Traditional Christianity versus Christian Heresies

In America’s post World War II era, the institutional, theological, and intellectual influence of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, reached all time highs. Church affiliation, which stood at 47 percent in 1930, skyrocketed to 69 percent by 1960. Almost half of all Americans judged clergy as the group “doing the most good.” Spending on religious structures – churches, schools, hospitals, etc. – was $26 million in 1945, $409 million in 1950 and $1 billion in 1960.

Christian books dominated the best sellers list (i.e., Fulton Sheen’s Communism and the Conscience of the West; Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told; Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal; Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking; Thomas Costain’s The Silver Chalice). Hollywood turned out religious film epics – Ben Hur, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, The Nun’s Story – that packed neighborhood cinemas.

Preachers – Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, Billy Graham and Reinhold Niebuhr –had impressive followings. Sheen’s TV show “Life Is Worth Living” was viewed weekly by 30 million households. Graham’s crusades attracted huge crowds. In New York, a record breaking 100,000 people worked their way into Yankee Stadium to hear Graham. Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian, dared to publicly reject the “modernist” view that ethics and social reform were the basis of Christianity and not Biblical eschatology. Niebuhr actually convinced leading leftists like historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that man is flawed by original sin and no government can eliminate man’s sinful tendencies with Utopian legislation.

In his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics [click on the title for the Kindle edition; on the image below for the book], conservative columnist Ross Douthat, describes the rise and fall of this golden age of traditional Christianity and how “bad religions” – pseudo-Christianities – have debased faith and glorified greed and self-absorption.

The obvious reason for the post-war “Great Awakening”: Ten million returning veterans, who had witnessed the horrors of a war that killed 50 million people, turned to Christianity, “a faith once delivered to the saints,” to comfort them and to explain why so many people blindly followed evil regimes and obeyed commands to commit atrocities.

One interesting return of the prodigal son, among several that Douthat describes, is British poet W.H. Auden. After the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, Auden began attending Episcopal services at New York City’s second-oldest church, St. Mark’s in the Bowery and reading the works of Christian apologists C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

             Order from The Catholic Thing store

Auden, who witnessed the persecution of the Spanish Catholic Church first hand in the 1930s, concluded that radical totalitarian ideologies made it “impossible any longer to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self-evident.” There must be more to explain the universe than materialistic platitudes, Auden argued. Only by appealing to a living God could one defend the liberal concepts of equality and human rights.

In 1960, the number of American Catholic converts broke all records. By the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1966 there were 60,000 a record. On Sunday, churches had standing room only; there were lines outside confessional boxes; parochial schools had waiting lists.

And then, around 1968, something happened and the “institutional life of the Church began a long bleed.” Church attendance, which stood at 75 percent in 1968 dropped to 50 percent by 1978. Participation at novenas, Stations of the Cross and in Holy Name Societies and sodalities fell out of bed.

Seminary enrollments declined two-thirds by 1980. Two percent of priests during the 1970s were abandoning their vows annually. In 1950, there was one priest for every 600 Catholics; in 1980 one for every 1000 – and the pool of priests was aging. Vatican II was a factor, but the decline hit all Christian churches.

Many observers thought the crisis of traditional Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant – was due to America “becoming an increasingly secular country in which atheism and indifference would predominate, and spiritual beliefs of every sort would gradually disappear.” 

Douthat, however, disagrees and argues that the onset of Christianity’s locust years was more complicated. In his judgment, there were five major catalysts:

  • Political Polarization – Vietnam war, civil rights movement;
  • Revolution in Social Mores – Birth control, promiscuity, abortion;
  • Global Perspectives – People seeking spirituality without rules turned to Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation;
  • Ever-growing Wealth – America’s new Gilded Age confirmed John Wesley’s observation: “Wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion;”
  • Decline of establishment ties to Christian religions – Elitist institutions, newspapers, networks, universities, law schools, and major foundations dismissed Christianity as déclassé. 

          Ross Douthat

Douthat points out that religious bodies that fought these trends, particularly the Catholic Church, have been accused of being out of touch, authoritarian, close-minded, and responsible for turning many of their members into neurotic, repressed bigots.

On the other hand, accommodating Christian sects (i.e., mainline churches) have only hastened moral decline. For their followers, religion “has become a license for egotism and selfishness,” the result being a society “where pride becomes ‘healthy self-esteem,’ vanity becomes ‘self-improvement,’ adultery becomes ‘following your heart,’ greed and gluttony becomes ‘living the American dream.’”

The decline of traditional Christianity, Douthat concludes, has not led to surging atheism, rather it has led to the spread of Christian heresies that hold the Kingdom of God is built in this life not the hereafter.

Despite these heresies and gloomy statistics, Douthat rightfully insists that all is not lost. Over the past 2000 years Christians have faced incredible challenges – Roman persecutions, Islamic invasions, European revolutions, Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism – and prevailed.

In the United States, the good news is Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics have formed an alliance to combat “a widespread secularization [that] increasingly descends into a moral, intellectual, and spiritual nihilism.”

And Douthat reminds us that cultural crisis often leads to reassessments and renewals: “Like W.H. Auden wandering amid the shuttered churches of 1930s Spain, perhaps Americans will survey the wreckage all around them and turn once again to a more rigorous and humble form of Christian faith.”


George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.