"Bad Religion" by Ross Douthat

Pining for religion’s golden age with Ross Douthat's "Bad Religion"

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • May 11, 2012

Heretics, heresy, lost opportunities and misdirection — Bad Religion has it all.

Depending on where and when you first read about Bad Religion — the book, not the band — you might be of the opinion it is a smart, thoughtful take on the United States and the importance of religion. Or you might be pretty sure it is a sloppily assembled defense of some of the most retrograde Christianity imaginable.

Ross Douthat is not a dumb man and he has written a smart book. It is a keen and perceptive argument that sometimes relies on questionable interpretations, dubious facts and logical over-reaches. People who don’t like Douthat, or  don’t like Douthat’s politics and type of Catholicism, tend to spend way too much time wrestling with the dubious facts and suspect interpretations rather than the underlying thrust of his argument. People more sympathetic to the Douthat perspective glide over each and every error or out-there interpretation as if they are all of equal value.

Bad Religion pines for a golden age of religion in America. At the same time it accepts that there is no such thing as a golden age and hopes to see a time of robust Christianity at work in the salvation of America while acknowledging that wishful thinking doesn’t make a thing so.

The key difficulty with Douthat’s dreams and desires is the political baggage that travels with his night visions and the stark reality that much of America is no longer in sync with his reasoning or his perspective.

The Golden Age was the 1950s. Pius XII was pope and America was the globe’s dominant military force. Back then America was becoming the planet’s cultural Mecca. It was where Christianity, and Catholicism, were bound, even destined, to be a guiding light to a remarkable country.

Today, American Catholics rank fifth in knowledge of religion and the role of religion in public life (behind atheists, Jews, Mormons and Evangelicals). They are the most likely to leave their Church and cling to views and values at wide variance from the leadership, not to mention its teachings.

Douthat’s no dummy. In fact, the op-ed columnist for the New York Times knows too well that the Church has failed at resisting the forces of secularization, not to mention the forces of heresy. Taking back lost ground is going to be difficult, if for no other reason than the impact of the sex abuse scandals which “ensured that the American Church experienced the first decade of the third millennium not as an Easter or a Pentecost but as a limping agony, a long and bitter Lent.”

Douthat’s critics think he misses the boat by not tackling a neo-con hierarchy in league with rapacious capitalists while his supporters accuse him of being too soft on relativists and suspect theologians intent on widening the Gospel to account for everything.

I suspect friends and foes are missing the point. Douthat is in the grips of a nostalgia. The word nostalgia means “pining for a non-existent, idealized home or childhood.” The Church was never the great political and cultural force that Douthat imagines and seeking to make it what it never was might well lead to madness if not utter frustration.

Douthat is a conservative, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He is not an unthinking or uncaring conservative and often finds himself accepting, agreeing and even promoting significant liberal critiques of the Church and her behaviour. And his book reflects that perspective. He doesn’t paint a pretty picture or plot an easy course ahead. But he does build an argument and makes you wrestle with it. Doing so is worth your while.

(Kavanagh is a producer at CBC Radio.)

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