WAMU 88.5 : The Diane Rehm Show

Ross Douthat: "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics"

In the years following World War II, traditional religious institutions flourished: more than half of all Americans attended weekly church services, and 70 percent were formally affiliated. Religion dominated public discourse and helped propel the civil rights movement. But the culture wars of the 1960s triggered a downward spiral for mainstream Christianity that has continued to the present day. In a new book, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that this loss of a traditional, Christian center is at the heart of America’s current crisis. He says we’ve become a nation of heretics and explains what that means for our future.

Program Highlights

Polls consistently show that large majorities of Americans classify themselves as religious, but the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990. In a new book, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues this rejection of traditional religion in favor of so-called pray and grow rich churches and spiritual journey-seeking has dire consequences for American society. Douthat's new book is titled "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics."

More Americans Don't Identify With A Specific Religion

Douthat said that the social scientist Robert Putnam has called this phenomenon of Americans not identifying with a specific religion "the rise of the nones." Some people see this as a real sign of secularization. "This is a sign that more and more people are just post-religious," Douthat said.

Is Politicization Of Religion A Reason For Alienation?

There's a perception now that "...to be a Christian is to be a Republican, right. Or that to be involved in the Episcopal Church means having endless fights over homosexuality and property disputes and so on," Douthat said. The real challenge for religious people is that it's not enough to say, "Let's get religion out of politics," he said. There has always been and always has to be room in American life for healthy expressions of religion and politics "that challenges making sure that religion influences partisanship rather than partisanship influencing religion," Douthat said, which he believes is a "tricky thing to pull off."

A Failure Of Institutional Religion

Institutional churches must "get their houses in order," Douthat said. That being said, it's too simplistic to point the finger at corrupt clergymen, the corrupt hierarch, and so on, he said. Diane pointed out that going to church won't solve the economic and social problems the U.S. is having right now. Douthat countered that going to church "can provide a useful corrective to the idea that the best way to live out your spiritual life is to sort of match your spirituality to your own impulses," he said.

You can read the full transcript here.


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