Do you ever wonder why the current spiritual milieu of America is what it is? Surely there are many explanations that thoughtful Christians offer: lack of revival, the institutional battles between institutional science and religion, pluralism, secularism, modernism, postmodernism, multiculturalism, paganism, etc. Many words have been spoken and written arguing the merits of these explanations. But what hasn’t been discussed very much, at least in Protestant and evangelical circles, is the thesis that the collapse of Mainline Protestantism, coupled with the intellectual ascendency of Roman Catholicism, have profoundly (perhaps fundamentally) shaped the public spirit of America.
Joseph Bottum, esteemed and prolific journalist, seeks to prove this theory in his book An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, hereafter AAA. Bottum is a Roman Catholic and political neoconservative, but is widely published in The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Even the New York Times praises his literary achievements. AAA is a work of journalistic sociology. Its sources are cited within the text instead of utilizing footnotes or endnotes. For academics and those who gravitate toward scholarship, this might detract from the respectability of the author’s argument. But the reader who accepts the journalistic format will not judge Bottum for not writing a book he didn’t intend. As a reworked collection of essays, the author’s political and religious writings have been edited into a cohesive whole.
And it is impressive, albeit a bit strange in perspective from one who is not an insider of the Mainline or the Roman Catholic churches. This was my sense as I followed Bottum’s reasoning. But that is a good thing, and a gentle rebuke to my regular reading diet. I suppose that if I listened to more songs than what my own choir was singing, then I might not feel like an outsider. Perhaps my reading habits are a little more for theological affirmation than learning from other who are different from me. Or at least more so than I cared to see before. But I digress…
AAA is divided into two sections. The first part deals with the collapse of the Mainline churches in America over the last 50 years and attempts to make sense of how two generations “churched” in those traditions have taken their places in American culture. Bottum labels this section “The Poster Children and the Protestant Perplex.” He finds in some of his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances qualities of the typical poster children, Americans who still claim the ethics and sense of superiority but without the tenets of Christianity. How to best explain the existence and beliefs of these poster children. Bottum proposes we look no further than the liberal, social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, a man the author dubs “the dominant intellectual figure of the past 150 years.” According to Bottum, the social gospel that jettisons the biblical gospel describes the beliefs of the typical post-Protestant poster child.
Consider merely those social forces that joined, according to Rauschenbusch, to murder Jesus Christ: bigotry, power, corruption, the groupthink of the vulgar mob, militarism, and class oppression. All we need to do is drop Christ from the explanation and we have the precise social feeling of…all the current post-Protestant class, the Poster Children of today…This is the final remnant of the Christianity of their ancestors, the last enduring bit of their inheritance: a social gospel, without the gospel. For all of them, the sole proof of redemption is the holding of a proper sense of social ills. The only available confidence about their salvation, as something superadded to experience, is the self-esteem that comes with feeling that they oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob. Up in its thin air, such a social ethics touches only lightly on personal morality, and it does not reach down at all to the old, earthy stuff of life and death that religion once took as its deep concern. And that is precisely the problem. [pp. 38-39]
Of course, we know from history and mere observation that the Mainline Protestant church has already lost its once proud and powerful position of cultural influence. So the casual observer is tempted to dismiss the Mainline’s influence as irrelevant to American culture. Bottum could not disagree more. “Look at the children of the Mainlines!” he might say. “Look at the class of people who directly descended and inherited the prized institutions and political power of the WASPS.” These are the post-Protestant poster children, and their message is still influencing culture by way of their positions of power and their sheer numbers.
This message of social salvation, as Bottum argues, is devoid of religion, and sometimes even hostile to religion, especially creedal orthodox Christianity. I might add it is idolatry, giving inordinate value to Power, Sex, and Money and thus worshiping these false gods. Because the poster children of post-Protestantism cannot deal peacefully with the constitutional provisions for religious freedom and the still vibrant segment of Americans who cherish this right, the poster children have adopted a culture-war mentality. Because of their secularized social gospel, they are incapable of leading America toward the vision of E Pluribus Unum. And it is only a matter of time before the cultural capital they inherited from their forefathers will dwindle away. The Post-Protestant ethic is therefore a dead-end for America and its religious freedom in the public square.
The second section of the book attempts to explain how American Catholics attempted (and ultimately failed) to fill the moral and spiritual vacuum left by the post-Protestants. He labels this part of the book “the Swallows of Capistrano and the Catholic Conundrum.” Bottum suggests that the modernizing and standardizing effect of the Vatican II council had an unintended effect of driving the life-force straight out of the American Roman Catholic church. As a meta-metaphor for his thesis, he likens this effect to the fact that the swallows have abandoned their historical summer home at the mission church in San Juan Capistrano. According to Bottum, Roman Catholicism is the only fully formed alternative worldview that is capable of competing with the secularism that dominates the institutions of government, education, media, and entertainment. But the intellectuals in the Roman Catholic church who held so much promise as American cultural saviors, seeing as they attempted to build common-grace alliances and partners with evangelicals and others, gave up their faith in the institutional church because of the scandals of child abuse and liberal theology. They didn’t give up their faith, and they still participate in corporate worship, but they are not interested in church politics, the sometimes heterodox and fluffy homilies from the local parish priest, or the life of the congregation. They are shaped by the liturgical worship of the church, and by reading its intellectuals and leaders—men like Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II (who he sees as a timely hero and saint). They are waiting for leadership to return to the simple beauty of the gospel, and to traditional Catholic orthodoxy. (Although Bottum wrote before the fame of Pope Francis caught on, I image he is very excited about the direction and vision of the new Pope.) But since the Roman Catholic church continues to be plagued by the fallout of the child-abuse scandals, their once promising position to fill the moral and spiritual void left in America by the moral collapse of the Mainlines has been neutralized for the foreseeable future.
The greatest strength of AAA is the final chapter which functions as a summary of the two parts of the book. A three-legged stool has historically supported (however wobbly) American society and sustained the position of her exceptionalism in the world. Those three legs are Capitalism, Democracy, and the Protestant Mainline. Now that the Mainline has lost its power and influence in American culture, Capitalism and Democracy will run roughshod over American religion because America no longer has a shared national religious conscience. It is the transformation of the capitalist economy into the idol of Money. And the democratic-republican form of government into the idol of Power. Bottum seems to think that if we can somehow just get our culture war combatants to meet and greet each other, then they might just get along (if not agree). This is, in my opinion, an unrealistic proposal for sweetening our civic discourse. Why? Because we are not just a collective nation of individuals, but a nation equally represented by institutions (good and bad, weak and powerful, religious and non-religious, friendly and belligerent). A nation does not change merely one soul at a time, but also when the souls of institutions change. We need spiritual revival and reformation in our hearts and in our institutions. Nothing short of the gospel provides the power and methods for such change. To quote the final words of AAA: “God help us.”
Here are a few other book reviews of An Anxious Age:
Here is an article seeking to apply the lessons of the book :
Here is a video of the author discussing his book: