Chesterton famously wrote, “There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

With the furor arising from some corners upon the release of his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat might be inclined to add to the big man’s dictum, “or anything so willfully misunderstood and resisted.”

Douthat’s book is a neatly laid-out dissertation on the people of faith and their place in American society. It is a deft chronicle of where faith communities went right—spanning a heyday of religious commentary and social activism, from John Courtney Murray to Martin Luther King—where they gravely misstepped (through over-accommodation, self-defeating scriptural scholarship, and the inevitable discovery of “the God Within”) and where, through the embrasure of so-called “prosperity gospels” catering to the worst instincts of a post-binge capitalist society, they have simply gone mad.

Douthat also lays a humbly offered groundwork for how and where the churches may yet recover their sense of both social place and mission. Not surprisingly, it will involve a confrontation with the self that will be as painful as any bacchanal’s bleary-eyed gaze into a well-lit morning mirror; groaning pleas for mercy will make a slow, careful nod toward justice.

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