America has always been a land of free-wheeling opinions, whether talking about politics, religion, race, or sports. But in recent years it seems that the level of polarization among our population has become more intense and strident. Fissures are developing within our society that appear impossible to heal. What is causing this?
NYT columnist Ross Douthat, in his landmark study of Christianity in America over the last half-century (Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Free Press, 2012) argues that sharply diverging views of religion lie at the root of this division. It would be easy to define these views in stark terms of a rising tide of godless secularism on the one hand and a declining Christianity on the other. But Douthat points to a more complex — and troubling — scenario:
America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.
I might quibble with Douthat’s definition of “traditional Christianity,” but I believe he’s on to something. America remains a deeply religious nation, even a “Christian” nation by some definition, but the character of that commitment is a far departure from the simple Christianity that emerged out of the first century. Douthat documents exhaustively the rise (and in many cases, the decline) of various flavors of Christianity since World War II, from liberal mainline Protestantism, to a scandal-wracked Catholicism, to the health-and-wealth quackery, to the feel-good megachurch movement, and on and on.
The problem is not that Christianity has failed, but that the real deal has been obscured by a host of pretenders, leaving the average bystander turned off by the entire enterprise. Militant atheism is simply filling a vacuum left by the self-destructive behavior of professed believers.
Douthat provides some suggestions for improving Christianity’s influence in modern culture, but his closing remark nails the solution perfectly–if only we can find the courage to implement it:
To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived–not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself. Anyone who seeks a more perfect union should begin by seeking the perfection of their own soul. Anyone who would save their country should first look to save themselves. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (emphasis his)
In other words, Christianity is first and foremost a commitment of the individual to live his life for God. When we lose sight of that foundational truth, our religion–along with most everything else in our life–goes off the rails. As a nation, most of us have forgotten that. Now we’re paying for it.