by Joseph Bottum
Image Books, 2014, 320 pp., $25
Today’s American liberalism, it is often remarked, amounts to a secular religion: it has its own sacred texts and taboos, Crusades and Inquisitions. The political correctness that undergirds it, meanwhile, can be traced back to the past century’s liberal Protestantism. Conservatives, of course, routinely scoff that liberals’ ersatz religion is inferior to the genuine article.
Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.
A devout Catholic, Bottum may be America’s best writer on religion. He surely is the least predictable. A former chief editor of the conservative religious monthly First Things, he shocked many of his former colleagues by arguing in a widely-read essay for Commonweal that the Catholic Church had lost the fight against same-sex marriage and should move on to other things. By this he expressed not a heterodox view of sexuality, but a dour assessment of the Church’s waning influence on social issues. The same somber mood lurks behind the elegant prose of his present volume, which should be read with foreboding if not alarm.
America’s consensus culture, Bottum argues, is the unmistakable descendant of the old Protestant Mainline, in particular the “Social Gospel” promulgated by Walter Rauschenbusch before the First World War and adopted by the liberal majority in the Mainline denominations during the 1920s. Although this assertion seems unremarkable at first glance, the method that Bottum brings to bear is entirely original. A deeply religious thinker, he understands spiritual life from the inside. He is less concerned with the outward forms and specific dogmas of religion than with its inner experience, and this approach leads him down paths often inaccessible to secular inquiry. The book should be disturbing not only to its nominal subjects, the “Poster Children” of post-Protestant America, but also to their conservative opposition. The battle is joined on a plane far removed from the quotidian concept of political debate.
We live in a spiritual age, in other words, when we believe ourselves surrounded by social beings of occult and mystic power. When we live with titanic cultural forces contending across the sky, and our moral sense of ourselves— of whether or not we are good people, of whether or not we are saved— takes its cues primarily from our relation to those forces. We live in a spiritual age when the political has been transformed into the soteriological. When how we vote is how our souls are saved.
This might easily be misread as a rhetorical swipe at dogmatic liberalism. But Bottum wants us to understand that the inner life of secular Americans remains dense with spiritual experience, and that the post-Protestant experience resembles the supernatural world of the Middle Ages, but with new spiritual entities in place of the old devils and elves: “social and political ideas elevated to the status of strange divinities . . . born of the ancient religious hunger to perceive more in the world than just the give and take of ordinary human beings, but adapted to an age that piously congratulates itself on its escape from many of the strictures of ancient religion.” What Bottum calls the “re-enchantment and spiritual thickening of reality” is the subject of the book. It is an elusive quarry, for it is not a simple task to show that self-styled rationalists entertain a firm belief in the modern equivalent of ghosts and witches. For the post-Protestants, “the social forces of bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, and oppression are the constant themes of history” against which they must array themselves:
These horrors have a palpable, almost metaphysical presence in the world. And the 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.
The desire to be redeemed from sin (redefined as a social fact) identifies the post-Protestants as children of the Puritans. That insight is what makes his new book a new and invaluable contribution to our understanding of America’s frame of mind. Just what is a secular religion, and how does it shape the spiritual lives of its adherents? Bottum deftly peels the layers off the onion of liberal thinking to reveal its Protestant provenance and inherited religious sensibility. The Mainline Protestantism that once bestrode American public life never died, but metamorphosed into a secular doctrine of redemption. And that was made possible by the conversion of sin from a personal to a social fact in Walter Rauschenberg’s version of the social gospel. Bottum writes, “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.” By redefining sin as social sin, Rauschenberg raised up a new Satan and a new vocabulary of redemption from his snares. According to Bottum, his “central demand is to see social evil as really existing evil— a supernatural force of dark magic.” Jesus, Rauschenbusch wrote, “did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins.”
Much of the book is occupied with sketches of Bottum’s “poster children” of post-Protestantism—a psychologist in Oregon, a guitar maker in upstate New York, a gay rights activist from Austin—in whose quirks and eccentricities he detects the “spiritual density” that has made post-Protestantism a religion nearly as stable as its predecessor. The choice of subjects seems a bit arbitrary at first glance, but the common characteristic of the subjects for Bottum’s character sketches is their perpetuation of Protestant attitudes in secular form.
“When we recognize their origins in Mainline Protestantism,” Bottum observes, “we can discern some of the ways in which they see the world and themselves. They are, for the most part, politically liberal, preferring that government rather than private associations (such as intact families or the churches they left behind) address social concerns. They remain puritanical and highly judgmental, at least about health, and like all Puritans they are willing to use law to compel behavior they think right.”
