A Nation of Heretics?

Ross Douthat posted a column adapted from his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012). Mormons are used to denigrating references — recall Mitt Romney’s response to the Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, “I’ve heard worse” — but it still has some shock value for most American Christians, who generally think they deserve a pat on the back instead of a kick in the … shin. Welcome to the club, fellow heretics.

Douthat’s point in the essay is that the religious center or “religious mainstream” doesn’t really exist anymore in America and that this year’s crop of presidential candidates reflects this development: “In 2012, we finally have a presidential field whose diversity mirrors the diversity of American Christianity as a whole. Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum all identify as Christians, but their theological traditions and personal experiences of faith diverge more starkly than any group of presidential contenders in recent memory.”

He goes on to describe what is often called religious diversity but sounds more like religious anarchy:

These divergences reflect America as it actually is: We’re neither traditionally Christian nor straightforwardly secular. Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit, and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.

There is no shortage of pressing domestic and foreign policy issues, yet Douthat thinks we are likely to get campaign rhetoric full of religious “division, demonization and polarization.” I hope for better, but I fear the worst. It’s going to be a long election year.

20 comments for “A Nation of Heretics?

  1. Jax
    April 17, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    It’s going to be WAAAAAY to long of an election year. I already dread hearing from people at church on how we have to vote for Romney because he is LDS and it will fulfill prophecy to save the Constitution… blah blah blah

    I have no problem voting for Romney, but do it because you like his political positions please!

    As for the diversity. This is frighteningly true. A person would probably be hard pressed to find more than a handful of issues that these three ‘Christians’ hold in common.

  2. Bradley
    April 17, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    “nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean”

    Gee, that kind of makes us sound like Muslims.

    I’m voting for Mitt so he can precipitate the apocalypse. I’ve been practicing my Mad Max voice.

  3. April 17, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    npr.org had a nice article up a few days back about the idea that the word “Christian” doesn’t hold much meaning any more. How you define it depends on where you sit and who you are. The thrust of the article was that the default assumption by the media that “conservative” and “Christian” go together like eggs and bacon should be strongly questioned.

  4. Jax
    April 17, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    Mormons arguing for a strict definition of ‘christian’ is kind of like listening to a proverbial “eye that offends” begging to be cut out. If we argue for a strict definition we will be among the first ones cut out by the rest of ‘mainstream’ christianity.

  5. YvonneS
    April 18, 2012 at 7:56 am

    If the Pilgrims and the Puritans, the Anabaptists, Mennonites and Quakers hadn’t been heretics they would never have sneaked out of Europe to settle here. We have been heretics, debtors and criminals from the very beginning.

  6. April 18, 2012 at 9:09 am

    Jax, I think you protest too much. I have never heard any mention of “vote for Romney because he is Mormon.” The most I have heard is “isn’t it horrible how the press has treated Romney because he is Mormon?” You can take that as a whistle to vote for the man if you would like, but its not a ringing endorsement. I have heard more of “Romney isn’t conservative,” from Mormons when it comes to strictly political statements than an affirmation to vote for him because of his faith.

    I really kind of grimaced and chuckled when you said Mormons arguing for a stricter definition of Christianity is hypocritical. I would completely agree. Good thing I have never heard any Mormon do anything of the sort. My guess is that if any were to do such a thing other Mormons (yes, even orthodox conservative ones) would figuratively slap them down.

  7. Bob
    April 18, 2012 at 11:15 am

    @ Jettboy,
    I hear ALL THE TIME on these blogs__Romney is the MORMON candidate.

  8. Sam Brunson
    April 18, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Bob, no you don’t. You hear about Romney, who is the presumptive GOP nominee who is also Mormon. Because the bloggernacle is primarily a Mormon-themed place, we explore aspects of his Mormonness in the context of politics.

  9. lucy
    April 18, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Douthat also states: “Our diversity has made us more tolerant in some respects, but far more polarized in others.” This is an astute observation that merits consideration, as well as sober reflection on the principles of truth and tolerance(http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/-truth-and-tolerance-elder-dallin-h-oaks).

  10. Bob
    April 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    @ Sam Brunson,
    ” Bob, no you don’t”.
    Which Mormon Candidate for President?
    By: Mormon Heretic (W & T)
    January 24, 2011+++++ this continues even today.

  11. April 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    well, he IS the Mormon candidate. That doesn’t make him the candidate Mormons should vote for any more than Santorum who IS the Catholic candidate should be the one Catholics should vote for.

  12. Jax
    April 18, 2012 at 4:09 pm


    Do you attend the same branch I do? Then you don’t know what I hear do you? I have heard in my unit how voting for Romney is the only logical thing for an LDS person to do, and I fully expect to hear it again. As for the fulfilling prophecy part, have you never heard someone say, “the priesthood will rise up and take control of this nation when the Constitution hangs by a thread…” ? I can picture that happening in almost every Sunday School class across the country.

    In truth I haven’t heard Mormons calling for a strict definition of Christianity, I made that statement based more on the hypothetical occurence.

