JACKSON, Tenn. – Sept. 20, 2012 – American Christians invest too much enthusiasm and zeal in politics -- or the “city of man” -- instead of focusing their affections on the city of God, according to New York Times columnist and author Ross Douthat.
“People still have deep religious impulses, incredible religious energy, but they don’t feel like they can pour it into religious institutions anymore, so they pour it into political institutions and into partisan causes,” Douthat said Sept. 20 at Union University.
Douthat spoke in the Carl Grant Events Center as part of the 14th annual Union Forum luncheon lecture series. The author of “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Douthat said that the word “heresy” was a perfect description for American religion today.
“America, I don’t think, is a post-Christian nation in any meaningful sense of that term,” he said. “I think we’re still a nation that is fascinated by Christian ideas, deeply influenced by Christian theology, obsessed with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth.”
But rather than adhering to orthodox beliefs that Christians have held for centuries, and adhering to a theology that is contained in Scripture and authenticated by the church, Americans have embraced a “pop spirituality” form of religion popularized by talk shows and televangelists, Douthat said.
He used Joel Osteen as an example of American Christianity, comparing him to Billy Graham in the sense that both were evangelists who weren’t highly politicized. Like Graham, Osteen preaches a message of God’s universal love that isn’t heavy on dogmatic details but emphasizes what God has to offer to every individual.
For Graham, however, that was only half of the message. The other half was human sinfulness and the fact that everyone needs to repent before God, and Douthat said such concepts are absent from Osteen’s preaching.
Douthat rejected the idea that the United States is “trending inexorably toward secularism and outright unbelief.”
“Man is by nature a religious animal,” he said. “It’s very unlikely that you could actually have a civilization in which religion belief just outright disappears. Instead, it just takes different forms. As the older forms decline, new forms emerge to take their place.”
In today’s society, Douthat argued, politics is one place where people’s loyalties are misplaced, and partisan polarization is one factor that has led to the weakening and decline of institutionalized Christianity.
In the past, the two political parties in the United States were more ideologically mixed than they are now, with a large number of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, Douthat said. He cited the civil rights movement of the 1960s as an example of an effort driven by religious activists who brought their Christian convictions to bear on the public square.
The effort succeeded in large part, Douthat said, because it was bipartisan in nature.
But today, with a few exceptions, Democrats are primarily the only party for liberals, while Republicans offer the only choice for conservatives. While such uniformity may make it easier for voters to choose between candidates, it also poses a challenge for Christians in the public square.
“Christianity as a faith is not supposed to be identical with ideology,” Douthat said. “It’s not supposed to be identical with partisan causes. It’s supposed to transcend and challenge partisan loyalties.”