The Puritans Among Us

Published April 21, 2014

National Review

Review of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, by Joseph Bottum (Image, 320 pp., $25).

Some writers are “Catholic writers” in the sense that they do their work qua Catholics, and their main subject is the immense intellectual, social, and aesthetic patrimony of the Catholic Church. But there also exists a rarer kind of Catholic writer: the one who is multilingual in secular as well as religious tongues, whose Catholicism nonetheless runs so deep that it cannot help but shape and suffuse his every line.

Joseph Bottum, fortunately for American letters, is an example of the latter sort. In fact, it’s safe to say that if Mr. Bottum were anything but a writer who is also known to be Catholic, his name would be mandatory on any objective short list of public intellectuals, if there were such a thing. He is the author of several books, including a volume of poetry (The Fall & Other Poems), a work of verse set to music (The Second Spring), a bestselling memoir (The Christmas Plains), and now, with An Anxious Age, an immensely ambitious work of sociological criticism. His essays have garnered awards and are included in notable collections. He has also worn the hats of literary critic, columnist, editor, books editor, short-story writer, autobiographer, eulogist, public speaker, television pundit, Amazon author (via the groundbreaking Kindle Singles series), and visiting professor. If there were milliners for intellectuals, his would be the busiest in town.

Yet, as is not widely understood despite this prodigious body of work, Bottum is also, at heart, a storyteller — meaning that he is preoccupied not only with syllogism and validity but also with literary characters and creations. Once in a while, this absorption with dramatis personae ends up confounding readers — as happened just last year, when a long essay of his, published in Commonweal, arguing the futility of continuing Church opposition to same-sex marriage, combusted as instantly and widely as a summer brushfire. That piece, too, as was perhaps insufficiently noted at the time, began with and meandered around a literarycharacter: a former friend and foil with whom the piece amounts to an imaginary conversation.

To observe as much isn’t to say that fiction always trumps. It’s rather to note that with poets and poetry, for better or worse, comes license — including license to chase arguments into places where other people, rightly or wrongly, fear to tread.

That same singular gift is now turned to brilliant advantage in Bottum’s new book. A strikingly original diagnosis of the national moral condition, An Anxious Age bears comparison for significance and scope to only a handful of recent seminal works. Deftly analytical and also beautifully written, it has the head of Christopher Lasch and the heart of Flannery O’Connor. Anyone wishing to chart the deeper intellectual and religious currents of this American time, let alone anyone who purports to navigate them for the rest of the public, must first read and reckon withAn Anxious Age.

The book begins in territory that’s familiar enough: the well-known and ongoing collapse of the Protestant mainline churches, whose floor-by-floor implosion the author traced first in a seminal 2008 essay for First Things on “The Death of Protestant America.” This starting point soon widens dramatically onto a 180-degree view of the national milieu. Contrary to the widely held secularization thesis, according to which the decline of Christianity is inevitable, Bottum argues instead that the Puritans and Protestants of yesteryear still walk the country in new and rarely recognized “secular” guises. Bonnie Paisley of Oregon, Gil Winslow of upstate New York, Ellen Doorn of Texas — these and other characters conjured as the “Poster Children of Post-Protestantism” illustrate via their individual stories the author’s central point: The mainline hasn’t so much vanished as gone underground to become what O’Connor once derisively called “the Church without Christ.”

To be sure, the idea that secularization has not so much killed God as repurposed Him into seemingly secular shapes is not in itself new. It’s the key point in philosopher Charles Taylor’s work, especially in his prodigious book A Secular Age. No author, however, has brought this idea to life as Bottum does in An Anxious Age — whose very title, obviously, suggests the amendment that it is to Taylor’s thesis. Throughout, the Poster Children spring from the pages like so many impish holograms, turning two-dimensional arguments over “believing” and “belonging” into recognizable and ultimately persuasive companions at the reader’s elbow.

These Poster Children, the author argues, are direct descendants of the “social gospel” of Protestant theologian Walter Rauschenbusch: the notion that sin has a social and not merely individual dimension. “Social nature abhors a vacuum,” notes Bottum in a key passage,

and the past thirty years have seen many attempts to fill the space where Protestantism used to stand. Feminism in the 1980s, homosexuality in the 1990s, environmentalism in the 2000s, the quadrennial presidential campaigns that promise to reunify the nation . . . [these] movements have all posed themselves as partial Protestantisms, bastard Christianities, determined not merely to win elections but to be the platform by which all other platforms are judged.

