I wrote several thousand words on Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion, that ended up in my iMac’s trash bin. I felt my reactions to the book were either hazy or uninteresting, and, unfortunately, was too busy last week to spend enough time thinking about it. Now that’s it’s been widely reviewed, and Ross and Will Saletan have had a great debate over it, I feel like there’s even less point in writing a standard review that has to summarize and deal with arguments most people have by now already read. So I thought I would instead try to articulate what hasn’t been said. (Here’s some of the reviews worth looking at: my friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry; New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer; liberal Catholic writer Michael Sean Winters, to whom Douthat responded; and from an evangelical perspective, Books & Culture’s John Wilson.)

The obvious thing one could take issue with is Ross’ portrait of American history post-World War II, which he claims was a period where small-O “orthodox” Christianity kept America’s unique penchant for religious heresy in check, and had broad cultural influence both among intellectual elites and the majority of the population. We can quibble with what I feel is Douthat’s dubious notion of an American “orthodoxy,” and even he suggests there are other ways of looking at the history, but I don’t think the basic thrust of his account is incorrect. In simple terms, there was a time when Christian intellectuals were regularly on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr had a significant voice in mainstream political thought. And I think it’s safe to say that time is over, a situation Douthat blames on both the accomodationism of mainline Protestantism to cultural trends and the anti-intellectual retrenchment of conservative evangelicalism. Douthat, who is more or less in line with official Catholic doctrine on most political issues, sees this weakened, discredited state of Christianity as bad for America, the stuff of hubristic foreign policy, Wall Street greed, crumbling social morality, etc.

What I’m not convinced of is that the direction of the country would have been any different even with a Christianity that had worked to maintain a broad appeal while preserving the judgmental aspects of Christian orthodoxy. It didn’t stop the greed that led to the Great Depression, it didn’t stop the paranoid hubris of the Vietnam War, and it didn’t stop the arrival of the Sexual Revolution. It is simply in the nature of religion—particularly America’s hyper-flexible modernist-individualist Protestantism—to adapt to the demands and values of the surrounding culture, and to either collude so much that it becomes a baptizing force of cultural trend or an isolated resistance. Even if Christianity has always been the loose doctrine that organized American society, I don’t think it has ever had the sort of purity or power Douthat seems to ascribe to it in that little window of post-war history. It has always been hand-in-hand with America’s delusions of grandeur, and with its worst impulses as well as its best.

Late in the book, Douthat’s familiar ground starts showing through his argument: the thing he is most concerned about is the abandonment of the Christian “sexual ethic,” on which he blames the abortion rate, the rise of illegitimacy, the decline of marriage, etc. Contraception is Douthat’s central cultural enemy; while far from the only cause of this moral breakdown, for him it’s a huge one. The idea is that Christianity gave up on defending its fundamentals, its moral demands, and American society has suffered from the ensuring license.

But this is where I disagree with Douthat the most, though perhaps in a predictable and rather uninteresting way. Underlying his argument is a kind of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States’ success has had at least something to do with its religiosity, and that its religiosity has had played a central role in keeping it on track as a society—that it needs some kind of orthodox, metaphysically energized Christianity, which implies judgment, to keep society’s excesses in check. But this is obviously not true: almost every advanced Western nation besides the U.S. is predominantly secular, and all of them have lower abortion rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, and lower divorce rates than we do. But, as Douthat has said explicitly, the ways they accomplish these things—sex education, contraception, legalized abortion, policies supporting unmarried cohabiting parents—are not things he believes a Christian can accept.  So he’s choosing a view of America—that religion is socially necessary—and excluding policy options that don’t accept that premise. And here’s the kicker: he makes this choice even if those policies he can’t accept are more likely to be more effective in ameliorating the real-world problems he is concerned about, and even if the policies his religion prefers have to exclude people in ways that just aren’t acceptable to modern liberal society.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Ross that the collapse of Christianity in the U.S. has, for example, seriously undermined marriage among lower-class Americans and put an increasing number of American children in single-parent homes. This is a problem we should be concerned about. But I’m not nearly as optimistic as Douthat that a revival of conservative religion is going to turn back the clock. The fact is, there has been a blossoming of conservative religion, and the broad ecumenical success of people like Rick Warren and the energy of the neo-Calvinist movement has not turned stemmed the cultural tide. Douthat is worried that the “world contraception has made” has “de-emphasized the moral weight of the sexual act,” but the reality is that the world advanced capitalism has made has de-emphasized the moral weight of every kind of human action. All the religious dogma in the world isn’t going to make community values widely credible and urgent in an environment commoditized to the extent ours is.

