Here’s my interview with Jody Bottum, author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, who applies his insights about post-Protestant America to contemporary protests.
Bottum theorizes that Mainline Protestantism’s collapse left a spiritual vacuum in American culture that loosed myriad social demons. Post-Protestantism wants to wage war on social sins, but not personal sins. It identifies redemption with having politically correct opinions. And it finds sanctification in denouncing others who lack its spiritual and political insights.
Of course, the post-Protestant theory of salvation is not satisfying, which leads to despair and deconstruction. From its perspective, absent Providence and eschatology, there is no destination, which potentially leads to destruction and nihilism. Bottum warns that a society without a shared culture cannot measure progress or purpose and no longer believes in itself, causing it to see its history as a long list of crimes.
Bottum published his book six years ago, yet its message is so timely today.
Rough Transcript of the Conversation:
TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington, DC, and also editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. Today I have the great pleasure of conversing with Jody Bottum, whose important book, of, I believe six years ago, called An Anxious Age, has a great application to contemporary events in terms of where America is spiritually and how we’re responding to today’s protests. So, I’m going to ask Jody to expound on that topic. But it’s a great pleasure to talk with you again, Jody.
BOTTUM: Thanks for having me, Mark.
TOOLEY: Well as I mentioned, your book An Anxious Age—and I need to recall the full title of it, it was An Anxious Age: The Post Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of America, quite a mouthful and a mindful. But you address the post-Protestant culture that has become paramount in American culture which continues the habits of the old wasp elite without the core theology of course. And it seems to pertain to contemporary events, among other reasons, and that these post Protestant elites want to contend against sinful forces which in their mind are almost amorphous and impersonal. And certainly, institutional and systemic racism would have ranked among them. They went to atone for this sense of guilt, but they really have no definition of atonement, so they seem to be trapped in a cycle without any conclusion. Do you think I’m understanding your thesis correctly?
BOTTUM: Yeah… now the direction I took that was not theological, but sociological and political. Because it struck me at the time that I wrote the first essay of what would become the book, which was a political theory of the Protestant mainline. And I meant the words political theory quite deliberately—that I wasn’t going to take up the question of a Christian metaphysics and who has a better account of it, whether Protestants or Catholics. I wasn’t going to do that. I was simply going to take up the fact that America was in essence a Protestant nation from its founding, from the arrival of the Puritans—and well, it’s a little more sophisticated than that, really from William and Mary on this was a Protestant country—and that we needed to sort of describe what Tocqueville called the main current of that. Now mainline is a word from much later, from the 1930s, but there always was a kind of main current of a general Protestantism. And I wanted to look at its political consequences and cultural consequences.
However much the rival Protestant denominations feuded with one another, disagreed with one another, I thought they gave a tone to the nation. And one of the things that they did particularly from the Civil War on was constrain social and political demons. They corralled them. They gave a shape to America, which was the marriage culture, the shape of funerals, life and death, birth, the family. They gave a shape to the cultural and sociological condition of America. And it struck me at the time, so I followed up that essay on the death of Protestant America with a whole book. And then subsequently applying it to the political situation that I saw emerging then in a big cover story for The Weekly Standard, called “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas.”
And in that kind of threefold push, I thought, “No one that I know is taking seriously the massive sociological change, perhaps the biggest in American history.” From 1965 when the Protestant churches, the mainline churches, by which I mean the founding churches in the National Council of Churches and the God box up on Riverside Drive—those churches, and their affiliated black churches, constituted or had membership that was just over fifty percent of America, as late as 1965. Today that number is well under 10 percent and that’s a huge sociological change that nobody to me seems to be paying sufficient attention to.
Now of course for someone like you, Mark, this is old news. You’ve been following this story for decades. But in kind of mainstream sociological discussions of America that just was not appearing as anything significant, and I thought it was profoundly significant and that the attempt of some of our neoconservative Catholic friends—and I was in the belly of that beast in those days—to substitute Catholicism for the failed American cultural pillar of the mainline Protestant churches—that that project, interesting as it was, failed, and that consequently, I predicted, we were going to see ever-larger sociological and cultural and political upset. Because there was no turning these demons of the human condition into an understanding of their personal application. Instead they just became cultural.
And I trace this move, perhaps unfairly, but I traced it to Rauschenbusch. And said when you say that it’s not individual sin, it’s social sin. And he lists six of them and they are exactly what the protestors are out in the street against right now. It’s what he called bigotry, which we used the word racism for, its militarism, its authoritarianism, and he names these six social sins and they are exactly the ones that the protesters are out against.
But I said the trouble with Rauschenbusch, who was a believer—I think he was a serious Christian and profoundly biblically educated so that his speech was just ripe with biblical quotations—the problem with him is the subsequent generations don’t need the church anymore. They don’t need Jesus anymore. He thinks of Jesus—in the metaphor I use—for the social gospel movement as it developed into just the social movement. Christ is the ladder by which we climb to the new ledge of understanding, but once we’re on that ledge, we don’t need the ladder anymore.
