Commentary Magazine

When Is Religion Bad Religion?

In the wake of the murderous 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, one began to hear a great deal of talk about the appropriate role of religion in modern life. The attacks had, after all, been carried out by a gang of fanatical jihadists motivated by radical Islamist faith. Religion had not been incidental to their actions; it had been at the molten core of them. Hence it did not seem entirely implausible to wonder whether religion itself might be put in the dock for this offense—and, while we were at it, for all its many other offenses down through the centuries. Perhaps the monstrous inhumanity of the 9/11 terrorists, fed by their conviction that they were in possession of the absolute truth and their inability to abide by the tolerant norms of liberal democracies, was the typical fruit of all passionate religious faiths. Perhaps it was therefore a sign that the persistence of religion had become an unhealthy vestige of the past, incompatible with modern life, too dangerous to be tolerated any longer. Perhaps the time had come to crush the infamous thing once and for all.

Hence the emergence of the loud “New Atheism,” courtesy of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, among others. Skilled controversialists and attention-getters, they were not bashful or subtle in making their points and had no taste for polite qualifiers. God, quipped Hitchens, is “not great,” and those who believe in Him are not good. Religion, he declared, “poisons everything.” No quarter should be given even to mild expressions of religious sentiment, for, so contended Harris, “religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man” and cripples the constructive activity of science. And so it went.

Original they were not. There always has been a segment of the Anglo-American reading public with a boundless appetite for the rehearsal of 19th-century melodramas about the warfare between science and religion and the like. But their aggressive anti-religiosity was never more than a minority view. Far from recoiling at the wanton mischief of which religion-in-general was thought to be uniquely capable, much of the American public was powerfully drawn into greater participation in traditional forms of organized religion by the events of 9/11, seeking solace and consolation in familiar and established institutions where they could find it, in a time of shock and emotional neediness.

Most Americans are unlikely to regard the public expression of faith as “theocratic,” or link it to moral authoritarianism or violent radicalism; and the making of such claims runs the risk of backfiring. It was indicative, then, that when Barack Obama was carefully assembling his portfolio of issues for the 2008 presidential campaign, he chose to embrace religion rather than disparage it. Whether or not he did so out of pure calculation, his decision was wise. Such prudence reflected an understanding that in the public mind, the debate was not over the stark choice between religion and irreligion, as the New Atheists would have it, but between better and worse expressions of religion. If Mohammed Atta was a man of deep religious faith, so too was Martin Luther King Jr. The all-purpose cry of “Ecrasez l’infame!” does not help us account for the difference between them.

Hence there is reason to welcome two recent books that nicely illuminate the stage we have now reached in the reconsideration of religion. In February of this year, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam—whose lamentation for lost community, Bowling Alone (2000), had become one of the most memorable and discussed works of social science at the end of the century—sought to score the same kind of success with a big book on American religion called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, coauthored with Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell. More recently, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put forward a probing study of the follies and inadequacies of present-day Christianity in the pages of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 352 pages). Both books begin with the eminently sane premise that the extirpation of religion is neither possible nor desirable. But then they diverge, and do so in interesting and indicative ways, when attempting to define what is desirable and undesirable in the religious alternatives now on offer.

In pointed contrast to the New Atheists, American Grace takes an unabashedly positive view of American religion, capturing its energy and variety by alternating its presentations of reams of survey data with artfully drawn vignettes portraying the life and texture of particular American religious communities. As social scientists, Putnam and Campbell were more interested in understanding religion’s role in promoting social cohesion than in addressing questions of theology or morality; but on those former grounds, they found American religion to be benign and even salutary in its effects. By their fruits ye shall know them, and religious Americans, they argued, make better neighbors and better citizens by almost every index. They are more generous with their time and money. They are more likely to be active in civic life, more likely to participate in community organizations and promote social and political reform, and more likely to build and contribute to institutions. They are more generative of social trust by being both more trusting of others and more trustworthy themselves. And they are, perhaps as a result of all these things, measurably happier, healthier, and more productive people.

There was only one exception to this list of relentlessly positive traits: Religious people, Putnam and Campbell determined, tend to be less tolerant of views that clash with their own. Otherwise the picture was entirely bright. These results held very consistently even when they controlled for such factors as gender, education, income, race, region, and age. In their view, religion was good, an antidote rather than a toxin.

