Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

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

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.

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

About the Author :

Ross Douthat is an online and op-ed columnist for the New York Times and the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class and coauthor of Grand New Party.

Lloyd James has been narrating since 1996, has recorded over six hundred books in almost every genre, has earned six AudioFile Earphones Awards, and is a two-time nominee for the prestigious Audie Award.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

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 ...

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