Ross Douthat: The Americanization of religion

“Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” 10 years later.

(Damon Winter/The New York Times) A large cross in Groom, Texas, April, 11, 2022. In September the Pew Research Center modeled four potential futures for American religion, depending on different rates of conversion to and disaffiliation from the nation’s faiths, writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

In September the Pew Research Center modeled four potential futures for American religion, depending on different rates of conversion to and disaffiliation from the nation’s faiths. In three of the four projections, the Christian percentage of the U.S. population, which hovered around 90% in the 1970s and 1980s, drops below 50% within the next half-century. In two scenarios, the Christian share drops below 50% much sooner, sometime around 2040, and then keeps on falling.

This is a potentially epochal transition, but a transition of what kind? Toward a truly secular America, with John Lennon’s “Imagine” as its national anthem? Or toward a society awash in new or remixed forms of spirituality, all competing for the souls of lapsed Catholics, erstwhile United Methodists, the unhappily unchurched?

Ten years ago I published a book called “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” which offered an interpretation of the country’s shifting religious landscape, the sharp post-1960s decline of institutional faith. Before the book’s anniversary slips away, I thought I would revisit the argument, to see how it holds up as a guide to our now-more-de-Christianized society.

What the book proposed was that “secularization” wasn’t a useful label for the American religious transformation. Instead, I wrote, American culture seems “as God-besotted today as ever” — still fascinated with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, still in search of divine favor and transcendence. But these interests and obsessions are much less likely to be channeled through churches, Protestant and Catholic, that maintain some connection to historical Christian orthodoxies. Instead, our longtime national impulse toward heresy — toward personalized revisions of Christian doctrine, Americanized updates of the gospel — has finally completed its victory over older Christian institutions and traditions.

The result is a religious landscape dominated by popular Christian ideas that have “gone mad,” as G.K. Chesterton once put it, “because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” This America has a church of self-love, with prophets like Oprah Winfrey preaching a gospel of the divine self, a “God Within” spirituality that risks making selfishness a virtue. It has a church of prosperity, with figures like Joel Osteen as its bishops, that insists that God desires nothing more for his elect than American prosperity, capitalist success. And it has churches of politics, preaching redemption through political activism — a Christian nationalism on the right, by turns messianic and apocalyptic, and a progressive utopianism on the left, convinced that history’s arc bends always in its favor.

These heresies, I argued, are more important to understanding the true influence of religion in America than anything that comes out of the Roman Catholic Church or the Southern Baptist Convention. You can understand our spiritual situation more completely by reading “The Da Vinci Code,” “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Your Best Life Now” than by browsing a papal encyclical (or for that matter an atheist polemic). And you can see more of Christianity’s enduring but now deformed influence in will.i.am’s celebrity hymns to Barack Obama in 2008, or Glenn Beck’s right-wing revivals a couple of years later, than in whatever cultural authority still attaches to the New Testament or the Nicene Creed.

So ran my case in 2012. Ten years gone, has the framework held up?

In certain ways, obviously so. Consider the peculiar phenomenon of Donald Trump, an apparent heathen who somehow managed to seize the leadership of the country’s more religious political party, and then to be treated by some of its more zealous members as a kind of anointed king.

Trump’s ascent was a testament to the strength of key heresies — prosperity theology, self-help religion and a jingoistic Christian nationalism — within the religious right. Notably, Trump’s main institutional connection to Christianity was his long-ago attendance at Norman Vincent Peale’s church in Manhattan, at the time when Peale was famous as the guru of spiritual self-actualization, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

As a celebrity businessman and huckster Trump turned out to be a natural champion for Peale’s more right-wing heirs, gathering in allies from the realm of celebrity pastors and prosperity preachers. Meanwhile, as a tribune of American greatness, he ended up appealing to the more nationalist parts of evangelicalism — including voters who were more likely to identify with Christianity as a cultural marker of “American-ness” than to actually attend church.

