Blaming America’s Problems on Bad Religion

Apr 17 2012 Published by under Featured News, Issues, Republican Party

Ross Douthat and Bad Religion

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is in the news because of a new book he has penned, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” In Bad Religion, reports, “Douthat makes the provocative argument that there are spiritual roots to America’s political and economic crises, and that the slow erosion of the institutions of orthodox Christianity has led to the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that encourage our worst impulses.”

After the great crash of 2008, Americans awoke and saw their country the way anti-Americans have always seen it: spendthrift, decadent, and corrupt. The city on a hill had become a mismanaged empire; the land of self-reliance was buried in debt.[1]

Douthat is certainly right when he says that “the rot ran deeper than the White House and Capitol Hill, and that there were trends at work that couldn’t be reversed by simply dispatching a more talented set of leaders to Washington, D.C.” But he is wrong about the causes of America’s decline. Endorsing neither the secular left’s nor the Christian right’s view explanation,[2] Douthat does not believe that the problem is that America is either too religious or that in America “religious faith has been steadily marginalized, with increasingly disastrous results”; but he does believe there is some truth to both positions. He doesn’t see the problem as too much or too little religion but what he calls “bad religion” –

[T]he slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place. Since the 1960s, the institutions that sustained orthodox Christian belief – Catholic and Protestant alike – have entered a state of near-terminal decline…and the culture as a whole has turned its back on many of the faith’s precepts and demands.[3]

But he seems to believe either/or thinking is the solution to America’s problems. For Douthat, these non-orthodox Christianities “are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.”

Right at the outset we have a problem: orthodox comes from a Greek word meaning “right opinion” and “heresy” comes from another Greek word meaning “choice”, because as Bart Ehrman puts it, “heretics” have chosen to deviate from the “truth”.[4] What is remarkable here is that Douthat can claim that it is it is the “secular left” and the “Christian Right” who are guilty of either/or thinking, where “every inch of ground is claimed by absolute truth or deplorable error.”[5] Unwittingly or not, Douthat has just described 2000 years of orthodox Christian history in a nutshell.

It is not that Douthat is entirely wrong in what all he says, but that he is also not right. Yes, “Christian teachings have been warped into justifications for solipsism and anti-intellectualism, jingoism and utopianism, selfishness and greed” but these have been hand-maidens of the Christian gospel since the Theodosian Code at least – orthodox Christianity has been as guilty of this as any modern form of the religion based on Jesus (if not his teachings). Douthat laments that modern Christians see their Savior as a “choose your own Jesus” who fits their preconceptions but the problem is that the early Christians, those originators of the orthodoxy he holds so highly, were guilty of the exact same thing. They also chose their own Jesus. He says in a Q&A at that

The heretics I write about aren’t detached completely from Christianity. Some of them identify as Christians and like the idea of identifying with Jesus. But they aren’t interested in sustaining any historic Christian tradition or church apart from their own ministry.

But the Jesus of history, as I have argued here before, is no more to be found in the canonical Scriptures than in any book labeled apocryphal or in any of the pseudo-Christianities Douthat attacks.[6] And any claim of historical Christian tradition held by so-called orthodoxy is problematic to say the least.

On the contrary, Douthat is guilty of a major presupposition: that orthodox Christianity is and has always been the “correct” form of belief, a self-proclaimed religion of history that somehow stands outside of history, immune to inconvenient facts. This is itself an anti-intellectual point of view, a premise not of history, but of faith: a religious tenet, not fact.

Here I will not address every point Douthat raises or attempt a general review of his entire book, but address myself only to his contention that Christian orthodoxy is something to be desired and “heresy” something destructive.

