No, I don’t think the adjective “post-Christian” is a good adjective for describing American society. It’s too categorical, too… decisive. But people are using it these days, and more in the spirit of description than in one of just-around-the-bend warning. For example, at the Anglican church I attend, where a dwindling of membership has prompted us to have a number of meetings about “re-visioning” our overall approach, a church-growth consultant we’d brought in used the adjective fairly freely and authoritatively.
Hearing him use that term bothered me. That, alongside my own thinking about Lennon’s “Imagine” and CNU’s holding a conference on “The Future of Religion in America” led me this fall to a couple of books which turned out to be useful to read in tandem: Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. Douthat’s is from 2012, Bottom’s was released this summer. My “notes” upon them have turned into an essay, however, so gird thyself.
Let’s begin with the less comprehensive book, An Anxious Age. It consists of two parts, the first about how the crash of the Protestant Mainline left in its place a distinctive approach to politics and culture that Bottum calls that of “The Poster Children,” and the second about the travails of contemporary Catholicism, which can be summed up as why the “Catholic Moment” didn’t happen, or why Catholicism couldn’t culturally replace the Mainline. I’ll only talk about the first part here.
“The death of the Mainline is the central political fact of the last 150 years of American history,” Bottum says. The Mainline once was the uniting cultural river of the realm, but now that it’s subsided nearly to extinction without anything able to fill its place, we are left fragmented, and more subject to polarization. Bottum describes his theory in a recent Weekly Standard essay:
…the Protestant churches in early America were widely divided on theological and ecclesial issues—and yet they somehow joined to form what Alexis de Tocqueville would call the nation’s “undivided current of manners and morals.” We can debate how long-lasting and all-encompassing that central Protestantism really was, but…the collapse in recent decades of the mainline churches (from around 50 percent of the nation in 1965 to under 10 percent today) remains one of the most astonishing cultural changes in American history.
He works more with the Mainline “river” image in the book, describing Jews and Catholics as having “lived on its banks,” socio-culturally speaking. He does not speak of this river as having been dried up so much by outside factors, but as having had its members ascend/evaporate right out of its banks of their own accord: “American Protestantism thinning itself up so far that it loses all tethering in the specifics of the faith that gave it birth.” The ascension was, initially, into a theology more abstract about the concept of God, focused upon social justice, and less bound by the Bible, creeds, and sexual restrictions.
Bottum uses his interview subjects, and a few well-known figures, as symbolic types (in the way Habits of the Heart did with “Sheila” and such). He begins his account with “Bonnie Paisley,” a twice-divorced Oregon liberal very serious about how she decorates her home, only slightly so about her flirtations with New Age religion, and completely dismissive of her family tree’s Protestant roots.
Bonnie’s life illustrates where American Mainline Protestantism has gone, the place where it’s been aiming for generations: Christian in the righteous timbre of its moral judgments, without any actual Christianity; middle class in social flavor, while ostensibly despising middle-class norms; American in cultural setting, even as she believes American history is a tale of tyranny from which she and those like her have barely managed to escape.
Bottom traces the pattern here back to the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch (whose grandson, both he and Douthat both note, was none other than Richard Rorty). The “post-Protestants,” in things like their heightened moralism regarding food and fitness, their attraction to theories that demand self-examination like today’s “white privilege” one, and their demonization of certain institutions or persons, display an “anxious” need to
…see themselves as good people—a hunger for spiritual confidence in perfect parallel to the hungers that drove previous generations of American Protestants… In their view, the social forces of bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, and oppression are the constant themes of history. These horrors have a palpable, almost metaphysical presence in the world. Post-Protestants believe the best way to know themselves as moral is to define themselves in opposition to such bigotry and oppression—understanding good and evil not primarily in terms of personal behavior but as states of mind about the social condition. Sin, in other words, appears as a social fact, and the redeemed personality becomes confident of its own salvation by being aware of that fact. By knowing about, and rejecting, the evil that darkens society.
Bottom then tells us that he compiled “that list of six evil social forces…from the writing of the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch.” A chapter is devoted to his teaching, and particularly focuses upon his call for “redeemed personalities.” Here are two striking Rauschenbusch quotes, from the early 1900s:
A better and more Christian method of getting a religious realization of sin is to bring before our minds the positive ideals of social righteousness contained in the person of Christ and in the Kingdom of God and see sin as the treasonable force which frustrates and wrecks these ideals…
As long as man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without conviction of sin…
Or as one young Occupy protester told Bottom, “we want people to know about the wrongness in society the way we do.”
