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Book Review of Joseph Bottum, 'An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America'


I recently read Joseph Bottum's marvelous book, "An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America." This is one of the most fascinating books I've read in some time.

Bottum will be familiar to many readers through his many essays in the Weekly Standard and elsewhere (this one is one of my favorites, which anticipates some of the ideas in this book) and his term at the helm of First Things. In fact, the prototype for "An Anxious Age" was a First Things cover story that Bottum wrote in 2008, "The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline." That article made a large impression on me when it first came out, and I was happy to learn that Bottum was planning to develop those ideas into a book.

"An Anxious Age" is probably best described as a work of religious sociology—both how society impacts religious practice (and how religious views evolve over time) as well as how religious views impact society. But it is written as an extended essay, not a data-focused academic tome, as is, for example, Charles Murray's "Coming Apart," to which the themes of "An Anxious Age" bear a good deal of resemblance.

The book is actually two relatively distinct essays, which bear a somewhat loose but useful connection. Part I of the book deals with the formal decline of the Protestant mainline churches as the moral center of American society, but also the continued rump effect those churches have on American society's subconscious (if society can have a subconscious). Part II of the book addresses what Bottum characterizes as an effort—ultimately unsuccessful—by Catholics and evangelicals beginning in the mid-2000s to form a sort of alliance to try to create a new moral code and religious institutional ballast to fill the void left in American society by the decline of the Protestant mainline churches that he describes in the first part of the book. What I found most interesting and provocative is Bottum's thesis that although it seems that the moral core of modern American society has been entirely secularized, and religion and religious institutions play little role in shaping those views, in fact the watered-down gruel of moral views served up by elite establishment opinion (recycling, multiculturalism, and the like) is a remnant of the old collection of Protestant mainline views that dominated American society for decades or even centuries.

To highlight the important sociological importance of religion in American society, Bottum uses the now-familiar metaphor of a three-legged stool in describing American society (one that I and others have used as well): a balance between constitutional democracy, free market capitalism, and a strong and vibrant web of civil society institutions where moral lessons are taught and social capital is built. In the United States, the most important civil society organizations traditionally have been family and churches. And, among the churches, by far the most important were those that Bottum deems as the "Protestant Mainline"—Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist (Northern), Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist/United Church of Christ, etc.

The data on changing membership in these churches is jaw-dropping. In 1965, for example, over half of the United States population claimed membership in one of the Protestant mainline churches. Today, by contrast, less than 10 percent of the population belongs to one of these churches. Moreover, those numbers are likely to continue to decline—the Protestant Mainline ("PM") churches also sport the highest average age of any church group.

Why does the suicide of the Protestant Mainline matter? Because for Bottum, these churches are what provided the sturdy third leg to balance politics and markets in making a good society. Indeed, Bottum sees the PM churches as the heart of American Exceptionalism—they provided the moral code of Americanism. Probity, responsibility, honesty, integrity—all the moral virtues that provided the bedrock of American society and also constrained the hydraulic and leveling tendencies of the state and market to devour spheres of private life.

The collapse of this religious-moral consensus has been most pronounced among American elites, who have turned largely indifferent to formal religious belief. And in some leftist elite circles it has turned to outright hostility toward religion—Bottum reminds us of Barack Obama's observation that rural Americans today cling to their "guns and Bibles" out of bitterness about changes in the world. Perhaps most striking is that anti-Catholic bigotry today is almost exclusively found on "the political Left, as it members rage about insidious Roman influence on the nation: the Catholic justices on the Supreme Court plotting to undo the abortion license, and the Catholic racists of the old rust belt states turning their backs on Obama to vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries. Why is it no surprise that one of the last places in American Christianity to find good, old-fashioned anti-Catholicism is among the administrators of the dying Mainline…. They must be anti-Catholics precisely to the extent that they are also political leftists." As the recent squabbles over compelling practicing Catholics to toe the new cultural line on same-sex marriage at the risk of losing their jobs or businesses, the political Left today is increasingly intolerant of recognizing a private sphere of belief outside of the crushing hand of political orthodoxy.

Yet as Bottum notes, the traditional elite consensus has been replaced by a new spiritual orthodoxy of "morality." The American elite (however defined) today does subscribe to a set of orthodoxies of what constitutes "proper" behavior: proper views on the environment, feminism, gay rights, etc. Thus, Bottum provocatively argues, the PM hasn't gone away, it has simply evolved into a new form, a religion without God as it were, in which the Sierra club, universities, and Democratic Party have supplanted the Methodists and Presbyterians as the teachers of proper values.