Judgment Calls: Heresy and Orthodoxy, Canonical and Apocryphal

Here some explanation is in order: So-called canonical books (those found in the New Testament) are the only books held to be authoritative by orthodox Christianity. Noncanonical books are often considered to be apocryphal, meaning “spurious.” Helmut Koester mounts a compelling argument in favor of the so-called apocryphal gospels, noting that “clearly…about a dozen noncanonical gospels were known in the 2d century and that the evidence for these apocryphal writings compare well with the evidence for the canonical gospels…writings of both categories were used and are referred to quite early and often by the same writers.”[7]

Worse, even the term “apocryphal” renders a judgment before the fact.  As Helmut Koester rightly points out, “the terms apocryphal and canonical reflect a traditional usage which implies deep-seated prejudices and has had far-reaching consequences.”[8]

So here we are in the year 2012, three centuries on from the European Enlightenment and its breaking of the Church’s stranglehold on individual human rights and freedom of thought and conscience – and we are going back to the fourth century and orthodox Christian attitudes toward “heresy.”

Nobody should ever understand conservatism to be about anything other than maintenance of the status quo, and as I have argued before, “conservative revolution” is a logical impossibility, making a mockery of claims that yesterday’s “classical liberals” are today’s conservatives. The only type of revolution conservatives are capable of is “counter-revolution” as a means to restore a shattered status quo.

So it’s not entirely surprising that conservative Christians would argue on behalf of a discredited orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is, after all, the Christian status quo, at least since the fifth century or so, when the proto-orthodox party stomped every other form of Christianity into the ground, into dust to be blown away by the many centuries since.[9]

But these so-called heresies, Ross Douthat’s “pseudo-Christianities” are not forgotten. The early Church fathers did what they could to eradicate the heresies but also any record of them, burning books (and people) with wild abandon. But enough has survived, largely thanks to buried treasures like the Nag Hammadi library, to give us a glimpse of the vibrant and pluralistic Christianity that once was.[10]

History, in a sense, is today’s heresy, which is why David Barton and company are so anxious to re-write it. The historical facts are not friendly to orthodoxy or to the idea of orthodoxy. Ross Douthat may not be guilty of re-writing history, but he is clearly misinterpreting it by ignoring so much of it, even (or especially) where it relates to the history of the Christian belief he claims to be so essential.

It is an essential part of conservative Christian presupposition that the four gospels in the New Testament be dated early (and the earlier the better), and Christian apologists will doggedly resist any claim to the contrary.  For instance, evangelist Edward Hindson, the host of The King Is Coming, a syndicated television broadcast shown across the United States saw the publication of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas a few years ago as an attack on Christianity.[11]

Why is long-dead Judas such an imminent danger, and why should it be so readily dismissed as without value in determining the truth about Jesus of Nazareth? Because Irenaeus, a proto-orthodox heresiologist (expert on heresy) wrote in 180 CE that it was a heretical book. That’s it. It didn’t agree with Irenaeus’ presuppositions about Jesus, so out it went, banished forever from any possibility of canonical status. Of course, proto-orthodox Irenaeus had a vested interest in the matter. What goes unmentioned is that the Gnostics who read the Gospel of Judas felt the proto-orthodox Christians had also entirely missed the boat where Jesus’ teachings were concerned.[12]

The sole reason the Gospel of Judas is bad and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are good is that the proto-orthodox won the Wars for Christianity and the Gnostics (and everyone else) lost. Their case is only being heard again in this century, with the publication of the Gospels of Thomas and Judas and the Nag Hammadi Library. Apparently, the proto-orthodox and orthodox persecutors of other varieties of Christianity were not so thorough after all.

The point is, it is essential for orthodoxy (and for Ross Douthat’s case) that heresies remain heresies. But the modern day classification of orthodoxy and heresy is every bit as arbitrary and artificial as the ancient. They cannot possibly represent legitimate Christianity, we are told.

