‘A nation of Osteens and Obamas’

Bill O’Leary WASHINGTON POST Evangelist Joel Osteen brings his revival show to Nationals Park on April, 29, 2012 in Washington, … Continued

Bill O’Leary


Evangelist Joel Osteen brings his revival show to Nationals Park on April, 29, 2012 in Washington, DC.

If a foreign visitor –a modern-day Alexis De Tocqueville, let’s say — wanted to understand the state of religion in America today, a good place to start would have been Nationals Park in Washington D.C. three weeks ago, where the megachurch pastor Joel Osteen preached to a sold-out house. Osteen’s bipartisan reach and global influence makes him one of the most plausible contemporary heirs to Billy Graham. But unlike Graham, his message tends to be doctrine-free and relentlessly upbeat, rarely mentioning sin and regularly suggesting that God wants nothing more than to shower worldly blessings on believers.

Or the curious visitor could pick up the new census of religious affiliation in America that was released shortly after Osteen’s rally, which showed that non-traditional forms of Christian faith now comprise the third largest religious category in the country, after Roman Catholicism and the Southern Baptist Convention. Overall, the growth in American Christianity today is mostly nondenominational and Mormon, while the churches that dominated American life a half century ago –Catholic and Mainline Protestant –have continued their decades-long decline.

Or our hypothetical foreigner could just listen to the way the president of the United States –himself a nondenominational Christian – discussed his famous “evolution” on gay marriage last week. Rather than just making a secular case for his position, Barack Obama defended his shift on explicitly religious grounds, invoking the figure of Jesus and the language of the New Testament to justify a perspective that obviously places him at odds with the historic Christian view of marriage.

For decades, the cultural tug-of-war between the Christian right and the secular left has encouraged people to envision the American religious future in binary terms –as either godless or orthodox, either straightforwardly secular or traditionally Christian. But these examples and trends suggest a more complicated reality, in which religious institutions have declined but religion itself has not, and Americans increasingly redefine Christianity as they see fit rather than than abandoning it entirely.

We aren’t a nation of rigorous Richard Dawkins-style atheists and equally rigorous Pope Benedict XVI-style Catholics, in other words. Instead, we’re a nation of Osteens and Obamas, Dan Browns and Deepak Chopras –neither a Christian nation nor a secular society, but a nation of heretics.

To many Americans, this description no doubt sounds like a compliment. Because we’ve always been a nation from of religious freethinkers and entrepreneurs –from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy –the word “heretic” often carries positive connotations in our religious culture. It’s associated with theological daring, spiritual experimentation, and a willingness to blaze new trails and push on toward new horizons.

But the heretical imperative in America’s religious life has usually existed in a kind of fruitful and creative tension with more conservative, institutional, and historically-rooted forms of faith –first denominational Protestantism and then later the Roman Catholic Church as well. And the post-1960s decline of these churches has taken a significant toll on our common life, in ways that both religious and secular observers should be able to recognize.

For one thing, individualistic and do-it-yourself forms of religion are less likely to bind communities together, encourage stable families, assimilate immigrants, and otherwise Americans to live in healthy fellowship with one another. It is not a coincidence that as the institutional churches have lost their purchase among poor and non-college educated Americans, that population’s social ills have multiplied and its economic prospects have dimmed.

At the same time, self-created forms of faith are also less likely to provide a check against the self’s worst impulses –whether it’s the kind of materialism that Joel Osteen’s sunny promises encourage, or the solipsism that percolates under the surface of popular spiritual memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love.” Many of America’s contemporary crises, from the housing bubble and the financial crash to the collapse of the two-parent family, can be traced to just this tendency — encouraged by too much contemporary religion — to make the self’s ambitions the measure of all things.

Finally, when strong religious impulses coexist with weak religious institutions, people become more likely to channel religious energy into partisan politics instead, and to freight partisan causes with more metaphysical significance than they can bear. The result, visible both in the “hope and change” fantasies of Obama’s 2008 campaign and the right-wing backlash it summoned up, is a politics that gives free rein to both utopian and apocalyptic delusions, and that encourages polarization without end.

Again, these tendencies have always been with us. But they’ve usually coexisted with religious institutions rooted in something deeper than the fashions of the moment, and with churches capable of providing a curb on the very American temptation to make God in our own image and declare that we are good. That is what we lack today, and what we need tomorrow.

Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist and author, most recently, of “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.” He wrote this piece for On Faith.