But the main reason I can’t accept Douthat’s prescription is what he believes it entails: teaching that rejects the advancement for women represented the availability of contraception, and the continued exclusion of homosexuals from the institution of marriage. This puts Douthat a lot closer to Christian fundamentalism than he would like to believe; not fundamentalism in the historical sense, but in the sense of a religious ideology that is unable to see past its own particular politico-cultural moment. Douthat is a fundamentalist because his ideology is total; if you reject any part of it—say, that contraception is bad—the entire thing collapses. This kind of rigidity is in no way necessary;  there is simply no reason that even an energetic “orthodox” Christianity has to be absolutist on sexual issues to preserve its particularity and its demandingness, the characteristics supposedly required for religion to make a real difference in the way people live and behave. Christianity can still preach the importance of marriage and fidelity without rejecting gender equality and condemning gays and lesbians to lives without intimacy. But for Douthat, those particularly modern conservative shibboleths are integral to the kind of Christianity he thinks is necessary to save America. And I’m sorry, but I think we have more than enough of that already.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

0 Responses to What’s Wrong With “Bad Religion”

  1. TheoMatt says:

    why do liberals constantly claim they think marriage is so important when they’re willing to throw that notion away with BS like “we have to support unmarried cohabitating couples?” we do have a support system for them, it’s called marriage.

    i mean i get that in actuality y’all apparently think marriage is some unrestrained private decision of no major consequence, so just be honest about it.

    there’s also the fact that you guys can’t make up your mind about homosexual marriage having no effect on marriage as a whole, or having tons of effects, but (of course) they’re all positive, spiffy gender egalitarian/”alternative” arrangement (cohabitation, mutually-agreed cheating under the polyamory euphemism, etc. etc.) ones. make up yer damn minds.

    • Julie says:

      Paragraph 1: He didn’t say couples, he said parents. The idea is that once they are parents, society has a vested interest in the child and needs to support them better than the US policy currently does.

      Paragraph 3: Yes, homosexual marriage has had a major impact on my marriage. In the brief window of time that it was a legal option in California, I could barely look at another woman without getting all excited – “oooh, I could *totaly* marry that!”


      Rather – gay marriage has the same effect on straight marriage as other straight marriages do. In other words, having friends who are a committed couple and watching them navigate the hazards of a relationship can help you gain perspective on your own life. There are a few other minor impacts – more expensive wedding sites as demand goes up, more demand for divorce attorneys as demand goes up, longer wait times for child-seating areas of restaurants – but grankly, I believe these impacts to be minimal.

      • John Howard says:

        same-sex couples raising children would be much better served by achieving federal recognition and recognition in more states via Civil Unions defined as “marriage minus conception rights” than by demanding equal procreation rights as a married man and woman. It is silly to demand equal conception rights when it is not even possible and might never be possible, and would certainly be expensive and unethical. Insisting on the right to make biological offspring together is also insulting to the children of same-sex couples, because it implies they are not loved as much as they would be if they were biologically related to both parents.

        We could enact Civil Unions in far more states once they are assured they are not stepping stones to marriage and marriage is protected as a man and a woman with the right to procreate offspring together using their own genes.

        • DDixon says:

          Since when did we empower the government to define who gets “conception rights?” I must have missed that Civics class. Open that door and you open the door to these rights being curtailed for heterosexual couples.

          Also, it makes no sense as a conservative limited government argument.

          • John Howard says:

            Since the beginning of civilization, people have been forbidden to have sex, and people have been approved to have sex together, by civil society. When people got married, they received social approval to have sex and make babies together. Marriages have always been approved to have sex and make babies, and government is what administers marriage.

            And actually, allowing same-sex procreation technology is what would lead to big government regulation. And failing to affirm that all marriages are allowed to have sex and procreate offspring together would also lead to big government.

      • TheoMatt says:

        ur fun E.

    • bpuharic says:

      I never understood the conservative obsession with the sex lives of others. It’s prurient to say the least, perverted at best. Who cares if gays marry? Why are you right wingers so head over heels focused on sex? Conservative ideology, based economically on the Laffer curve, and socially on ridding the US of contraception, has collapsed into failure. It’s vampire theology.

      • John Howard says:

        We need to preserve the right of every one to marry someone of the other sex and the right of every marriage to procreate together using their own genes. It is really important to affirm that married couples have a right to create offspring.