  13. Jettboy
    April 18, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    And I am telling the truth when I say I have never heard it once. Can you point out any online example? That would go a long way to proving exactly how wide spread it is.

  14. palerobber
    April 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    shorter Douthat: “pure christianity is obedience to self-appointed institutional authorities, as jesus taught us at the Council of Nicea.”

    btw, Ross explains himself a bit in this interview excerpt.

  15. April 18, 2012 at 6:38 pm


    Here’s a video I’ve seen posted on Facebook by several LDS friends within the last few weeks:


    There are plenty of examples here of terminology that will work as dog whistles for certain conservative Mormon ears (to really hear this, pay special attention from 1:25-2:10).


    FWIW, I actually don’t think the creators are trying to appeal to Mormons only. I think it’s more likely they are so completely acculturated that they don’t even realize which of their tropes aren’t shared by outsiders. (Or…maybe they do, and this represents a bowlderized version designed to forestall outsider alarm about the “Mormon factor.” The passive voice used in “it is predicted” and the puzzling “you know who you are” line seem to lend some credence to that possibility.)

    Whatever the case, this clip is EXACTLY the sort of completely one-sided presentation which many of us often hear presented as if it’s the gospel truth.

    (What’s especially interesting to me is that the video’s creators probably thought they were being balanced and moderate by throwing bones to Obama like “His message was excellent and he brought some hope.” But there is no way you can truthfully claim to be a moderate while basing your entire argument on dualistic assumptions like “There are only two choices.”)

  16. It's Not Me
    April 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    I’ve only heard one thing in our ward about Romney, and it was this (from the pulpit on fast day): I know blah blah blah President Romney. And I call him “President” because I know he’s going to win.”

    Incidentally, she spent some time at the state mental hospital, so people mostly look down at the floor when she gets up to talk.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    April 19, 2012 at 1:06 am

    Even though our community of some 200,000 in south central Washington has a strong LDS presence of around 25,000 (5 stakes and a temple), the vote in the Republican caucuses for Romney was several times that, even though my son-in-law supports Ron Paul and other Mormons I know had a first choice of Santorum. Though I am a political news junkie, I have not heard ANYONE talk about the presidential candidates at church, certainly not during meetings but not even in the hallways outside of the meetings. It us possible that someone did it in one of the other wards, because last Sunday the high council member who visits our ward passed along a message from the stake presidency emphasizing the Church position that partisan politics is out of place in church.

    I am sure there are people who think the only way to make decisions is by an appeal to authority, and so they tend to look for authoritative direction from the Brethren even when it isn’t there. It is the same impulse that causes us to create meaningful narratives out of random sequences of events. We look for intent behind the chaos of experience. Is God.playing a guessing game with us? Does he reward those who guess right?

    On the other hand there is the approach of keeping straight what is clearly taught, and consulting those lodestar principles when making choices, so we can bring to pass righteousness by living consistently with our best understanding of what is good and loving and Christlike. And respecting the fact that we each have a limited scope of authority over the choices of others.

    At both ends of the national political and cultural spectrum, there is an unspoken assumption that, if you know what is right, you have the right to enforce your knowledge on everyone else. But in Mormonism, we have a particularly strong sense of conviction about the religious truth, that is bound tightly to a commitment to ensuring every person has total freedom to accept or reject that truth.

    I think many of the right wing Evangelicals who distrust Romney sense that he lacks their sense of self-righteousness and belief in the rightness of coercing the nation to the “right way”, whatever that is. There is certainly a cultured animosity toward Mormons due to indoctrination at church to think of Mormons as either deceivers or deceived. But Romney also just does not speak in terms of “God called me to run for the presidency and save America from Obama the antichrist”, as we have heard from many of the other now failed candidates. The more extreme Evangelicals appear to want a candidate who will lead them on a crusade against the heretics and pagans who occupy the holy city of Washington. Romney is too Mormon to put on the Knight Templar uniform.

    And that also means that Mormons who have bought into the crusader mentality of much of larger Protestant American culture (the way Mormons have uncritically bought into Young Earth Cteationism) are also going to find that Romney is not that kind of candidate, even if they try to impose that template on him.

    Having a Mormon president is going to turn out no more apocalyptic than having a Mormon governor or Secretary of HUD.

  18. Bob
    April 19, 2012 at 2:28 am

    Romney was not even that good in the 2008 GOP race. But:
    In 2008, Mitt Romney received major support from the Mormon (LDS) and other religious population and was able to carry the state with 89.49% of the vote.
    Let’s see in June of 2012, if being Mormon again helps Romney carry the Utah GOP primary, (if there is one).

  19. Ray
    April 19, 2012 at 5:55 am

    Was there ever a time when there were no Christian heretics? I think Douthat misses the good old days when mainline protestants ruled the roost.

  20. Suleiman
    April 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    And I thought that all Christians were a bit heretical by nature. What Jesus pronounced was certainly painful for Jewish and Roman elites to hear.

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