Off the Shelf: When WASPs Sting

A woman’s hand is seen in silhouette during a prayer service at the Concord Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, July 8, 2016. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
The moral impulses of a religion can outlive adherence to the creedal and liturgical practices that nursed them to life.

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

I’ve been thinking about Protestantism lately. Not so much high-octane Calvinism, which in its present form is a pursuit for bookish men who quite like fractious intellectual argument. That has always attracted me to some degree, but no, I’ve been thinking about something you might call “elite Protestantism” or “Mainstream Protestantism.” A number of things have conspired to remind me that what is often called Progressivism is a mutation of Protestantism.

It started a few months ago when I listened to a First Things podcast in which Michael Doran discussed the theological traditions that inform debates about foreign policy. Doran identifies William Jennings Bryan with a populist-Evangelical tradition of Jacksonian nationalism, and H. L. Mencken with an urbane, Mainstream Protestant or secular tradition of international cosmopolitanism:

The Progressive persuasion conflicts with its Jacksonian counterpart in crucial respects. Though both accord the government a vital role in protecting “the common, everyday fellow,” the deepest concern of the Jacksonian is individual liberty, whereas the Progressive focuses more intently on destroying inequality. The Progressive, moreover, is eager to embrace “collective” initiatives, which in practice means government initiatives. Though some of these will pass muster with the Jacksonian persuasion, the Progressives’ embrace of centralizing government power, even when legitimated in terms of the interests of the common man, often appears as a threat to individual liberty. For the Jacksonian persuasion, the Progressive vision quickly turns into the oligarchy of experts that so troubled William Jennings Bryan.

When it comes to foreign policy, Progressives are internationalist in outlook. The Jacksonian persuasion, with its roots in the divine mission of America, conduces to nationalism. It assumes, moreover, that a resort to arms to protect American liberty is a regrettable but inevitable aspect of the human condition. By contrast, Progressivism emphasizes universal human brotherhood, which it believes is within the capacity of humans to achieve. As a result, the Progressive persuasion tends to emphasize peacemaking more than it does vigilant self-defense. One pole of the Progressive spectrum is an idealistic pacifism. The other pole can be very militant, for it accords the United States an exceptional mission in the world. This mission, however, is not Andrew Jackson’s notion of keeping the flame of liberty alive until Judgment Day. The mission of America is, rather, to use its military and economic power to nudge the world toward universal brotherhood.

Doran outlines how postmillennial Protestants, ones who hold the Nicene Creed lightly, if at all, dominate America’s policymaking apparatus at the State Department, and tend to be multilateralists, and Arabists in outlook. Whereas the Evangelical-Democratic tradition tends to oscillate between isolationism and volcanic hawkishness, and also tends toward Zionism.

It is my belief that the moral impulses, historical imagination, and larger “worldview” of a religion can long outlive adherence to the creedal and liturgical practices that nursed them to life. For this reason, and because of an opportune tweet by my former colleague Damon Linker, I went back to peruse again Jody Bottum’s excellent book An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America. The first half of Bottum’s book traces the moral, social, political, and eschatological imagination of Progressivism to its Mainstream Protestant roots. “The new elite class of America is the old one: America’s Mainline Protestant Christians, in both the glory and the annoyingness of their moral confidence and spiritual certainty. They just stripped out the Christianity along the way,” he writes.

The connection is almost stronger than he realizes. It is as if the spirit of this religious orientation operates within and outside the Mainline Church simultaneously. It is also hard not to notice how the moral, doctrinal, and political developments within Mainline Protestantism anticipate legal and political developments in the United States. The United Methodist Church was an early supporter of abortion rights. The Episcopal Church raised to bishop a man in a same-sex marriage in 2004, when most of even the left side of America’s political culture was still making a case for state-recognized civil unions.

Bottum notes that the physical descendants of Jews and Catholics assimilate to America’s Progressive class today, by adopting its political outlook. They do so for the same reason many of their ancestors may have joined the Episcopal Church, to signal their membership in the mainstream of America life.