He contrasts these “poster children” with the young generation of serious Catholics, the “swallows of capistrano” who are returning to the nest. From Bottum’s elegy for the lost Catholic culture of the 1940s and 1950s we grasp most clearly what he means by “metaphysical density,” that is, the fullness of everyday religious life, just what the dry Pietism of Mainline Protestantism replaced with the new Angelology and Demonology of the Social Gospel. In a bravura passage he offers a vivid, visceral description of the Catholic Church before Vatican II:
The embroidered arcanery of copes and stoles and albs and chasubles, the rituals of Holy Water blessings, the grottos with their precarious rows of fire-hazard candles flickering away in little red cups, the colored seams and peculiar buttons that identified monsignors, the wimpled school sisters, the tiny Spanish grandmothers muttering prayers in their black mantillas, the First Communion girls wrapped up in white like prepubescent brides, the mumbled Irish prejudices, the loud Italian festivals, the Holy Door indulgences, the pocket guides to scholastic philosophy, the Knights of Columbus with their cocked hats and comic-opera swords, the tinny mission bells, the melismatic chapel choirs— none of this was the Church, some of it actually obscured the Church, and the decision to clear out the mess was not unintelligent or uninformed or unintended. It was merely insane. An entire culture nested in the crossbeams and crannies, the nooks and corners, of the Catholic Church. And it wasn’t until the swallows had been chased away that anyone seemed to realize how much the Church itself needed them, darting around the chapels and flitting through the cathedrals.
The Church lost this rich texture in daily life, and the returning “swallows” are hard put to feather their nests. This is a powerful insight, and not only for Catholics. Orthodox Jewish life is spiritually dense with performance of mitzvoth and flourishes in the United States, while the Jewish cognates of liberal Protestantism, the Reform and Conservative movements, lose members at an alarming rate.
It is not in doctrine but rather in daily life that we discover how religion shapes society, Bottum argues. Amid the ongoing attenuation of Catholic culture, the broad adoption of Catholic Natural Law doctrine by some conservatives offers cold consolation. Bottum is particularly tough on George W. Bush and his circle. Reviewing the 43rd President’s Second Inaugural Address, Bottum observes: “The president’s Evangelical supporters may have been reassured by the public religiosity of the occasion— the prayers, the Navy choir singing ‘God of Our Fathers,’ the bowed heads. But the god of the philosophers isn’t much of a god to be going home with. A deistical clockmaker, an impersonal prime mover, a demiurge instead of a redeemer: This is hardly the faith Christian Americans imagine the president shares with them.”
Only in passing does Bottum mention the influence of war on American religion. More attention to the external factors that shaped America’s spiritual life would have reinforced his case. America paid for the blood drawn by the lash with 700,000 Civil War deaths. As Louis Menand observes in his 2002 book The Metaphysical Club, the horrific experience of the Boston elite in the Civil War convinced the generation of William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that no truth was so certain as to justify the slaughter they witnessed in their youth. Did the success of the social gospel stem from the depletion of the Puritans in the Civil War? “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” Lincoln had said; but by the end of the century, the Protestant Mainline preferred to fix the world according to its own preferences.
By the same token, the sudden slide of the Mainline from liberal Christianity into post-Protestant secularism occurred when the Mainline’s smug self-assurance crashed against the moral untidiness of the Cold War. Decades later, America’s disenchantment with Iraq and Afghanistan cut conservative Christians off at the knees. A dozen books decried the onset of theocracy during the first Bush Administration. The Left exaggerated the influence of Catholic neoconservatives like natural-law theorist Michael Novak and papal biographer George Weigel. As Bottum wryly counters, “If the neoconservative Catholics among America’s public intellectuals were actually running everything, you’d think they could have managed to steal the 2006 congressional elections that, instead, they lost with a thump.” Nothing fails like failure: The neoconservative Catholics got hammered because the policy they backed came to grief.
Neither the Evangelicals nor the Catholics, either separately or in their uneasy, occasional alliances, had the wherewithal to replace the post-Protestant center at the peak of its cultural authority, Bottum argues, and both now are on the defensive as a wayward millennial generation progresses into adulthood. Is that because whatever holds together the Mainline’s remnants is too strong, or because they bet the church on Bush’s Freedom Agenda? Bottum leaves the question unanswered.
But how durable is post-Protestant culture? Missing from Bottum’s portraits of the “poster children” is any mention of the children they are—or aren’t—raising. Fertility rates among members of the secularized Mainline churches are so low (just as they are among “progressive” Jews) that one is tempted to regard post-Protestantism as a one-generation wonder. While the children of the Mainline occupy themselves with yoga, organic gardening and expanded gender identities (Facebook now offers more than fifty categories to choose from), popular culture becomes moribund. The 20th century’s variations of the social gospel seem genteel next to what populates America’s metaphysical realm today. Americans spend more time with supernatural monsters than ever did the Christians of the Middle Ages, from vampires to zombies to demons of every hue. In 2012, the horror genre supplied one out of eight American feature films; a decade ago it was roughly one out of twenty-five. Strip away divine immortality from American spirituality, and it embraces the undead variety.
That is what makes Joseph Bottum’s treatise so disturbing. He does not see a way back. His only upbeat chapter, on the influence of Pope John Paul II, retreats into mysticism, ascribing the pontiff’s escape from an assassin’s bullet to the Virgin Mary’s reported 1917 appearance to Portuguese children at Fátima. He has every right to invoke mystical powers, but the Wojtyla chapter stands in such contrast to the tone and content of the rest of the book as to alert us to the author’s deeper forebodings. This is a work of deep pessimism, albeit mitigated by faith in divine intervention, and its author reveals his innermost thoughts only in parable. It is a work of great importance that should be read, re-read and debated by the literate public, believers and non-believers alike. It is to be hoped that its dark tone will not discourage those who are more likely to seek encouragement than instruction.