I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (The Free Press, 2012), slated to be released on April 17. I am going to honor the publisher’s request that I not quote or review the book until it is published because it is still being edited. Nevertheless, I want to interact with Ross’s basic ideas because I think they are provocative and because this is essential reading for all Christians seeking to understand Christianity’s relationship to culture in the U.S.
Everyone agrees that our culture has become far more secular and hostile to Christian faith over the past two generations, but what are the factors causing that change? Many in the evangelical and Reformed world see the decline starting in the early 20th century when most of the mainline denominations and their affiliated academic institutions and foundations fell into the hands of theological modernists and liberals. But it can’t be as simple as that.
In his first chapter Douthat looks at four figures—Reinhold Niebuhr for powerful mainline Protestantism, Billy Graham for rising Evangelicalism, Fulton Sheen for popularly engaged Catholicism, and Martin Luther King, Jr. for the prophetic African-American Church of the Civil Rights era—who at mid-20th century showed the cultural and institutional strength of nearly all branches of Christianity. But by the beginning of the 21st century all four branches of Christianity are fragmented, declining, and in disarray, while the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation or even belief in God steadily climbs. Robert Putnam, in American Grace, nuances this a bit when he argues that the mainline church began declining first, in the late 1960s and 1970s, while the Evangelical church began doing so by the 1990s. Catholics have been battered with a different set of problems and so has the African-American church, but they are also definitely losing influence and people.