Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

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9781452607290: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
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ONE

THE LOST WORLD

Somewhere in the dark years between Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the turn of the Second World War’s tide, Wystan Hugh Auden returned to his childhood faith. The poet was living in New York, having emigrated from England shortly before the outbreak of the war, and he began attending services at St. Mark’s in the Bouwerie, an Episcopal parish and New York’s second oldest church. He officially entered Anglican Communion in October 1940, but he would later describe that precise date as less important than the general drift in his thinking about matters of religion, which had been pressing him back toward Christianity for some time.

Some of the reasons for Auden’s conversion were personal—in particular, the experience of being betrayed by his lover Chester Kallman, which Auden later wrote forced him to “know in person what it is like to feel oneself the prey of demonic powers, in both the Greek and Christian sense.” But he had other motives, intellectual and cultural, that were very particular to that specific historical time and place. These motives included the influence of his literary contemporaries. Along with Søren Kierkegaard, Auden would cite two of his fellow English writers, Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis—both members of a famous literary circle that also included J. R. R. Tolkien—as crucial to his return to religious belief, and once in America, he became fast friends with the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his wife, Ursula, as well.

Still more crucial, though, was the political context in which the poet found himself, and his reaction to the totalizing ideologies, Marxist and fascist, that were vying for mastery of Europe. In a 1957 essay on his re-conversion, Auden described a sojourn in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, at a time when the Republican struggle against Francisco Franco’s fascists was a cause célèbre for the West’s liberal intelligentsia. Following the example set by left-wing regimes from Mexico to Moscow, the Republicans had launched a campaign of persecution against the Spanish Catholic Church, and Auden arrived to find that all of the city’s many churches had been closed and its priests exiled or killed. “To my astonishment,” he wrote, “this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed…. I could not help acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had all the time been very important to me.”

What he felt during his Spanish encounter with left-wing anti-Christianity was similar to his reactions to the anti-Christianity of the right. The “novelty and shock of the Nazis,” Auden wrote, and the blitheness with which Hitler’s acolytes dismissed Christianity “on the grounds that to love one’s neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings,” pushed him inexorably toward unavoidable questions. “If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?” The answer to this question, he wrote later, was part of what “brought me back to the church.” When confronting the phenomenon of modern totalitarianism, he argued, “it was impossible any longer to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self-evident.” Humanism needed to be grounded in something higher than a purely material account of the universe, and in something more compelling than the hope of a secular utopia. Only religious premises could support basic liberal concepts like equality and human rights. Only God could ask human beings, as the poet put it, to “love their crooked neighbor with all their crooked heart.”

Auden being Auden, all of this was later summarized in verse, in two stanzas from his 1973 poem “Thanksgiving.”

Finally, hair-raising things

that Hitler and Stalin were doing

forced me to think about God.

Why was I sure they were wrong?

Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis

guided me back to belief.

The details of his pilgrimage were distinctive, but in its broad outlines, Auden’s story was emblematic of his era. The disillusionment with the utopias of left and right, the sense of religion as a moral bulwark against totalitarianism, the influence of a generation of brilliant apologists and theologians, even the physical migration from the Old World to the New—these elements in Auden’s return to Christian faith were also crucial elements in the larger postwar revival of American Christianity, which ushered in a kind of Indian summer for orthodox belief.

That age is lost to us now, almost beyond recall. It was the last moment in American life when the churches of the Protestant Mainline still composed something like a religious establishment capable of setting the tone for the culture as a whole. It was a period that saw the reemergence of Evangelical Protestantism as a significant force in American life, trading decades of self-imposed, often-paranoid isolation for cultural engagement and ecumenical revival. It was the peak, in certain ways, of the American Catholic Church, which had passed from a mistrusted immigrant faith to an institution almost unmatched in confidence and prestige, admired even by its fiercest Protestant rivals for the loyalty of its adherents and the vigor of its leaders. Most remarkably, perhaps, it was an era in which the black church, heretofore the most marginal of American Christian traditions, suddenly found itself at the center of the national story and claimed a moral authority unmatched before or since.

The strength of Christianity in this era rested on a foundation of swift demographic growth, as the steady, linear increase to which most American churches were accustomed gave way to a surge in membership and attendance that left denominations and parishes struggling to match supply to the newfound demand. In 1940, churchgoing rates hovered around 40 percent; by the late 1950s, they were close to 50 percent. Religious identification increased more rapidly than usual as well, with church membership growing almost twice as fast as population growth. In 1930, 47 percent of Americans were formally affiliated with a church or denomination; the number had risen to 69 percent in 1960. The prestige of religious leaders rose; for example, a poll from 1957 found that 46 percent of Americans described the clergy as the group “doing the most good” in the nation’s common life, easily outstripping politicians, businessmen, and labor leaders. Enrollments in seminaries and Sunday schools increased steadily, and there was a great surge in church construction: Americans spent $26 million on sacred architecture in 1945, $409 million in 1950, and a billion dollars in 1960. “Not since the close of the Middle Ages,” enthused one of the many advice books pitched to pastors and planning committees, “has there been promise of such able advance in the building arts of the church.” A British journalist, assessing America in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville, remarked that “we did not need the evidence of polls and church attendance to confirm what we could so easily observe—the walls of new churches rising in town and countryside wherever we went.”