The logic of it is quite clear. We’ve reached this new height of moral and ethical understanding. Yes, thank you, Jesus Christ and the revelations taught it to us, but we’re there now. What need have we for a personal relationship with Jesus, what we need have we for a church? Having achieved this sentiment that knows that sin is these social constructs of destructiveness and our anxiety, the spiritual anxiety that human beings always feel, just by being human, is here answered. How do you know that you are saved today? You know that you are saved because you have the right attitude toward social sins. That’s how you know. Now they wouldn’t say saved; they would say, “How do you know you’re a good person?” But that’s just the logic. The logical pattern is the same.
And I develop that in the essay, “The Spiritual Shape of Political Ideas” by analyzing as tightly as I could the way in which white guilt is original sin. It’s original sin divorced from the theology that let it make sense. But the pattern of internal logic is exactly the same. It produces the same need to find salvation. It produces the same need to know that you are good by knowing that you are bad. It produces the same logic by which Paul would say, “Before the law there was no sin.” It has all of the same patterns of reason, except as you pointed out in your introduction, there’s no atonement. It’s as though, Mark, we’re living in St. Augustine’s metaphysics, but with all the Christ stuff stripped out. It’s a dark world; it’s a grim world. We’re inherently guilty and there’s no salvation. There’s no escape from it.
Except for the destruction of all. Which is why I then moved in that essay to talk about shunning in its modern forms, again divorced from the structures that once made it make sense, and apocalypse. The sense that we’re living at the end of the world and things are so terrible and so destructive that all the ordinary niceties of manners, of balancing judgment and so on, those are—if someone says, “We are destroying the planet and we’re all going to die unless you do what I want,” if I say, “Well we need to hear other voices,” they say, “That’s complicity with evil.” Right? The end of the world is coming; this is this apocalyptic imagination.
Now all of that I think was once upon a time in America—and I’m speaking only politically and sociologically—all of that was corralled, or much of it was corralled in the churches. You were taught a frame to understand your dissatisfactions with the world. You were taught a frame to understand the horror, the metaphysical horror that is the fact, Mark, that you and I are going to die. You were taught this frame that made it bearable and made it possible to move somewhere with it. With the breaking of that, these demons are let loose and now they’re out there.
I’ve often said, Mark, that the history of America since World War II is a history of a fourth Great Awakening that never quite happened. In a sense what I’ve seen for some years building and is now taking to the streets once again is the fourth Great Awakening except without the Christianity. I see in other words what’s happening out there as spiritual anxiety. But spiritual anxiety occurring in a world in which these people have no answer. They just have outrage. And it’s an escalating outrage.
This is where the single most influential thinker in my thought—a modern thinker—is Rene Girard, and Rene Girard’s idea of the escalation of memetic rivalry. The ways in which we get ever purer and we seek ever more tiny examples of evil that we can scapegoat and we enter into competition, this rivalry, to see who is more pure. This is exactly the motor, the Girardian motor, on which my idea of the spiritual anxiety runs.
And so, statues of George Washington are coming down now. And once upon a time, in the generation that I grew up in, and the generation that you grew up in, George Washington was—there were things bad things to say about him—but this was tantamount to saying America was a mistake. And of course these people think America was a mistake, because they think the whole history of the world is a mistake. There’s this outrage. And the outrage I think is spiritual. And that’s why it doesn’t get answered when voices of calm reason say, “Well let’s consider all sides. Yes, there were mistakes that were made and evils that were done, but let’s try to fix them.” Spiritual anxiety doesn’t get answered by, “Oh well let’s fix something.” It gets answered by the flame. It gets answered by the looting. It gets answered by the tearing down.
TOOLEY: So, it’s not just America that’s the mistake or Western civilization, its creation itself that’s the mistake.
BOTTUM: I think so. But creation appears to us in concrete guises, and the concrete guise right now is America. So, this is why you’ll get praise of ancient civilizations. Or you get the historical insanity of a US senator standing up on the well of the Senate and saying America invented slavery, that there was no slavery before the United States. That’s historically insane, but it’s not unlearned because we’ve passed beyond ignorance here. There’s something willful about it. And that’s what’s extraordinary, I think.
And yeah, I’m glad you look back to my 10-year-old book now because I think I did predict some of this, although obviously not in its particulars. But there was a warning there that the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches was going to introduce a demonic element into American life. And lo and behold, it has.
TOOLEY: Now it’s interesting what you described—the collapse in the mainline churches and the social consequences—the inability of Catholicism or evangelicals to fill that social and cultural vacuum and the inability of evangelicals and Catholics, seemingly, to diagnose our current crisis in the way that you just described. Why is that do you think?