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  • Akrasius

    As I read pieces like this every day on a popular religion portal, I can’t help but think that we are witnessing the rapidly accelerating stages of the disintegration of a major religion. Christian authors of every ‘ism’ are busy dissecting the causes of this collapse and prescribing remedies based on their own bias, but they are missing the big picture. Religions come, religions go. They are all human constructs designed to meet the needs of the people they serve. If a religion no longer meets the needs of the people, it will be discarded.
    Orthodox Christianity had a nice run for many positive reasons, but also some negative reasons too. It had spiritual appeal, but backed that up with the coercive force of good old fashioned earthly power, which it used ruthlessly to keep people in line. Now we have come to a time when information is no longer controlled by a few, but is accessible to all. Under this bright light of species-wide scrutiny, the exclusive claims of Christianity look threadbare. That, not some newly expressed flaw in humanity, is the reason for the religion’s decline.

  • RascalJones

    The reports of Christianity’s demise are premature (again). It is true that evangelicalism has collapsed all around us– just as mainline Protestantism collapsed a century ago and Catholicism collapsed before that. I am talking about a spiritual collapse that results from abandoning the sure word of scripture. The Bible refers to this as the removal of a church’s lampstand– they cease functioning as a true church even as the spiritual zombies continue to go through religious motions.

    Jesus referred to the church as a harvest (John 4:35). History shows us that there are seasons to the harvest. There are times of new planting, then growth, bearing fruit and then withering and dying. Then it starts all over again. Evangelicalism has had its season and it was magnificent. Now it is little more than dried husks in the winter fields. But there are seeds germinating and God will bring fresh growth. He always does.

    Enemies of the Faith have predicted its demise throughout history. Humanists may wish Christianity would disappear but Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against the little flock. There will still be faithful Christians on earth at His return.

    For now, evangelicalism has joined the ranks of spiritual Babylon. It is a cacophony of unscriptural blather. Wolves have taken over the denominations, seminaries and congregations. They teach just about anything BUT the truth. Yes, there are always a few faithful who linger but the call is going out, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.”

  • vdonahue

    All mankind’s treatises on religion, of any kind make me laugh. They all work to shape God into some form that he can understand and worship and use to control others, instead of simply accepting and listening to the quiet still voice inside. God has been here long before mankind got here, and God will be here long after we are dust again by our own hand and God won’t care, because we are just a small part of the universe. We are lucky to be part of it, and we should enjoy the good parts and be kind to one another while we are here.

  • ostrecklinghausen

    Great picture of Joel speaking to a sold-out crowd with empty seats to the rear.

  • TB_One

    Excellent article and from the NY Times no less! Spot on in its identification for “religion”. Fritz Ridenour wrote a long time ago, “Religion is man’s reaching up to God. Christianity is God reaching down to man.” The difference is works versus relationship. Those who are born again strive to live in relationship with a living God, sealed by His Holy Spirit. Religion is man made and seeks to glorify self. “the very American temptation to make God in our own image and declare that we are good.”

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Incorrect. The difference is semantics. Christians are no less guilty of the solipsism and idiocy exercised by believers in every other man-made faith.

    Please explain to me how a dogma that you accept – just as every other religionist does – on nothing more than blind faith and against the current of overwhelming and damning evidence accumulated by rational inquiry, is more legitimate than any other dogma accepted on precisely the same grounds.

  • eddikon

    Regardless of their differing messages we don’t need Osteen or Graham to lead us to God. Ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, etc. are unnecessary and cause more harm than good. Religion, and its devotion to a hateful; murderous; tribal monster god, is constructed solely to keep humankind in a state of fear and at the mercy of manipulative, deluded charlatans. Jesus, like the Buddha, showed us that the path to redemption was through forgiveness, compassion, turning the other cheek, overcoming death through unconditional love, and realizing that though thought; word; and deed we are creating the reality we see about us. And Jesus had a thing, or two, to say about the clergy and religious hypocrisy. He was killed because he threatened the religious heirarchy of his day; things are no different now. Jesus, the Buddha, and others like them showed the world a simple path to developing the power of the disciplined mind which leads ultimately to overcoming this world of life and death and the realization of Enlightenment. All things, whether judged to be good or evil, when planted in the fertile ground of the mind, become the seeds that grow into the plants, that become the buds, that blossom into the flower of Enlightenment. Only the ones who dare to question the world that they see and then look within are able to overcome the world of form and see the truth concerning the essential nature of being. No one can do this for you. You must do your own footwork.


    Being a heretic is better than being a sheep.

