Book Review: An Anxious Age, by Joseph Bottum
Joseph Bottum, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. Image, 2014. 320 pages. $18.54.
An Anxious Age—the latest from Catholic essayist and pundit Joseph Bottum—is a book about the religious dimension of American public life. And it’s about the rise of a social class with an outsized influence on the shape of American culture, a group he calls post-Protestants.
But it’s a tough book to categorize, and perhaps even tougher to evaluate. It’s an interpretation of America’s past, but I wouldn’t call it a work of history. There are no footnotes, not many direct quotes, and regular sweeping assertions with little attempt at support. Its main conversation partners are sociological standards, but I wouldn’t call it a work of sociology either. There are no charts, no surveys collected and analyzed, and no field research to speak of.
There’s not much analytical precision or hard data in Bottum’s portrait of the post-Protestants. Instead, much like a work of fiction, the trustworthiness of this book rests on the author’s close personal observations, and on what you might call the self-attesting resonance of his descriptions—whether the character development is believable, whether you recognize from experience who he’s talking about.
WHO ARE THE POST-PROTESTANTS?
In some ways the earliest chapters of the book reminded me of Bottum’s fellow Catholic writer of an earlier generation, Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor is known in part for her distinctive ability to make Protestant self-righteousness come to life, especially its rural southern variety. Bottum’s focus is self-righteousness too, but not among the usual suspects. His focus is not the right wing religious fundamentalists of O’Connor’s rural Georgia, but the left-leaning, city-dwelling, well-educated and well-off descendants of the social gospelers.
These folks aren’t self-consciously religious (though they may consider themselves “spiritual”). They blame the Protestant Christianity of their parents for much of what’s worst in the world. But if they’ve cast off their parents’ theological and ecclesial commitments, they have inherited a robust confidence in their own “essential moral rightness” (13). In fact, without the work of Christ or the fellowship of the church to fall back on, their sense of moral enlightenment becomes all the more crucial. It’s how they know their lives are justified; it’s how they know they belong among those who “get it.”
Conservative pundits have referred to this class as the new “elites.” But Bottum’s main argument is that we’d understand them better if we see them as they see themselves. “They do not feel themselves elite in any economic or political sense of real personal power. What they do feel is that they are redeemed” (130). They’re set apart as a class by their ability to recognize and personally reject the forces of evil—especially bigotry, militarism, oppression, and (sexual) repression. And they enjoy a calm assurance that they’re insiders to a better world coming just around the corner. They saw a vote for Obama in 2008 as an important step toward that new world. And they move closer to that world every time they buy a pair of Tom’s shoes or tote their organic groceries in reusable bags.
WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?
The description of the post-Protestant class I’ve tried to summarize makes up only a small portion of An Anxious Age. Bottum gives more space to explaining where this class came from and how things might have been different.
He contends that the post-Protestants emerged to fill a void in American public life that opened with the collapse of Mainline Protestantism. Until the 1960s-70s, Bottum argues, American society held together as a sort of three-legged stool—there was democracy in politics, capitalism in economics, and Protestantism in ethics. Protestant Christianity supplied a certain moral vision for the nation that helped support and held in check the contributions of democracy and capitalism to the American experiment. By celebrating America’s values and rebuking America’s failures, Protestant Christianity made sure that America followed a different course from the nations of Europe.
Mainline Protestantism lost its place as America’s moral center in the turbulence of the 1960s and 70s. But Bottum argues the crippling damage was done long before the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, or legalized abortion. In Bottum’s account, the figure who best represents what happened to Mainline Protestantism and best explains the shape of post-Protestant sensibilities is Walter Rauschenbusch.
I’m not convinced that Rauschenbusch, even in a representative sense, should be called the “single most significant figure since the Civil War” as the “sign of the entire age” (38). Nor am I convinced that his Christianity and the Social Crisis was a book that “quickly came to dominate its moment” as “the watershed that divided Protestants into conservatives and liberals” (54-55). I believe Bottum overplays Rauschenbush’s significance, and the significance of Mainline Protestantism in general.
But whether nor not Rauschenbusch was as influential as claimed here, Bottum’s insight into his thought and into its implications for the Mainline and for post-Protestants is one of the book’s chief contributions. Two points are especially important.
First, according to Bottum Rauschenbusch redefined sin and redemption. Sin is not an offense against God but an anti-social force, “the evil of bigotry, power, corrupt law, the mob, militarism, and class contempt” (66). Redemption is not peace with God by faith in Christ, but “essentially an attitude of mind,” a “personal, interior rejection” of the forces of evil in society (66). To quote Rauschenbusch, this “redeemed personality” is the “fundamental contribution of every man” to what he called the “progressive regeneration of social life” (quoted on p. 70).
Second, Bottum highlights what Machen and Niebuhr recognized about the social gospel, what ultimately undermined the usefulness of Mainline Protestantism, and what put the “post” in the post-Protestant class: Rauschenbusch’s view of sin and salvation left little room for Jesus. Jesus’ teaching may have clarified the nature of evil and the kingdom of righteousness. But, in Bottum’s excellent image, “Christ seems to be only the ladder with which we climbed to a higher ledge. And once there, we no longer need the ladder” (67).
So far I’ve failed to mention what makes up fully half of An Anxious Age: the rise and fall of Catholicism as a potential supplier of a moral vocabulary in American public life after the evacuation of the Protestant Mainline. Bottum charts the emergence of an enthusiastic class of converts drawn to the intellectual coherence of Catholicism, a class codified by the papal tenure of John Paul II. According to Bottum, natural law theory was this movement’s key contribution to public life, but evangelicals were the primary political beneficiaries. Catholics themselves never consolidated as a political force to be reckoned with. Bottum blames this on the lack of a vibrant Catholic subculture to go with Catholic ideas, and the devastating toll of the sexual abuse scandals.
To me, despite its length and its consistent insightfulness, this half reads like an aside to the book’s main argument. The chapters are worth reading in their own right, but deserve treatment as a second book (and a second review).
WHAT’S THE PAYOFF?
This is not the book I would recommend if you want a full sense of 20th century American religious history. And for an account of the lost influence of Christianity in American public life, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion is more comprehensive and—I believe—more compelling. But An Anxious Age is an enjoyable and engaging read, thought provoking even where it isn’t fully convincing.
Two lessons seem especially important. First, those of us who hold a traditional Christian view of human sexuality and marriage must get comfortable being dismissed as bigots. If Bottum is right about the post-Protestant “redeemed personality,” there is a tremendous psychological reward for identifying bigotry and very little social cost to condemning it. In this climate, there is no incentive to consider the nuance by which one can love a person and disapprove of their behavior, disapprove even because you love them and want to see them flourish.
Second, we’ve got to be willing to accept our status as outcasts from the power centers of American society before we’ll be of any use to American society. According to Bottum, Protestant Christianity was most influential in public life when Protestants were more interested in theological faithfulness than public usefulness. As he puts it, “religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment” (291). The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a powerful cautionary tale. If we assume the gospel while we aim for cultural renewal—if we redefine it in the name of cultural relevance—we’ll end up irrelevant anyway.