The popular culture partook of the same revivalist spirit. “The theme of religion dominates the non-fiction best sellers,” a Publishers Weekly analysis noted in 1953, “as it has in many of the preceding years.” Scripture sales soared: the distribution of Bibles rose 140 percent between 1949 and 1953. The mutual antagonism between Christians and the entertainment industry lay in the future: From New Testament–themed sword-and-sandal epics like The Robe (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), and Barabbas (1961) to Old Testament dramas like The Ten Commandments (1956), spectacle and piety went hand in hand in postwar Hollywood. (Some of the more amusing casting choices from this era include Victor Mature as Samson, Gregory Peck as King David, and a young Joan Collins as Queen Esther.) Catholic influence in the movie industry was particularly potent, visible in the cooperation between motion picture executives and the Church on decency standards—the famous/infamous Hays Code was written by a Jesuit theologian—and the way that movie stars lined up to play heroic priests and nuns. (For a generation, Charles Morris writes, “the Hollywood priest archetype was the ‘superpadre,’ virile, athletic, compassionate, wise.”) One of the first celebrities in the new medium of television was a Catholic bishop, the great popularizer Fulton Sheen, who delivered a prime-time mix of apologetics and moral advice in a full cape, cassock, and pectoral cross. (Upon receiving an Emmy in 1952, he cracked, “I wish to thank my four writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”) It was an era when “even the juke boxes and disc jockeys,” Sydney Ahlstrom wrote, “provided evidence of a change in public attitudes.”

The Christian renaissance wasn’t just a middlebrow affair. Taken on its own, the upsurge in church attendance could be chalked up to purely sociological factors (the return of veterans from war, the growth of the suburbs, the consequences of the baby boom), and the popular culture’s religious turn to simple trend-chasing by publishers and movie executives. But there was a shift in the intellectual climate as well, which suggests that something deeper was happening—that the experience of the 1930s and 1940s had really prompted a broader reassessment of the modern story, and that the same feelings that had impelled Auden back to Christianity were at work in society as a whole. After the death camps and the gulag, it was harder to credit the naive progressive belief that the modern age represented a long march toward ever-greater enlightenment and peace, or that humanity was capable of relying for salvation on its own capacities alone. Instead, there was a sudden demand for writers who could revise the story that modernity told about itself—explaining what had gone wrong, and why, with reference to ideas and traditions that an earlier generation’s intelligentsia had dismissed as irrelevant and out-of-date.

A host of thinkers answered this call. Not of all them were explicitly religious; their commitments ranged from the idiosyncratic European traditionalism of Eric Voegelin to the antitotalitarian liberalism of Hannah Arendt, from the continental socialism of Theodor Adorno to the very American conservatism of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. But they all contributed to a mood of historical and philosophical reassessment, in which the Christian past was mined for insights into the present situation, and the religious vision of a fallen world was suddenly more intellectually respectable than it had been for decades. Western liberalism originally sprang, in many ways, from Christian sources, and in the shadow of totalitarianism, the old Victorian-era debates over Darwinism, biblical criticism, and the like seemed less pressing than they once had, and the commonalities between the two traditions came rushing to the surface. From the halls of the United Nations (where the Catholic philosoper Jacques Maritain played a small but crucial role in the writing of the Declaration on Human Rights) to the streets of the Jim Crow South (where ministers and priests were joining arms with left-wing activists in the name of human brotherhood), the intertwining causes of democracy, civil rights, and anti-Communism provided orthodox Christians and secular liberals with a set of common purposes and a temporary common ground.

The result was an era in which religious intellectuals such as C. S. Lewis, Paul Tillich, and John Courtney Murray regularly graced the cover of Time magazine; in which the prolific historians Christopher Dawson and Arnold Toynbee (another Time cover subject) attempted sweeping syntheses of Western history from a Christian point of view; in which the work of writers like William F. Buckley and Whittaker Chambers helped forge a conservative anti-Communism rooted in religious faith.

It was a golden age for Christian literature as well, a time when the Anglosphere’s three greatest poets (Auden, Eliot, and the young Robert Lowell) were all Christian converts; when Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene were at the height of their powers and Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor were just coming into their own; when Lewis and Tolkien were publishing the twentieth century’s two most enduring works of Christian fantasy. Catholicism had been a fossilized substrate in the works of Lost Generation novelists, but the midcentury literary scene was crowded with self-consciously Catholic writers, many of them unjustly neglected today: J. F. Powers, Jean Stafford, Edwin O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, and Walter Miller. And not only novelists; the two greatest spiritual memoirs of the twentieth century were produced within five years of each other, when Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) was followed by Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness in 1952.

