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Bad Religion

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat laments the substitution of "spiritualities" for orthodox Christianity.

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Bad Religion:
How We Became a Nation of Heretics
By Ross Douthat
Free Press
352 pp.

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When New York Times columnist Ross Douthat surveys the American cultural landscape, he sees a country whose growing detachment from traditional forms of Christianity hasn’t made its people stronger, happier, wiser, or more moral. Not by a long shot.

Instead, he argues in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, the migration toward quasi-Christian spiritualities has left millions of Americans adrift in a sea of feel-good beliefs. “A choose-your-own Jesus mentality ... encourages spiritual seekers to screen out discomfiting parts of the New Testament and focus only on whichever Christ they find most congenial,” Douthat writes. “And our religious culture is now dominated by figures who flatter this impulse, in all its myriad forms.”

“Bad Religion” represents Douthat’s sweeping attempt to explain the sea change that has washed over American religious culture since the 1950s and to assess what’s been lost and gained. He delivers a penetrating intellectual history.

Douthat embraces orthodoxy, or core Christian teachings that have constituted the church and defined believers for nearly two millenniums. He revels in orthodoxy’s inherent paradoxes: that one is saved by grace through faith, but faith must be accompanied by works; that God loves everyone, yet Judgment Day is coming; and so forth. Conforming lives to orthodox teachings isn’t easy for anyone, Douthat argues. But the effort, as practiced by Roman Catholics and Protestants, historically elicited private and public virtues that served America well for centuries.

The orthodox center, however, failed to hold through such earthshaking events as the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which left Americans rethinking much of what they’d been taught. In Douthat’s account, mainline Protestantism followed Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox down a deadly path that blessed secular values – and left the masses with no compelling reason to stay involved in church.

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