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“In this America, too, the Christian teaching that every human soul is unique and precious has been stressed, by the prophets of self-fulfillment and gurus of self-love, at the expense of the equally important teaching that every human soul is fatally corrupted by original sin. Absent the latter emphasis, religion becomes a license for egotism and selfishness, easily employed to justify what used to be considered deadly sins. The result is a society where pride becomes 'healthy self-esteem', vanity becomes 'self-improvement', adultery becomes 'following your heart', greed and gluttony become 'living the American dream'.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“The physical vanity of the diet-and-exercise obsessive is recast as the pursuit of a kind of ritual purity, hedged about with taboos and guilt trips and mysticized by yoga.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“There are seven deadly sins, not just one, and Christianity's understanding of marriage and chastity is intimately bound to its views on gluttony, avarice and pride. (Recall that in the Inferno, Dante consigns gluttons, misers, and spendthrifts to lower circles of hell than adulterers and fornicators.)”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“And the whole mess had been made possible by middle America’s relentless appetite— for bigger houses, bigger portfolios, bigger government programs, bigger everything, and damn the long-term cost.”
Ross Douthat
“Many of the overlapping crises in American life, from our foreign policy disasters to the housing bubble to the rate of out-of-wedlock births, can be traced to the impulse to emphasize one particular element of traditional Christianity—one insight, one doctrine, one teaching or tradition—at the expense of all the others. The goal is always progress: a belief system that’s simpler or more reasonable, more authentic or more up-to-date. Yet the results often vindicate the older Christian synthesis. Heresy sets out to be simpler and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“However superficially appealing, the idea that a religious tradition could be saved from crisis because a group of intellectuals radically reinterpreted its sacred texts is the kind of conceit that only, well, an intellectual could possibly believe.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“[M]ost Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. . . .
Both doubters and believers stand to lose if religion in the age of heresy turns out to be complicit in our fragmented communities, our collapsing families, our political polarization, and our weakened social ties. Both doubters and believers will inevitably suffer from a religious culture that supplies more moral license than moral correction, more self-satisfaction than self-examination, more comfort than chastisement. . . .
Many of the overlapping crises in American life . . . can be traced to the impulse to emphasize one particular element of traditional Christianity—one insight, one doctrine, one teaching or tradition—at the expense of all the others. The goal is always progress: a belief system that’s simpler or more reasonable, more authentic or more up-to-date. Yet the results often vindicate the older Christian synthesis. Heresy sets out to be simpler and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme. . . .
The boast of Christian orthodoxy . . . has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. . . .
These [heretical] simplifications have usually required telling a somewhat different story about Jesus than the one told across the books of the New Testament. Sometimes this retelling has involved thinning out the Christian canon, eliminating tensions by subtracting them. . . . More often, though, it’s been achieved by straightforwardly rewriting or even inventing crucial portions of the New Testament account. . . .
“Religious man was born to be saved,” [Philip Rieff] wrote, but “psychological man is born to be pleased.” . . .
In 2005, . . . . Smith and Denton found no evidence of real secularization among their subjects: 97 percent of teenagers professed some sort of belief in the divine, 71 percent reported feeling either “very” or “somewhat” close to God, and the vast majority self-identified as Christian. There was no sign of deep alienation from their parents’ churches, no evidence that the teenagers in the survey were poised to convert outright to Buddhism or Islam, and no sign that real atheism was making deep inroads among the young.
But neither was there any evidence of a recognizably orthodox Christian faith. “American Christianity,” Smith and Denton suggested, is “either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself,” or else is “actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.” They continued: “Most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it.” . . .
An ego that’s never wounded, never trammeled or traduced—and that’s taught to regard its deepest impulses as the promptings of the divine spirit—can easily turn out to be an ego that never learns sympathy, compassion, or real wisdom. And when contentment becomes an end unto itself, the way that human contents express themselves can look an awful lot like vanity and decadence. . . .
For all their claims to ancient wisdom, there’s nothing remotely countercultural about the Tolles and Winfreys and Chopras. They’re telling an affluent, appetitive society exactly what it wants to hear: that all of its deepest desires are really God’s desires, and that He wouldn’t dream of judging.
This message encourages us to justify our sins by spiritualizing them. . . .
Our vaunted religiosity is real enough, but our ostensible Christian piety doesn’t have the consequences a casual observer might expect. . . . We nod to God, and then we do as we please.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“The result is a nation where gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends, and where professional caregivers minister, like seraphim around the throne, to the needs of people taught from infancy to look inside themselves for God. Therapeutic religion promises contentment, but in many cases it seems to deliver a sort of isolation that’s at once comfortable and terrible—leaving us alone with the universe, alone with the God Within.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“What he felt during his Spanish encounter with left-wing anti-Christianity was similar to his reactions to the anti-Christianity of the right. The "novelty and shock of the Nazis", Auden wrote, and the blitheness with which Hitler's acolytes dismissed Christianity "on the grounds that to love one's neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings", pushed him inexorably toward unavoidable questions. "If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?" The answer to this question, he wrote later, was part of what "brought me back to the church.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“As a purely intellectual matter, nothing was suddenly discovered in the 1960s that contradicted the biblical witness on fornication, adultery, and homosexuality, or that established that Jesus hadn’t really meant what he said about the indissolubility of marriage. . . . The difference was that in 1970 many more people wanted to believe these arguments because of the new sexual possibilities associated with the birth control pill.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“Christians can disagree about public policy in good faith, and a libertarian and a social democrat can both claim to be living out the gospel. But the Christian libertarian has a particular obligation to recognize those places where libertarianism’s emphasis on freedom can shade into an un-Christian worship of the individual. Likewise the Christian liberal: even as he supports government interventions to assist the poor and dispossessed, he should be constantly on guard against the tendency to deify Leviathan and wary of the ways that government power can easily be turned to inhuman and immoral ends.

