In “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” an essay collected in Marilynne Robinson’s new book from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, When I Was a Child I Read Books, she critiques a number of popular writers on religion, particularly the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong. Citing one argument he makes regarding the reasons behind the writing of the New Testament letters, she writes, “Not surprisingly, his hypothesis-which is all in the world it is or can be-makes his interpretation of these texts seem downright inevitable. To offer hypothesis as fact is not fair to the nonspecialist readership for which his book is clearly intended. In doing so he is typical rather than exceptional among popular writers.”
Those lines kept coming to mind as I read different reviews and excerpts of the new book from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. I first heard about the book via a column from Douthat summarizing his thesis and sketching out his arguments, where a couple of things caught my eye. Anyone familiar with the history of American religion will raise an eyebrow at several of the claims and reductions Douthat relies on for his arguments, but there’s one in particular that I want to focus on.
He attempts to argue that President Obama embodies the “uncentered spiritual landscape” that is central to his argument in a couple of ways, including in this: “[He was converted by a pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose highly politicized theology was self-consciously at odds with much of historic Christian practice and belief.”
It just so happened that I read Douthat’s column shortly after I’d listened to the three sermons Wright delivered at the revival services of a small church in Charleston, West Virginia, that took place the beginning of April. Before Wright spoke the second evening, he was introduced by one of his old friends, the Rev. Ron English, who held up a copy of the local newspaper with a headline announcing that “a divisive preacher is coming to town.” “I thank God for that divisive preacher,” he said. “Don’t you?” Situating Wright’s messages in the prophetic tradition, he continued: “Because you see, prophets don’t preach like priests. And the name is Jeremiah, y’all.”
Anytime the subject of Jeremiah Wright is broached, it is worth, I think, quoting again the statement Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann made when Wright’s rhetoric was first brought into the national limelight, during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
“The current spasm of “righteous indignation” concerning Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor, smacks of embarrassing ignorance. Such a critique of Wright is ignorant of black preaching rhetoric and the practice of liberation interpretation. It is also disturbingly ignorant of the prophetic traditions of the Bible that regularly expose the failures of society in savage rhetoric. I am grateful for the ministry of Wright, a colleague of mine in the United Church of Christ, who for a very long time has been a faithful pastor and a daring prophetic figure. It is odd when right-wingers misconstrue this belated Jeremiah as they do the original Jeremiah, who knew about God’s passion for truth-telling in risky places.” – Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary
Worth mentioning as well, in any discussion of American religion and Jeremiah Wright, is the connection between Martin Marty – whom Bill Moyers called “One of the great distinguished historians of religion in America” – and Jeremiah Wright. Wright told Moyers, in an interview in 2008, that he is the kind of preacher he is because of a challenge Marty issued to his students, Wright among them, at the University of Chicago around 1970 asking, “what do we do in ministry that speaks to the community and the world in which we sit?” Wright’s career has been informed by that question and shaped by the prophetic tradition.
In his seminal book “Modern American Religion, Volume 1: The Irony of It All,” Martin Marty explains “an aspect of method in narrative history” that Jacob Burckhardt laid out, where it is promised that the historian will “confine [themselves] to observation, taking transverse sections of history in as many directions as possible.” “Such sectioning across space and time,” writes Marty, “does not produce a story measured by a simple sequence of “and then’s.”
That desire, to “produce a story measured by a simple sequence of “and then’s” in service to one’s thesis, seems to be a primary problem of Douthat’s book, as evidenced by a sampling of reviews one finds online. Firstly, in a review for the New York Times, Randall Balmer, after classifying Bad Religion as a jeremiad, “one of the most durable literary forms throughout American history,” reminds the reader that “a jeremiad, almost by definition, will not let thorny details stand in the way of a good romp.”
He continues, further on in his review, to explain one alternative reading of a period Douthat dwells on:
But the glass-is-half-full approach, to borrow from the famous Peace Corps ad of this era, looks rather different. I’m not sure that the enervation of religion as institution since the 1950s is entirely a bad thing; institutions, in my experience, are remarkably poor vessels for piety. An alternative reading of the liberal “accommodationists” Douthat so reviles is that they have enough confidence in the relevance and integrity of the faith to confront, however imperfectly, such fraught issues as women’s ordination and homosexuality rather than allow them to fester as they have for centuries.
John Wilson, reviewing Bad Religion for Books and Culture, shares some of Balmer’s concerns:
The first [section], “Christianity in Crisis,” begins with a chapter entitled “The Lost World,” offering an idealized picture of American Christianity in the middle of the 20th century. (Late in the chapter, Douthat acknowledges that he has given us an oversimplified account, but then he proceeds with his thesis, altering nothing. He does the same thing at several other points in the narrative.)
… As you may have gathered from my summary of the book, I read Bad Religion with mounting exasperation. … Again and again in his narrative, Douthat skews the emphasis to fit his thesis rather than dealing with recalcitrant counter-evidence.
Lastly, Peter Steinfels, writing at Commonweal Magazine, concludes his review with this, echoing and expanding some of Balmer’s thoughts:
“What Douthat chooses to call the “locust years” were at least a decade and a half of intense social turmoil that probably suffered more than the usual quota of intellectual lockstep and hasty enthusiasms. That those years might also have involved honest, thoughtful, even painful, reconsiderations in the face of developments that could not be brushed aside, like the sometimes violent struggle for African-American equality, seemingly intractable warfare abroad, feminism, the sexual revolution, the appeal of Asian religions, and a quantum leap of historical consciousness among Catholics, escapes his and his sources’ imagination. One can run through issue after issue and discover serious debate, steps in one direction and then another, thinkers who confounded party lines, initiatives hesitant or bold and, yes, resistance. Was it simply accommodation? “Engagement” would be as good a term.
Bad Religion closes with Douthat’s hopes for “the recovery of Christianity.” A renewed Christianity, he argues, should be “political without being partisan”; “ecumenical but also confessional”; “moralistic but also holistic” (i.e., concerned with the Christian life as a whole rather than a narrow list of “thou shalt nots”); and finally “oriented toward sanctity and beauty.”
Well, Amen to that. Good advice, and capped with a movingly straightforward appeal to the reader to touch again the sources of Christian faith. But the capacity to be “political without being partisan” or “moralistic but also holistic” involves wisdom, empathy, prudence, courage, and imagination well beyond what is sketched in Douthat’s final nine pages of anecdotal examples and exhortative generalizations. Nurturing those capacities will not be done on the basis of a dichotomized, polemical history of the recent past.
Bad Religion is lively, provocative, informative, and useful as well as simplistic and misleading. It is a good book by a talented author. It could have been a lot better.”