Rise of the Poster Children
What is the most consequential political change to have occurred in the United States in the past 150 years? Most observers might nominate various forms of political realignment or movements toward universal suffrage, but Joseph Bottum, in his new book, An Anxious Age, insists that it’s the death of Mainline Protestantism.
The United States was historically a Protestant nation, in Bottum’s view, and the major Protestant denominations—the northern Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, the Congregationalists, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Methodists, and the Presbyterians—unified and defined the country. Mainline Protestantism was “for nearly three hundred years a great river at the heart of American public life … our cultural Mississippi.” And now that river has run almost dry, as the Mainline churches have suffered a drastic collapse in numbers and influence since their peak in the mid-1960s. This collapse makes the past half-century an era different from almost every other in American history. An Anxious Age is Bottum’s worried meditation on the causes and consequences of post-Protestant America, and what might be done to fill the void left by the Mainline’s passing.
Since the appearance of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Age of Anxiety” in 1947, commentators continuously have been borrowing his title to characterize the consciousness of the present moment. Nonetheless, Bottum argues that our time is more defined by spiritual worries than any since the First Great Awakening of the 1730s—only this spiritualism is no longer tied to religion. Instead, supernatural concerns have migrated into Americans’ understanding of politics, culture, and society. When Americans believe that their political opponents are not merely misguided but actively evil, and when people believe that social classes other than their own are ethically debased, this suggests that essentially spiritual anxieties “have broken away from the theological understandings that would once have helped corral and tame them.”
Bottum devotes some attention to the standard reasons why American Protestantism diminished, including the religious historians’ argument that modernity introduced too many other choices—entertainment, the media, material prosperity—for the churches to be able to compete. He also points out that the de-Christianization of Europe has been a little-noticed factor in the loss of the theological prestige and doctrinal distinctiveness of the American Protestant denominations. But he is more interested in the very fact of Protestantism’s decline, and he wonders what happened to the millions of people who left the Mainline, and what has happened to their children after them.
Bottum posits that some of the ex-Mainliners joined more doctrinally rigid Evangelical churches or became Catholics, although he has no specific numbers. But he guesses that the vast majority “simply stopped being Christian believers in any meaningful way.” He offers short but fascinating profiles of some of the post-Protestants he knows who fit this pattern, and concludes that they represent an emerging class that he calls the Poster Children. They are college-educated, mostly upper middle class, and support a rigid and predictable liberal political agenda (as suggested by the group’s initials).
While the Poster Children don’t consider themselves Christian, and indeed tend to believe that it’s more moral not to be a professing Christian, Bottum finds them to be remarkably like their Protestant forebears. The major evils in the world, in their view, are bigotry, power, corruption, mass opinion, militarism, and oppression—the same evils identified by Walter Rauschenbusch, a leader in the Protestant social gospel movement of the early twentieth century. While their sense of sin, where the body is concerned, has shifted from sex onto food—they support abortion and same-sex marriage but abhor smoking and obesity—they are as puritanical and judgmental as previous generations of Protestants, as infuriatingly self-righteous, and as willing to use the powers of law and government to enforce their beliefs on others. And while they no longer speak in religious terms, they are driven by a need to see themselves as morally right and assured of salvation. Though it makes more sense to speak of the Poster Children as an elect than an elite, through their monopolization of the meritocratic credentialing machinery that determines entrance into the professions they have become “a new class that rent-seeks, hoards privilege, self-righteously congratulates itself, and arrogantly despises other classes as thoroughly as any group in American history ever has.”
When Mainline Protestantism began to tumble from the high perch it had occupied in national life prior to the 1960s, both evangelical Christianity and Catholicism were drawn into an attempt to fill the vacuum and to provide what Bottum calls “the moral vocabulary by which we know ourselves.” Both groups did cooperate to some extent, and it strikes Bottum as something new and strange in American life that the representative incoming Tea Party legislator after the 2010 midterm elections should be an Evangelical who “had been trained to speak quite confidently in a very alien, very Catholic vocabulary about such things as the sanctity of life, just war theory, natural law, and the dignity of the person.”
But Bottum regards the Catholic-Evangelical alliance to have been tenuous from the start, and given that “America was, and remains, a mildly anti-Catholic country,” Catholicism could never occupy the position that Mainline Protestantism once did, even before the pedophilia scandals destroyed much of the Church’s reputation and political power. Pessimistically, Bottum believes that the Poster Children, rather than representatives of any religious denomination, increasingly will set the terms of future public discourse.
Bottum puts his greatest hopes into the group that he calls the Swallows of San Capistrano: the younger Catholics who were energized and inspired by Pope John Paul II. Already they have made great strides in influencing intellectual discourse, particularly on the political right. As yet, however, they have not managed to restore the vibrant culture of American Catholicism in earlier decades that was swept away by the “insane” decisions of Church leaders in the 1970s.
The American experiment, in Bottum’s telling, has always rested on the three-legged stool of democracy, capitalism, and religion. Throughout most of the country’s history, these three legs both “accommodated one another and, at the same time, pushed hard against one another.” At times, the force of democracy pushed back against overweening religion, as with the immigrant-led populism that halted anti-Catholic oppression in the nineteenth century. At other times, religion used its prophetic force to call democracy to account, as with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Bottum worries that with the collapse of Mainline Protestantism, much of what we value about America may not survive in the future, leaving us with either a rapacious consumer society or a nanny state. He also warns that liberalism itself may be undermined by the disappearance of religion from the public square; liberalism is based on religiously derived ideas of human dignity, and “every attempt to anchor human dignity in something other than biblical religion has failed.”
An Anxious Age incorporates a number of separately published articles and essays, and sometimes the seams are visible. The reader most likely will not mind the digressions and set pieces that don’t relate to the overall argument, however, since the writing is so marvelous. Bottum’s chapter on John Paul II positively glitters, and his conclusion that the Pope was “the freest man in the twentieth century” is both satisfying and earned. His side-by-side profile of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and William F. Buckley Jr. says more about both men in a dozen pages than some books manage to convey, and effectively underscores Bottum’s argument that today’s Catholic intellectuals are at a disadvantage without the culture that could be taken for granted in the past. The book’s detours into figures such as Rauschenbusch, Max Weber, James Pike, and Avery Dulles are also fascinating.
Bottum aims his book at a popular audience, and rightly so—this is the most interesting, accessible, and perceptive analysis of recent American religious history I have encountered in years. But his anecdotal analysis could be profitably supplemented with more reference to current social scientific research, and his publisher should consider springing for an index, bibliography, and notes.
Time will tell if Bottum’s more pessimistic conclusions will bear out. In the meantime, this book drives home what we have lost, as a culture, with the death of Mainline Protestantism, and the ways in which religion continues, in one form or another, to shape our American present.
Geoffrey Kabaservice’s most recent book is Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Posted: April 1, 2014
Look Under the Turnip