In the contemporary United States, a host of factors—from the salience of issues like abortion to the anti-Christian biases of our largely left-wing intelligentsia—ensure that many orthodox Christians feel more comfortable affiliating with the Republican Party than with the Democrats. But this comfort should not blind Christians to the GOP’s flaws.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“In an age of stagnant or declining birthrates, too, these communities’ willingness to heed the admonition to be fruitful and multiply has led to speculation about what the demographer Philip Longman calls “the survival of the godliest.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“In their quest to be inclusive and tolerant and up-to-date, the accommodationists imitated his scandalously comprehensive love, while ignoring his scandalously comprehensive judgments. They used his friendship with prostitutes as an excuse to ignore his explicit condemnations of fornication and divorce. They turned his disdain for the religious authorities of his day and his fondness for tax collectors and Roman soldiers into a thin excuse for privileging the secular realm over the sacred. While recognizing his willingness to dine with outcasts and converse with nonbelievers, they deemphasized the crucial fact that he had done so in order to heal them and convert them—ridding the leper of his sickness, telling the Samaritans that soon they would worship in spirit and truth, urging the woman taken in adultery to go, and from now on sin no more.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest Christian paradox of all—that the world’s most paradoxical religion has cultivated rationalism and scientific rigor more diligently than any of its rivals, making the Christian world safe for philosophy as well as fervor, for the study of nature as well as the contemplation of divinity.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“Among the tastemakers and power brokers and intellectual agenda setters of late-twentieth-century America, orthodox Christianity was completely déclassé.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“To this end, they stressed ethics rather than eschatology; social reform rather than confessional debate; symbolic and allegorical interpretations of the Bible rather than more literal readings. Their great project was the Social Gospel, which urged believers to embrace an “applied Christianity” that would put Jesus’ commandments into practice here and now, through legislation as well as conversion, law as well as grace. Some aspects of modernism were compatible with traditional Christianity,”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“Social conservatives do have a pretty decent predictive track record, including in many cases where their fears were dismissed as wild and apocalyptic, their projections as sky-is-falling nonsense, their theories of how society and human nature works as evidence-free fantasies. . . . If you look at the post-1960s trend data — whether it’s on family structure and social capital, fertility and marriage rates, patterns of sexual behavior and their links to flourishing relationships, or just trends in marital contentment and personal happiness more generally — the basic social conservative analysis has turned out to have more predictive power than my rigorously empirical liberal friends are inclined to admit. . . .
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the pro-choice side of the abortion debate frequently predicted that legal abortion would reduce single parenthood and make marriages more stable, while the pro-life side made the allegedly-counterintuitive claim that it would have roughly the opposite effect; overall, it’s fair to say that post-Roe trends were considerably kinder to Roe’s critics than to the “every child a wanted child” conceit. Conservatives (and not only conservatives) also made various “dystopian” predictions about eugenics and the commodification of human life as reproductive science advanced in the ’70s, while many liberals argued that these fears were overblown; today, from “selective reduction” to the culling of Down’s Syndrome fetuses to worldwide trends in sex-selective abortion, from our fertility industry’s “embryo glut” to the global market in paid surrogacy, the dystopian predictions are basically just the status quo. No-fault divorce was pitched as an escape hatch for the miserable and desperate that wouldn’t affect the average marriage, but of course divorce turned out to havesocial-contagion effects as well. Religious fears that population control would turn coercive and tyrannical were scoffed at and then vindicated. Dan Quayle was laughed at until the data suggested that basically he had it right. The fairly-ancient conservative premise that social permissiveness is better for the rich than for the poor persistently bemuses the left; it also persistently describes reality. And if you dropped some of the documentation from today’s college rape crisis through a wormhole into the 1960s-era debates over shifting to coed living arrangements on campuses, I’m pretty sure that even many of the conservatives in that era would assume that someone was pranking them, that even in their worst fears it couldn’t possibly end up like this.
