“The story of America over the last 50 years is a story of religious enthusiasm enduring even as the institutions that often channel it in productive ways have weakened,” Ross Douthat said during a recent conversation about his new book, “Bad Religion.”
“Man is by nature a religious animal, and the religious impulse doesn’t go away just because religious institutions go into decline, “ he said.
And so, Douthat argues, these impulses are instead channeled into other activities, including partisan politics.
That trend can create an otherworldly political feeling. In the case of President Obama, for instance, there emerged a messianic tone that bordered on the absurd. “This is the day the oceans stopped their rise,” Douthat said, mocking the hubris of the Obama campaign. At the same time, Douthat believes this phenomenon has created an apocalyptic impulse on the right.
Aside from infecting politics, the decline of organized religion has had other, more commercial consequences, too. For example, Douthat laments the success of books and movies that tap into a cheap form of mysticism. “I do respect that spiritual quest,” Douthat said, referencing the enormously popular book and movie, “Eat, Pray, Love.”
“The problem is that she’s in search of the God within,” he says of the popular book. “If that’s the only message you’re hearing, and you’re not testing internal revelation against some larger, longer, religious tradition … it’s very easy to listen to your ego or listen to your libido and say, ‘Oh, that’s the voice of God.’ And we see a lot of that in American society today,” he noted.