more on bad religion

I want to go back to say a few more words about Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, a book for which I wrote a commendatory blurb, and some of the critiques of it. Ross begins the book with a kind of rough-and-ready overview of American religious history, but his chief concern is to look at the last sixty years or so, and the decline during that period of the broad cultural influence of orthodox Christianity. To the claim that there has been such a decline, there are, generally speaking, three responses. The first is that there has been no such decline. The second is that there has indeed been such a decline, but it’s largely the result of an increasingly anti-Christian cultural elite, especially as manifested in American universities and major newspapers and magazines. The third is that the decline exists and is largely (though not wholly) attributable to the failures of American Christianity itself. That’s Ross Douthat’s view, and mine.

To the first response — that there has been no such decline — I would suggest reflection on a few facts. First, that in 1947 Time magazine featured an adulatory cover story on C. S. Lewis — “His Heresy: Christianity” — followed a few months later by an equally reverent cover story on Reinhold Niebuhr. T. S. Eliot, a self-avowed conservative Anglo-Catholic, was the best-known poet in the English-speaking world. W. H. Auden’s explcitiy Christian poem The Age of Anxiety won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, and Auden wrote explicitly Christian and deeply theological essays and reviews for The New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, and many other prominent and intellectually serious periodicals. In the mid-1950s Bishop Fulton Sheen’s television program Life is Worth Living ran on ABC opposite Milton Berle’s show, with which it was highly competitive in the ratings.

Can anyone seriously imagine that such generally public prominence for explcitly Christian ideas and beliefs would be possible in mainstream American media today? Of course not.

The only thing preventing people from acknowledging this strikingly obviously fact is a prima facie insistence that decline-and-fall narratives are always nostalgic and always wrong. But neither of these is the case. One can acknowledge that Christanity has a less powerful public presence today than it had in the 1950s without seeing that decline as inevitable, without seeing it as irreversible, and without seeing it as a wholly bad thing. But to deny that historically orthodox Christianity had a stronger presence in the general American culture in the 1950s than it has today — that’s just crazy talk.

The remaining question is: Why the change? To that there are many answers. For secularists, a Relentless-March-of-Truth account is appealing; for many religious believers, a Perfidious-Mainstream-Media narrative is irresistible. There are other explanations that might accompany these without necessarily excluding either of them: for instance, the rise of broader media contexts that allowed Christian television stations, Christian publishing houses, Christian magazines, and even Christian movie studios to emerge. But even if you take the rise of these Christian subaltern counterpublics seriously — as you should — the question remains: Why did Christians prefer them?

If you’re a Christian, it’s tempting to say (drawing on the Perfidious-Mainstream-Media account) that we were forced into these subaltern modes by the relentless hostility of the cultural elites. That’s a very comforting narrative: we get to cast ourselves as the persecuted minority, and who can resist that temptation? Ross is offering a less consoling explanation: that Christians lost their cultural influence in large part because they lost their connection to historic orthodoxy, preferring comfortably flaccid theologies — of the Right and the Left — that were pretty much indistinguishable from what most religiously indifferent Americans believed anyway.

So for those readers especially hostile to Ross’s account, I have a question: Are you sure it’s not because he’s telling you something you don’t want to hear? — That if you have a marginal place in American culture, the situation may be largely your own fault?