Book Review: Bad Religion by Ross Douthat
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.