from the question at hand and toward the motives and moral character of that person. It is a mode of argumentation that, I’m afraid, has become all too common on all sides of our political and theological debates these days. It elevates tribalism (which as a rule imputes ill-will or moral failing to ideological opponents) at the expense of reasoned inquiry.

        As for liberalism, I see it as in some respects more compatible with the Catholic faith than conservatism, and in other respects less. That is a banal conclusion, I realize, but an important one. I think it is a serious mistake for liberals to embrace abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, and other key tenets of the Culture of Death. By the same token, it is a serious mistake for conservatives to embrace militarism, torture, and unbridled capitalism. Neither side deserves the mantle of Chesterton, though I do think as a matter of prudential judgment, a case could be made, consistent with Catholic orthodoxy, for voting Democratic, Republican, third party, or not at all. That, incidentally, is also the position of Ross Douthat, who rightly warns against over-identifying faith with partisanship.

        I grant that, from a sociological standpoint, you may be right as to why liberals haven’t embraced Chesterton. And, to be clear, I’m not endorsing some kind of “fairness doctrine” in mind by which liberals should get equal air time at Chesterton conferences and EWTN. I am simply trying to point out that the cult of Chesterton in its current form actually diminishes Chesterton; that what’s needed is the kind of strenuous engagement with modernity Douthat practices, and that Chesterton himself practiced.

      • May 8, 2012 11:07 am

        Thank you, Mr. Smith, for clarifying all this. I agree with everything you say in this reply to my reply (to my reply), although I’m not familiar with Douthat or his method of engagement.

        I’m glad your misrepresentation of Ahlquist was not intentional, and I admire you for conceding (in a round about way) that you did make some misrepresentations.

        Hope to see you at a future conference! Keep plugging away.

    • May 8, 2012 8:23 pm

      Sorry to interrupt this thread, but: Hey, Kevin! Love you on the show! Thanks for mentioning next year’s conference in MA, because I can’t make it to Reno this year…

  3. Adam Ehaecarn permalink
    May 7, 2012 8:48 pm

    I am a Lutheran Chestertonian – one who neither blindly worships him nor simply picks what I like from his writings to support my beliefs.
    I say the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. I say that salvation is achieved through Jesus’ life, sufferings, and death. And I say that the Scriptures are authoritative and were regarded as such by the Fathers.

    I think there might be more than just your “two types” of Chestertonians.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      May 7, 2012 11:40 pm

      Good point, Adam. I’m glad Chesterton is attracting readers like you!

  4. May 7, 2012 10:44 pm

    Thank you for the thoughtful review. I’m waiting my turn at the library copies in Denver.

  5. Pat permalink
    May 8, 2012 9:58 am

    You say Dale Alquist worships GKC and doesn’t make use of him by not bringing him to a secular audience? Must be another Dale Alquist out there. Perhaps he has an evil twin. this article comes off as having some ax to grind against Dale Alquist rather than a serious review of the book, Bad Religion.

  6. May 8, 2012 8:12 pm

    Mr. Ahlquist has made speeches outside the pews. A quick youtube search pulled up a “Theology on Tap” speech introducing Chesterton to people in a public bar.

    I’m a Chestertonian who veers onto the left side of things and I love Dale’s series.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      May 8, 2012 11:22 pm

      A lot of great anecdotes here. Thanks for sharing, Greg!

  7. May 10, 2012 11:33 am

    Dale Ahlquist is a professional Chestertonian; he has made it his life’s work, and even his job, to introduce Chesterton to as many people as possible. To call him a professional might be the more accurate insult than to say he worships the man. 😉

    I’m not sure the American Chesterton Society’s failure to adequately reach a secular audience is entirely their fault. It merely demonstrates that GKC is too big a man (heh) for one organization.

    Dale’s books are published by a Catholic publisher (Ignatius) and his show is on a Catholic network (EWTN). Perhaps because they are the only ones willing to fund those projects. Most, if not all, of the ACS’ inner circle (Ahlquist, Dailey, Brown, Aleman) is Catholic. So it shows in their particular organization.

    Their approach is limited. I have met several Chestertonians that said they lacked the Harry Potter fanboyism or the background in other literature to enjoy, or even understand, Gilbert magazine. One reviewer of my board game Table Gype openly wondered what the hell a children’s game had to do with “a Catholic Apologist,” as that is all that he got from a quick perusal of Google about GKC – nothing about his faith was presented in the game itself.

    I am incredibly thankful to Ahlquist and his supporters for fostering a revival in Chesterton, but I certainly do not fault them for not being able to bring GKC to everyone. I don’t think they ever claimed a monopoly on him. The mistake is thinking that it is only up to them to teach the world about Chesterton.

    • innocentsmithjournal permalink*
      May 10, 2012 9:40 pm

      Paul, I think it’s great if ACS’s presentation of Chesterton resonates with audiences of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals. And I agree that it is unrealistic to expect ACS to be all things to all people. The post wasn’t intended to berate ACS (which I too have benefited from) so much as point out certain limitations to Ahlquist’s approach–in particular his lack of engagement with modernity and uncritical acceptance of Chesterton’s ideas.


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