Interview: Ross Douthat on Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Christian Nationalism and His Charismatic Roots

In his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that orthodox American Christianity has weakened since the 1950s to be replaced by a number of heresies, both conservative and liberal. This "bad religion" has resulted in adverse consequences for American society, politics and culture.

In a Thursday interview with The Christian Post, Douthat talked more about his thesis, responded to some criticisms, and discussed how his diverse Christian upbringing (charismatic, evangelical and Catholic) helped inform the book.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:

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CP: If you graph the level of industrialization of a country against its level of religiosity, you find a pattern. The higher the level of industrialization, the lower the level of religiosity. Then you have this outlier, the United States, which has high industrialization and high religiosity. Some have explained that by saying religion in America is wide but shallow. It's present everywhere, but doesn't mean a whole lot to most people. You're saying something different. The lake is wide and deep, but the water is contaminated. Is that an accurate metaphor?

Douthat: [Laughs] Something like that, yeah. That's not a terrible metaphor. One of the things I try to do in the book is take seriously some of the forms of American religion that people consider to be shallow and try and figure out why they have such a strong appeal and tease out the theology they actually represent.

The big theme of my book is the decline of institutional Christianity over the last 40 or 50 years has empowered a side of American religion that has always been there. The sort of do-it-yourself, "create your own Jesus" kind of faith. But, the forms that faith takes do have a real reason they are so appealing.

For instance, I spend a fair amount of time in the book talking about the prosperity gospel – the, sort of, "pray and grow rich" – which is an approach to theology that both a lot of serious Christians and a lot of secular liberals tend to laugh at or roll their eyes over and say, "how can anyone seriously believe that?" I try and tease out what it is about prosperity theology that people find appealing and the extent to which it really is trying to address deep theological issues. For a lot of people, it's a solution to the question of evil: "why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?" Prosperity theology provides a kind of answer to that.

I try to do the same thing when I turn to what people think of as New Age, self-helpy kind of religion, the sort of Deepak Chopra style of faith. I'm very critical of it, but I'm also trying to recognize the root of its appeal.

CP: In the chapter on prosperity theology, you pay particular attention to Joel Osteen. You say there is a "blurry line" between Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, even though Warren has condemned prosperity theology. What did you mean by that? 

Douthat: I should say that I'm an admirer of Rick Warren and I do quote him in the book specifically condemning prosperity theology. But, I think what you see a lot of in American religion, even in areas of American Christianity that don't go all the way with Osteen to the idea that God wants you to have this big house and so on, the nature of American religion right now, the fact that it is so non-denominational and post-denominational, the most successful churches have to be run more like businesses than ever before. I think that just exposes Christians to a constant temptation to think about the ministry more as a business than they sometimes should.

I quote from a scholar the idea of "more money, more ministry," which has become a very powerful idea for a lot of American evangelicals over the last 50 years. It's a true idea. Right? There are all kinds of great things that megachurches and successful fundraising appeals can allow you to do, especially in terms of overseas charity work, and so on.

I'm just arguing that American Christians need to recognize the temptations that can expose you to as well. It can make churches dependent on a superstar pastor model that is hard to sustain over the long haul and it can make Christians focus purely on externals – who has the largest congregation and who can build the biggest megachurch and so on, which is only part of what Christians should be about.

CP: One reaction to that has been the house church movement, which has been a move away from traditional institutions and the "more money, more ministry" model. Do you think the house church movement is a proper corrective, or do they have their own heresies?

Douthat: Every Christian in every time and place is going to be tempted by certain forms of heresy. I'm sure I'm tempted by my own. Yes, in many ways that kind of more small-scale, intimate approach to faith can absolutely be a necessary corrective to the "bigger is better" ideas in American religion.

The danger there is ... and, again, I'm a Roman Catholic writing about American Christianity as a whole so I bring a certain set of Catholic biases to this debate, but I do think that evangelicals in general need to think seriously about how you pass on your faith across generations and over the long haul.

Just as the superstar pastor model can have its problems once the superstar pastor gets old or has a scandal or something, the house church model ... there's a reason that the house churches of the New Testament era grew up into a more institutional faith down the road. In the end, you do need institutions to transmit the faith for the long haul. That's why I make the case that, in certain ways, American Protestants could stand to recover the denominationalism that they've left behind over the last 50 years. They are real values in having a confessional tradition that can sustain your faith over the long term.

CP: In your description of orthodoxy, you include the trinity, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, and the authority of scripture. Those things sound like mainstream Christianity to me, so, where are the heresies?