The authors did not attribute this extraordinary behavioral and cultural edge among the religious to the transformative effects of their theological convictions, or the resulting habits of personal piety. They have little or no interest in ideas. Instead, their explanation has to do with the way that religious commitments produce strong social networks, which encourage and sustain altruism by embedding it in webs of personal connection. In addition, American religion was notable chiefly for its moderation and sensible flexibility, and its attentiveness to good social effects. Among Americans, the religious category that the authors labeled “true believers” was, they believed, small and getting smaller. They regarded this shrinkage as a good thing, a cause for quiet celebration.

Such faint praise directed toward religion, treated as little more than a useful instrument of harmonious socialization that is at its most honorable when honored largely in the breach, was peculiarly congruous with the pungent damns sent its way by Hitchens and Company. Putnam and Campbell were resurrecting the view of postwar American religion that was famously formulated, and then thoroughly lambasted, by sociologist Will Herberg more than a half-century ago in his searing critique of American religious flaccidity, Protestant Catholic Jew (1955).

Herberg charged that in America the traditional faiths listed in his book’s title had been reduced to salts without savor, having willingly abandoned all their most central and demanding aspects, including their prophetic role, and surrendered to the actual “operative religion” of Americans: something Herberg called “the American Way of Life,” built on a generalized belief in such values as democracy, optimism, togetherness, humanitarianism, benign nationalism, and broad tolerance. American Grace describes a very similar state of affairs, but it does so happily, even merrily, with hardly a trace of Herberg’s critical edge.

In part, the difference is a reflection of different times and different felt needs. In the 1950s, critics feared the emergence of an overwhelming conformity, which would inhibit individual liberty and eccentricity in the name of adjustment to the group. Not so Robert Putnam. In Bowling Alone, he lamented the loss of community and collapse of civic engagement in the America of the 1990s, a process symbolized for him by data on the declining participation of Americans in organized bowling leagues. He looked back wistfully at the organizational world of the 50s, and much of what its contemporary critics found wanting he found appealing. He admired its neat arrangement of dominant business corporations, large and powerful labor unions, lifelong secure employment with predictable lockstep patterns of promotion and retirement, and a wide array of sturdy, well-established, public-minded associations dotting the social landscape. These associations were great and small, formal and informal, ranging from the Jaycees to the PTA to the Red Cross, and very much including extensive, well-ordered religious organizations, each with its own denominational bureaucracy, which in turn participated in the umbrella groups such as the National Council of Churches. This is very close to what Walter Russell Mead has called the Blue Model of centrally administered social and economic organization in advanced industrial society. What drove Putnam’s critique of the present was his dismay at the steady erosion of that centralized model.

Since the publication of American Grace, Putnam has found himself face to face with a political force that seemed both to illuminate and mock his view at the same time—the Tea Party, one of the most potent political movements of the past century. Now, one might have guessed that Putnam might be other than neutral about the impact of the Tea Party on American politics, given his support for the candidacy of Barack Obama, whom he had come to know well from Obama’s participation for several years in the Saguaro Seminars on civic engagement that Putnam ran at Harvard’s Kennedy School and about whom he was a starry-eyed enthusiast. But even so, it was surprising that in an article in the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “God and Caesar in America,” he and Campbell dropped all pretense of scholarly disinterestedness, expressing their categorical disdain for the Tea Party movement and pointing a long finger of displeasure at the Republican Party for deigning to listen to it.

The article argues that the Tea Party “sprang from the ranks of the Religious Right,” which is made up of “conservatives who advocate a fusion of church and state,” and the authors warn that it will not “be good for the Republicans in November” if they do not cease and desist from such “God talk,” because, after all, the Tea Party is demonstrably unpopular and the religious right is also demonstrably unpopular. They go on to claim that young people are abandoning religion altogether because they have come to associate it with the Republican Party, and hence with “homophobia” and intolerance. Putnam and Campbell point, as they did in American Grace, to the growing number of “nones,” individuals who claim to have no religious affiliation, and they find the alleged noxiousness of the religious right to be at fault.

The charge would be disturbing if it had a shred of plausibility. But anyone who has set foot in a mainline Protestant church (say, an Episcopal or United Methodist church) in the last two decades would have a hard time making such a claim with a straight face. In fact, the political positions of such mainline denominations and those of the leftmost wing of the Democratic Party are almost impossible to distinguish. If the problem were as Putnam and Campbell describe it, the Episcopal Church ought to be bursting at the seams with energetic and committed young people, rather than dying a slow, wasting, miserable death.