  • 4blazek

    Which god? Over our course of history, we have worshiped everything from the sun to cows…

  • steveAgnewToo

    Douthat notes that religions support many social aspects of society and it is not clear what would replace those socializations…maybe Facebook? Do we simply “…declare that we are good?” as Douthat proffers? He points out that there is after all a narcissism or self love or selfishness that comes with self taught deisms.

    As Douthat further notes in closing, “…these tendencies {i.e. to make up religion as we go} have always been with us.” Thus society evolves, the president evolves, and religions evolve as well.

    This tension between religious and social values is the way that society defines acceptable social behavior for this time. Remember, our evolution does not define perfect behavior, but rather evolution just defines the limit of acceptable behavior.

  • hitwithafade

    spoken from the diminishing Ozone….discern and tolerance are things not taught in public schools…

  • hitwithafade

    thank God he doesn’t lead you….he doesn’t lead anyone but who he takes personal responsibility for…you on the other hand could easily choke on the epistemological upchuck regurgitated by some secular activist…

  • hitwithafade

    kind of reminds me of Obama’s kick-off in Richmond…except there was nobody there…but his boot licking press corps…Joel has a Tv Ministry and has a reference point on his Birthplace

  • hitwithafade

    great a blog as a salient resource….from the MSM….horray…for secular america…where they grope your wife in the airports and the TSA clown gives her a wink when his finger gets wet….

  • swampfoxx4

    All you non-believers couldn’t handle Joel Osteen. You are more confortable listening to that anti-christ wannabe, Obama.

  • tcc422

    I think it is true that “non-traditional forms of Christian faith” have produced some very strange interpetations of what is moral and Christian. But it is also true that institutional religion has been fraught with peril, and corruption going back for centuries. The catholic church engaged in some very scary practices and beliefs that demonized those outside its mainstream, even when that mainstream had clearly lost its way. And in this country, who can ever forget our own dark chapter of institutional religions concerning the Salem witch trials, when many were tortured and even lost their lives to convoluted interpetations of what Gods will was. I, for one, have always believed that God resides in the heart, and that the churches of the world are merely a means to access that inner spirituality, and not an end.

  • smithgp2u

    SODDI, I agree. That’s one reason the separation of church and state is so important. Here, a heretic is free to go on with life.

  • jsoles2001

    I gues the big war in Iraq was more Christ-like huh?

  • csintala79

    Does the emergence of do it yourself religion portend dissolution of the community or is this the result of the dissolution of the community? One goal of capitalism is the creation of a mobile, rootless work force; lose your job in your old home town, well then, pick up stakes and go to where the work is. Community loyalties are inimical to today’s economic system. The danger presented by trade unions is that employers have to bargain with a group rather than autonomous individuals; it doesn’t take much thought to conclude why bosses would rather deal with workers on an individual basis. The bosses want to sell the notion of a classless society for the same reason, i.e., divide and conquer. Back in the 40s and 50s this issue was related to Marx’s theory of alienation. A result and goal of capitalism is the replacement of community with individualism. Why is the dissolution of religious institutions a surprise? This was predicted almost 200 years ago. First the nuclear family, then the particulate individual, rootless and isolated.

  • csintala79

    One can consider anyone not agreeing with their views as a heretic. So called orthodox Christians only define heretics for themselves. These labels are not objective truths; they are subjective opinions.

  • csintala79

    Is God knowable or unknowable? If knowable, show us the proof. If unknowable, then the concept of God is irrelevant, i.e., a label for nothing.

  • csintala79

    Jesus and Paul indicated that the Second Coming would occur during the lifetime of some hearing them, i.e., sometime in the first century C.E.. Two millenia and counting.

  • csintala79

    It is called social alienation, which was first described by Karl Marx over 150 years ago as the inevitable result of capitalism. For capitalism, Old Time Religion is an anachronism.

  • edbyronadams

    The cafeteria approach to religious doctrine is only for the lazy. The only justification for religious practice is to use it to battle our human innate tendencies of a tribal nature, to demonize the other in order to discriminate and rationalize murder and genocide. There is no practice that doesn’t require discipline that can achieve these goals.

    Making people feel good and to have hope has value but can’t have the lasting effect that a practice of self reflection and self renovation can have.

  • PhilyJimi

    Religions have to evolve or they will die. Most are dying on the vine. Osteen is successful because he doesn’t care about Jesus, the bible and hell. He just makes people feel good about themselves and wants them to do better. It is just low sugar fluffy cotton candy for people who don’t want to think too much but still want to bury their parents and marry their daughters in a nice church.

  • PhilyJimi

    I can see the sun and cows. At least they are real.