Douthat: The argument I make is, one, fewer people do believe in those core doctrines. And, two, the churches that were more likely to believe in those core doctrines have weakened overall in the last 50 years. I think it's more apparent if you step back and look at American Christianity as a whole.

In many ways, American evangelicalism is somewhat stronger today than it was in, say 1955 – certainly more mainstream and influential in the culture as a whole. But, the increased strength of evangelicalism hasn't increased fast enough to compensate for the total collapse of mainline Protestantism and the pretty steady weakening of my own Roman Catholic Church. So, I think the kind of small "o" orthodoxy that I'm talking about encompasses people in historical Protestant traditions, Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. From that definition, I think you can see a steep decline over the last 40 years.

CP: One of the criticisms of your book is that you select only the evidence that supports your thesis ...

Douthat: [Laughs] Because, what? The alternative would be to select evidence that doesn't support my thesis? Sorry, go on.

CP: They're saying America did not really have this mainstream orthodoxy, to the extent that you claim, in the 1950s, and there is not nearly as much divergence since the 1950s.

Douthat: Yes. And I think that those criticisms are wrong. [Laughs] Not surprisingly.

It's clearly the case that there's not some moment in American history when every evangelical is holding hands with every Catholic who is holding hands with every mainline Methodist, or what have you. Obviously, American Christianity was deeply divided in all kinds of ways at mid-century too. But, a couple of things were pretty clear about that era. One, there was a kind of convergence going on. Even though Reinhold Niebuhr, the great mainline Protestant theologian, didn't think highly of Billy Graham, he and Graham still, clearly, had more in common, both theologically and in their attitudes toward religion in public life, and all these things, than did, let's say, Harry Emerson Fosdick and Aimee Semple McPherson, to pick similar examples from the 1920s. The fact that the 1950s were defined by neo-evangelicalism and, with Niebuhr, the mainline neo-orthodoxy, you can see, in both cases, that convergence taking place towards a kind of Christian center.

And then, with Catholicism and Protestantism, you can find plenty of evangelical polemicists who were still calling the Pope the anti-Christ, and so on, down to the election of John F. Kennedy. But, as my friend Alan Jacobs pointed out, responding to some of the criticisms of my book, he started with a big photograph of Billy Graham with Cardinal Cushing of Boston, the Catholic Cardinal who had become friends and allies starting with Graham's first crusade in Boston in 1950. If you don't think Billy Graham and Cardinal Cushing are central figures of mid-century religion, then I don't know what kind of definition of mid-century religion you are taking.

So, I think it is very clear that, though great difference remained, evangelicals moved closer to Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelical Protestants moved closer together, and this convergence coincided with greater institutional strength for all the Christian churches than, for the most part, you see today.

It's just silly to look at the incredibly steep decline in the mainline and the clear institutional weakening of Catholicism in the 1960s and 70s and pretend that something really big didn't change then. It did change. There really was a significant institutional decline. As I say in the book, it's an interpretation of an era. It's not a comprehensive portrait. Obviously, America is a big and complicated country with a lot of things going on at any given time. But, I think I'm working pretty close to the mainstream of American religious historiography when I portray that era as a period of convergence on the one hand and significant institutional strength on the other.

CP: One of the heresies you mention is Christian nationalism, this melding of Christianity with America's purposes and the notion that "God is on our side." Can a Christian be patriotic without being heretical?

Douthat: Absolutely. The point I try to make in the chapter is that too is a blurry line. It's not always clear where a healthy patriotism shades into a dangerous nationalism.

I think Christians are always going to be walking that line, whether they are American Christians or citizens of any nation on Earth. But, I do think you can see, throughout American history, this temptation, and it's both a liberal and a conservative temptation, to take a healthy patriotism a little too far. For liberals the temptation is to say the purpose of politics is to straightforwardly bring the kingdom of God to Earth. For conservatives, I talk about Glenn Beck, the temptation is more apocalyptic and messianic, it's the temptation to say we did have a covenant with God, a literal covenant beginning with the Founding, and we are, like Israel in the Old Testament, falling away from it.

The distinction I try to make is, I use Abraham Lincoln's line, that Americans are an "almost chosen people," which is meant to suggest that there are clear parallels, literal, theological and everything else, between the American story and the Old Testament story of Israel and then the broader story of the Christian church. It's OK to recognize the parallels. It's OK to invoke them. But, you have to keep that "almost" in front of the "chosen." You can't go all the way and say, "America is Israel, America is the Church." That's where I think patriotism shades into, what I call, the heresy of nationalism.