    • orville r says:

      What we liberals think is important is committed relationships, and since in America the states have only conferred the rights and obligations of those relationships on marriage, we believe in marriage. Unfortunately, we don’t have – and with the degree of Christianist political power in state capitols and Washington, we won’t soon have – the things David correctly states other civilized nations have to have lower abortion, teen age pregnancies etc. than the US – i.e. sex education, contraception, legalized abortion, policies supporting unmarried cohabiting parents.

      • TheoMatt says:

        “committed relationships,” that’s it. don’t make it more difficult to divorce, don’t encourage long-term parents to marry, just make sure they’re “committed” in whatever nebulous sense of the term.

        who’s got the “vampire theology” again?

  2. TheoMatt says:

    gender equality is a sham anyway, and how many times have we heard the “lesbians make teh best parents yo!” BS.

    OK, maybe not that many times. but we’ve heard it.

  3. TheoMatt says:

    AND, you talk about Christianity preaching fidelity while simultaneously supporting the same things — easy no-copay/premium contraception, out-of-wedlock childbearing — that undermine it. so again.

    OK i’m done.

    • JeCaThRe says:

      Either fidelity is important in its own right, in which case you should argue it on its merits, not enforce it through the threat of pregnancy, or fidelity matters only because of the threat of pregnancy in which case fidelity doesn’t really matter in the age of safe, effective, affordable contraception.

      I think fidelity matters for reasons having nothing to do with pregnancy, and so I don’t think contraception is a real issue. I’ve used lots of contraception. Being able to have the number of children my husband and I felt was right for us has had an effect on my finances and my quality of life, but not on my fidelity.

      • TheoMatt says:

        of course fidelity is important on its own merits (though some liberals seem squishy on even that given how hesitant they are to criticize open homosexual relationships,) and of course people who contracept can be faithful. that doesn’t mean there aren’t other aspects of it that discourage it.

  4. Neil Hanson says:

    I think those who are on the far right in the political religious spectrum might want to think twice about equating “the fall of traditional Christianity” with what they see as modern moral lapses. As you point out in the article, the most severe of these lapses have been occurring over the past 30 years, at the same time that “orthodoxy” has been moving further and further to the right. Someone on the left might make an argument that this movement to the right is actually the cause of the problems, since there seems to be a correlation. (I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that argument, but think those on the right might be a little more cautious with the arguments they make.)

    It seems to me that there are lots of pointers indicating that our nation is an empire that has peaked, and may be starting its decline. This decline has nothing to do with “not enough religion” or “not the right kind of religion”. The decline has to do with our behavior and choices as a nation, and religions should be looking closely at which of these choices and behaviors as a nation they support.

    If I’m a Christian, I need to test everything against what Jesus taught, and see if the political actions I’m supporting seem consistent with what He would likely have recommended. That, it seems to me, is how to avoid bad religion…

    Haven’t read the book – your thoughts make me want to take a look at it. Thanks for the review!

    • John says:

      Actually, the Catholic church went through a major liberalization during the 1960’s called Vatican II. So the idea that christianity (at least Catholicism) became more conservative over this period, is just wrong.

      It is also interesting to point out that the number of men entering the priesthood in the U.S. dropped precipitously post-Vatican II. Some, see William F. Buckley’s autobiography of faith, argued that this liberalization actually contributed to further marginalization of the Catholic church–the exact opposite of the argument Neil and David Sessions seem to be making.

  5. PEG says:

    Interesting review. A few things.

    1) You say there’s no reason to believe a more orthodoxically Christian America would be more virtuous. Maybe. But if you’re a Christian, isn’t that desirable *in itself* even if it had no effect on the divorce rate, or foreign wars or what have you?

    2) I think the Ross you’re arguing with isn’t the Ross I’ve read. I never got the sense from this book or any of his writing that he was obsessed by contraception or that it’s the root of his worldview. That’s, frankly, a bizarre claim to make. As well as the implication that, somehow, if you disagree with Ross about contraception you must also disagree with him about the history of religion in America and its role in the public square.

    • Julie says:

      Paragraph 1: I don’t want to see a more Christian America, just as I don’t want to see a more non-theist America, Jewish America, Muslim America, etc.

      What I want is a more reasonable, kind, and modest America, where more people live lives based on the Golden Rule.

      Christianity has the Golden Rule in it, but they do not have the only claim to it.

      I know that some Christians see themselves as bound to evangelize, but not all read Scripture that way. Many see Scripture as calling them to live good and modest lives. Speaking personally, I find those Christians far easier to live with.

