The Book Club

Bad Religion book: Ross Douthat’s view of Christianity in America.

Orthodox Christianity is not the same as fundamentalist Christianity.

Creation Museum.
The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky

Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images.


You’re very kind, and I’m gratified to hear that even a godless heathen like yourself found so much of interest in my argument. I try to wear two hats in Bad Religion: It’s both an attempt at a dispassionate account of how and why institutional Christianity has gone into eclipse in America across the last four or five decades, and a believing Christian’s case for why the country might be better off if a more robust and yes, traditionally orthodox form of faith made a comeback. My hope is that secular readers will be interested enough by the first half of the argument to be ever-so-slightly seduced by the second half as well—to put an ear to the church door, you might say, even if they don’t actually step inside.

I’m also gratified that you’ve zeroed in on one of the important distinctions that I try to draw. What I describe as “Christian orthodoxy” is not identical to everything that calls itself conservative Christianity in the United States, and it’s certainly not identical to Christian fundamentalism. Orthodoxy is an ancient thing, dating back to the early centuries A.D., when Christian doctrine was first codified by the various (often-fractious) councils of the Church. It includes most of what you call “the whole ball of wax”—the Trinity and the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life, the authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures and a particular group of creedal statements. And it includes an adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and expanded and deepened in the New Testament—the rejection of violence and cruelty, the deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, the emphasis on chastity, monogamy, and fidelity in personal relationships.

But for all the lines that it draws and doctrines that it expounds, this small-o orthodoxy doesn’t include a lot of the ideas that many non-Christians, for understandable reasons, associate with 20th-century American religion. An orthodox faith requires believing in the divine inspiration of the Bible, for instance, but it also allows for the possibility that the biblical narrative includes other literary forms—allegory, parable, and so forth—apart from straightforward, completely historical, just-the-facts narration. It expects the second coming of Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t pretend that the Book of Revelation allows believers to map out a precise, Left Behind-style timeline for how and when that coming will play out. It certainly doesn’t pretend that there’s a single biblical answer to every question in political economy, or suggest that the Old Testament is a substitute for a science textbook (“he who would learn astronomy,” John Calvin wrote of Genesis I, “let him go elsewhere”), or read every hurricane and natural disaster through a Pat Robertston-style, “who is God punishing this time?” lens.

Bad Religion
by Ross Douthat
Simon and Schuster

These are tendencies that are associated with fundamentalism, which got its start in the late 19th and early 20th century as an attempt to defend your “whole ball of wax” against the challenge posed by Darwinism and German biblical criticism, but ended up taking Christianity into the kind of ideological cul-de-sac that we associate with Ken Ham’s Creation Museum. If orthodoxy is ancient, it’s useful to think of fundamentalism as a characteristically modern school of thought: It has the weird mix of closed-mindedness, pseudo-analytic rigor (once you’re inside the system, at least), and certain faith that History is about to vindicate its ideas that we associate with certain strains of Marxism. And in the context of my book’s argument, the fundamentalist temptation is best seen as one of the many heresies that have flourished in a society where institutional Christianity is declining but religious enthusiasm remains intense. The popularity of the Left Behind novels is just as much a sign of orthodoxy’s weakness, in this sense, as that of The Da Vinci Code or Eat, Pray, Love or any of the other more liberal-ish expressions of heresy that I try to engage with and explore.

Finally, just a quick word on your “if it feels good, don’t do it” distillation of my message. We can dig into this more as we go, but for now I’d just point out that at various times, Christianity—and particularly my own Catholicism, the faith of carousing Irishmen, hedonistic Italians, and “give me chastity, Lord, but Lord not yet” sinners in every time and place—has been scolded for being altogether too worldly, too pleasure-loving, too forgiving of the weaknesses of the flesh. If orthodoxy seems puritanical to you today, maybe it’s less because it’s inherently anti-fun and anti-feelgood than because we live in a society distinguished by such extraordinary excess—gluttonous, libidinous, avaricious—that what a different era might recognize as a healthy balance between asceticism and indulgence looks like hopeless prudishness instead.