More broadly, over the last few decades social conservatives have frequently offered “both/and” cultural analyses that liberals have found strange or incredible — arguing (as noted above) that a sexually-permissive society can easily end up with a high abortion rate and a high out-of-wedlock birthrate; or that permissive societies can end up with more births to single parents and fewer births (not only fewer than replacement, but fewer than women actually desire) overall; or that expressive individualism could lead to fewer marriages and greater unhappiness for people who do get hitched. Social liberals, on the other hand, have tended to take a view of human nature that’s a little more positivist and consumerist, in which the assumption is that some kind of “perfectly-liberated decision making” is possible and that such liberation leads to optimal outcomes overall. Hence that 1970s-era assumption that unrestricted abortion would be good for children’s family situations, hence the persistent assumption that marriages must be happier when there’s more sexual experimentation beforehand, etc.”
Ross Douthat
“if messianism has done more good than apocalyptism, it has probably done more damage as well. Precisely because the messianic style has been more influential among the American elite, the consequences of messianic excess have generally been more comprehensively disastrous. Apocalyptism is rarely harmless, but its very marginalization limits its destructive power. Witch hunts are dangerous and deadly, to be sure. But “wars for righteousness” often have far more victims, and they do more lasting harm.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“The stringency of Christianity’s sexual teachings gets most of the press, but the commandment against avarice, if taken seriously, can be the faith’s most difficult by far. You can wall yourself off from pornography and avoid people who tempt you into adultery, but everybody has to work—and every day in the workplace is a potential occasion of sin.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“Whether it was conservative Evangelicals hinting that the Holy Spirit had a strong position on the proper rate of marginal taxation, or liberal clergymen insisting that loving your neighbor as yourself required supporting higher levels of social spending, two generations of Christian spokesmen steadily undercut the credibility of their religious message by wedding it to the doctrines of the Democratic Party, or the platform of the GOP.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“at the deepest level, every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“These changing attitudes led to the redefinition of the private sphere, in the courts and the culture alike, and a widespread sense that issues like contraception, premarital cohabitation, and divorce—and then, much more controversially, abortion—were private matters where the government had no business interfering. The very idea of “morals legislation” became suspect, and Christian arguments about family law and public policy that might have been accepted even by secular audiences in the 1940s came to be regarded with suspicion as potential violations of the separation of church and state.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“That’s because America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“As messianism tempts liberal Christians, apocalyptism tempts their conservative cobelievers: The vision of American history as a long apostasy, a steadily downhill slide, blurs easily into the fundamentalist vision of the modern age as the gradual fulfillment of the book of Revelation. As”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“For American Catholics, a millennium that John Paul II had hailed as a “new springtime” for Christianity began instead with a wave of revelations about priestly sex abuse. There had been intimations of this crisis in the 1980s, when several high-profile instances of priestly pedophilia had surfaced in the media. But nothing prepared Catholic America for the flood of 2003, which began in New England but ultimately left no diocese or community untouched, reaching even to the doors of the Vatican itself. Horror upon horror, cover-up upon cover-up, and sacrilege piled on sacrilege—it was like an anti-Catholic polemic from the nineteenth century, except that it was all too terribly true. No atheist or anticlericalist, no Voltaire or Ingersoll or Twain could have invented a story so perfectly calculated to discredit the message of the Gospel as the depredations of Thomas Geoghan and the legalistic indifference of Bernard Cardinal Law. No external enemy of the faith, no Attila or Barbarossa or Hitler, could have sown so much confusion and dismay among the faithful as Catholicism’s own bishops managed to do.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“nothing prepared Catholic America for the flood of 2003, which began in New England but ultimately left no diocese or community untouched, reaching even to the doors of the Vatican itself. Horror upon horror, cover-up upon cover-up, and sacrilege piled on sacrilege—it was like an anti-Catholic polemic from the nineteenth century, except that it was all too terribly true. No atheist or anticlericalist, no Voltaire or Ingersoll or Twain could have invented a story so perfectly calculated to discredit the message of the Gospel as the depredations of Thomas Geoghan and the legalistic indifference of Bernard Cardinal Law. No external enemy of the faith, no Attila or Barbarossa or Hitler, could have sown so much confusion and dismay among the faithful as Catholicism’s own bishops managed to do.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“In an age of general religious revival, the most powerful image of Christian love available to any midcentury believer was supplied by the black protesters who stood praying and singing while segregationist policemen loosed dogs and water cannons on them. Through”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton conducted a long investigation into the religious lives of American teenagers, and discovered exactly the kind of therapeutic theology that Rieff had seen coming. Smith and Denton found no evidence of real secularization among their subjects: 97 percent of teenagers professed some sort of belief in the divine, 71 percent reported feeling either “very” or “somewhat” close to God, and the vast majority self-identified as Christian.59 There was no sign of deep alienation from their parents’ churches, no evidence that the teenagers in the survey were poised to convert outright to Buddhism or Islam, and no sign that real atheism was making deep inroads among the young. But neither was there any evidence of a recognizably orthodox Christian faith. “American Christianity,” Smith and Denton suggested, is “either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself,” or else is “actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.”60 They continued: “Most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it.”
Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
“Catholicism’s influence could make right-wing politics less bigoted and left-wing politics less materialistic,”
Ross Douthat, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
“Meanwhile, African mass attendance is presently close to 70 percent; mass attendance in Europe in 20 percent,”
Ross Douthat, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism

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