The Irish media have had an astonishing ability to preserve and assimilate Irish people into the class and religious prejudices of the old Protestant Ascendancy class.

And maybe that isn’t quite the elite class. Bottum can’t quite bring himself to adopt the populist slur against this group. They are not necessarily elite, and the term often misses something crucial about them. “The term [‘elite’], however, may obscure more than it reveals. For one thing, even at their most successful, they typically cling to the lower edge of the upper middle class, which is hardly the elite of American monetary power. Even more, however, calling them elite ignores the moral anxiety that helped create their self-understanding. They are not elite, in the material sense; far better to understand them as elect, in the spiritual sense — people as reflective of the religious condition of their time as any of their Christian ancestors were in ages past.”

Bottum and Doran point their bony prophetic fingers at the Protestant minister Walter Rauschenbusch as the man who articulated the theological premises that are the wellspring of this modern, politically oriented elect class. “If a man has drawn any religious feeling from Christ, his participation in the systematized oppression of civilization will, at least at times, seem an intolerable burden and guilt,” wrote Rauschenbusch. Bottum explains that in this moral template, personal virtue is found not in a personal pursuit of union with God but in confronting social sins. “The six social sins, Rauschenbusch announced, were bigotry, the arrogance of power, the corruption of justice for personal ends, the madness of the mob, militarism, and class contempt,” Bottum writes.

Bottum’s model of looking for the socio-religious orientation of ideas helps us even to understand the referendum result in Ireland last week. The Irish media have had an astonishing ability to preserve and assimilate Irish people into the class and religious prejudices of the old Protestant Ascendancy class, a set of attitudes that finds Catholic and Presbyterian activism not just incomprehensible but déclassé. And deems them worthy of strict moral and legal censure. Thus you get one of the leading political writers for the Irish Times writing a report with the hidden premise that no political upside could be had in representing those constituents who voted “No” in the referendum. And therefore many of Fianna Fáil’s elected TDs made a blunder in the referendum because they reflected the reticence of Catholic and conservative constituents about this change. This even though the “No” side commanded more support than any Irish political party in the last election.

How long is this post-Protestant imagination sustainable apart from the scriptural, theological, and liturgical life that birthed it? I’m not sure. The obsession with productivity and the subtle denigration of leisure inform part of this life, and this feature does seem to be exhausting our leadership class. It also seems like this form of moral life and leadership is connected in a mysterious way to the expansion of prosperity and technological mastery in Western society. When capital-P Providence has been replaced with capital-P Progress, there needs to be some form of prosperity that testifies to the regenerate nature of the Elect who lead society. The basis of their leadership is their ability to provide broad-based prosperity, ever-increasing social peace, and personal flourishing. At some point it will be impossible to credibly blame dark reactionary forces for the latest social and economic calamity. And if there is anything history guarantees, it is a punctuated return of social and economic calamity.

I wonder if even the critics of post-Protestantism will fail to notice when it becomes outmoded.

And maybe the historical background picture that made this imagination possible is behind us. The largest technological leaps in history coincided with the waxing of this form of Protestant imagination, from Rauschenbusch writing at the turn of the century to about the 1970s. Basically, from the eleven-second first flight in Kitty Hawk to the moon landing. That run, along with the incredible improvements in medicine, child mortality, and any number of other indicators was so impressive it seemed to imprint itself on the imagination of everyone even if the big leaps were made long ago in the West, and more recently everywhere else. I wonder if even the critics of post-Protestantism will fail to notice when it becomes outmoded.

I also went to the Natural History Museum in New York with my two children this week. My daughter has been talking about seeing “dinosaur bones” for weeks, and we decided to award her progress at school. She was quite impressed with the exhibits there. My infant son put up with his stroller well enough. I suppose one small sign of happy progress was the ability to hail an Uber SUV to ferry our party of five, plus stroller, from the museum back to Grand Central Station. My daughter takes the giant skeletons as just astounding and cool. But my wife seemed to appreciate them in another sense. All we have left of these incredible creatures, these stupefying achievements of Nature, are the dry bones preserved by happenstance.

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