The Price of Orthodoxy

What Douthat does not mention is the means by which his precious “orthodoxy” was in the first place established. It was not pretty:

Heresy is…the issue that mobilized the monks behind a message of coercion instead of love…pagan critics like Libanius and Eunapius provide vivid accounts of rampaging, black-robed mobs, and even the catholic emperor Theodosius is known to have remarked that ‘the monks commit many crimes’…The enormous spiritual prestige these desert warriors enjoyed in the Christian community is…a factor. By their more tedious and less visible regimen of self-denial the monks had woven for themselves the mantle formerly worn by the martyrs, champions of Christian commitment and endurance during the long centuries of persecution. In a community that identified such behavior with sanctity and holiness, the monks wielded a spiritual authority that turned what otherwise might have seemed senseless acts of violence into moral crusades. Under such conditions, reasonable voices are easily stilled.[13]

These sorts of tactics produced uneven results. Gregory notes that

As conversion to Christianity proceeded through Greek cities and countryside, the depth of understanding of Christian truths must have varied considerably. As A.D. Nock has pointed out, the concept of conversion and the exclusivity of Judaism and Christianity were essentially foreign to the mindset of much of the ancient world, and the identification of old ideas in the context of Christianity must have been a totally natural mode of thinking for many people.[14]

At the end of the Classical world and Mediterranean polytheism downward spiral, there were barbarians beyond Rome’s borders needing conversion. But first there were enemies closer to hand who needed dealing with in the post-Nicene world:

With the decline of paganism in the late Roman Empire, the violence of Christian monotheism begins to be directed not toward the cults of “other gods” of paganism but to Christian heresy, the new front line of Christian spiritual warfare. The monotheistic intolerance of religious diversity and its attended xenophobia is directed towards other Christians. This monotheistic violence can be traced through the persecution of witches in the late Medieval and early Modern periods and in the religious violence of Reformation and post-Reformation Europe.[15]

Douthat’s tendentious contention that a modern detachment from Christian orthodoxy has led to society’s downfall is hardly a new one. His embrace of the terms “heresy” and “heretical” is not new but it is problematic. The term “heretical” is largely eschewed by liberal scholars today, though it is still preferred by apologists.

A better term for these other Christianities might be “regional” in that like the earlier forms of paganism they co-existed with and in some cases later replaced, they varied from region to region and had particular flavors based on their location, though some of them spread over wider areas, notably Arianism in the third and fourth centuries. Likewise, the texts they created are more likely to be taken by liberal scholars as legitimate means by which we can understand not only early Christianity but Jesus himself, whereas conservatives like Douthat will never see them as anything but heretical, and therefore false and dangerous – literally slicing away huge chunks of early Christian history in a sort of misguided triage to protect the conservative worldview.

Though the orthodox position would have us believe, as noted above, that they were the one and only true branch of Christianity, originating from the very words and deeds of Jesus, and that the heretical groups sprang up along the way, Helmut Koester notes that Walter Bauer “demonstrated convincingly that such Christian groups which were later labeled ‘heretical’ actually dominated in the first two or three centuries, both geographically and theologically.” As he goes on to say,

The convenient and time-honored labels for the distinction of heretical and orthodox prove to be very dangerous tools since they threaten to distort the historian’s vision and the theologian’s judgment. The term ‘canonical’ becomes useless when the New Testament’s books themselves emerge as a deliberate collection of writings representing various divergent convictions which are not easily reconciled with each other. The criterion ‘apostolic’ is useless when Christian movements that were later condemned as heretical can claim genuine apostolic origin. It is certainly untenable that the Orthodox Church and only this Orthodox Church was a direct offspring of the teachings, doctrines, and institutions of the apostles’ times and that only this church was able to prescribe the apostolic heritage uncontaminated by foreign influences.[16]

The problems for Douthat’s thesis should be obvious.


Robert Grant tells us that “The student of early Christian history must take seriously not only geographical variations among Christians but the almost universal phenomenon of ‘discord between popular faith and learned theology’ emphasized long ago by Lebreton.”[17] The result, as Koester judges it, is that “Christianity in all its diversified appearances is a thoroughly syncretistic religion including its so-called orthodox developments.”[18]

This is problematic for those modern day apologists who insist on discounting all non-canonical sources when they disagree with those included in the New Testament. Obviously there can be no clear cut line of distinction for the historian and should not be for the theologian. The Gospel of Thomas may date from the early second century but we know nothing of its antecedents. We cannot possibly rule this sayings list out of consideration due to the fact that it is not a part of canon. As it is, several authentic sayings of Jesus which appear IN the canon are reproduced here, which would lend support to the idea that it is based, along with the canonical texts, on a common source.