When Paula White-Cain, a TV preacher and self-help author, emerged as a key spiritual adviser to Trump in 2016, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore tweeted that White is “a charlatan and recognized as a heretic by every orthodox Christian, of whatever tribe.” If Moore was speaking for orthodoxy against heresy, the Trump era suggested that heresy was the stronger party: White gave the inauguration invocation, Moore became a lightning rod among Southern Baptists for his anti-Trump stance, and the idea that Christian conservatism should have clear moral or doctrinal standards for its leaders passed away.

While Trumpism was being enabled by heresies of the right, liberalism in the Trump era ended up infused by heresy to a degree that even I didn’t see coming. The idea of wokeness didn’t figure in “Bad Religion,” which came out before the new wave of campus activism, before Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and the diversity-equity-inclusion era. But the “Great Awokening” is a perfect example of Christian spiritual energies cut loose from orthodox belief — a version of Protestant revivalism stripped of Protestant dogmatics, but retaining a crusading zeal, a rhetoric of conversion and confession and moral transformation, a sometimes-frenzied urge to cast out the evil and unclean.

Social justice progressivism has many influences, of course. But it has to be understood, in part, as a spiritual descendant of Puritanism, occupying the locus of Puritan power (the old Protestant citadels of the Ivy League and the Northeastern establishment), adapting the old spirit of moral perfectionism to a new set of issues and demands.

So on right and left alike, the nation-of-heretics framework still seems useful. But then the question, and the challenge for my thesis now, is exactly how far the decline of Christianity can go before a term like “heresy” stops being analytically appropriate. Because at some point, presumably, the influence of Christianity becomes merely genealogical, and you have to credit spiritual experimenters with reaching distinct religious territory.

A core of Christian practice and belief in this country seems relatively resilient. But the idea of a “nation of heretics” assumed a lot of Americans with loose ties to Christianity — Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers, people raised with at least some idea of the faith’s tenets. And it’s the loosely affiliated who have separated most in recent years, further attenuating the connections between Christianity and its possible rivals or successors.

While wokeness is a variation on the Protestant social gospel, it’s clearly the most-de-Christianized form yet; it’s happy to find allies within the Christian churches, but its own spiritual projects are more likely to involve the elevation of indigenous, pre-Christian spiritualities.

A striking development of the Trump era is the emergence of a self-consciously post-Christian right — a Nietzschean or neopagan tendency, more very online than truly politically significant, but still a non-Christian novelty, and not a welcome one.

Finally in youth religious culture, mediated by social-media trends that were in their infancy 10 years ago, many more Americans are experimenting with explicitly post-Christian ideas and influences: Astrology, witchcraft, spiritualism, the hallucinogenic quest.

When I was writing “Bad Religion” there was still interest in the various “historical Jesus” projects, the scholarly reconstructions that promised to deliver a Jesus better suited to the spiritual assumptions of a late-modern United States. And it felt like there was a strong cultural incentive to recruit some version of the Nazarene — as Dan Brown did in “The Da Vinci Code,” for instance — for your personal spiritual project, to gain Jesus’ blessing for leaving Christian orthodoxy behind.

Today, though, my sense is that Jesus himself is less culturally central, less necessary to religious entrepreneurs — as if where Americans are going now in their post-Christian explorations, they don’t want or need his blessing.

That shift in priorities doesn’t tell us exactly where they’re going. But it’s enough for now to say that the “post-Christian” label fits the overall trend in American spirituality more than it did a decade ago.

That kind of shift, though, shows the unpredictability of the religious future as much as its inevitability. The Pew report, notably, treats a hypothetical “status quo” scenario — nobody changing their religion — as its best case for Christianity’s future in America. It doesn’t have a scenario where Christian growth returns, where a larger share of America is Christian in 2050 than today.

I wouldn’t expect a social scientist to anticipate that kind of reversal. But Advent and Christmas aren’t about trends extending as before; they’re about rupture, renewal, rebirth. That’s what American Christianity needs now — now as ever, now as in those first days when its whole future was contained in the mystery and vulnerability of a mother and a child.

Merry Christmas.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.