How did this occur? I am Catholic, so this part of the story was one of the elements of the book that struck me as particularly interesting, as much of the history was new to me. Bottum points to the key moment as the emergence of the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th Century. Led by Walter Rauschenbusch, the Social Gospel movement reached beyond the traditional view that Christianity spoke to personal failings such as sin, but instead reached "the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered." As Bottum summarizes it, Rauschenbusch identified six social sins: "bigotry, the arrogance of power, the corruption of justice for personal ends, the madness [and groupthink] of the mob, militarism, and class contempt." As religious belief moved from the pulpit and pew to the voting booth and activism, the role of Jesus and any religious belief became increasingly attenuated. And eventually, Bottum suggests, the political agenda itself came to overwhelm the increasingly irrelevant religious beliefs that initially supported it. Indeed, to again consider contemporary debates, what matters most is outward conformity to orthodox opinion, not persuasion and inward acceptance of a set of particular views-as best illustrated by the lynch mobs that attacked Brendan Eich for his political donations (his outward behavior) and to compel conformity of behavior among wedding cake bakers and the like, all of which bears little relation to (and in fact is likely counterproductive) to changing personal belief. (Of course, that too is an unstable equilibrium-in the future it won't be sufficient to not merely not be politically opposed to same-sex marriage, it will be a litmus test to be affirmatively in favor of it.).

Thus, while the modern elite appears to be largely non-religious, Bottum argues that they are the subconscious heirs to the old Protestant Mainline, but are merely Post-Protestant—the same demographic group of people holding more or less the same views and fighting the same battles as the advocates of the social gospel.

In the second part of the book, Bottum turns to his second theme—the effort beginning around 2000 of Catholics and Evangelical Christians to form an alliance to create a new moral consensus to replace the void left by the collapse Protestant Mainline churches. Oversimplified, Bottum's basic point is that this was an effort to marry the zeal and energy of Evangelical churches to the long, well-developed natural law theory of Catholicism, including Catholic social teaching. Again oversimplified, Bottum's argument is that this effort was doomed on both sides of the equation-first, Catholicism is simply too dense and "foreign" to ever be a majoritarian church in the United States; and second, because evangelical Christianity itself has lost much of its vibrant nature. Bottum notes, which I hadn't realized, that after years of rapid growth, evangelical Christianity appears to be in some decline in membership. Thus, the religious void remains. The obvious question with which one is left is if Bottum is correct that religious institutions uphold the third leg of the American stool, and if (as he claims) religion is the key to American exceptionalism, can America survive without a continued vibrant religious tradition?

Herewith a few of my own thoughts after reading the book:

The first is simply that this is an immensely interesting and readable book. I read almost the whole thing on a plane trip from California and Jody's writing style just carries you along effortlessly. His writing is high stylistic without be overstylized and is just an absolute joy to read. He has a gift for weaving together larger ideas with anecdotes and exemplars of his point. He has a light touch in making his point that rarely offends (even on controversial issues) and always illuminates.

Second, is that I largely find Bottum's argument persuasive. The absence of the Protestant Mainline as a central moral force in American society today is largely taken for granted, such that the implications are largely ignored-as if it has always been this way. To the extent that leaders of Mainline Protestant churches are ever noticed in public, my impression is they are viewed as somewhat buffoonish figures trotted out occasionally to add a veneer of religious window-dressing to the elite's preexisting views on various political issues such as same-sex marriage and the size of the welfare state. I say "buffoonish" because they often seem to come across as intellectual lightweights, to shallow intellectually to be taken seriously by secular analysts and too shallow theologically to be taken seriously by religious analysts. As a result, they seem to have little influence over public life today. They've essentially made themselves irrelevant. (My apologies for painting with an overly-broad brush, and I realize that this is a contestable assertion. It just reflects my impression of how leaders of the Mainline Protestant churches are often treated in news coverage and the like).

Third, one aspect of the modern post-Protestant morality that struck me after reading the book is its ostentatious and somewhat self-congratulatory nature. In the Preface to the book, Bottum explains that the proximate genesis of the book was an experience he had in 2011 when he was commissioned to write an article about the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. Bottum sensed in these young and clueless youth a deep spiritual anxiety. But it was not linked to any coherent political platform or reform agenda-instead, the goal was "change" of some sort and an assertion of the protesters moral rectitude; and, perhaps equally important (as Bottum describes it), an anxiety to be publicly congratulated for their moral rectitude. Campus protests today, for example, often seem to be sort of a form of performance art, where the gestures of protest and being seen to "care" are ends in themselves, as often the protests themselves have goals that are somewhat incoherent (compared to, say, protests against the Vietnam War). Bottum describes this as a sort of spirtual angst, a vague discomfort with the way things are and an even vaguer desire for change. On this point I wonder whether he is being too generous to their motives.

Fourth, and to my mind the most important thought I had while reading it, was that I found Bottum's description of the causal decline of the Protestant Mainline incomplete. He briefly pauses to address the question: "The question, of course, is why it happened-this sudden decline of the Mainline, this collapse of the Great Church of America, this dwindling of American Protestantism even as it has now found the unity that it always lacked before." He discusses a few of the hypotheses (at pages 104-107) but simply defers to the work of others.