    • David Sessions says:

      1) I didn’t say for sure that it wouldn’t be more virtuous – I can’t know that. But history suggests that we haven’t been more virtuous when we were more religious, because our religion has almost always either sanctioned our excess; the critics are always too isolated and marginal to make much of a difference. The religion of Americanism always, ALWAYS beats out any kind of genuine religion.

      And no, I don’t care whether or not America is more Christian. If that makes it a better place, then that’s one thing, but I’m not convinced it does – the positive effects of religiosity are always matched if not outweighed by its dark side.

      2) I didn’t say Ross was “obsessed” with contraception, but if you don’t think it’s central to his social conservatism, then you haven’t been reading him closely. His entire rationale for his position on sexual issues – contraception, sex education, gay marriage, all of it – is based on the Catholic sex-procreation thing. And if you give on contraception, none of the rest of it makes sense. I know Ross isn’t a zealot, and is well aware that this a lost battle in the US. But he continues to defend the church’s position and oppose policies – even those that might be effective – that don’t ideologically line up with this theological view. Of course one can agree with him about other things unrelated to this, but you cannot absolve him of his sexual absolutism, of which contraception is indisputably the root.

  6. bpuharic says:

    Excellent summary of what’s wrong with the backbone of American Christianity. Kathryn Jean Lopez of “NRO” exhibits the same problem; to many conservative American Christians, religion is only and solely about sex. There are no other moral questions, they believe, which can’t be addressed by regulating sex.

    Of course, this exclusionary view merely reinforces features of American ‘exceptionalism’ like fanatical Wall Street deregulation and greed while focusing on middle class sexual mores. Lots of handwringing over sex; none at all over the problems that led to millions unemployed.

    American Christianity is becoming irrelevant for the reason Sessions outlined; faced with failure of its policies, it simply asserts blandly that they’re true regardless of consequences. Wrong is right, failure is success. Tragic and delusional. Douthat is the best conservative intellectual writing today, which is like being the tallest building in Wichita.

  7. Mark Perkins says:

    “…not fundamentalism in the historical sense, but in the sense of a religious ideology that is unable to see past its own particular politico-cultural moment.”

    I agree with the sentence that follows this one–the tottering-Jenga-tower theory of fundamentalism, to borrow an image from my friend Daniel Silliman–but I’m not sure exactly what you are trying to get across here.

    Being trapped in a “particular politico-cultural moment” is an unavoidable condition of human, historical life. It’s shared by quite literally every member of the human race. There are people more or less circumspect about the limitations of their own perspective, but there’s not a man, woman, child, or religion “able to see past its own particular politico-cultural moment,” and it’s kind of absurd to think otherwise.

    Liberal and progressive understandings of religion are no more capable of escaping that moment than the most rigidly conservative and traditional. The inclusivity of “modern liberal society” is no more ahistorical or free of context than the SSPX antisemites.

    While I agree that fundamentalists are mistaken in converting the words of Christ into policy statements on current affairs, I don’t think the ability to see past one’s politico-cultural moment can be a barometer test for fundamentalism. That’s a test everyone would fail–and anyone who supposes otherwise does so from a mixture of arrogance and ignorance.

  8. theo says:

    Strange that so many claim to read the same good news and yet, continue to declaim about things remarkable in their absence from the gospels. Gay, contraception, and abortion are words neither found, nor discussed in the Gospels. Yet, prominent is the warning judge not, lest ye be judged. Yet…. everywhere you turn someone claiming to be full of grace is judging men, and women even though the judger is utterly unfamiliar with and unconnected with the lives lived by those he, or she would judge.

    • TheoMatt says:

      there’s a lot of things that aren’t in the Bible. try again.

      good job trying to make liberal tolerance the core of Christianity too, when the “judgment” discussed is obviously claiming to know the state of someone’s soul, not “whatever floats your boat.”

  9. […] primary inspiration for this post is a recent post at Patrol Magazine by David Sessions. I love Patrol (as I’ve said before), and I respect […]

  10. Fred says:

    It is really quite simple – Ross Douthat sux!

    Jesus, who was an outsider, was of course was famous for ferociously criticizing the religious and state establishments of his time and place.

    Although Ross may like to pretend otherwise he IS a member of the religious and state establishment. Does Ross or anyone else imagine that he would even recognize Jesus if he happened to reappear in down down New York?
    Would Jesus knock on Ross’s door requesting an interview?
    Would Jesus be recognized or even welcome at the Vatican, or St John’s Cathedral in new York?
    Of course not!

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