Putnam and Campbell might have viewed the Tea Party as an expression of the willingness of Americans to come together as Putnam feared they no longer would, in a loose association without direction from above, in common cause on issues of vital importance to themselves and the country. But aside from the political differences Putnam may have with the Tea Party, there is something different about it—it is not top-down and paternalistic, organized on the Blue State model. It is populist. It is just not the kind of populism Putnam can stomach, especially when it is intertwined with faith.

The Foreign Affairs article made explicit a view that was merely implied in American Grace. For religion to be “good,” it must be religion that has accommodated itself to political liberalism, and to liberalism’s current understanding of “the American Way of Life.” This comes ominously close to being itself a way of prescribing a fusion of religion and politics, the very sin the authors impute to the religious right. Hence it is easy for us to predict what forms of religion will be deemed by them to fall outside the sacred canopy of “American grace.” We can be confident that any religion that opposes gay marriage will be deemed bad religion. Religion that enthusiastically supports the state of Israel will be deemed bad religion. Religion that opposes the imposition of a federal mandate forcing the Roman Catholic Church to pay for medical services it deems sinful will be deemed bad religion. Such a state of affairs is, if anything, even more chilling to the free and independent exercise of religious faith than the anodyne situation described by Herberg.

By contrast, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion offers a very different, but ultimately much more persuasive account of the state of American religion today. That is not to say he is upbeat. Douthat is far more willing to be bluntly critical of “bad” religion, and he casts his net more widely in searching for it. Unlike Putnam and Campbell, he is just as interested in the theological and moral ideas of religious leaders and movements as he is in the social effects following from such beliefs. And those ideas are often not a pretty sight.

He writes as a believing and observant Roman Catholic, though a reflective and self-critical one, and as his subtitle suggests, he is willing to make hard judgments against expressions of Christianity that deviate too much from the core assertions of the orthodox historical faith. This reassertion of orthodoxy is a tricky thing to do, particularly when one is invoking a complex religious tradition with many conflicting intellectual and institutional strands, and when one is operating in a cultural climate in which the very words orthodox and heresy are rarely used in a non-ironic way. One has to find and articulate the core of shared belief within a tradition that has often been at war with itself. But it is one of the real triumphs of Douthat’s book that he manages to do so effectively, and even elegantly. Readers who want to understand what the core of Christianity is all about would do well to consult him.

The historical argument in which he frames his account is, however, another matter. Douthat sees the history of American religion since the Second World War as a narrative of decline, or fall from glory, and in this respect his account tracks somewhat with Putnam’s. In the “lost world” of the 50s, religious institutions such as the Episcopal Church were strong and resilient, religious spokesmen such as Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham were respected and heeded in the larger society, and W.H. Auden and Reinhold Niebuhr, among other religious writers and thinkers, were some of the most important and influential voices in the country’s intellectual mainstream. And all of them, Douthat says, upheld the orthodox understanding of the Trinitarian Christian faith, as expressed in the historic creeds and formularies of the Church, with any lingering interservice rivalry among the various denominations being held to a healthy minimum.

It is against this vision of peace and plenty and cultural eminence that Douthat measures the steep subsequent decline, through the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s and eventuating in the sad (if sometimes sadly amusing) spectacle of the fragmented, political, and often bizarre religious present. There are chapters devoted to representative figures in the great American rogues’ gallery of religious and quasi-religious entrepreneurs, ranging from the participants in the Jesus Seminar to Dan Brown (of The Da Vinci Code) to huckster televangelist Joel Osteen to Glenn Beck to Elizabeth Gilbert (the mushy memoirist of Eat, Pray, Love), all of whom support the argument for decline. Some of this involves plucking rather low-hanging fruit, but Douthat uses his examples to build a case for a growing pattern of cultural “accommodation” in the world of religion, an increasing willingness to adjust the terms of the faith to the needs and wants of the present moment. (Such concessions to fashion are by no means peculiar to Christians, as Jack Wertheimer detailed in his June 2012 COMMENTARY article, “The Ten Commandments of American Jews.”) This process has resulted in the Church’s inability to speak effectively to cultural changes such as growing materialism, consumerism, divorce, sexual permissiveness, and so on, an acquiescence made possible by its having lost touch with the wellsprings of orthodoxy.

