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Author discusses state of religion in America

Anna Boarini | Thursday, April 26, 2012

In a lecture sponsored by the Notre Dame Federalists Society, New York Times columnist and author Ross Douthat spoke about his new book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” Tuesday afternoon in the Eck Hall of Law.

Douthat said his own unique religious upbringing influenced him to write his book.

“I grew up Episcopalian, but when I was about six or seven my mother was very sick and ended up attending some faith healing services, with guitars and singing, preaching and then people would come forward and would be prayed over,” he said.

Eventually Douthat and his family converted to Catholicism.

“I was very pleased to become a Catholic,” he said. “I was pleased to get the structure of Catholicism.”

Douthat said he has an interesting perspective on religious life in America, specifically noting the parallel between his own religious experience and the American experience on a whole.

“The church-switching we did in the search of the one true faith, that’s a pretty typical American phenomenon,” he said. “About 45 percent of Americans have switched.”

Douthat said he chose to begin his book by examining the 1940s and 1950s because it was a period of convergence in American Christianity, one that was followed by steep decline in mainline church attendance.

“I started the book in the 40s and 50s, the post-war revival of American life,” he said. “This was a period of mass religiosity, the intellectual rebirth of religion.”

Douthat said right now in American religious life, tension lies between the traditionally religious and the religious freelancers. He discussed this in his book by addressing four themes.

Currently, America is an extremely partisan country, regarding both religion and politics, Douthat said, and Americans have launched a movement for secular political reform.

The second cause of the weakening of mainline religion, Douthat said, is the sexual revolution.

“There isn’t that much to say, but it’s pretty obvious the ideals coming out of the sexual revolution do not mesh with Christian morals,” he said. “This is a social landscape where it is harder and harder to imagine a traditional Christian ethic.”

Money is the third factor contributing to the downward trend of mainline Christianity, Douthat said.

He said the Old Testament puts a heavy stress on the suspicion of wealth, which can be difficult to reconcile in a capitalist country like the United States.

“There is a general sensibility that makes the New Testament emphasis on asceticism easier and easier for Americans to just set aside,” he said. “This [focus on wealth] has affected the ability of the church to attract people to the ministry … It seems like a much less attractive, lucrative and secure way of life.”

Douthat said, globalization is the last cause of the decline of religion in America.

“At the end of imperialism, it meant Christianity became more attractive [in former colonial nations],” he said. “That process undercut Christianity’s appeal in the West.”