Once again, the millenarian character of contemporary politics — particularly today’s politics of the Left — has been noted before. But once again, Bottum digs deeper here to yield truths not hitherto inspected.Partial Protestantisms, bastard Christianities: It isn’tonly that ostensibly secular leftism is Christianity in some unexpected, other guise. It’s rather that ostensibly secular leftism is a particular kind of truncated Christianity: the theological and sociological equivalent of the fatherless home.

And so, for example, Occupy Wall Street, for all its grubby pretension, is in essence just one more “protest against the continuing reign of Satan and a plea for the coming of the Kingdom of God, with a new heaven and a new earth.” Related yearnings for personal redemption, the author argues, also unite certain ardent young Catholics drawn to “lifeboat theology, escaping the rising sea of evil on small arks of the saved.” These groups are joined, he argues, at the sociological root — proof of what, in a bow to Max Weber, the book calls our “Anxious Age” created by “the catastrophic decline of the mainline Protestant churches that had once been central institutions in public life.”

In a curious way, An Anxious Age also amounts to a limited reenchantment of the intellectual world. When conservatives in particular attack “the elites,” Bottum argues, they “focus entirely on non-spiritual causes.” In this they overlook the essential link between these “elites” and their Puritan forebears, for “the one social ascendency they truly feel, the one deepest in their souls, is the superiority of the spiritually enlightened to those still lost in darkness.” Contrary to what both the Poster Children and their religious critics seem to think, all are leaning toward the same end: a sense of redemption. “Elite or not,” he observes, “they are the elect — people who understand themselves primarily in spiritual terms,” whether they darken the doors of churches or not.

An Anxious Age abounds in logic and clarification (and for that reason among others, it was derelict of the book’s publisher to omit footnotes and an index, both of which would have helped to signal its scholarly nature). Even so, it is the book’s metaphors that will haunt the reader after he puts it down. Who else would describe Protestantism in the United States as “our cultural Mississippi, rolling through the center of the American landscape”? Likely no one — but the image brings to vivid and unexpected life a thousand Pew Research reports on declining attendance and the rise in “nones.” Similarly, the author’s unspooling of the story of the swallows of San Juan Capistrano as a metaphor for explaining what has happened to Catholicism in America is not only arresting but convincing, succeeding both as religious sociology and as literary trope.

None of which is to say that the book’s every fillip and expostulation amounts to the last word. Like any serious work, this one excites demurrals, objections, and second and third thoughts. In particular, one wants to hear more about the other and less cerebral forces that were obviously at work in the implosion of mainline Protestantism and its fallout.

After all, not every religious movement emerging from the “burned-over district” in upstate New York suffered the same communal fate. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to take one salient example, went on to become one of the most ascendant faiths of the next century. Why did mainline Presbyterianism, say, fall one way on history’s divide, while Protestant evangelicalism and Mormonism, say, fell another? One likely answer is that the mainline’s doctrinal neglect and practical abandonment of the family led eventually to demographic disaster in the pews. In similar fashion, one can argue, Catholics who have behaved like Catholics have seen their own corners of the religious world prosper — and Catholics who have behaved like mainline Protestants have not.

Other points invite similar friendly debate, including the author’s claim that tomorrow’s Catholicism is necessarily less robust than yesterday’s because it is no longer as “inherited.” And of course one can also question ad infinitum why Bottum chose to discuss some of the thinkers in these pages, and not others. But no shortcomings gainsay the superb achievement here. As his friend and sometime collaborator, the author David P. Goldman, once put it, “One often learns more about the underlying issues from Jody Bottum’s mistakes than from the dutiful plodding of many of his peers.”

Readers who find the Poster Children stalking their imaginations might also hope to see more overt works of fiction from the talented Mr. Bottum down the road. Meanwhile, the daring achievement of the author of An Anxious Age — bringing sociology to unique fictional life — is something that the rest of us will be thinking about for a long time to come.

– Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.

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