In other words, the very features of modern American religion, its flexibility and cultural adaptiveness, which Putnam and Campbell celebrate as “American grace,” are precisely what Douthat wishes to call into question. And it is the impotent response of orthodoxy, which Putnam and Campbell would seek to suppress even further, that Douthat would most like to rouse to life. Instead of further accommodation, he insists that their task henceforth should be one of resistance.

There is a great deal to be said for this argument, but there are several things that need to be said first in qualification of it. First, Douthat greatly overstates the extent to which the religion of the 50s was impressively orthodox, and to which the culture was attuned to that orthodoxy. Here Herberg is still a better guide and much more accurately predictive of the reasons why such a rapid and abject collapse of it all would come in the 60s. The fact is that the Protestant establishment had already been profoundly wounded, theologically and institutionally, by a split between fundamentalists and modernists at the turn of the century. By the 1950s, all it took was a stiff cultural wind for it all to be blown over, and that came soon enough.

In addition, many of the figures Douthat adduces as defenders of orthodoxy do not hold up well as such under closer examination. Take W.H. Auden, for example, the figure whose signal eminence is taken by Douthat to embody the high times of the “lost world.” The trouble with this example is that, while Auden was undeniably a Christian, and a serious one, he was hardly a paragon of orthodoxy. Interestingly, the 20th century’s most important gay poet largely accepted the church’s teaching about homosexuality, even if he did not try to conform to it. Still, Auden was skeptical of the idea of the virgin birth of Jesus, let alone the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, which he irreverently dismissed. He had no interest in questions of the afterlife, insisting that Christianity was primarily a this-worldly faith. He was transfixed by the image of Jesus’s suffering on the cross, but was indifferent to the idea of a victorious resurrection, and indeed doubted whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ ever actually occurred. Auden’s doctrine of the Trinity was equally idiosyncratic; in later life, he became a devotee of the Patripassian heresy, which posits that God the Father shared fully in the suffering of Christ the Son, an assertion that, in effect, collapses the distinctness of the two. In a sermon delivered at Westminster Abbey in 1966, he stated that the great theological statements of the Church were best understood as “shaggy-dog stories,” which “have a point but if you try too hard to put your finger on it, you will miss it.” I’m not sure what that meant, and I admit that it has an appealing modesty about it, but it sure doesn’t sound like orthodoxy.

Douthat laments the loss of religion’s solid institutional base, an erosion that he sees as one of the sources of religion’s current impotence. He is right about this, and it is one of the most important points of his book. One could formulate it as a general law: When religion becomes more and more individualized, it becomes less and less capable of exercising serious and transformative power in the larger culture. But, as the blogger Donald Sensing has acutely observed, the steady institutional erosion of the established mainline churches is just another example of the failing Blue Model at work, and the solution to the problem will probably not involve the redoubling of efforts to prop up the failing denominational bureaucracies of these dying behemoths.

The institutional transformation of American Christianity will be ongoing, with all kinds of experimental forms emerging, ranging from cell groups and house churches to megachurches and virtual churches, to nondenominational parachurch organizations. Even the Catholic Church, which is in a sense the Bluest of all, is struggling to come to terms with the rising necessity for energetic lay leadership, which is vitally important to the renewal of the Church, although it cuts against the organizational grain of the world’s oldest hierarchical bureaucracy. We are talking, then, about a large-scale transformative movement that is well into the long and arduous process of sorting itself out. The institutional world of the 1950s is a lost world indeed.

But if one might want to take Douthat to task on some details, he is right about the most important thing of all, which is the very point on which he most strikingly differs from Putnam and Campbell. The key to organized religion’s having an important ongoing role in American life won’t be found in further accommodation to the culture, but in its finding the strength and resources to resist the culture and thereby help to renew it. He is right to believe that the bureaucratic chaos and do-your-own-thing individualism in the religious institutions of the present day will prevent them from putting up that resistance. Unless they have institutional coherence and the spine to use it, efforts at cultural renewal will be little more than chaff in the wind. Something will have to change, and change very soon, if these institutions are to have the power to do any of the things that Douthat and others want them to do.

This is one reason why the current controversy over the Obama administration’s growing infringements upon religious liberty is so important and potentially consequential. These infringements are less important as violations of individuals’ religious freedoms than they are as violations of the corporate liberty of religious groups—daggers aimed at the very heart of religion as a form of moral community, and at religious institutions as independent and largely self-governing entities. As part of their larger effort, the administration has consistently sought to reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship, a move designed to make the corporate liberty of religious life into something essentially private, without any significant public dimensions or by-products. The nature of the controversy has bubbled up in various places, including the Hosanna-Tabor case this past January, in which the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed, over the arguments of the Obama administration, the right of religious organizations to follow their own internal rules in the hiring and firing of teachers in their church-run schools. Had the administration won its case, it would have struck a significant blow against the corporate liberty of any church that seeks to provide formal and accredited education to children.  