Indeed, from the vantage point of the current religious moment, perhaps the most striking features of the midcentury revival are the ways in which mass-market faith and highbrow religiosity seemed to complement each other. The revival meetings in the Bible Belt coincided with what Commentary’s Will Herberg called the “religious stirring on campus”; the surge in church attendance in the heartland was mirrored in a sudden tendency for intellectuals to identify themselves, if not necessarily as believers, then at least as what one journalist termed “fellow travelers of faith.” As a writer for the Times Literary Supplement put it in 1954, both “the social climate for religious living” and “the intellectual climate for religious thinking” became “much more congenial” in the years following World War II.

Asked to assess “the revival of religion,” a major American theologian took note of this parallelism: “Mass conversions under the ministrations of popular evangelists,” he wrote in the Sunday New York Times, were suddenly proceeding at a pace unseen “since the days of Billy Sunday.” At the same time, there was an unexpected “receptivity toward the message of the historic faiths” among intellectuals, “which is in marked contrast to the indifference or hostility of past decades.” Among academic students of religion, especially, a “defensive attitude” about their subject has given way to a “conviction of the importance and relevance of the ‘message’ of the Bible, as distinguished from the message of, say, Plato, on the one hand, or Herbert Spencer, on the other.”

Or, as another observer put it: “The avante-garde is becoming old-fashioned; religion is the latest thing.”

* * *

A kind of Christian convergence was the defining feature of this era. In the postwar revival, the divided houses of American Christendom didn’t just grow, they grew closer together, reengaged with one another after decades of fragmentation and self-segregation. Four figures in particular—a Protestant...

Revue de presse :

"Not only is Ross Douthat’s account of orthodox Christianity’s decline provocative, but his critique of today’s ascendant heresies is compelling. This volume is a sustained proof of Chesterton’s thesis that when people turn from God, 'they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.' Everyone who is interested in why the church is faring as it is in U.S. culture today needs to get this book."
—Timothy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City

"Bad Religion is superb: sharply critical of the amazing variety of American religious pathologies, but fair; blunt in diagnosis, but just; telling a dark tale, but telling it hopefully. For those trying to understand the last half-century or more of American religion, and to strive for a better future, it is an indispensable book."
—Alan Jacobs, author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis

"Ross Douthat's thoughtful, articulate, wide-ranging, sometimes contrarian and always provocative new book asks a tough question: Why has Christianity been so misunderstood, and so misused, in the past few decades? From those who (foolishly) watered down the most basic Christian beliefs, to those who (falsely) promised worldly success to the followers of Jesus, the values of orthodoxy (literally, "right belief") have often been blithely set aside. With an impressive command of both history and contemporary social trends, Douthat shows not only how we ended up with a Christianity of our own making, but also how we can reclaim an adherence to the teachings of the real Jesus—not just the convenient one."
—James Martin, SJ, author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything

" Bad Religion is nothing short of prophetic. In a time of religious, political, and cultural upheaval, Ross Douthat tells the American faithful—liberals, conservatives, and everybody in between—not what we want to hear, but what we desperately need to hear. With this provocative and challenging work that no thoughtful Christian can afford to ignore, Douthat assures his place in the first rank of his generation's public intellectuals."
—Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons and senior editor of The American Conservative

"A brilliantly reasoned argument for orthodox Christianity and the need for vibrant faith in society. In this perceptive and timely work, Ross Douthat extolls the ‘vital center’ of belief while calling out the fashionable heretics among us. This is one ‘Bad Religion’ we can all believe in."
—Raymond Arroyo, New York Times bestselling author, host of EWTN's The World Over Live

"Mr. Douthat offers a lively, convincing argument for what kind of religion we need." (Mark Oppenheimer New York Times)

"Bad Religion" is an important book. It brings a probing, perceptive analysis to bear on the tragic hollowing out of American Christianity. In Douthat, readers have a guide who explains how we ended up drinking at a narcissistic trough draped in spirituality that doesn't quench anybody's deepest thirst...." (G. Jeffrey MacDonald Christian Science Monitor)

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Description du livre Tantor Media, Inc, United States, 2012. CD-Audio. État : New. Unabridged. 164 x 140 mm. Language: English . Brand New. As the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for the New York Times and the author of the critically acclaimed books Privilege and Grand New Party, Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation. Now he offers a masterful and hard-hitting account of how American Christianity has gone off the rails-and why it threatens to take American society with it. In a story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, Douthat brilliantly charts traditional 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 down to the polarizing debates of the present day. He argues that Christianity s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, but by heresy: Debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption. Ranging from Glenn Beck to Eat Pray Love, Joel Osteen to The Da Vinci Code, Oprah Winfrey to Sarah Palin, 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 listening for all those concerned about the imperiled American future. N° de réf. du libraire AAC9781452607290

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