Different conservative scholars will regard this arc of Rauschenbusch to post-Protestantism in different ways: some will see it as a corruption of American Protestantism by historicist philosophy, some will see it as the destiny of Biblical religion generally, and others as reflecting a dynamic peculiar to Protestantism, which is more where Bottum stands. But he is less interested in ultimate explanation than in description of what has been afoot.
One of the more fruitful ways he does this is to suggest that to think about class in America, particularly in the mode of the “liberal elites”-talk that conservatives have indulged in in recent years, actually requires one to think less about economic ownership and quantifiable wealth, and more about how the old insiders of Protestant society set a the classic pattern for elite behavior in America. By this pattern, what matters most is a priestly-class badge of Rauschenbusch-like or Emerson-like focus upon redeeming politics—or at least upon redeeming lifestyle and aesthetics. One has to be cultivated in a certain way (elite “liberal education” or something similar) and one has to display signs of having seen the light. By this understanding, mere “Power Elites” of course exist, and as Rauschenbusch’s list of six evils indicates, they threaten social righteousness, but a rightful elite exists also, that of the elect.
One might consider what I once wrote about the Quaker-rooted Joan Baez in this respect. Folks like her undoubtedly felt excluded by and hostile to the WASP “Society” of the day, but by Bottum’s understanding, their transmutation of the Protestant spirit eventually became the new elite coin of the realm. And in part because for some time it had been no longer united around religion, “Society” collapsed in the face of the 60s revolutions, with its would-have-been heirs becoming the marginalized preppie class portrayed in the Whit Stillman films; whereas the counter-cultural sorts who really embraced the likes of Joan Baez-music, whether post-Protestant, ex-Catholic, or non-Orthodox Jewish, gradually took over most of the cultural heights.
Now today, as the fall of The New Republic might symbolize, and the hollowing out of our college’s humanities departments definitely indicates, these seem to be being replaced themselves by more tech-oriented “liberaltarian” types on one hand, or by PC-activist Upworthy-types on the other. There’s something less spiritual and less intellectual about the Post-Protestants’ apparent millennial heirs, we might say, so that Bottum’s theory is only really useful for explaining the age we’ve just been through. However that may be, Bottom holds and anecdotally shows that many of today’s younger progressives still manifest many of the attitudes he pegs as post-Protestant.
As all single-cause explanations of modern American liberalism are deficient, and trying to connect such to social class analysis is trickier yet, it is of course the case that Bottom’s theory ultimately works too neatly. But I find it much more suggestive and convincing than most such theories. It captures something quite important about contemporary liberalism’s overall tone, and I feel better about the more strident of my liberal brothers and sisters when I think of them less in terms of their affinity for what non-theological conservative thought (including my own) tells me is their Jacobinism, “liberal fascism,” Marxism, vengeance-seeking, and hate-enabling historicist idealism, and more in terms of their feeling a religious-like longing for redeemed life. More importantly, this seems closer to how they (with big exceptions admitted) understand themselves.
Again, Bottum’s thesis is not presented as a theory about American liberalism simply, but one about our whole history with respect to how religion interacts with politics and national identity. It is useful for considering the contemporary nature of this given that “secularization” and “post-Christian” turn out to be inadequate concepts.
That last sentence cracks me up at myself. As if I, raised in a Presbyterian church, and won over to evangelical understandings of faith in my college days by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, could ever be simply objective about whether America (Europe, too) was losing its religion, and thus could talk coldly-scientific about whether the “secularization thesis,” the idea that the more modern a nation becomes the more it will turn away from belief in God, was “an adequate concept” or not!
But as we turn to the more important book here, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, let’s proceed–since we have no other choice–as if such an objective stance can be arrived at, by any of us whether religious or not. Douthat’s main argument should already be familiar to Postmodern Conservative readers, although it is much more powerful in book form than in summary: America is not moving into a secular age shorn of religion generally, in the manner typical versions of the secularization thesis would predict, but it is moving, indeed already has moved, into an era in which Christian orthodoxy is pushed to the side, with its place filled not by atheism and secularist disregard, but by Christian heresy.