Once an evangelical…: On Balmer on Douthat

Gee, so Randall Balmer doesn’t like Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion?  Shocker.

Yes, this morning’s Times confirms what anyone could have known before Douthat even conceived of such a book: the liberal Balmer doesn’t like Douthat’s thesis.  Balmer’s predictability is on full display in this review which is pretty much an adventure in missing the point.

Indeed, what Thomas Kuhn called “the paradigm effect” will make it hard for Balmer and his ilk to properly appreciate what concerns Douthat.  The depth of their difference is signaled in a tiny little sentence late in Balmer’s review.  As he announces, “institutions, in my experience, are remarkably poor vessels for piety.”  That, my friends, is pretty much the heart of the matter: it is precisely the devaluing of institutions that Douthat decries, and it is just such an anti-institutionalism that has been woven in the warp and woof of American religion–perhaps nowhere more intensely than in the loose fabric of parachurchism that is American evangelicalism.

Which is precisely why we can now see former (or soon-to-be-former?) evangelicals replaying exactly the accommodationist moves that Douthat documents among the mainline in the last century.  Anyone with an analogical imagination will see in Douthat’s chapter on mainline accommodation in the 60s and 70s a preview of some current discussions in evangelicalism.  Whether operating under the banner of “emergence” or “post-conservativism” or even “missional,” many of these trends are replays of the accommodationist move that are bound up with the freelance Christianity that has come to characterize American Christianity across the board.  (In a proper review of Douthat’s book that I plan to publish elsewhere, I will wonder whether the seeds for this are found much earlier in the American experiment.)

It would be disappointing–but not at all surprising–if so-called ‘progressives’ in evangelicalism took Balmer’s predictable review to be an excuse to ignore Douthat’s book.  I think Douthat has named what is at stake for the future of Christianity in the United States.  Some, like Balmer, believe that progressive, revisionist, non- and post-denominational, “updated” Christian start-ups are the way the faith will survive.  Others of us, like Douthat, see such ventures as extending something other than Christianity.  In contrast, we’re betting on something that will seem almost completely counter-intuitive: that the future of Christianity in the United States depends on the revitalization of orthodox institutions–even (gulp), denominations.  Or, to put it otherwise, we’re betting that the future of Christianity in the United States is catholic.

Place your bets.