INTERVIEW: Joseph Bottum discusses An Anxious Age

 Q. How did you come up with the idea for An Anxious Age?

In some ways, An Anxious Age really began when I was sent out to report on the protesters at Occupy Wall Street—and couldn’t finish the assignment. I could feel a spiritual anxiety about modern civilization radiating from nearly all of them, but I could find no easy way to explain it.
Now, two years later, this book is my answer: Not just those protesters but nearly everyone today is driven by supernatural concerns, however much or little they realize it. Radicals and traditionalists, liberals and conservatives—together with politicians, artists, environmentalists, followers of food fads, and the chattering classes of television commentators: America is filled with people frantically seeking confirmation of their own essential goodness. We are a nation of individuals desperate to stand on the side of morality—anxious to know that we are righteous and dwell in the light.
The trouble, of course, is that we’ve lost any shared cultural notion of what exactly that goodness might entail.

 
Q. The crux of the book is your claim that the most significant and under-appreciated fact about all of contemporary America is the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches over the last fifty years. That’s a pretty bold claim. How did you come to view the decline of Mainline Protestantism as such an influential factor in the shaping of America’s cultural landscape?

The reasons for the Mainline churches’ decline are interesting in themselves. Science, capitalism, liberal Protestant religion, the bureaucratic needs of rising nation states—all those changes that Max Weber called the “elective affinities” that created the modern world—resulted in a pretty thin metaphysical order. By the late 1800s, most educated Americans probably had no strong belief in any supernatural entities beyond the bare Christian minimum of the individual soul, below, and God, above.
Maybe as a result, a hunger for a thicker world, for a supernatural infusion, is written across America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—from the table-rapping ghosts heard by spiritualists in the 1840s to the popularizing of the Ouija board in the 1910s, and on to our own time. Denied much sustenance in the central rooms of American religion, this spiritual hunger would eventually drain the Mainline churches down to their present cultural weakness.
And here’s where it really starts to get interesting. Because American history has led us to expect our national spirituality to be explicitly religious, tied to the nation’s churches, we often fail to recognize other effects as spiritual. But strange beings were set free to enter the social and political realms by the decay of the churches that were once a primary source of the cultural unity and social manners that we now lack in the United States.
I’ve gone back more than a century to Max Weber’s classic sociological study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to resurrect the notion of “spiritual anxiety”—in an effort to explain what escaped into the public life with the collapse of Mainline Protestantism. What once were religious concerns have fled the churches to become political and social agitations. And across the nation, in liberals and conservatives alike, there lurks a disturbing sense that how we vote is how our souls are saved.
Our dangerous spiritual anxieties, in other words, have broken loose from the churches that used to contain them, and they now madden everything in American life. These new supernatural entities—or, at least, these new social and political manifestations of the enduring human desire to perceive something supernatural in the world—seem to me omnipresent. Think of our willingness to believe that our political opponents are not just wrong but actually evil. Think of the ways we talk about food, weight, and cigarettes, the way we use such concepts as gender, race, and the environment.
In politics, culture, art—in everything, spirits and demons, angels and demigods, flitter through American public life, ferrying back and forth across our social and political interactions the burdens of our spiritual anxieties.

 
Q. In An Anxious Age you take up two case studies of contemporary American social classes. The first being “The Poster Children,” the college-educated members of the upper-middle-class, many of whom reject Christian belief. The second being “The Swallows of Capistrano,” the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II. How did you land on these two groups?

When the marvelous publisher Image Books and I first discussed writing something about the public face of American religion, the idea was a simple one: Catholicism in the United States had been on the rise since the late 1970s, both in numbers and influence. And it was planned that I would write about how Catholicism was replacing the dying Mainline Protestant vocabulary for speaking about morality in political settings.
I still think that’s more or less true. For a Catholic with any kind of historical memory, there’s something astonishing about reading a discussion of Just War Theory in, say, the New York Times—or hearing the figures on FOX News arguing about Natural Law. In an essentially Protestant nation, as the United States had always been, such forms of ethical and social analysis always used to be thought something eccentric that Catholics do.
But as I worked my way through the topic, I began to see political and cultural consequences beyond simply a rush to fill the public vacuum left by the Mainline’s collapse (a vacuum drawing in Catholics on one side and Evangelicals on the other side, the two main Christian groups traditionally pushed to the margins by the old liberal Protestant consensus).
What I saw was the rise, over the last fifty years, of a new class of post-Protestants—re-creating the bourgeois social attitudes of previous generations, however much they believe they have uniquely escaped the past. In both the noble range and the insufferable self-righteousness of their moral and spiritual concerns, the members of the elite Poster Children social class define and set the agenda for American culture—and they prove identical to their middle-class Mainline Protestant Christian grandparents, just without much of their grandparents’ Christian religion.
At the same time, I saw the influence of Mainline collapse on what I call “The Swallows of Capistrano,” the American Catholics formed by the papacy of John Paul II. Watching from the inside of many of the public fights, I observed the personal and cultural effect on these Catholics of the early victories—and later defeats—in the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying Mainline voice in public life. And now, I conclude in An Anxious Age, these Catholics will have to find ways to develop their own subculture, for they have lost to the Poster Children the battle to become a dominant American social force.

 
Q. Did you learn anything surprising while working on An Anxious Age?

I wanted William James or Ralph Waldo Emerson or even Louisa May Alcott to be the heroes of the story as I made my way through American intellectual and cultural history. But as I read the work of Walter Rauschenbusch, chief figure of the Social Gospel movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and the social critic Christopher Lasch toward the century’s end (both, it should be noted, longtime professors at the University of Rochester), I came more and more to see that the story of American religion wasn’t based in Boston. It happened, in truth, in Upstate New York—from the Mormons to the Oneida Community, from the growth of revivalism to the rage for spiritualism.
In other words, I sat down intending to write an account of the major features of American Protestantism centered around the Puritans and their Bostonian descendents. But when it came time to name my claim that no moment in American history is intelligible without understanding the condition of American Protestantism, I saw that I had to call it “the Erie Canal Thesis,” for much—maybe most—of that Protestant history actually happened somewhere near the old canal in Upstate New York.

 
Q. What do you hope to accomplish with the book? What do you hope readers will glean from it?

I hope that An Anxious Age will remind the social groups I called the post-Protestant Poster Children and the Catholic Swallows of Capistrano—will remind, in fact, all Americans—that we are not as far from the traditional forms of American history as we sometimes imagine ourselves. Spiritual concerns still motivate us, and our historical situation is still set by the condition of American Protestantism at any given moment.
More, I would like readers to see that Max Weber’s kind of sociological awareness of spiritual causes gives a fuller account of human culture than Karl Marx’s hard materialism. Purely material causes (economics, geography, even genetics, as some argue) undoubtedly have strong effects, but the spiritual anxieties of an age, together with the available spiritual rewards, have at least as much influence—and probably more—on the political, moral, and intellectual culture of a society.

 

 To schedule an interview with Joseph Bottum, please contact Katie Moore, publicist, kamoore@randomhouse.com, 719-268-1936.



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