Charles Pierce on Ross Douthat on “Bad Religion”

Ross Douthat has a new book out on what he calls “bad religion” (any form of religious expression that does not go through formal, orthodox, organized, hierarchical, authoritarian channels). Charles Pierce demolishes it:

In Bad Religion, Douthat breaks a great deal of rock to come around to the unremarkable conclusion that American Christianity would have been infinitely better off if somebody had stopped the banjo Mass in its tracks. He gives the game away right at the outset when he decides that American religious history will begin in or around 1950, which Douthat sees as the high-water mark of mainstream Christian consensus in America and of its (largely beneficial) influence on the country. This enables the assumption that American religious history had always been moving toward that consensus. This is how we can have a book that purports to be about the relationship between Christianity and America that mentions James Madison once, and there in the context of John Courtney Murray’s writings on religious liberty, which, along with their author, were suppressed by church authorities — but not, as Michael Sean Winters points out in his evisceration of the book, in the way that Douthat maintains they were.

Otherwise, Douthat is all over the lot. He cites the Didache — an ancient Christian catechism — in order to trace Christianity’s opposition to abortion back to the founding of the religion, but then goes on to insist that the Dead Sea Scrolls “turned out to have little connection with early Christianity.” (He is a bit bughouse on both the Scrolls and on the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, as we shall see.) Unfortunately, the Didache itself is shot through with the influence of the Essenes, who wrote the Scrolls, most notably in its first section in which it talks about the Two Ways. And if you’re going to argue, as Douthat does, over and over again, that the canonical gospels are the most authentic accounts we have of the life of Jesus, then you’re obligated to mention that the Didache was repeatedly denied canonical status by the early Church Fathers, particularly by St. Athanasius, who thought it merely instructive, and placed it on par with the other apocryphal texts for which Douthat otherwise has little use. The Didache comes up because Douthat is opposed to abortion. Period.

Too much of the book is simply a culture-war text gussied up in a chasuble. Douthat is extremely bothered by people who claim to seek enlightenment from a “God Within,” and outside the framework of preferred ecclesiastical constructs. (In this, he risibly cites Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert — and Oprah Winfrey! — as somehow being American religious figures.) Can you find spiritual enlightenment outside of a formalized religious structure and, having found it, can you still be a Catholic, or a Jew, or a Presbyterian? An interesting question that Douthat simply ignores. But he also gives a good leaving-alone to the born-again evangelical experience of a “personal Lord and Savior.” (Apparently, a God Within is fine, as long as He’s wearing a Douthat-endorsed logo.) As Winters points out, he’s drunk deeply of Michael Novak’s neoconservative Catholic capitalist malarkey, which is how Sister Gilbert, and Father Chopra, and Pope Oprah I get blamed for the irreligious consumerism of American society. (He also quotes David Brooks to back himself up, which is a dead giveaway.) This passage is a remarkable three-rail shot in which the conservative religious historian manages to blame his idea of “heretical” religious liberalism for all the sins of capitalism without ever mentioning any of the large American business concerns that spend billions turning a buck on those heresies:

The covetousness of the American consumer becomes a path to self-actualization: think of the way Oprah’s network suggests that peace of mind goes better with a new Hyundai. (Ed. note: And things go better with Coke. What’s your point here?) Think of the vast market for high-end products and luxury goods that promise “simplicity” and “authenticity.” (Everything from their vacations to their kitchens, David Brooks wrote of the current American upper class in 2000’s Bobos in Paradise (ed. note: I warned you), seems designed to be “the physical expression of a metaphysical sentiment.”) The gluttony of the Whole Foods-shopping gourmand is redefined as a higher form of asceticism: if you put enough thought (and money) into your locally grown artisanal grass-fed free-range organic farm-to-table diet, then a lavish meal can be portrayed as one part philosophical statement, one-part Eucharistic feast.

Or maybe you’ll simply be less likely to get E. coli and die. This whole passage is all my balls, and it exists, especially in that litany of adjectives right there at the end, simply so Douthat can get snotty about a lot of the imaginary liberals who are running around in his head. (Which reminds me, Jonah Goldberg, the true master of this form, has a new book coming out, too.) What’s the obverse of this? The essential Christian qualities of Wonder Bread?

Read the entire piece — it’s worth it.


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