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Columnist writes book on religion

Meghan Thomassen | Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What’s wrong with American Christianity today? Just ask New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, who will speak on his latest book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Wednesday at the Eck Hall of Law.

Douthat said the book was intended to capture what is occurring within American Christianity. He said he defines “heresy” in two ways – when one completely departs from faith or when one pushes traditional faith to an extreme.

“The ultimate goal of the book is to make a theological argument about how American religion [has become] increasingly heretical,” Douthat said. “[What constitutes heresy is] the hardest question human beings experience.”

Douthat said he wrote “Bad Religion” in response to the stark divisions he observed between the religious and secular spheres during the Bush administration era.

“Every argument about religion boiled down to whether God exists,” Douthat said. “I thought it made it seem like Americans in particular were divided into conservative Christians and secular people, and it didn’t capture America in all its weirdness and complexities.”

The book also tries to take a more serious look at “pop spirituality,” Douthat said.

“I spent a lot of time on figures like the author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ [Elizabeth Gilbert] and Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code,'” he said. “Those are the places where a lot of Americans get a lot of their religious sensibilities.”

Douthat said he wanted “Bad Religion” to explore what happened to the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations in America beginning in the 1940s.

“There were times when I thought I bit off more than I could chew,” Douthat said. “[The history] is just the first half of the book … I tried to cover such a broad and complicated story. It’s a hard story to tell … You could write a whole book about just what happened to Catholicism in the 1960s.”

As the youngest op-ed contributor at the New York Times, Douthat said his youth was an advantage for finding a historical perspective on the internecine conflicts in the late 20th0th century.

“I like to think that part of what I’m trying to do with my book is put some of the religious conflict in a bit of a historical perspective,” he said. “I didn’t participate in a lot of these debates, [which] gives me a little bit of distance and fresh perspective.”

A Harvard graduate, Douthat said his education as a Catholic at a politically liberal school makes his perspective particularly interesting.

Douthat said “Bad Religion” would be a fascinating read for Notre Dame students because it distills the challenge of trying to be traditionally Christian in a 21st-century society.

“[I tried to] determine what the real challenges to the Catholic faith are,” he said. “Secularism isn’t that powerful … There are potent alternatives, [for example,] pseudo-Christianity.”

Compared to his past two books, “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” and “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream,” Douthat said “Bad Religion” is the most ambitious.

“[‘Privilege’] was a personal book, with a bit of sociology, that commented on elite education … It was a more limited subject,” he said. “[‘Grand New Party’] was more ambitious, but I did have a co-author. We shared the burden of tackling history and modern policy.”

Douthat said he was honored to speak at Notre Dame as part of his tour.

“[Notre Dame] is the flagship Catholic institution,” he said.

Douthat will speak in 1140 Eck Hall of Law at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. Lunch will be served.