The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo — Ours is a deeply spiritual moment—an era dominated by its supernatural anxieties, a time swayed by strange angels and even stranger demons. Or so Joseph Bottum argues in An Anxious Age (February 11, 2014, Image) a brilliant, beautifully written, and shockingly original account of contemporary America as essentially a morality tale, born from the desperate pursuit of certainty about salvation.
From its Puritan beginning, the nation has always been shaped by its essential Protestantism, Bottum notes. But the most significant fact about modern American Protestantism—the most significant and underappreciated fact about all of contemporary America—is the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches over the last fifty years. Where those churches once defined the liberal consensus of the nation, they have nearly disappeared from public life, and in their place have risen strange new beings: social and political feelings elevated to supernatural entities that repopulate the depleted metaphysical realm.
We live in what can only be called a spiritual moment, Bottum observes, when we imagine that ordinary cultural opponents are not merely mistaken but actually evil. When we suppose that some vast ethical cloud hangs over social classes other than our own. We live under an essentially spiritual sign when the political has become the soteriological. When how we vote is how our souls are saved. Racism, radicalism, cultural self-hatred, selfish blindness: Liberal and conservative alike, Americans increasingly understand themselves as saved—as good people, as morally worthy souls—by their relation to such supernatural beings.
A century after Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Bottum resurrects the idea of spiritual anxiety to examine the American moral landscape. All the strangeness of our current politics and social interaction, he insists, derives from the decay of the Protestant Mainline—and An Anxious Age takes up two case studies of contemporary American social classes, seeking their roots in the dilemmas faced by a culture that has lost the religious organization that once gave it meaning.
In its first case study, the book examines “The Poster Children,” the college-educated members of the upper-middle-class who Bottum insists are best understood not as the elite but as the elect. In both the noble range and the annoying self-satisfaction of their moral concerns, these post-Protestants are the direct heirs of the old liberal consensus—the dutiful descendants of their Mainline Protestant ancestors, convinced of their spiritual goodness even while they reject most of the nation’s old Christian belief.
In its second study, An Anxious Age turns to “The Swallows of Capistrano,” the Catholics formed by the pontificate of John Paul II. Drawing on his own experience in Catholic political and philosophical circles, Bottum recounts the rise of a Catholic intellectual and moral vocabulary from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Later years would see the political rout of the attempt to substitute Catholicism for the dying Mainline voice in American public life—and Bottum finds the causes of that defeat in both the social triumph of the elite post-Protestant Poster Children and the cultural alienation of the JPII Catholics.
Sweeping across American intellectual and cultural history, An Anxious Age develops what Bottum calls his “Erie Canal Thesis,” tracing the progress of Protestant religion through Upstate New York to its culmination in Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement. Pointing to the figures America decided not to follow, from William James to William F. Buckley, the book concludes with an argument for the religious character of the nation and a warning about the strange angels and even stranger demons with which we now wrestle.
Wise, insightful, contrarian, and stubborn, An Anxious Age belongs among the great modern accounts of American culture.
About the Author
Joseph Bottum is one of the nation’s most widely published and influential essayists—and author of The Christmas Plains, classic reflections on the meaning of Christmas and the American prairie. A bestselling writer of Kindle ebooks, with work in journals from the Atlantic to the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, Bottum is the former literary editor of the Weekly Standard and editor-in-chief of First Things. He holds a Ph.D. in medieval philosophy and has done television commentary for programs from NBC’s Meet the Press to the PBS Evening News. The author of two volumes of poetry, and writer of short stories and song lyrics, Bottum lives with his family far off in the Black Hills of South Dakota. During the spring of 2014, he will be Distinguished Visiting Professor at Houston Baptist University.
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