Koester asserts that “New sources from recent discoveries, first of all the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas, must be considered on a par with the canonical writings, and they cannot be deprecated by reason of their non-canonical nature.”[19] In other words, the very idea of orthodox and heretical is a value judgment based not on content but on belief; we cannot be guilty of choosing our own Jesuses when that has already been done for us and that all is required now is for us to acquiesce in the decisions of centuries of contentious and often violent Church councils.

And this is Douthat’s problem with “heretical pseudo-Christianities” – they challenge the conservative status quo. Our truth is the only truth and you can have no part in it.  But we should note here the opinion of New Testament scholar Francois Bovon, who argues that “we must learn to consider the gospels of the New Testament canon, in the form in which they existed before 180 CE, in the same light in which we consider the apocrypha. At this earlier time, the gospels were what the apocrypha never ceased to be.”[20]

Douthat is wrong. He sees all forms of early American Christianity as diverging and reconverging and all fed by a central stream he calls Christian orthodoxy”[21] but as I have tried to show here and elsewhere, there is no such thing as “original” in Christian orthodoxy; and that orthodoxy is syncretistic (Douthat even claims Protestantism as orthodoxy even though it started out as a heresy!) and was established at great price, through forcible and violent suppression of free speech and religious pluralism, by exterminating all alternatives to itself. Either/or thinking is not the solution to America’s problems; it is a cause, and an important one, if not the only one.

[1] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion,(Free Press, 2012) Kindle edition, Location 127.

[2] Douthat (Location 243) actually admits that many of the Founders were Deists and Unitarians rather than orthodox Christians and credits their beliefs with our nation’s “absolute commitment to freedom of religion.”

[3] Douthat (2012), Location 175.

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Third Edition (Oxford University Press, 2004), 494-95.

[5] Douthat (2012), Location 184. In a Q&A at, Douthat says that he tries “to use an ecumenical definition, starting with what I see as the theological common ground shared by my own Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations.” He ignores the problem, revisited below, that Protestantism itself started out as a heresy, a “protest” against the tenets of Catholic belief.

[6] Douthat (2012), Location 201.

[7] Helmut Koester, “Apocryphal and Canonical Gospels,” HTR 73 (1980), 110.

[8] Helmut Koester, (1980), 105.

[9] The proto-orthodox, in the words of Ehrman, being the “forerunners of the group that became the dominant form of Christianity in later centuries…stifled its opposition [and] claimed that its views had always been the majority position and that its rival were, and always had been, ‘heretics’…” See Ehrman (2004), 7-8.

[10] James M. Robinson, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988).

[11] For Gospel of Judas see Bart D. Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (Oxford University Press, 2006).

[12] For Gnosticism and these other “pseudo-Christianities” see Bart D. Ehrman’s companion volumes, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford University Press, 2003) and Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2003).

[13] H.A. Drake, “Lambs into Lions: Explaining Early Christian Intolerance,” Past and Present 153 (1996), 31-32.

[14] Timothy E. Gregory, “The Survival of Paganism in Christian Greece: A Critical Essay,” The American Journal of Philology 107 (1986), 240.

[15] David Lochhead, “Monotheistic Violence” Buddhist-Christian Studies 21 (2001), 5.

[16] Helmut Koester, “The Origin and Nature of Diversification in the History of Early Christianity” HTR 58 (1965), 279-280.

[17] Robert M. Grant, Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 144. Citing Labreton, Revue di histoire ecclésiastique, 19 (1923), 481-506; 20 (1924).

[18] Helmut Koester, (1965), 280.

[19] Koester, (1965), 283.

[20] Francois Bovon, “The Synoptic Gospels and the Noncanonical Acts of the Apostles,” HTR 81 (1988), 20. Bovon  who holds a doctorate in theology from theUniversity ofBasel, taught at the University of Geneva Divinity School from 1967-1993, an institution founded by John Calvin in 1559. He is currently Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion at theHarvardDivinitySchool.

[21] Douthat (2012), Locations 227-235.


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