BOTTUM: Well there are multiple questions there, Mark. Why Catholicism failed, why the evangelicals and Catholics together failed. So Catholicism by itself failed. The evangelicals and Catholics together project failed to provide this moral pillar to American discourse. And then there are a variety of reasons for that, beginning with the fact that Catholicism is an alien religion, alien to America. Jews and Catholics were more or less welcome to live here, but we understood that we lived on the banks of a great Mississippi of Protestantism that poured down the center of this country.
But the question of why it failed is one thing. The question of why the mainline Protestant churches failed is yet another part of your question. And although I list several examples that people have offered, I don’t make a decision about that in part because I am a Catholic. I have a suspicion that Protestantism with a higher sense of personal salvation, but a less thick metaphysics, was more susceptible to the line of the social gospel movement. But I don’t know that for certain so in the book I’m merely presenting these possibilities.
And then evangelicalism, Catholicism, was under attack for wounds, some of which it committed itself. Evangelicalism is in decline in America. The statistics show that this period when it seemed to be going from strength to strength may have been fueled most of all by the death of the mainline churches. They were just picking up those members. Instead of going to the Methodist Church, they were going to the Bible church out on the prairie.
But regardless, that Christian discourse, that slightly secularized Christian discourse, that would allow Abraham Lincoln to make his speeches, that would provide the background to political rhetoric and so on, that’s all gone. And as a consequence, it seems to me we don’t have a shared culture and that’s part of what allows these protests. But also I think, if there’s a way to put this, a culture that no longer believes in itself, that no longer has horizons, and targets, and goals, that no longer has even the vaguest sense of a telos towards which we ought to move, a culture like that, if we look at it, we no longer have a measure of progress. We can’t say what an advance is along the way. All we can do is look at our history and see it as a catalog of crimes that we perpetrated in order to reach this point that we’re at. And we can’t see the good that came out of it. Because we don’t know what the good is, we don’t know what the telos is, the target, so we have no measure for that.
So, we can’t celebrate the Civil War victory that ended slavery. All we can do is condemn slavery. We can’t celebrate the victory over the Nazis. We have to end World War II; all we can do is decry militarism and the crimes we committed to win that war, like the firebombing of Dresden, or the Hiroshima.
And I think that that reasoning is quite exact because the young people that I hear speak—now I haven’t spent as much time on this as I perhaps should have, following the ins and outs of every protestor alive today—but what I’ve heard suggests that they condemn America to the core—the whole of America, of American history. There is nothing good about this nation. And there it seems to me the reasoning is quite exact. Unable to see a point to America, unable to see a goal. They are quite right that all they can see are the crimes. Whereas you and I are capable of saying, yes slavery was a great sin, and we got over it, and then the post-reconstruction settlement of Jim Crow was a great sin, but we got over it, and we still are committing sins to this day but the optimism of America is that we’ll get over it, we will find solutions to these because we feel that we are a city on a hill. We feel that we are heading somewhere. The telos may be vague, maybe inchoate, but its pull is real for people like you and me, Mark. These young people—who, I think partly because they’ve been systematically miss-educated—don’t have any feeling for that at all. And because they don’t, I think they are actually being quite rational in saying America is just evil, it’s a history of sin.
TOOLEY: So these protests seem to lack any sense of redemption, personal or social, and no sense of providence, there is no historical destination for them. You and I do believe in redemption and in providence, so in conclusion, what words of hope would you have in terms of surviving and coming out of the present moment?
BOTTUM: I think it’ll pass. These things pass. There are various rages that take to the streets, but they are to some degree victims of their own energy. They burn out, and I think this one will burn out. The thing that we are not seeing now—in fact we’re seeing the opposite—is someone standing up to them. The New York Times firing of its op-ed page editor over publication of an op-ed from a sitting US senator is really quite extraordinary if we think about it. But I don’t believe institutions can survive if they pander in this way. And I think eventually we’ll get one standing up. I haven’t heard yet from the publisher of J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, who the staff of her publishing house has declared themselves unwilling to work at a publisher that would publish a woman with such reprobate views of transgenderism. If the publisher doesn’t stand up to her, I think we may be in for another year of this. But I have a feeling she sells so well, that I don’t believe the publisher is going to give in. And if we have one person saying “That’s interesting, but if you can’t work here, you can’t work here, goodbye.” The first time we see that and they survived the subsequent Twitter outrage, I think we’ll see an end to the current cancel culture, which is of course the most insidious of the general social—the burning and the breaking of statues is physical, but the most destructive cultural thing right now is the cancel culture that gets people fired and their relatives fired and the rest of it. I think that has to end and I imagine it will, the first time somebody stands up to them and survives.
TOOLEY: Jody Bottum, author and commentator, thank you for a fascinating conversation about our current anxious age.
BOTTUM: Thanks Mark.