In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat puts his finger on four kinds of heresies that have rushed into the vacuum created by the retreat of the old Protestant Establishment. These heresies are recognizably kinds of Christianity, but embrace only one side of a classic paradox or tension.
• Alternative gospels, from the highbrow Gnostic Gospels to the lowbrow Da Vinci Code.
• Prosperity gospel, from Michael Novak's sanctification of capitalism to Joel Osteen's hucksterism.
• Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (the term is from sociologist Christian Smith) - think Eat, Pray, Love or Deepak Chopra.
• Nationalism, both messianic and apocalyptic.
In each case, the proponents have grasped half of a good thing, but miss the tempering wisdom of the mean between extremes.
The last heresy is the one most in my interest. He says the great social movements do have a vision of improving the nation, but tempered with realism about sin. Moreover, when they worked, these movements drew from both parties. What Douthat thinks is unique about this moment is that there are messianic and apocalyptic strands in both the Republican and the Democratic Parties.
Douthat notes that religious leaders tend to think unbelief is the great danger. I have long thought that human beings are a believing species, because we want to understand why our existence is meaningful. This means that when confidence in the great religions ebbs with a portion of the population, what they turn to is not stark unbelief and nihilism. Instead, every kind of paganism rushes in.
The heresies that Douthat notes are actually partly signs of life for the church -- they try to draw on the great patrimony of the world religions, especially the biblical strand. That they do so in an unbalanced way is the common error of all humanity, as Aristotelian philosophy always reminds us. But their hearts are, I think, pointing in the right direction.
Douthat says that each decline of faith in American history thus far has been followed by a resurgence of a chastened but vibrant renewal. He sees some possibilities of that renewal now. I think I am more constitutionally optimistic than he is, so I see his hope and raise it.