CP: Do I understand correctly that you used to be evangelical?

Douthat: As a kid, we were involved both with various aspects of charismatic Christianity and then we were involved briefly at a small evangelical church that people were trying to start at Yale University.

CP: OK, so you didn't grow up in a traditional Catholic family?

Douthat: No, I grew up, baptized Episcopalian, my parents were Episcopalian, and then starting when I was about seven, eight years old, we started attending a sort of charismatic healing services with a woman who had a healing ministry in Connecticut. And that led us into both Pentecostalism, evangelicalism and places where they overlapped. So, for instance, we drove to Toronto for the famous "Toronto blessing." A Pentecostalist outpouring at a Vineyard church there, near the Toronto airport. I think I was about 13.

We knew Eric Metaxas. My parents knew him and I knew him a little as well when I was about 13, because he was involved with some of these evangelical forays at Yale University. I didn't see him for 20 years and we actually, very, very recently, reconnected.

CP: So, you chose Catholicism as an adult?

Douthat: I was 17. So, I'm in the unusual position of being neither a cradle Catholic nor, technically, an adult convert. But, I hope that I, at least, passed the age of reason [laughs].

CP: Why did you choose Catholicism?

Douthat: My mother converted when I was 16. She was the driving force behind religion in our family. So, I'm sure I was heavily influenced by that. But, I also was, and still am, convinced by the Catholic churches historical claims to represent the continuity with the early Church that other forms of Western Christianity lack.

I read a lot of G.K. Chesterton. It was a fairly conventional intellectual path to the Catholic church, I would say.

CP: Is there an extent to which, in this book, you are writing about yourself, as well as the nation? Is there a personal search towards orthodoxy and away from heresy that underlies this?

Douthat: Well, I don't want to suggest that ... I'm trying to start with a broad definition of orthodoxy, so I'm not trying to suggest, for instance, that whatever evangelical churches that my parents were part of were heretics, or something. I'm not writing a story in which my childhood experience is a journey from heresy into orthodoxy.

I do think, though, that that background did give me a sense of the incredible diversity and complexity of American religion, which not everybody, especially not everybody in my line of work, necessarily has.

I think that one of the themes of the book is that, independent of the critique I'm making, I'm just trying to paint a more comprehensive portrait of American religion than you get from a right versus left, religious conservatives versus secular liberal, believer versus atheist, binary. Too often, we just look at religion in America through that kind of either/or lens. I think it's much more complicated than that. And, that's why I wanted to write about somebody like Elizabeth Gilbert and "eat-pray-love," and somebody like Joel Osteen. These figures who aren't culture war figures exactly, but who I think are enormously important to understanding religion in America today.

CP: In the introduction, you say that you're writing the book for a broad audience, not just a Christian audience. Why should non-Christians be interested in reading your book?

Douthat: Institutional Christianity has had clear secular benefits to American life for hundreds of years. It's played both a prophetic role in terms of generating moral critiques of American excesses, and so on, and also a communal role, in terms of building community as the country moved westward to the role my own Catholic Church played in assimilating generations of immigrants. The story, in part, that I'm telling is a story in which many things about American life, that even secular people consider good, have flowed from the presence of a robust, resilient institutional Christianity.

As a corollary, I'm also saying that the idea of a post-religious society is a fantasy, ultimately. Human beings are, by nature, religious in various ways. And so, the fact that institutional churches have gone into decline doesn't mean that we're going to enter some purely secular age. Secular people need to be aware of that. They need to understand that what replaces Christianity isn't going to be Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and so on. It's going to be something else and something they may not like very much.

CP: Your interview with Bill Maher was interesting.

Douthat: Was it? [Laughs]

CP: Maher used this phrase "secular religion" to explain the crimes of atheist totalitarianism in the 20th century. You were about to respond to that before he moved onto something else.

Douthat: All I would have said was a continuation of a point I was trying to make to him. Which was, I think it is fair, in a way, to describe certain forms of Marxism, for instance, as the secular equivalent of a religion. But, I think the same is true, to a certain extent, of secular liberalism as well.

If you're willing to recognize the religious element in one secular ideology, you need to be able to recognize it in your own. I think that secular liberals need to recognize that they are still, often, hanging their worldview on what are metaphysical ideas. The idea of universal human rights may not seem as weird to some people as the idea of a personal God, but it is still a metaphysical idea that liberalism, at least as we know it, couldn't really survive without. So, that was the point I was trying to make to him. Even secular people can't really escape from the need to rest their ideas on some belief, some sort of commitment that is not scientific commitment.

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