The same intention has appeared more ominously in the notorious mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services under the terms of Obama’s health-care reform act. It requires all religious institutions to provide employees of their own schools, hospitals, and charities with health insurance that would pay for the provision of contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures. This particular dagger appeared to be targeted at the Roman Catholic Church, for which the provision of such items is, as is well known, morally unacceptable, and which could not comply with such a directive without renouncing its own fundamental teachings.

The Church has responded forcefully, with an unheard-of degree of unanimity coming from its bishops, and with dozens of lawsuits challenging the mandate, filed by plaintiffs that include dioceses, churches, schools, and social-services providers, and led by Notre Dame University. And that is not all. The Church’s stance has drawn the firm support of a wide range of non-Catholics, including evangelical and mainline Protestants, Pentecostals, Mormons, Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims. Members of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (which includes Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jain, Jewish, Mormon, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Sikh, and Zoroastrian faith communities among its members) warned that the HHS mandate might require some religiously affiliated institutions to “violate their conscience and religious beliefs.” Many of these organizations and individuals have taken this position even while disagreeing with Catholic doctrines regarding contraception and sexuality. They do so because they see clearly the larger issues at stake and understand that they could be next to run afoul of an imperious regime.

So where decades of patient and pious ecumenical efforts have failed, the Obama administration has succeeded—bringing the disparate and quarreling elements of the American religious scene into formidable unity. Like so much else about Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, his friendliness to religion has turned out to be a mere ploy. But make no mistake. The progress of this controversy has made it clear that only the Catholic Church, of all the religious organizations in the nation, has the institutional heft and means to resist what is surely an affront to religious liberty. As Missouri Synod Lutheran leader Rev. Matthew Harrison gratefully confessed: “We’re small—2.4 million—and would be in a very bad way without the Catholics standing up. We’re going to stand with the Catholic Church on this issue of religious freedom.” How ironic, and yet how very American, that a formerly despised religious minority would in the fullness of time, five centuries after the Reformation, prove to be the cornerstone of resistance for all the rest.

So institutional size, solidity, and coherence matter. And the controversy has reemphasized the point, often forgotten, that religious liberty is not merely an individual liberty, my personal right to believe what I wish and freely exercise that faith, irrespective of what others believe. It is that, but it is also something more. It is also a form of corporate liberty, the liberty of groups to define what they are and what they are not, and freely exercising their faith by the way they raise their children and order their community life, seeking to embody in their lives the faithful image of that moral self-understanding.

In that sense, whatever one thinks about the specific issues at stake, the Catholic Church’s cause in this matter is the cause not only of every organized religion, and not only of every religious believer—but beyond that, of every American who believes in the First Amendment’s fundamental guarantees and in the promise of American pluralism. Which is to say that the issues at hand go to the essential character of our American democracy: a strong but limited government supported by a robust civil society and checked by sources of moral authority beyond those of the state, a society in which public respect for religion’s place in our common life was already well established long before George Washington enshrined it in his great Farewell Address in 1796. Such a society respects and protects the liberty of human beings to build their lives around their profoundest beliefs and commitments, to be freely bound to the collective wisdom of their own group, their own moral community, and to be secure in the knowledge that their community’s vitality and integrity will be respected and protected to the greatest extent possible within the larger embrace of the American polity.

But without a defining structure of robust and sturdy institutions, capable of withstanding the inevitable tensions of pluralism, there will be little hope of that, especially in an age of ever-more-mammoth and intrusive government. In that sense, the Obama administration’s callous approach to religious freedom has been immensely instructive. Religion that fails to support and embrace and insist upon such resilient institutions is not only bad religion, but doomed religion. It will have neither the power to enrich the moral life of the nation, nor the strength to resist the importunings of a wayward culture, nor the resolution to stand apart from it when necessary. There is a lesson in this for Protestants, Jews, and all other Americans as well, including secular ones. Religion is at its best when it is neither wholly established nor wholly marginalized, but instead stands in creative tension with the larger political and social structures—sometimes supporting, sometimes challenging, and sometimes standing apart.

About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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