But there is one thesis that he doesn't consider that I think contributes much of the explanation of the decline of the importance of the Protestant Mainline, which is the thesis developed by Shelby Steele is his great book "White Guilt." I think Steele's argument provides the key to unlocking not only the decline of the Protestant Mainline but also the timing, and why the decline of the Protestant Mainline has been so much more precipitous than Evangelicals and Catholics, as well as why anti-Evangelical and anti-Catholic bigotry is so socially acceptable among liberal elites.

Steele's thesis, oversimplified, is that the elite institutions of American society for many years were complicit in a system that perpetrated injustices on many Americans. The government, large corporations, major universities, white-show law firms, fraternal organizations, etc.-the military being somewhat of an exception to this-all conspired explicitly or tacitly in a social system that supported first slavery then racial discrimination, inequality toward women, anti-Semitism, and other real injustices. Moreover, all of this came to a head in the 1960s, when these long-held and legitimate grievances bubbled to the surface and were finally recognized and acknowledged by those who ran these elite institutions and efforts were taken to remediate their harms. This complicity in America's evils, Steele argues, discredited the moral authority of these institutions, leaving not only a vacuum at the heart of American society but an ongoing effort at their redemption.

But, Steele argues, this is where things have become somewhat perverse. It wasn't enough for, say, Coca-Cola to actually take steps to remediate its past sins, it was crucial for Coca-Cola to show that it was acknowledging its guilty legacy and, in particular, to demonstrate that it was now truly enlightened. But how to do that? Steele argues that this is the pivotal role played by hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—they can sell the indulgences to corporations, universities, and the other guilty institutions to allow them to demonstrate that they "understand" and accept their guilt and through bowing to Jackson's demands, Jackson can give them a clean bill of moral health.

Thus, Steele says that what is really going on is an effort by the leaders of these institutions to "dissociate" themselves from their troubled past and peer institutions today that lack the same degree of enlightenment. Moreover, it is crucially important that the Jackson's of the world set the terms-indeed, the more absurd and ridiculous the penance the better from this perspective, because more ridiculous penances make it easier to demonstrate your acceptance of your guilt.

One set of institutions that Steele does not address, but which fits perfectly into his thesis, is the Protestant Mainline churches that Bottum is describing. It is precisely because the Protestant Mainline churches were the moral backbone of American society that they were in need of the same sort of moral redemption that universities, corporations, and the government. Indeed, because of their claim to be the moral exemplar, their complicity in real injustice was especially bad. Much of the goofiness of the Mainline Protestant churches over the past couple of decades can be well-understood, I think, through this lens of efforts to dissociate themselves from their legacy and other less-enlightened churches. In short, it seems that often their religious dogma is reverse-engineered-they start from wanting to make sure that they hold the correct cutting-edge political and social views, then they retrofit a thin veil of religious belief over those social and political opinions. Such that their religious beliefs today, as far as one ever hears about them at all, differ little from the views of The New York Times editorial page.

This also explains why Catholics and Evangelicals are so maddening, and threatening, to the modern elites. Unlike the Protestant Mainline churches that were the moral voice of the American establishment, Catholicism and Evangelicals have always been outsiders to the American establishment. Thus they bear none of the guilt of having supported unjust political and social systems and refuse to act like they do. They have no reason to kowtow to elite opinion and, indeed, are often quite populist in their worldview (consider the respect that Justices Scalia or Thomas have for the moral judgments of ordinary Americans on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage vs. the views of elites). Given the sorry record of American elites for decades, there is actually a dividing line between two world views. Modern elites believe that the entire American society was to blame, thus we all share guilt and must all seek forgiveness through affirmative action, compulsory sensitivity training, and recycling mandates. Others, notably Catholics and Evangelicals, refuse to accept blame for a social system that they played no role in creating or maintaining and which, in fact, they were excluded themselves. To some extent, therefore, I think that the often-remarked political fault line in American society along religious lines (which Bottum discusses extensively), is as much cultural and historical (in Steele's sense) as disagreements over religion per se. At the same time, the decline of its moral authority hit the Protestant Mainline churches harder than well-entrenched universities, corporations, or the government, in part because the embrace of the Social Gospel had laid the foundations for their own obsolescence years before.

This also explains why if a religious revival is to occur, it would come from the alliance of Catholics and Evangelicals that he describes in the second half of the book. Mainline Protestantism seems to simply lack the moral authority to revive itself and has essentially made itself obsolete. There appears to be little market for religions without God.

In the end, Bottum leaves us with no answer to his central question-can America, which for so long relied on the Protestant Mainline churches to provide a moral and institutional third leg to the country, survive without it. Can the thin gruel of the post-Protestant New York Times elite consensus provide the moral glue that used to hold the country together? Perhaps, or perhaps not—that is the question we are left with after reading Bottum's fascinating book.

Finally, I drafted this over the weekend, but I wanted to call attention to Jody's new essay at the Weekly Standard "The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas" that touches on many of the themes of the book and develops them in light of ongoing controversies, especially on the parallels between the new moral consensus and traditional religious thinking (and, in fact, his comments on "original sin" strike me as similar to the points about Shelby Steele that I raised above).